“Apologetics is an answer to the “why” question after you’ve already answered the “what” question. The what question, of course, is, “What is the gospel?” But when you call people to believe in the gospel and they ask, “Why should I believe that?”—then you need apologetics.
I’ve heard plenty of Christians try to answer the why question by going back to the what. “You have to believe because Jesus is the Son of God.” But that’s answering the why with morewhat. Increasingly we live in a time when you can’t avoid the why question. Just giving the what (for example, a vivid gospel presentation) worked in the days when the cultural institutions created an environment in which Christianity just felt true or at least honorable. But in a post-Christendom society, in the marketplace of ideas, you have to explain why this is true, or people will just dismiss it.
Is Apologetics Biblical?
There are plenty of Christians today who nevertheless say: “Don’t do apologetics, just expound the Word of God—preach and the power of the Word will strike people.” Others argue that “belonging comes before believing.” They say apologetics is a rational, Enlightenment approach, not a biblical one. People need to be brought into a community where they can see our love and our deeds, experience worship, have their imaginations captured, and faith will become credible to them.
There is a certain merit to these arguments. It would indeed be overly rationalistic to say that we can prove Christianity so that any rational person would have to believe it. In fact, this approach dishonors the sovereignty of God by bowing to our autonomous human reason. Community and worship are important, because people come to conviction through a combination of heart and mind, a sense of need, thinking things out intellectually, and seeing it in community. But I have also seen many skeptics brought into a warm Christian community and still ask, “But why should I believe you and not an atheist or a Muslim?”
We need to be careful of saying, “Just believe,” because what we’re really saying is, “Believe because I say so.” That sounds like a Nietzschean power play. That’s very different from Paul, who reasoned, argued, and proved in the Book of Acts, and from Peter, who called us to give the reason for our hope in 2 Peter 3:15. If our response is, “Our beliefs may seem utterly irrational to you, but if you see how much we love one another then you’ll want to believe too,” then we’ll sound like a cult. So we do need to do apologetics and answer the why question.
No Neutral Ground
However, the trouble with an exclusively rationalistic apologetic (“I’m going to prove to you that God exists, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Bible is true,” etc.) is that it does, in a sense, put God on trial before supposedly neutral, perfectly rational people sitting objectively on the throne of Reason. That doesn’t fit with what the Bible says about the reality of sin and the always prejudiced, distorted thinking produced by unbelief. On the other hand, an exclusively subjectivist apologetic (“Invite Jesus into your life and he’ll solve all your problems, but I can’t give you any good reasons, just trust with your heart”) also fails to bring conviction of real sin or of need.
There will be no joy in the grace of Jesus unless people see they’re lost. Thus a gospel-shaped apologetic must not simply present Christianity, it must also challenge the non-believer’s worldview and show where it, and they, have a real problem.”
Orthodox, Unorthodox, and Heresy.
These are terms that we hear thrown out a lot today, especially heresy. But what do they mean exactly, specifically from a Reformed perspective?
If you were to go to dictionary.com you would see orthodoxy defined as “sound or correct in opinion or doctrine, especially theological or religious doctrine” and “conforming to the Christian faith as represented in the creeds of the early church.”
Unorthodox is defined thus, “not conforming to rules, traditions, or modes of conduct, as of a doctrine, religion or philosophy; not orthodox.”
The “H” word, Heresy, has this definition: “opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, especially of a church or religious system”, and “any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs, customs, etc.”
I want to suggest a more precise and practical theological definition so that we can classify theological beliefs in a more coherent manner. I suggest the following definitions:
Heresy: A belief that is so destructive and contrary to the Gospel, that to hold to it annihilates the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, and is indeed “another gospel.”
Unorthodox: A belief that does severe damage to the Gospel and cause of Christ.
Orthodox: The scope of beliefs that are in accord with the Gospel of Jesus Christ; the beliefs that are necessary for the Gospel to be coherent .
