Why Apologetics Is Wesleyan
In early 2019, I had the opportunity to attend a conference called M19 that was put on by my denomination. The conference was about what you would expect from the largest Wesleyan-holiness denomination out there. There were plenary sessions with some amazing speakers, and, of course, there were breakout sessions. The way that the breakout sessions worked is that several different sessions would be going at the same time, and you would choose one to attend. It was one of these breakout sessions that serves as the inspiration for this post.
I entered a medium-sized room where other individuals were already seated, waiting for one of the sessions to start. It was a theologically-oriented panel discussion, although I do not remember what the topic was. I remember expecting some good discussion, however. Near the end of the session, they opened the floor to questions and answers. One pastor stood up and said, "There are some in my congregation who have become involved in apologetics, and I wanted to get the panel's take on this. Should we support this? Should we not? I don't know what to do." The panelists looked at one another for a moment before one of them addressed the pastor. She said, "In my view, apologetics is un-Wesleyan. Evangelism in the Wesleyan movement should be based around telling your story and inviting others into it. No one has ever come to Christ because they have heard a convincing argument." I sat there, wondering if I should speak up and challenge the obvious falsehood of what was just said. In the end, I did not get the chance to. Part of it was hesitation on my part to make sure that I had the right argument in response. "Doesn't she know that there are documented cases of people coming to Christ when an intellectual barrier has been removed? Doesn't she know that perhaps the most notable apologist today identifies as a Wesleyan? Does she know how many of her Wesleyan brothers and sisters she has just ostracized? Why did she try to defend her position rather than simply trying to invite us into her story? That seems self-contradictory, at least." The other part of it was that the session ended soon after this comment, leaving me little time to respond. This post is my reflection and response to this individual.
I believe that apologetics is very Wesleyan. In fact, I think it is un-Wesleyan to dismiss apologetics out of hand. Of course, not everyone is called to be apologists. In fact, I don't think the majority of Christians are called to a full-time apologetics ministry. However, it is my view that everyone involved in ministry should have at least a basic answer to the question, "Why are you a Christian?" That is, by definition, being prepared to do apologetics. Furthermore, if Wesleyanism is faithful to one book, as John Wesley himself was, then it is un-Wesleyan to advocate against something that Scripture commands. This becomes significant when we realize that 1 Peter 3:15 commands us to always be ready with an apologia for the hope that we have within us. Apologia simply means "a defense," which is precisely what we are talking about when it comes to apologetics. So to deny that we should be ready to do apologetics work is to oppose a Scriptural command to be involved in this.
Beyond being unbiblical, the idea that apologetics is not something that we should engage in is un-Wesleyan. One tenet of Wesleyanism is known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This has traditionally been understood as the way in which we can understand truth. The quadrilateral is made up of four parts: Scripture (which is the foundation of all of the others), tradition, reason, and experience. I want to show how opposition to apologetics cuts against all four sides of the quadrilateral.
As we have seen already, opposition to apologetics cuts against the clear command of Scripture. However, the word apologia is used in more than one passage in 1 Peter. Not only is it used throughout the New Testament, but we also see examples of apologetics in action, particularly in the book of Acts. When Paul was brought before King Agrippa in Acts 26, Paul gave a defense and testimony in an attempt to persuade King Agrippa of the truth of the Christian faith. Earlier, in Acts 17:22-31, Paul gave a defense of the Christian faith on Mars Hill. Peter and John gave a defense of the faith in front of the Sanhedrin in Acts 4:1-22. The point is that we have both biblical precedent and a biblical command to be ready with an apologia. Perhaps we should take this seriously?
In addition to undercutting the command of Scripture, opposition to apologetics cuts against tradition. Throughout church history, we see apologist after apologist step up in defense of the Christian faith as it was attacked by those outside the Church. Justin Martyr may be the most famous of these, but he was by no means the only one. The early church fathers, the bishops at the church councils, the medieval scholastics, the reformers, and the great minds of recent times all engaged in apologetics. They were not content to simply tell their story and allow others to mislead people about the Christian faith. This is a particularly recent notion, which appears to be correlated with the rise of post-modernism. We do not need to throw tradition out the window every time the world comes up with a new philosophy.
To throw out apologetics is to also undermine reason. Apologetics itself is a reasoned defense of the Christian faith. You become a walking self-contradiction when you claim that reason is one way by which we discern truth, yet deny that we can use reason to defend the Christian faith. If you have a reason to be a Christian, then you have a basis for an apologia, and therefore should not undermine it by denying its importance. If you have no reason for your Christian faith, but hold it blindly, you may as well retreat into the realm of anti-intellectualism. Might I also suggest that you are precisely the kind of person who needs apologetics. Thus, to turn apologetics away in this state is much like a patient turning away medical advice from a doctor. You can choose to hold your opinion fast, but it will ultimately be to your own detriment.
Finally, the claim that apologetics is not important undermines experience. My own faith has been strengthened by the study of apologetics, and if we are talking about experience, my experience is just as valid as yours. However, let's talk about the experience of those who have come to faith after hearing a case for the Christian faith. When William Lane Craig debated the atheist Frank Zindler, dozens of people indicated a decision for Christ. Later, when this same Christian philosopher debated Christopher Hitchens at Biola University, the same thing happened--dozens of people indicated a decision for Jesus. Furthermore, to my knowledge, in neither of these events did anyone indicate a decision to leave Christianity. In short, experience tells us that the Holy Spirit uses apologetics presentations to bring individuals to himself, as well as to strengthen the faith of those who are already his.
Thus, the view that apologetics doesn't have a place in the Wesleyan tradition is simply wrong. It is far too simplistic, and actually betrays our Wesleyan heritage. As long as there are misunderstandings of the Christian faith, and as long as the Christian faith continues to be attacked from the outside, apologetics will be necessary. To say otherwise is to contradict Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.