The Best Apologetics Is Good Systematics

o'donovanYesterday’s post on the shape of atonement doctrine raised the issue of how the wrong sort of apologetic mindset when it comes to preaching and forming doctrine can distort our understanding of how and why we believe what we do.

After the fact, I recalled some comments by Oliver O’Donovan about how to think about apologetics as a form of Christian thinking. He has been situating his own project and notes that in the contemporary context (2005), one of the secondary values of engaging political theology is for its apologetic value. Given the loss of intelligibility of political institutions and practices, the fact that Christian political reasoning can shed light on these matters in a way secular philosophies no longer could might prove attractive to nonbelievers.

In that context, O’Donovan issues a corrective explanation of just what does and does not separate apologetics from other modes of theology:

Now, apologetics is not a distinct genre of religious thinking. There are no apologetic reasons and arguments that do not belong in the ordered exposition of Christian belief traditionally known as “doctrine.” The only satisfactory reason to believe is the reason of belief. If I could think out for myself a total and rationally coherent account of all my beliefs, I would have found all the reasons I knew for anyone else to believe as I believed. If I were then to urge some other reasons for believing, it would have to be a pseudo-reason that I did not myself believe, and I would be a charlatan.

Apologetics is, on the other hand, a distinct genre of exposition. For dialogue’s sake I may organize my account of my beliefs in relation to somebody else’s doubts or counter-arguments. The rational equilibrium always remains the same: a reason for an unbeliever not to be swayed by an argument against belief is at the same time a reason for a believer not to be swayed by it. Yet different trains of theological thought may acquire greater or lesser apologetic weight circumstantially, as the crises or doubts of the culture may dictate at any moment.

The Ways of Judgment (xiii)

Another way of putting this is to say that your apologetic theology should just be your systematic theology arranged in a different order, so that its inherent logic and justification is more clearly defensible against contemporary attacks (or attractive to the current moment). But it’s not a different theology, or your theology plus extra reasons to believe. It is the same truth with the same justifications, not ones we’ve simply adopted for their usefulness in the moment.

I’ll simply add that O’Donovan’s clarification is well-made as this is where the danger of the apologetic endeavor looms large for confessional theology.

Without a sense of your theology as, in a sense, prior to your apologetics, it becomes ever more tempting to succumb to the pressure of presenting a doctrine “defensible” at the bar of whatever is currently passing itself off as universal human reason (which is the liberal theological impulse). There is a shift in balance from presenting Christian truth in a way that is more accessible to the current moment, to deciding what Christian truth is on the basis of its acceptability to the current moment.

But when the Lord tells Ezekiel to preach, “Thus says the Lord God”, he tells him to do it, “whether they hear or refuse to hear” (Ezek. 3:11). Why? Because the the Word of the Lord is the Word of the Lord whether we hear it or not.

Putting things more positively, when I was younger, I was concerned with theological issues more as apologetic issues, and so my dives into systematic theology were usually aimed at answering some objection. As time progressed, I realized that some of the most satisfying apologetic answers I found were found by pursuing a solid grasp of systematics in itself. Most of my apologetic encounters ended up being a clarification of basic misunderstandings of Christian doctrine anyways.

Of course, as I continued to study, it became clear that some of the best systematics come, not from trying to figure out which doctrine is most defensible to the day’s most aggressive skeptics, but from striving to discern as best as possible the coherence, beauty, and truth of God’s Word in its own positive right. In other words, the best apologetics is just a good systematics.

Soli Deo Gloria

2 thoughts on “The Best Apologetics Is Good Systematics

  1. Great thoughts here. You should expand and develop this and publish it somewhere. Sorry, I’ve got no editorial pull or connections beyond my personal Twitter and FB accounts.

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