Christian Apologetics Is Parasitic to Christian Witness

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with persuasive speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” 

1 Corinthians 2:1-5

Christians and nonchristians alike have sought to discover or verify the truth of the Christian faith by way of interrogation at least since Pilate’s question—What is truth?—to which Jesus responded with definitive silence. From the theological questions of Nicea to the existential questions of Heidelberg to the philosophical questions of Westminster to the ecclesiological questions of the Vatican to the cosmological and moral and historical questions of modern apologetics, the people of the world have sat with Pilate on the judgment seat to demand a word of truth from God in response to their questions. From its inception the perceived responses have formed and reformed the Church in a never ending dialectic–something like Hegel’s history–sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, sometimes inspired, sometimes not. 

The problem is not the questions or the answers, per se; the problem is that the Church’s understanding of proclamation often finds its grounding in the perceived answers. This never-ending dialectic may be necessary for Christian theology, but it is a never-ending threat to Christian proclamation,  because Christian theology is always tempted to shove aside the Christian kerygma, such that we become accustom to hearing its explicit claims—Christ died for your sins; Christ is risen; Jesus is Lord—in the form of a description, rarely, if ever, in the form of an address. Whatever happened to second-person proclamation? We speak about the death and resurrection of Christ as the climax of the “story” or in a “conversation” about how “Jesus changed my life” or “the world.” We may speak about the claims of the Gospel into a microphone of a public forum or lecture or debate, and we may even do so in a way that anyone so persuaded can reach up and claim our words for themselves. All well and good. My concern, however, is that all the while we may very well be inadvertently teaching people to believe in a Gospel understood as the people’s word about God, not God’s Word to the people. 

The effect is that our descriptions descriptive presentations of the Gospel replace our prophetic role to bring “You!” and “God!” into the same space. We may come to believe in David’s God, but we will not hear David’s God say to us what he said to David, “You are the man!”  (2 Sam. 12:7). Of course, that can quickly be abused, and indeed has, but abrasive and invasive fundamentalism is not the only ditch in which American evangelicals are building their churches. Also, I should be quick to concede, God can surely do whatever God wants to do with our always less-than-adequate Gospel words and syntax, but it seems wise, in terms of a normative method, to align our words with those we’re told the Spirit would ‘give himself to’ in a “demonstration of [his] power,” which is decidedly not a demonstration of our persuasion. Foolishness has an important role in sorting out sources and referents in Christian proclamation.

My concern is not with apologetics as a specialized field, but with the fact that apologetics is no longer a specialized field, that it is becoming normative as a method for evangelism. The foreign language of the academy is becoming the colloquial language of the laity. That the truths of the historic Christian faith are under attack in our culture is as obvious as is unobvious our willingness to allow those truths to set us apart from the culture attacking them. The threat of this attack has sent our people into frenzy with Church’s running apologetics workshops and authors pumping out apologetics-for-dummies books and apologetics study Bibles to make sure everyone is armed and ready to defend their God and their Gospel, who and which are apparently under great threat of becoming a stumbling block to Republicans and foolishness to Democrats (e.g., Apologetics Study Bible; The Truth Project; Case for Faith for Kids; Fact or Fantasy: A Study in Christian Apologetics for Children; Evidence for Faith 101: Understanding Apologetics in Plain Language). The Church sees itself in valor trying to guard its treasured faith. The world sees the Church in panic trying to hide its anxious doubt. 

Apologetics, for good or for ill, finds itself in an awkward situation, seeking to be both set apart and welcomed in. It needs to be distinct in conclusion but indistinct in method, to score a touchdown by rounding the bases. This is nothing new among Christian academics. Biblical studies has long been under the methodological lordship of the historical-critical spirit, a spirit which may not have produced many effective evangelists or preachers of the living Word of God, but it sure has led to the discovery of a lot of neat fossils.

This academic tendency is perfectly natural. Given the inherent foolishness of believing that dead people are not going to stay dead, Christians wander like black sheep into the scholar’s pasture. And perhaps such a sheep or two needs to be sent to such a pasture to explain their odd color in the foreign language scholars use to talk to each other, but what is not needed is the entire flock frantically attempting or pathetically pretending to understand the language by memorizing a few truncated syllogisms immune to anything but scrutiny. The rest of the black sheep who insist on speaking this language only reveal, not only that most don’t seem to know what they are saying, but more plainly reveal a desperate desire to be white sheep. They appear to be more loyal to the methods of the whites than the conclusion of the blacks, a conclusion that remains forever hanging in the balance.

