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THE UNITY OF APOLOGETICS AND EVANGELISM IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
By R. K. McGregor Wright, Ph.D.
The purpose of this two-part article is to draw attention to an artificial disjunction now current in our churches, and to show that the separation of Apologetics from Evangelism is contrary to the Bible. An attempt will be made to identify some of its causes, and to show how it might be corrected in the life of the Church.
1) EVANGELISM. While the term euaggellsmos does not appear in the NT, the nouns for evangelist (3x) and gospel (77x), and the verb for preaching or announcing good news (55x) are commonplace. Their meaning is in no doubt. They refer to the apostolic practice of travelling from city to city to announce the good news that the promised Messiah has come in the person of Jesus, together with an outline of the work of Christ in his death and resurrection.
Evangelism was accomplished by many methods, including public and private proclamations, personal discussions in homes and synagogues, the publication of the four accounts of the life and work of Christ (not accidentally entitled "Gospels") and by the divergence of the lives of new believers from the lifestyles of the pagans around them. The attempts of Christians to justify their new religion, and to defend themselves against a variety of accusations is called apologia, in the NT. After the Apostolic age, much of the earliest Christian writings were apologetical in content and purpose. Many writers refer to the post-apostolic era as the "Age of the Apologists."
2) APOLOGETICS. The verb apologeomai (10x), to defend oneself orally as in a law court, and the corresponding noun apologia (8x), a defense, offer several important contexts of special Interest. There are also numerous contexts in Scripture, such as the letter to the Colossians, where the defense of the Gospel or of some specific doctrine is in view, but in which these terms themselves do not appear. We will turn to some of these also, to establish our thesis.
For convenience, the main topics of apologetic concern are divided into "general" and special" areas. General Apologetics deals with the big, all-encompassing issues of how we know Truth, the basis of a theory of Being and Ethics, the final Purpose of the world, the existence of God, etc. Special Apologetics focuses on specific questions of how we prove key doctrines from the Bible. Evidences are presented for such central events as the Resurrection of Christ, and the archaeological proofs for the Bible's accuracy. It includes refuting the false doctrines of the Cults, defending Creationism against Evolutionism, and establishing the Inerrancy of the Scriptures in the face of weaker views of the Bible.
Examples will now be considered from the Bible's own arsenal of apologetic approaches, after which a definition will be offered for systematic development.
II. EXAMPLES OF APOLOGETICS IN THE BIBLE -- A Quick Survey
1) in Luke 12:11 and 21:14 Jesus warns the apostles that they must trust the Holy Spirit to assist them with what they will need to say when challenged by magistrates. Examples appear thereafter throughout the book of Acts, as in 4:1-22.
2) Acts 19:33, 22:1, 24:10, 25:8,16, 26:12-24, and 2Tim 4:16 all refer to occasions when Paul was called upon to defend himself before Jewish or Gentile leaders.
3) Rom 2:15 refers to the function of the conscience in "accusing or excusing" one's actions. The term for excusing has the sense of justifying or defending a particular action. Curiously, in 1:20, unbelievers are said to be "without an apologetic," i.e., without excuse.
4) In 1Cor 9:3, 2Cor 7:11, and 12:19, the occasions are of Paul and the other Apostles being put in the false position of having to justify themselves to the Corinthian believers because of the influence of false teachers.
5) Phil 1:7 and 17 are important because they define Paul's own ministry in terms of the defensive statement of the Gospel. They correlate the twofold task of the defense of the Gospel to outsiders, and of its confirming to believers. This illustrates that Paul saw apologetics as something for Christians as much as for unbelievers. In other words, the Gospel needs to be confirmed or strengthened in the believing mind as well as defended to the mind of unbelief.
6) 1 Peter 3:15 is the locus classicus for our topic. It has been called the Apostolic Apologetic Mandate, and like Jude 3, places the responsibility for apologetics squarely on the shoulders of the people of God. We will look at it again below. Both passages contain imperatives.
Apologetics then, may be defined as the reasoned defense of the Christian worldview against objections to its truth. Apologetics becomes necessary almost as soon as the Gospel and its implications are made clear to the unbeliever. This is true not only because of the sinner's resistance to God's truth, but also because the content of Christian revelation implies an overwhelming intellectual and moral challenge to the world of unbelief. The mind so challenged begins almost immediately to grapple with the questions and issues affected by that challenge, and may raise perfectly reasonable questions, often for clarification: "We will hear you again on this matter" (Acts 17:32) is a common stance of inquiring minds puzzled by the implications of what they have heard from Christians.
The unbeliever may also raise objections of a more superficial and obfuscatory nature in order to avoid the repentance now seen to be coming up over the horizon, but the apologist must seek as much as possible to take each objection seriously, and strive to always give honest answers to honest questions. We cannot know the heart of the inquirer, and it is a common experience that seemingly frivolous objections are often the fruit of ignorance rather than of cynical intent. When taken at face value as serious objections, they often become the opening for more deliberate inquiries on the part of those previously uninterested in spiritual things.
