Apologetics is not a set of techniques for winning people to Christ. It is not a set of argumentative templates designed to win debates. It is a willingness to work with God in helping people discover and turn to his glory. We are to “follow Him” by casting our nets out to everyone and pointing them to the greater reality of God and the risen Christ.
Excerpted from Chapter 3 and 6 of Mere Apologetics by Alister McGrath (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2012). Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group,
Apologetics is not a set of techniques for winning people to Christ. It is not a set of argumentative templates designed to win debates. It is a willingness to work with God in helping people discover and turn to his glory. As Avery Dulles once noted with some sadness, the apologist is often regarded as an “aggressive, opportunistic person who tries, by fair means or foul, to argue people into joining the church.” 1
It’s easy to see how these stereotypes arise. And it’s equally easy to see how dangerous such attitudes can be. The heart of apologetics is not about mastering and memorizing a set of techniques designed to manipulate arguments to get the desired conclusion. It is about being mastered by the Christian faith so that its ideas, themes, and values are deeply imprinted on our minds and in our hearts.
Far from being a mechanical repetition of ideas, apologetics is about a natural realization of the answers we can provide to people’s questions and concerns, answers that arise from a deep and passionate immersion in the realities of our faith. The best apologetics is done from the standpoint of the rich vision of reality characteristic of the Christian gospel, which gives rise to deeply realistic insights into human nature. What is our problem? What is our need? How can these needs be resolved? In each case, a powerful answer may be given to each question, an answer grounded in the Christian understanding of the nature of things.
SETTING THINGS IN CONTEXT To help us set our reflections in a proper context, let us recall one of the earliest recorded events in the Gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth:
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. (Mark 1:16–18)
This is a wonderful narrative, packed full of detail and insight. For example, we note that Jesus called fishermen. Contemporary Jewish literature had much to say about people whose jobs made them virtually incapable of keeping the law of Moses. Two groups often singled out for special (negative) comment were carpenters and fishermen—carpenters because they doubled as undertakers and were handling dead bodies all the time, and fishermen because they had to handle and sort mixed catches of clean and unclean fish. Both groups were incapable of observing the strict Jewish rules about ritual purity, which prohibited contact with anything unclean. Yet Jesus calls precisely such fishermen, who hovered on the fringes of Jewish religious life. It’s a powerful reminder of the way in which the Christian gospel reaches out to everyone—even those whom society regards as powerless or valueless.
That’s an important point. But it’s not the most important thing from an apologetic point of view. Here’s the apologetic question we need to ask: What made Simon and Andrew leave everything and follow Jesus? Does Jesus offer compelling arguments for the existence of God? Does he explain to them that he is the fulfillment of the great prophecies of the Old Testament? No. There is something about him that is compelling. The response of Simon and Andrew was immediate and intuitive. Mark leaves us with the impression of an utterly compelling figure who commands assent by his very presence.
Although this account of the encounter between Jesus of Nazareth and the first disciples by the Sea of Galilee is very familiar, we need to read it with an apologetic agenda in mind. It helps us set apologetics in its proper perspective. It reminds us that argument can be only part of our strategy. In many ways, our task is to lead people to Christ and discovery of the living God. Apologetics does not and cannot convert anyone. But it can point people in the right direction by removing barriers to an encounter with God, or opening a window through which Christ can be seen. Apologetics is about enabling people to grasp the significance of the gospel. It is about pointing, explaining, opening doors, and removing barriers. Yet what converts is not apologetics itself, but the greater reality of God and the risen Christ.
To explain this important point, we may turn to another account of the calling of the first disciples:
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