Whatever trajectory the question of the skeptic points, the apologist hurriedly scrambles to show that any and every question can be ultimately answered with “God!”, so long as God is abstracted from all his Galilean particularities and generalized into a set of first-principles-with-a-capital-P or -T, concluding with the familiar platitude that “all truth is God’s Truth!” That, of course, is a half-truth, because we should not be so presumptuous to assume that God revealed in Jesus Christ cares to associate himself with everything we call “truth” anymore than he cares to associate himself with everything we call “good.” Jesus refused to associate himself with the rich, young ruler’s standard of the “good,” even (or especially) when he judged Jesus favorably by that standard. “No one is good but God alone,” (Mk. 10:18), and Jesus refuses to associate himself with anyone else’s standard of the Good. God alone can declare such judgments. (Is that not simply the plain doctrine of original sin (cf. Gen. 3:1-6)?) And indeed, “no one is True but God alone,” and my hunch is Jesus has a similar reluctance to associate himself with anyone else’s standard of the True. “Let God be true and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). Forcing “God” to fit into the answer of every question posed by the skeptic, regards of the trajectory to which it points, does not validate the Gospel of God’s Son to the skeptic, it validates the skeptic’s path to whatever god he was pointing to when he asked. Typically, the job of Christ’s witnesses is to demonstrate to skeptics that neither do we believe in the God they don’t believe in, and the only way to do that is to speak of the God revealed with radical particularity, in Bethlehem, in Galilee, outside the gates of Jerusalem.

As a general rule (speaking as a skeptic in recovery), the end of the skeptic’s path will typically either lead you to a very small god or to a very serious insanity. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, the witness only tries to get his head in heavens for a glimpse of the truth, but the skeptic tries to get the heavens into his head to understand the whole truth, and when he does, his head splits. Indeed, Christ has called us his witnesses, not his defenders. Not that any questions are out of the question for believers and unbelievers alike, but those questions should not be confused as maps that can lead anyone to arrive at the conclusion of an encounter with the living God. The truth is, neither the meandering path of the skeptic with all their critical questions nor the one-way path of the gullible with all their blind affirmations can lead either to a conclusion that they could possibly equate with God himself, nor accordingly can our answered questions produce faith itself. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” God comes to us. God comes to us in Christ crucified, as Christ crucified, and only one path leads to Golgotha.

The language of apologetics has to begin on the defensive, an answer, a reactive form of speech. It only speaks when spoken to. It is a response to questions guided by “the god of this world,” in Paul’s words, “who has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). The problem is blindness, at bottom, and the only thing that can help a person see the glory of Christ is the Gospel of Christ, which is the pro-active form of speech the witnesses of Christ have been sent with which to address the world in second-person proclamation. That does not mean it is combative, nor does it have to feel confrontational (though neither does it have to feel non-confrontational or accommodating). Rather, second-person address is the language of relationship. It typically requires eye-contact. It feels personal, because it is personal, and what other form of communication better embodies the Gospel about God’s Word becoming flesh to speak to the world face to face?

Proclamation is address and can only be spoken by the mouths of witnesses. There may be proofs for the existence of God, but, as Abraham Heschel has remarked,  “There are no proofs for the existence of the God of Abraham. There are only witnesses.” Anyone can make an argument for God, but only those who have heard the Word of God—Jesus Christ—from the Word of God—from Jesus Christ—can say, “Thus saith the Lord!” Christians have the terrible responsibility of speaking on behalf of God, and we should relieve ourselves of the crushing burden of saying more than what we’ve been told to say because we’re so deluded to think we can say it more persuasively using the wisdom of our words than the Holy Spirit can using the obedience of our words. We should also recognize why Paul warned us about how our words can get in the way when we fail to trust the Holy Spirit to do the convicting and convincing: “that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:5). As my grandfather used say, “What you win them with is what you win them to.”