III. HOW THE APOSTLES DID IT
Attention will now be given to the frequent examples of apologetics and evangelism found in the book of Acts.
1) Acts 2:14-36 is the first example of the apostolic evangelistic method in the NT. Here Peter takes his departure from an event in immediate experience, the sign of tongues at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The initial Issue is the meaning and explanation of this odd phenomenon, and Peter proceeds to account for it by appealing to predictive prophecy as being fulfilled before their eyes. He argues that this work of the Spirit shows that the last days are upon them, that judgement is imminent, and that they should turn to Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah whom God has sent for their salvation.
To prove that Jesus is Indeed the Messiah, he appeals to various OT passages which point to the resurrection of the Coming One, and to the other miracles Jesus had performed while recently among them. He pointedly argues that David could not have been the subject of his own prophecies, not only because in fact he did not himself ascend into heaven, but also because he clearly distinguished between himself and the messianic figure of whom he spoke.
The appropriate response to this message was repentance for the sinful treatment Christ had received at the hand of the City, followed by faith in Jesus, as signified by baptism. Clearly, the practice of apologetic argument is at the very heart of this Gospel preaching.
2) In Acts 3:12-26 we likewise are confronted with an immediate miracle which requires explanation. Again Peter uses the miracle as a sign of the saving power of the ascended Christ, and again appeals to the fulfillment of the OT prophecies about the suffering of the Messiah. He also appeals to the need for a fulfillment of Moses' warning that a prophet should come "like unto me." Finally, he argues from the resurrection of Jesus to the need for repentance. Apologetic argument based on known historical events interpreted in terms of the OT prophecies make up the main content of the apostolic preaching.
3) Acts 4:8-12 also uses the interpretation of miracles in terms of OT prediction to validate "Jesus and the resurrection."
4) Stephen's speech before his accusers in Acts 7:2-53 is a sustained defense of the righteousness of believers against their oppressors down through Jewish history. It shows the power of the Word of God to provide paradigms of understanding for what God is doing in the present. Stephen argues that just as they rejected the prophets God had sent in the past, so were they now rejecting the testimony of the latest prophet, Jesus. It is a dramatic and devastating proof that the Scriptures the Jews professed to accept condemned them at every turn. This exhibition of apologetic testimony was witnessed by a young man called Saul, a theological student from Tarsus who would later use the same point in a letter to the Romans!
5) In Acts 8:29-35, the evangelist Phillip explained the recent events in the City in terms of Jesus' fulfillment of the great prophecy of a suffering Messiah to an official from Ethiopia on his way home from the Feasts (cf. Isa 53.). Strictly, this was not apologetics in itself, since the Ethiopian was not raising objections, but merely sought clarification as one who already believed the Hebrew Bible, of a particular passage in Isaiah.
6) The story of Paul's sudden conversion is recounted in Acts 9, and retold twice by the Apostle himself in apologetic defenses before Roman officials in Acts 22 and 26. Clearly Luke considered it an event of major importance. He uses it not only for its apologetic value, but as a literary paradigm for understanding how Paul came to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, and how God used him to take the Gospel far and wide.
For the writer of Acts, Paul's conversion is the key to understanding his ministry and influence. For Paul himself, his meeting the risen Christ on the road to Damascus is the whole basis of his life thereafter, and apart from that encounter, his career would be unintelligible. The apologetic value of the conversion of Paul so prominent in Acts, has attracted attention often since. Books like Lord Lyttleton's Observations (1747) and J Gresham Machen's The Origin of Paul's Religion (1925) are famous examples of apologetics focusing on this event and its aftermath.
7) In Acts 14 and 17 the apostle Paul confronts heathenism in a naive form at Lystra and then in its more philosophical dress at Athens. The apologetic appeal ranges from arguments from the nature of God as creator, to the internal incoherence of the Greco-Roman religious worldview.
The Areopagus Address is the longest example we have of Paul's approach to heathenism in its more intellectually sophisticated forms. in 17:22-31, he refutes everything of importance in the Greek view of religion, contrasting it at each point with the Christian worldview. At the close he refers to the particularism of the historicity of Jesus' coming and resurrection, and calls for repentance from idolatry, in view of the coming judgement.
Some simply laughed at him, some wanted to follow up these things afterwards, and some recognized his message as the solution to the emptiness of paganism, and believed. We might call this seminal Pauline sermon "Worldviews in Conflict." It is certainly not a Gospel sermon by today's standards. It does not even refer to the Cross or to the Atonement once.
8) The apostolic method included argumentative interaction with the hearers. The Apostles always found themselves answering questions from the audience. We shall see below that the modern "protected pulpit" approach is not a Biblical response to the examples of Scripture.
Some idea of the way the Apostles communicated the Word may be gathered from noting the terms used in Acts from the three chapters, 17 to 19. In these chapters, Paul "reasons out of the Scriptures" (17:2), "disputed with the Jews" (17), and "reasoned and persuaded Jews and Greeks" (18:4). In 18:11, he is "teaching," and is soon accused of "persuading" people to believe (v.14). In 18:19 we find him in the synagogue "reasoning" with the Jews, and in verse 23 he is strengthening or "confirming" the disciples. In view of the phrase "defense and confirmation of the gospel" in Philippians 1, Luke's use of another word for confirmation is particularly appropriate.
