Subscribe via RSS Feed

Defending Apologetics: a review

Why does God use fallen, broken people to speak for him? A review essay by Timothy T. N. Lim about Os Guinness’ 2015 book, Fool’s Talk, and how followers of Jesus can and should talk about God in the public square.

Introduction

How can the vocation and the craft of Christian apologists be reclaimed after decades of lambast against apologetics, as an inquiry of integrity, in the academia and scores of morally-discredited Christian leaders, pastors and apologists in recent centuries? Why bother with defending absolute truth in an age of hyper-pluralism? One professor in an Ivy-league business programme suggests to me that believing in Christianity in an age of science and hyper-plurality is equivalent to holding on to a garbage of past superstition. Many of us can think of highly educated folks who challenge the validity of subscribing to the Christian faith. Can faith in God be defended? Is there still a role for Christian apologetics, which the veteran apologist Douglas Groothuis calls, “a public voice for truth and reason in the marketplace of ideas”[1] in an age of autonomy, sensuality, and plurality?

Can faith in God be defended?

And to state the obvious, a cloud of uncertainty seems to hover over a vocation in Christian apologetics. After his death in May 2020, the surreal uncovering of secret sexual-impropriety of Indian-born Canadian Ravi Zacharias led the officials of the Ravi Zacharias International Ministry (RZIM) to restructure RZIM activities to correct previous wrongdoings.[2] The 74-year old deceased was formerly a renowned itinerant Christian apologist-evangelist for more than forty years. Miller & Martin PLLC’s independent investigation report in February 2021 confirmed Zacharias’ misdeeds.[3] The “guilty” sentence hurt Zacharias’ family, RZIM, allies, supporters in his 2017 allegations,[4] the Christian community, and especially courageous overcomers (victims) and accusers.[5]

 

Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015).

We mourn, and we grieve. Notwithstanding, I hope to support the credibility of a vocation in Christian persuasion in this essay. For the task, a review of American Christian apologist OS Guinness’ book Fool’s Talk will provide an advocacy in that direction.[6] Although Guinness does not call the project a handbook for apologists, Fool’s Talk will inspire and challenge prospective apologists (laity or professional) to join the vocation, and to pursue their vocation with integrity. The book is as he confesses, the fruit of a lifetime of engagement in apologetics, what he acknowledges as “the fruit of nearly fifty years of thinking, thousands of conversations, innumerable talks and lectures, countless books read, and endless lessons learned [read, mistakes made]…” (p. 255). Its sources are innumerably rich: Guinness’ retrieval of C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer (and L’ Abri Fellowship), and particularly Peter L. Berger (whom he dedicated the book to), and the Veritas Forum, as well as his engagement with ideologies of philosophers, socio-political thinkers, and public intellectuals of various persuasions across millenniums, reminds all aspiring apologists the necessity of reading widely. The 272-page book reminds learners the essence, the craft and pitfalls (to avoid), and the milestones to chart with seekers in Christian persuasion which I will review shortly.

 

Essence

In a nutshell, Guinness coins “Christian persuasion” as a catchword for apologetics. But do not be mistaken, apologetics is not merely a field that only professional apologists or academics dabble into, but “a lost art” and a core of discipleship for those seeking fidelity in the Christian faith (p. 37). And unlike popular misunderstandings about the Christian defense of truth via apologetics, Guinness explains that persuasion with integrity in the Christian spirit relies neither on techniques alone nor on manipulative tricks and arguments (chapters 2 and 9); rather than working on improving the logos, ethos and pathos of standard courses in apologetics, it advocates providing “honest answers for honest questions” (p.37-38). Guinness urges apologists to attend to people’s heart, mind, and unique concerns (p. 4) while guiding listeners to the five, cardinal truths of the Christian faith reflectively, consistently, and prophetically (p. 26-27). Guinness’ five cardinal truths refer to biblical teachings about creation, the fall, incarnation, the cross, and the Spirit of God.