Witnesses must speak of God as though he has spoken to them. “Christ crucified,” for example, Paul’s distilled words of foolishness to the sophisticated people of Corinth, are not couched in proofs of the historical Jesus or the persuasive words of Christian apologists. How much time and energy and effort was spent by a generation of Christians engaging in the quests for and the seminars of the historical Jesus to show that a man so named walked the streets in the first century Palestine and ended up on a cross outside Jerusalem. Of course, a few notable Christian scholars contributed soundly to that research and represented the faith well to the academy. But how many were there who went to seminary with a sense of calling only to become pseudo-scholars who in turn misrepresent the faith in the Church and the academy alike?

This continues, naturally, with unspeakable energy and effort pursuing and expounding historical arguments for the resurrection. Something has to account for the rapid expansion of the Christian religion despite the unlikely circumstances of this otherwise failed messiah. How else could one explain the empty tomb, the women as first eyewitnesses, the disciples’ newfound courage, the crowds who witnessed his appearing? And so the arguments go, being held up like links that only need to be yoked together on the causal chain of history. The goal is to make the resurrection of Jesus the best explanation of all existing evidence, despite the millions of years worth of bones beneath the earth that testify against the Defendant and his witnesses. Whether or not the goal is thought to be reached, the result is always the same—to smooth the edges and make all this seem much more reasonable and believable than it really is. And so the truth of God is moved obediently along the chain, in the way men have always moved their subjects along their chains, so that God and God’s ways of making himself known becomes almost natural, mechanical, necessary, expected, and somewhat prosaic. They speak as though via negativa should naturally lead to the Via Dolorosa, no matter the god, no matter the universe. But can I confess—it all still seems to me very strange and unlikely and unexpected and frankly unbelievable. And yet, here I am. I can’t help but believe it, even as I doubt it. And when I doubt it, I always find myself doubting God to his face, because I know no other way to doubt the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

When the resurrection is proven by historical proofs it is thereby buried in a tomb of history. It happened. People can be convinced of that. But the resurrection, which did indeed happen, is proven when the same Spirit “who raised Jesus from the dead” is found to be confronting “you,” in order to “live in you” (Rom. 8:11). People come to believe in the persuasive words of eloquent speech and frankly need no such confrontation, without which they have no such life, because “anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom. 8:10). If all our persuasion led all the world will believe in the necessity of God, even the Christian God revealed in salvation history, at best, it seems to me, we would have succeeded in helping both the Church and the world forget how unnecessary were his saving acts, how unexpected it is that he is the God he is. We would forget the foolishness that is the Gospel—that the Lord of Life, in infinite freedom, became smaller than all, slave of all, to subject himself to the great contradiction of a Creator’s defeat, the death of Eternal Life, which in turn reveals precisely the opposite for all who are in Christ Jesus, the beginning new creation, the sharing of eternal life, God’s own life, with mere mortals.

There may be something rational about God creating life, but there surely is nothing rational about life uncreating God. This can never be viewed as the expected wisdom of God, as though that is just what a god should do. It should always maintain a firm grasp on foolishness. It is not a truth that can be expected, explained, or argued like any other truth—but beheld, treasured, and only then humbly proclaimed as something too high for us, something that, if true, has a claim on all those who speak of it and those who hear it. It is so lofty a claim, however foolish, that it cannot be received in the form of an answer to a question or a response to an argument, but as an unexpected visit from an unexpected Visitor, who has come to answer questions no one cared to ask, and perhaps to ask some questions of his own. “The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths…It does not require representatives with a sense of responsibility, for it is as responsible for those who proclaim it as it is for those to whom it is proclaimed. It is the advocate of both…God does not need us. Indeed, if He were not God, He would be ashamed of us. We, at any rate, cannot be ashamed of Him.” The Gospel will offend or enrapture. If we do not let it do the former, we should not expect it to do the latter. It is the supreme work of art that demands all of our love or all of our disgust. It is the image of God in all his beauty and the image of Man in all his gore brought into focus at the intersection of human history that redefines all abstract notions of truth, goodness, and beauty in the gaping face of a Jewish peasant hanging on a Roman cross. Fix your eyes on that, the author and perfect of the universe. You either see his glory or you do not. That is how beauty works.