Apollos too, "mightily convinced" the Jews that Jesus was indeed the Messiah by "proving it" from the OT scriptures (18:28.) in 19:8-9, Paul is found in both the synagogue and a private school, "disputing and persuading" day by day. in 19:33, the word for "would have made his defense" is the verb of the noun for apologetic discourse.
These examples show how argumentative was the apostolic preaching of Christ. They establish beyond any need for further commentary, how closely linked was the task of "apologetics" with that of "evangelism." The Apostles seem not to have been conscious of any disjunction in their method. Indeed, if ever the illustration of "the two sides of the one coin" were appropriate, this would be the occasion.
IV. TWO LITERARY APOLOGETICS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
1) Paul's Letter To The Colossians.
In Colossians, Paul identifies a form of "incipient gnosticism" often dubbed "the Colossian heresy." While it does not appear to be a full-blown Gnostic system as was to develop in the mid-second century, it does include angel worship, a weakening or denial of Christ's full deity, theories of salvation by wisdom and secretly-transmitted knowledge, compromise with Greek philosophy, and the common disjoining of belief from the moral life.
There were also influences from Judaism, tying the believer to legal requirements, dietary laws, etc. It has also been suggested that the repeated references to Christ's superiority and sovereignty over the spirit world indicates a Gnostic daemonic-hierarchical vision of reality. If so, the "great chain of being" could have been hovering in the cultural background.
Paul goes out of his way to use key Gnostic terms in his response, filling them by his own contextual usage, with Christian meaning; gnosis (knowledge), sophia (wisdom), epignosis (full acquaintance), sunesis (understanding), stoichela (elementary principles), pleroma (fullness), theiotes (divinity), ta panta (the Everything, the All), teleios (maturity), musterion (mystery), and others.
The idiom of "substance" over against mere "shadows" is a reference not only to the Old Testament types being fulfilled in Christ, but also to the Gnostic tendency to allegorize texts they borrowed terms from. This was done in order to evacuate the literal content in favor of a "deeper meaning" obtained by the transformist hermeneutics of allegorism, a method of interpretation common among the more philosophically-minded Greeks, by which the traditional stories of religious mythology could be made to teach, or at least to illustrate, philosophical ideas.
As a method for interpreting the Bible, it has been revived at various periods in history, always inspired by Greek influence, and always yielding bizarre and idiosyncratic interpretations, as befits its thoroughly arbitrary nature. Prominent in Paul's reasoning, is the intimate connection he sees between false (or true) doctrine, and false (or true) practice. As in the later Pastoral Epistles, Paul is always conscious of the fact that sound doctrine is the spiritual basis of sound praxis.
There is no room in Pauline thought for the modern popular idea that somehow we need to be "practical" rather than "theoretical," since he bases all right practice on getting the "theory" right in the first place (1:9-10.) Paul, it seems, was no pragmatist. He was flexible enough in nonessential practical issues, but where a revealed doctrine was involved, he wrote with the very words of the risen Lord (1Cor 2:11-16, 14:36-38, and Gal 1:6-12.)
The Gnostic had to achieve his heavenly experience by entering more deeply into the "mysteries," but Paul shows these Colossians that they have already been translated into God's Kingdom, into the "heavenlies" at the time of their new birth. Their spiritual bank-account, as it were, is already full of blessings, and they have only to draw upon It. The Gnostics claimed to be "spiritual," but Paul accounts for their entire religiosity in terms of "the flesh."
Colossians then, is saturated with apologetic interest, and has much to teach the modern church about how the Apostle actually carried out the "confirmation" of the Gospel to believers.
2) The Letter To The Hebrews.
Hebrews is of particular interest to the apologist because it shows more awareness of the Greek mind than any other single book of the New Testament. It opens with a magnificent classical Greek sentence, "God... has spoken," and focuses the reader's attention on the Son who created "the Ages." This immediately lifts the historical Jesus into the realm of eternity, and prepares the reader for the sustained theological argument for his sovereign superiority which follows.
The writer is familiar with Alexandrian Greek thought, and is probably addressing a wavering messianic Jewish congregation in Egypt. It must have been written before the disturbances of the Jewish wars with Rome, and is probably much earlier. its many quotations are mostly from the Septuagint translation, but the writer's knowledge of Hebrew allows him to depart from the Septuagint at his own convenience.
The argument is developed that Christ is superior to angels, to the High Priest, to Moses and his Law, to Melechizedek, and to the Levitical priesthood.
This two-part article is concluded at:
The Unity of Evangelism and Apologetics in the New Testament - Part Two.
The Unity of Evangelism and Apologetics in the New Testament © 1990 R. K. McGregor Wright, Ph.D. for Aquila and Priscilla Study Center.
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The above article was posted on this Web site September 1, 1999.
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