Persuasion in the Christian spirit, may I add, is less dependent on the agent’s wit and ability and much more dependent (or should I say, utterly dependent) on God who can best defend God’s self and truth (chapter 3) and who calls hearers in providential seasons (chapter 7). Otherwise, aspiring apologists may find themselves blindsided by their intellectual ability, which Guinness has observed: “The cleverer the mind, the slipperier the heart, and the more sophisticated the education, the subtler the rationalization. Erudition leads conviction to self-deception.” (p. 80). Worse still, if apologists depend only on their wit, these agents may fall into “a dangerous game” of playing politics, believing in politics’ power to change society, when they merely join the ranks of ruining societies with their attempts to manage vices (p. 198).

 

The Craft and the Pitfalls to Avoid

Guinness’ book is filled with wisdom, beginning with what to avoid as he then teases out the craft.

The quest to close the deal expediently by improving the skill and the use of yet better methods and techniques is for Guinness “the devil’s bait” (chapter 2, p. 30). Beware, no technique is ever neutral (p. 41). The “myth of progress” lies beneath the drive (and seduction) to procure the latest fad or to acquire a yet better method (pp. 30-32). Methods are not just instruments to be employed to achieve goals. Method needs to commensurate with what it serves: the message (p. 41).

As a witnessing activity, apologists trust in the certainty, power, and presence of the Holy Spirit.

The temptation to insist on our own viewpoints (which means, the deliberate turning away from God or the repudiation of God and God’s truth and ways) will always be a wrongheaded move in Christian advocacy (p. 53). Relativizing will exacerbate one’s refusal to face God and one’s guilt (p. 54). Winning in apologetics is not about upholding the ego, pride and knowledge of the apologists; rather, it is about defending God who has been wrongly accused (pp. 54-56). God, and following God’s initiative in God’s self-defense, is the focus of apologetics (chapter 3, p. 56)! As a witnessing activity, apologists trust in the certainty, power, and presence of the Holy Spirit (pp. 56-60).

The temptation to be well-liked, including to put up with falsehood and promiscuity by embracing prevailing politically-correct, relativistic ideologies and the abandoning of moral authority, will undercut the integrity and the message of Christian apologetics. Guinness validates the subversive approach of “fool-making” in Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly (1511) as a helpful paradigm for the present messy milieu. Apologists’ must be ready to be seen as a fool, treated as “fools for God” (chapter 4; 1 Corinthians 4) and face aggression to prick at folly of not believing in God and subvert the pride of the human heart of compromise against God and faith (p. 63). Instead of the seduction of win over the world, apologists should endeavour to prefer and follow the audience of the One God! (p. 70).

Apologists who are skilled in their craft comprehend the “anatomy of unbelief” (chapter 5). They distinguish truth-seekers from truth-twisters. The former will conform their thinking to reality, whereas the latter will try to explain reality to conform to their thoughts (p. 84). Truth-twisters employ one of four methods of “abuses”: silencing and suppressing truth deliberately, exploiting truth for their own agenda deliberately, inverting truth deliberately, or intentionally deceiving others – which increases their capacity for self-deception (pp. 84-93). The unbelieving worldview, in its rejection of God and reality, will always be in tension between truth and partial truth (part-falsehood) (pp. 94). Accordingly, unbelievers will face either of two poles: the lesser travelled and yet more courageous option of struggling with the dilemma which arises when they do not consistently live out their rejection of God, or the more preferred option of diversion (“empty phantoms” or “busyness”) which they would have to create so as to distract and comfort themselves for remaining in their state of unbelief away from God’s reality (pp. 96-99). Skilful apologists diagnosed that the course of diversion is futility and destruction (pp. 101-103).

Truth-twisters employ methods of abuse: silencing and suppressing truth deliberately, exploiting truth for their own agenda deliberately, inverting truth deliberately, intentionally deceiving others.