The elemental kerygma for Paul had at its nucleus one event that, in its most distilled form, can be stated as three historic facts (two past, one future) which verified one universal fact: (1) Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins; (2) God raised him from the dead; (3) Christ will return in judgment: accordingly, Jesus Christ is Lord. This is corresponds with the work of the “Spirit of truth,” as Jesus referred to him in John 16, whom he would send “to convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn. 16:8), with the proclamation of the apostles, the first witnesses of Christ, in Acts (e.g., Acts 17:30-31), and the summaries of the Gospel in the New Testament epistles (e.g., 1 Cor. 15; Phil. 2). These statements were the starting point for apostolic proclamation. The apostles proclaimed these facts as though they were as concrete and intrusive and unacommodating as Mount Everest, or Mount Sinai, as though the indicatives about their Lord carried with them the imperatives of the Lord of all, so that believing what As Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out American Christians have adopted the kind of thinking that produces sentences like: “I believe that Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.” They have been taught to think like that. The apostles, by contrast, taught and demonstrated a way of speaking that was both loving and compassionate and yet as stark and life-altering as discovering Nepal on the way to China by arriving at the base of the biggest mountain in the world. Apologetics, on the other hand, seeks to make a manageable model of the mountain so that it not seem so intrusive and impassable to the human will, not so massive and objective—so other—that it is unable to accommodate for the size of the human brain. No one walks away from an apologetics conference saying, “Here am I!”, at least not in the way Moses said it.

There’s not a skeptic on this earth who is ever going to ask a question that would lead to the only appropriate answer that our proclamation is intended to communicate. Unless someone asks Who is my Lord and when is he coming to judge me and my family and friends? or something to that effect, you should probably expect to be offering answers, again, to questions nobody is asking. To the degree those answers are not being offered, Christians are forgetting how to speak the Gospel in the form of indicatives and imperatives proper to an announcement of the world’s Lord, which are binding on hearer and speaker alike. Nobody tries to convince people of election results (well…until recently at least) or a bill that passes into law. There are some things that just are. The only role we have in providing evidence of Christ’s lordship [and thus his return] is our light, that is, our way of life under his lordship (cf. Matt. 5-7), but it’s easier to argue, isn’t it?

The truth is this. To bear witness to Jesus Christ requires both an affirmation and an announcement of an apparent contradiction. God was not oblivious to this design. He chose a Roman cross, for Christ’s sake! God set up it up so that the contradiction would have to run its course before it can do the work of drawing people back in. We must first look away only to realize we cannot look away. We must be repulsed by Christ’s death only to be seduced by it. We must see who God is in Christ, so that we can see decisively who God is not in us. We must first see the infinitive qualitative distinction of Christ crucified in order to see the infinite qualitative beauty of Christ crucified. We must behold the One lifted up as we behold the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as an unattainable spectacle of impossible grandeur, as something that is kept from our reach but given to our eyes, as something so absolutely alien but somehow so absolutely at home.

Insofar as we can cultivate a vision to see Jesus as he is, I suppose it beings by learning to handle the truth of God’s Word by submitting to his judgments alone of what is good–which comes to us in the form of commands for how to live and how to speak–only then should we expect to be able to more clearly behold the beauty of God but that through our lives and speech others might be caught up in it as well. Without overcoming the blindness to his beauty, we should never expect anyone to overcome their deafness to his truth. But we cannot run to the academy for proofs of God’s beauty, because, in Von Balthasar’s words, “Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another.” 

If the Church’s concern is not only to proclaim the Gospel to the world, but that the world embrace its Gospel, we must avail ourselves of more than, or rather other than, a defense of scientific and historic and philosophical arguments, even more than just our way of life under his lordship (which can all too quickly become self-referential). We must learn to always point away from ourselves into the infinite and declare a deep mystery, a contradiction. We must build into our understanding of proclamation a gap, so that we never assume a direct correlation between what we say and how people respond, so that we never assume that our words are enough. We should never feel confident explaining exactly why we believe, with certainty like a mathematic formula. We should find ourselves in a very real sense at a loss for words, as though someone had asked you to explain why you stop to look out to the horizon at sunset? How could you explain that? “Well, it’s the lines and the colors and the shades and…I don’t know! It’s just beautiful! Can’t you see?”

