Forest for the Trees? Keeping apologetics grounded and apologetic method
by Steve Wilkinson
The idiom ‘forest for the trees’ in American English is a phrase that means that one might get so caught up in the details that they miss the larger concept or the goal; they are looking at the trees so closely, they don’t recognize the forest. This can be a danger in Christian apologetics; especially for us apologists! I often get caught up in responding to news stories or current events. I can get too focused on topics which I enjoy engaging and neglect others.1
The end GOAL of Christian apologetics should always be to lead people to Christ – or to be more theologically accurate – to be a means through which the Holy Spirit brings people to Christ. But it is also important to step back and take a higher level view of our approach and methods. This might be a good time, then, to talk about the big picture of apologetics. I’m going to talk about this in a number of different senses (ie: topics, methods, style, tips, etc.).
I identify three classes of topics which Christian apologetics addresses. The first I would call ‘foundational.’ These are things which prepare one for apologetics, such as knowing what apologetics is, epistemology, logic, critical thinking, history, worldviews, and definitions.
The second is what I’d call ‘classical’ or ‘traditional.’ These are the topics such as the Resurrection, existence of God, or revelation and reliability of the Bible. These haven’t changed since the Apostles.
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The third are ‘hot topics’ within our culture. These might seem to be peripheral, or distractions, but they usually become reasons people turn away from Christianity unless properly understood (even then, they might still turn away, but we must stand for the truth). These change over time. In the early church, they were things like atheism (Christians didn’t worship many of the gods), cannibalism (they talked of eating flesh and drinking blood), and incest (everyone was called a brother or sister, even their spouse). Today, they include the environment, sexuality, Islam, and evolution.
A Christian apologist needs to have some familiarity with all of these. We can’t know it all, but familiarity helps us at least know where to look, and to not get caught off-guard.
Method and approach
There are a number of methods of going about apologetics, as well as theology and philosophy behind them. I’m not going to belabor some of the latter here, but want you to at least be aware of them and some dangers.
The first thing you will likely notice is that there is much debate over presuppositional vs evidential apologetics. This might be expected, as at their foundations, these two can’t really be reconciled philosophically or theologically. That said, I’ve rarely run into a purest, and in practice, nearly all apologists mix the techniques…