From chapter six onwards, Guinness guides readers as a master at persuasion. As all arguments will push towards the consequence of their arguments, a master of persuasion will lead her audience to recognize the limits of their viewpoints thereby challenging them to rethink their reception of truth after pressing home for them the conclusion of their unbelief and relativism “uncompromisingly” (p. 116). Find their misuse of logic by which they contradictorily support and at the same time hide the treasures of their hearts (pp. 121-123). Do not assault their understanding or contradictions. Instead, use subversive questions for “turning the tables” of misuse of logic that rejects God, and do so gently (chapter 6). The goal is to invite inquirers to desire deeper, richer, more adequate, and fuller answers than their prior worldviews and experiences (p. 134).

Apologists ought to pay attention to the gradual and prolonged signs of God at work in communicants: via arousing desires, invoking fears, igniting joys, and responding to grief (p. 136). Working not just with words but also through our lives, skilful apologists invite communicants “to hear, to listen, and to understand these signs and then to help them follow to where they lead” (p. 147); in so doing, apologists help communicants trigger their tastes for the divine in their lives (chapter 7).

Truth, character, and virtue go together.

From Berger’s The Precarious Vision (1961), Guinness reminds that worldviews shape interpretations and perceptions of reality. Worldviews are normally taken to be solid and self-evident truth, almost always accepted as a given, which is added to the lists of taken for granted “off course” understanding. But worldviews can be altered when enough light has been shone into where fictions, evasions, and rationalizations are constructed to shelter folks from the truth of God (pp. 149-153). Like the prophet Nathan who led the closed-minded King David to reproachment of guilty as charged, and as Jesus did to help the disciples on the road to Emmaus, skilful apologists will start where the audience are in their frames and understanding, reframe the issue to restore any distorted views of God and reality, and raise questions that are “spring-loaded with subversive dynamics” (Chapter 8, pp. 158-167).

Truth, character, and virtue go together. So contrary to negative perception that apologetics is about winning arguments, a cardinal rule in apologetics is as Guinness tells it, stay away from the “deadly trap” of needing to win and be right, and avoid manipulating truth (pp. 170, 185). Instead, let truth itself persuade and indict inquirers (chapter 9). Be sure that we, communicators of the gospel, are “shaped by the very truth that we proclaim”, yielded to “the One who sends us”, and accordingly, reorder our style of communication inasmuch as we work on the substantive contents of our message (p. 175). Guinness raises searching questions for apologists and aspirants: do we love enough to listen, or do we merely love to hear our own answers? Are we arguing for Christ, or are we expressing our need to be right? Are we defending Christ, or are we defending our concerns, for ourselves, and for our standing in community? The caution: do not turn on the heels of the truth we seek to defend (p. 179). Virtuous authenticity sums up the cardinal rule (and by the way, Guinness did not use “cardinal rule” to frame the rejoinder to “boomerangs” and would-be “Judases”).

Continuing with the rejoinder, Guinness’ chapters 10 and 11 examines the often, ignored element that impaired the ministry of apologists (lay and professional): an inconsistent life that masks vices (such as pride and standing in community, which betrays one’s unhealthy self-love) as virtue so as to receive the approval it seeks (p. 198). At a time when Christian advocacy (persuasion) is urgently needed, the “deadliest challenges to the faith” are the hypocrisy, toxicity, cynicism, syncretism, and “revisionist faith” within the church (pp. 187, 210, 225). “Cowardice and compromises within the church” coupled with poor understanding of apologetics have led people dismissing apologetics as “an unworthy and a wrongheaded enterprise” (pp. 210-211). The way forward is then to return and repent from “false behaviours” and “false teachings” inside the church (pp. 212, 218).

Guinness offers a sobering analysis of contemporary Christianity’s confusing dance of faith with culture.