First, let’s take a look at Orthodox. By way of introduction, I don’t mean “Eastern Orthodoxy, Greek Orthodoxy or Russian Orthodoxy”. I mean orthodox as defined above. But for the above definition to be valid, we have to ask ourselves, what are the necessary beliefs for the Gospel to coherently make sense? In other words, what does one have to believe to be Orthodox? I will suggest 7 basic things:
1. A proper view of God. Namely, accepting the Biblical God, The Holy Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit. The doctrine of The Trinity was hammered out in great detail in the Apostles and Nicene creeds in the early Church, which is where a proper view of this subject may be found. But to be orthodox, it is essential one accepts the Biblical picture of God. Namely one eternal God consisting of 3 eternal persons, Father Son and Spirit. For a precise definition I would suggest you to go the Nicene Creed or Westminster Confession Chapter 2 on the Trinity. In addition to accepting his other attributes, such as his sovereignty, eternal nature and righteousness, omniscience, omnipresence etc.
2. A proper view of Christ. The doctrine of Christ was also hammered out in great detail by the early Church. Namely, that which is exposed in the Chalcedonian creed. That God the Son the second person of the Trinity, took on a human nature, Jesus Christ. That Jesus Christ was fully God and fully Man, in one person. That he lived a sinless life to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of his people. A proper view of Christ is essential for a proper view of The Gospel.
3. A proper view of the Scriptures. Without the scriptures, we would know nothing of redemption. We would be without hope and without God in the world. Essential to Christian Orthodoxy is the trust in God’s word in the Scriptures, that we believe the scriptures to be breathed out by God, our only infallible and inerrant rule for all matters of faith and practice. In addition, holding to the unity of the Scriptures as one coherent whole detailing God’s plan of redemption, and detailing his eternal standard of righteousness, his Law.
4. A proper view of man. This is twofold, on the one hand it is essential to hold that Man was created directly and specially by God, made in the image of God. On the other, we must accept what the Bible says about Human Nature today; that we have fallen into Sin, into total depravity and are totally hostile to God in mind, word, and deed. That we can in no sense do anything to rescue ourselves from our sin laden condition.
5. A proper view of salvation. Because of the views in number 4., man cannot save himself. He has to be saved totally by the power of God and cannot cooperate with God to achieve salvation. God must save, and God alone. So Salvation is by Grace ALONE. God’s Grace is the only cause of Salvation in man. This is done by the instrument of God-given faith ALONE. This salvation coming through the sacrifice of Christ alone. So holding a Biblical view of Salvation by Grace alone through faith alone, in Christ alone is key.
6. A proper view of the church. Holding to the truths that Christ established his Church for the faithful, to administer Baptism and The Lord’s Supper and to proclaim all that he has commanded them, is a key component of orthodoxy.
7. A proper view of the future. A hallmark of orthodox Christianity is the confession of Jesus Christ’s Second coming, that he will resurrect all the dead and consign believers to an Eternal new heavens and new earth, and all unbelievers to an eternal Hell.
That is just a basic overview of Christian orthodoxy from a Reformed perspective. These are the beliefs that I believe are necessary for the Biblical Gospel to be clear and coherent. It is important to remember, however, that just because somebody holds unorthodox views on a subject does not mean they have nothing valuable to say or are not Lovers of Jesus. Many great minds have held unfortunately unorthodox views on certain subjects but have contributed much to the faith, an example would be C.S. Lewis, who despite his great insights into Life and Godliness, held views on Scripture and Man’s sin nature that did great damage to the Gospel and cause of Christ. Many people do in fact believe a Biblical Gospel despite holding view that can muddle and distort it.
I’m sure not everybody agrees with everything I listed as being a part of orthodoxy and I am sure others would have added more.
So who can meet all the qualifications of everything I just listed?
Unfortunately not very much of “Christianity” , due to the sad state of affairs that prevails in the Christian world. Only the evangelical Reformed Churches, Lutherans, and some Anglicans and Baptists make the cut. None the less, among those who agree on the orthodox essentials, there is plenty of room for disagreement on smaller (but still very important) issues such as The nature and mode of Baptism, The millennium of Revelation 20, and things of that sort.
Now that I have given my humble definition of what it means to be orthodox, I will move on in part 2 to describing unorthodoxy and heresy.