Apologetics can stick around for Christians who are curious to know if the foolishness of God has some points of contact with the wisdom of men. Surely it does. Surely, in the end, it is more foolish to believe in any unified theory of reality without reference to a transcendent ground of being. Surely it is more foolish to believe there is no higher intelligence responsible for the universe and love and laughter and Mozart than Mozart, than us. And perhaps for the nonchristian the apologist can show that there are links that point to heaven, even some that reach much higher than the nonchristian ever imagined. But he must never do so without pointing to the gap. He must always concede that his highest link on the chain of reason is like the distance between the highest title wave and the moon. But then, for all lack of appearances, and in an act of self-humiliation, he must proclaim that there was a day that the moon came down and drown itself in the sea, only to return three days hence to rule the night sky.

But he should not expect that he can prove this actually happened. He should not pretend it is not a foolish story. More foolish still, he must concede that he was not even there when it happened, and yet proclaim it as though he witnessed it himself, because he did witness it himself. It is such an absurd story indeed that when one does believe it, it will be nothing short of a miracle, and his faith will not rest in the wisdom of men but this miracle of God (cf. 1 Cor. 1-2). He will only believe it because he cannot get the vision of it out of his head, because it is in his head in a way unlike any other fleeting idea or fact or truth is in his head. It is in his head not like people are in an airport but like busyness is in an airport. He will only believe because he cannot help but believe it, because it has taken up residence in his mind, wrapped its roots around his heart, and sprouted hope in his eyes. It will change the way he sees everything, and this new vision will seem so necessary, so beautiful, that he will want others to see as he sees, not because it makes him feel so large and in control, but precisely because it makes him feel so small and out of control; precisely because it has restored for him a vision of the wonder and mystery that he had as a child tromping around in an infinitely large and wonderful world; precisely because he has again become a child. So he will tell others, not as a man with a unified theory of the universe, but as a child pointing aimlessly into the night sky. He will begin by conceding the great gap between the end of his finger and the beginning of the moon, and continue by declaring what he saw, all the while praying a naïve prayer, as naïve as a child’s birthday wish, that the moon would once again descend from the heavens and land in the abyss of another’s heart.

The gap of Christian proclamation is the ether through which God travels in an atmosphere of otherwise eclipsed and clouded by godless, human wisdom. It is the only place where a person will see the “demonstration of the Spirit’s power,” so attending to the gap is the only way the Church’s words will ever become God’s Word. Truth and goodness are two of the pillars holding up a triune proclamation, a proclamation that falls into description if it tries to stand on two legs. If we lose the beauty of the gap, we lose the vision of the God who arrests our affections, awakens our adoration, and fills in the dark, stagnant corners of our faith with the living, warming radiance of his glory, which is the aspect of God we understand the least but compels us the most. It is the aspect of God that the Church has largely exchanged for Enlightenment.

The following excerpt is from a letter that Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote to Natalia Fonvizina, who had given him a copy of the New Testament before he would spend four years in chains. In it is perhaps the truest expression of what faith in the gap looks like. I suspect it will offend those who have made an idol out of their notion of truth. Whatever else Truth may be, it can never be a predicate of a sentence or series of sentences spoken by human subjects. Those who think otherwise simply have not grappled with the mystery of the infinite. My hope and prayer for the Church of Jesus Christ today is that no matter how well we are able to articulate the Christian faith to the satisfaction of our own skepticism and that of others, we will at the end of the day, as we watch the sun set, be more readily able to confess that the gap between our articulation and the beginning of God is an infinitely beautiful gap, a gap that only God can cross, and that crossed he has, cross he does, and cross he will again. Indeed: Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!

“I shall tell you that at such a time one thirsts for faith as ‘the withered grass’ thirsts for water, and one actually finds it, because in misfortune the truth shines through. I can tell you about myself that I am a child of this century, a child of doubt and disbelief, I have always been and shall ever be (that I know), until they close the lid of my coffin. What terrible torment this thirst to believe has cost me and is still costing me, and the stronger it becomes in my soul, the stronger are the arguments against it. And, despite all this, God sends me moments of great tranquility, moments during which I love and find I am loved by others; and it was during such a moment that I formed within myself a symbol of faith in which all is clear and sacred for me. This symbol is very simple, and here is what it is: to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous, and more perfect than Christ, and not only is there not, but I tell myself with jealous love that there cannot be. Even if someone were to prove to me that the truth lay outside Christ, I should choose to remain with Christ than with the truth.”


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