Guinness offers a sobering analysis of contemporary Christianity’s confusing dance of faith with culture: in attempting to stretch and lop-off biblical revelation to fit comfortably with culture and banishment of truth and doctrine (which are read by culture as arrogant, exclusive, judgmental, intolerant, and hate-filled), “revisionist faith has so lost its authority that it has become compatible with anything and everything, and so means nothing” (pp. 221, 222, 225). Revisionist faith becomes “essentially different and unrecognizable” from culture, having “assimilated into culture with no distinctive Christian remainder” (p.223). Beware then to not join the ranks of either the “boomerang” who discredits truth with their misconduct (chapter 10) or the “Judases” who take things into their own hands and skew truth to one’s benefit, agenda, and cultural accommodation (chapter 11). The chapters can be read as a caution against exchanging vox dei for vox temporis and vox populi (which Guinness acknowledges borrowing from Thomas Oden) among other injunctions.

 

Charting a Journey towards faith

Guinness concludes the book with its objective. He writes: “as apologists we should ponder the journey toward faith and know how it progresses as well as its principles and its pitfalls along the way … our task is to be skilled guides for the journey to faith … so that we may each become trustworthy guides to those we meet who are at any stage of their search.” (p.231).

Retrieving from his earlier book, Long Journey Home (WaterBrook Press, 2001), he presses home four stages of “a thinking person’s journey toward faith” (p. 232), which he emphasized is not to be read as either “a new four-step apologetic method” or a “four-rung ladder of ascent … toward God.” These stages are also not a consistent path, for each will progress, stay put, or regress in the searchers’ own uniquely, personal and unhurried pace, and not necessarily in a straight line.

A time for questions emerges when a person’s “previous sense of the meaning of life is thrown into question.” The cause could be from storms and stresses of life, or passages and seasons of life, or unfolding of a grand historical event, thereby leading the person to recognize the inadequacy of present worldviews and so propel the search for better answers. The focus is the source from which the person derives identity, purpose, ethics, and community. The apologist listens to the person’s story with love, and seeks to understand the seeker’s heart-treasures, burning question, and direction of the search.

Next is a time for discovering “conceptual” answers to the burning question. Apologists will “engage in discussions of ideas on its own level” (p. 237), recognizing the critical importance of ideas and worldviews. Once adopted, these worldviews and beliefs, which carry eternal consequence (of salvation or damnation), will enable the seeker to perceive and experience reality in a radically different way. Through comparison (including comparative religions of “family of faiths”) skilful apologists will focus on helping seekers find “solid reasons” for belief, and the “key” that fits or the “switch” that turns on the light to their burning life question. Guinness also registers that issues of human dignity (and worth) and the problem of evil and suffering have troubled many people.

The third stage is a time for gathering evidences or justification for faith. Seekers are preoccupied with honest investigation of truth claims, claims of Jesus and the gospel, and the conviction for believing in the Christian faith. At this stage, apologists are prepared to offer “much needed explanations and caring encouragement.” And instead of falling for what Guinness calls, the futility of contemporary apologetics which fights battles leaning on either evidentialist approach or presuppositionalist approach, Guinness reminds that both spectrums play out in the first three stages of a thinking person’s journey toward faith, and a sharp apologist goes to work without accepting the modernist condemnation of the Christian faith as an embarrassment. Instead, truth carries consequences for life and the “Christian faith stands and falls unashamedly by its claim to truth” (p. 247).

