Distinguishing between Academic and Practical Apologetics (and Why You Should Start with the Practical)

by Mark Farnham

The distinction between academic and practical is not a formal one recognized by most people, but there is a definite difference between apologetics that is designed for an academic environment and that which is focused on engaging people in a one-on-one conversation about the gospel.

Academic apologetics refers to arguments for the Christian faith using high-level disciplines such as philosophy, science, history, linguistics, and more. Debates between scholars using reasoning that is beyond the average person’s grasp are helpful for demonstrating that Christianity can stand up to any legitimate challenges raised against it. Some of the best academic apologists in the world today include philosophers, Bible scholars, and theologians, such as William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Paul Copan, Alvin Plantinga, Dan Wallace, Scott Oliphint, Vern Poythress, Vince Vitale, Richard Bauckham, Simon Gathercole, Peter Williams, and Darrell Bock, to name a few. These and others are wonderful gifts to the church by pursuing expertise in fields of study that few Christians have the opportunity to pursue. They are able to contend with the top critical scholars in the world and demonstrate the rationality of the Christian faith.

What we might call practical apologetics is rooted in all the knowledge and wisdom of academic apologetics, but is focused on the practical application of these truths to real life encounters with unbelievers. References to philosophy and science beyond the basics are avoided to keep the average Christian from despairing that defending and sharing the faith is beyond their ability. Practical apologetics provides simple strategies that can be easily learned and implemented in conversations about the gospel. It does not discourage growth in learning or challenging topics, but it is designed for the average Christian to witness about Christ effectively to the average unbeliever. Sometimes a Christian might encounter a particularly well-read skeptic or faithful adherent of a religion. In this case, the resources of academic apologetics are available to deal with the more difficult challenges. But the truth is, encountering someone like this is the exception rather than the rule in most places.

The reason we need more focus on the practical is that one of the major problems with apologetics in our day is a lack of actual engagement with unbelievers face-to-face. That is, many Christians study apologetics while not actually ever attempting to share the gospel with anyone…

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Distinguishing between Academic and Practical Apologetics (and Why You Should Start with the Practical)