The previous three stages will culminate at a time, and with a step for making personal commitments for seekers “to place their trust wholeheartedly in God” (p. 247). Guinness reminds apologists that this final step however is only half the story as it merely describes reception of truth from the side of the seeker. The most important part is what follows: to pray for seekers to yield to “the Spirit of God… the Senior Counsel and the lead apologist” who takes the lead “in attracting, convincing and convicting seekers,” thereby enabling the seeker to progress from investigating to deciding, and finally experiencing the One who reveals, seeks, and loves the seeker (p. 248). The work of being apologists is to participate in God’s gift of grace with love: “without God, we cannot know God” (p. 248). Without love in the endeavours of apologists, all persuasions, arguments and witness will fail to introduce others to the Person who is love and who so loves seekers! And without reason, commitment will fail to silence “the charge of fideism, a belief without reason and against all reason,” which in no way represents warranted Christian faith that has been upheld by “the most brilliant minds of the centuries”, including “the most brilliant philosophical minds of our age” (pp. 249-250). Here, Guinness unravels one last pitfall facing apologists, the apathetic who presumed that they have arrived and thus showed no interest in an “examined life” and the inquirer who instead of coming home takes their passion onto an unending search for meaning without landing (p. 251). Skilful apologists recognizes then just as commitment ends the journey in search for meaning for seekers, it begins the deeper and more meaningful journey of knowing and experiencing God with us now as “brothers and sisters on the long way home” (p. 252)!

 

Conclusion

Returning to what I have introduced at the beginning of this review essay, can Christian apologetics and the vocation of Christian apologists be defended after one internationally-esteemed advocate has been discredited and found to be “twice-dead”[7]?

The intrinsic irresistibility of the gospel is despite the immorality of the human messenger.

Through this review of Guinness’ work, I hope readers would have come to a meaningful resolution, albeit approached indirectly. Guinness has provided insights into the calling of Christian persuasion to engage with culture in the Christian spirit (that is, not pursuit in a reactionary spirit or with a manipulative agenda). In Fool’s Talk, Guinness unpacks what he has asserted repeatedly in many of his talks: there is “more to knowing than knowing will ever know.” Apologists are not infallible, no matter their reputation or regardless of how skilled they are in their craft. One sees more clearly now that Zacharias was crying for help even as he was reproaching himself in his message.[8] Notwithstanding the agent, creative, subversive and indirect ways of loving and truthful persuasion of the gospel at the right season (stage of a seeker’s journey towards faith) create opportunities for hearers to bring resolution to guilty hearts, alter their perception, and lead them to commitment. In working the craft of apologetics, apologists (lay or professional) are just vessels, in serving the audience of One (God), guiding others in their search for meaning and truth, which ultimately finds no comparability to Christ.

With many books on apologetics available in the market, Guinness’ many rejoinders for Christians living amid a generation given to quick fixes, mass distraction and rapid plurality will be engraved in the hearts of readers, and for that reason, Guinness’ Fool’s Talk can also be read profitably by those who are unsure of where their conscience is taking them. I would venture to even speculate that readers who may not agree with Guinness’ advise against the use of techniques and methods would also have to give due consideration to his subtle and weighty correction unless critics totally dispenses with the logos, pathos, and ethos of Guinness’ plea in the book. To these, readers may also pick out more direct apologetical approaches. The British pen of Alister E. McGrath describes “gateways for apologetics”: explanation, argument, stories, and images in Mere Apologetics (Baker Books, 2012) [Editor’s note: see Bradford McCall’s review]. There is also Paul M. Gould’s use of a web of imagination, reason, conscience, and a society disenchanted with the Christian worldview to create a re-enchantment for Christianity in his Cultural Apologetics (Zondervan, 2019).

In conclusion, apologetics will continue to have a glorious ministry in spite and despite of its agents’ failings, which we all are prone to fail to some lesser or greater degrees. The phenomenon of “fallen” leadership recurs more frequently than has been publicized or studied. Disequilibrium hangs dangerously on the edge of anyone called to public vocations, and if not submitted under the tutelage of Christ and the Spirit in accountable relationships, cracks in a private life risk discrediting and tarnishing the person’s life, work, and ministry besides incurring rippled damages.[9] Still, the future of apologetics remains glorious because its glory rests on the God who summons, calls and invites those who would come, hear, taste, see, experience, and commit. May we hear the sharp, thundering and still small whispers and voice of God so radiantly in an age that is inclined towards the voice of social media, popularity, and power in all its forms.

 

PR

 

Publisher’s page for Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: https://www.ivpress.com/fool-s-talk

 

Notes

[1] Douglas Groothuis, “Apologetics: Six Enemies of Apologetic Engagement,” CRI, 30 March 2009: https://www.equip.org/article/apologetics-six-enemies-of-apologetic-engagement/

[2] “Open Letter…”, and “Why Make Public a Private Investigation,” RZIM, February 2021:  https://www.rzim.org/read/rzim-updates/board-statement; and https://www.rzim.org/read/rzim-updates/theological-statement

[3] Lynsey M. Barron, and William P. Eiselstein, Report, Miller & Martin PLLC, 9 February 2021: https://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/rzimmedia.rzim.org/assets/downloads/Report-of-Investigation.pdf

[4] E.g., anonymous, “In Defense of Ravi Zacharias,” Mount Carmel, 14 May 2020: https://mountcarmelapologetics.com/2020/05/14/in-defense-of-ravi-zacharias/

[5] E.g., Steve Baughman, “RaiWatch…”: http://www.raviwatch.com/

[6] Os Guinness. Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015). For a video summary, see OS Guinness’ “Creative Subversion in the Grand Age of Apologetics,” 22 January 2015, at Wheaton College:  http://osguinness.com/video/creative-subversion-in-the-grand-age-of-apologetics/

[7] Douglas Groothuis, “Apologetics After the Two Deaths of Ravi Zacharias,” 19 February 2021: https://douglasgroothuis.com/2021/02/19/apologetics-after-the-two-deaths-of-ravi-zacharias/. While Groothuis faulted Zacharias for ethos (credibility), he recognized the soundness of Zacharias’ method of using logos and pathos: “the 3.4.5 Grid” of asking the logical consistency of a worldview, the factual empirical adequacy of a worldview, and the existential quality of a worldview for living with meaning in life and at death. The arguments presented by Zacharias were not unique to Zacharias, and can stand the test of logos. The intrinsic irresistibility of the gospel is despite the immorality of the human messenger. Rather, by remaining accountable to God and others may we not strike another blow to the truth we submits to and witnesses for.

[8] And with what we now know of his duplicitous life, what was Zacharias’ state when he shared his address at the opening of the Zacharias Institute, RZIM’s global headquarters at Atlanta, GA in June 2018, with OS Guinness and Edmund Chan: did he condemn himself, or was it a cry for help? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6ciUFFINbk

[9] As to whether fallen leaders can be restored, posthumously or not, see my forthcoming essay in Sacra Testamentum 3, edited by Kevaughn Mattis (submitted in October 2020).

Pin It

Tags: , ,

Category: In Depth, Summer 2021

About the Author: Timothy Teck Ngern Lim, M.Div. (BGST, Singapore), Ph.D. (Regent University), is a Visiting Lecturer for London School of Theology and Research Tutor for King's Evangelical Divinity School (London). He is on the advisory board of One in Christ (Turvey) and area book review editor for Evangelical Review of Society & Politics. He is an evangelical theologian ordained as a Teaching Elder with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He has published in ecclesiology, ecumenical theology, and interdisciplinarity. A recent monograph published entitled Ecclesial Recognition with Hegelian Philosophy, Social Psychology, and Continental Political Theory: An Interdisciplinary Proposal (Brill, 2017).

  • Connect with PneumaReview.com

    Subscribe via Twitter 1333 Followers   Subscribe via Facebook Fans
  • Recent Comments

  • Featured Authors

    Amos Yong is Professor of Theology & Mission and director of the Center for Missiological Research at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena. His graduate education includes degree...

    Jelle Creemers: Theological Dialogue with Classical Pentecostals

    Antipas L. Harris, D.Min. (Boston University), S.T.M. (Yale University Divinity School), M.Div. (Emory University), is the president-dean of Jakes Divinity School and associate pasto...

    Invitation: Stories about transformation

    Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books<...

    A Keener Understanding of the Bible: The Jewish Context for the Book of Revelation

    William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major w...

    Charismatic Leaders Fellowship 2022