I have said this before but I am very grateful for Christian apologetics. It did not make me a believer and neither did it assuage any doubts. It rather provided an avenue for me to explore and be better rooted in my faith. Though I do love it, I do not talk much about it on this platform and when I do, I am often critical. In this piece I am going to be a little critical about what apologetics means and the biblical justification of it that is popularly provided by mainstream apologists.
If you have ever read or heard any reason for apologetics most people would cite 1 Peter 3:15.
…in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence (Greek apologia) to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect – 1 Pet. 3:15 ESV.
They therefore say it is a biblical command to offer a rational defence of the Christian faith, an apologetic. The problem with that is for a discipline that prides itself in rational, careful thought and presentation, that is pretty sloppy exegesis of the verse.
It is true that is a must for every believer to be able to offer an apologia. Though I had not noticed it before, while writing a piece on the strange phenomenon of the absence of a universal call to evangelism in the New Testament (NT), the presentation of an apologia was the only circumstantial exception I came across. An apologia is still not the same as everybody doing evangelism but in certain situations it was required of every believer. Though the modern English word apologetics is derived from the Greek apologia, there is a reason translators do not say for instance “always being prepared to do apologetics,” as many modern apologists interpret that line. That is because apologia in the NT and modern apologetics are not the same thing. Even though they are related, it is not a straightforward connection. That is why I use the Greek apologia to help distinguish it from its modern counterpart. When you read 1 Peter 3:15 in context things become a bit clearer.
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God… – 1 Pet. 3:13-18 ESV.
1 Peter was written to believers facing persecution. He was therefore very particular about their behaviour, that they should not get into trouble for misbehaving, which would dishonour the Gospel. However, he did address the reality that sometimes trouble could not be avoided, that they would ‘suffer for doing good.’ It is this context of believers getting into trouble with authorities because of their faith that we have the call to make a reasonable defence of your belief.
Apologia in Greek is actually a verbal legal defence. The passage focuses on speech, defending personal conduct, as well as mentioning words like conscience, slander, requiring an answer and an allusion to Jesus’ own trial and execution. From this it is quite clear that the author has in mind a court scenario where Christians are dragged before the authorities and have to answer for themselves. This was not uncommon in early Christianity with Jesus himself being the first to go through such an ordeal. He thoroughly anticipated and it did happen as it is recorded in early historical sources. It still happens to day in many countries, a sombre fact we will revisit later.
As you can see being brought before a tribunal or some authoritative body of some kind where you are facing charges and therefore you are required to answer for your actions is vastly different from modern apologetics. If the early believe lost these cases they could suffer some kind of harm including death, in addition to whatever persecution they were already facing. In modern apologetics it is a purely voluntary, rational defence of your faith which comes at no personal cost. In spite of these stark differences, there is a historical path from ancient apologia to modern apologetics which we can follow where the concept developed into its more familiar contemporary form. A rough sketch of this evolution will be provided in this article as well as other pertinent issues to it.
Apologia was a pre-existing Greek word which later on acquired a specific Christian usage. In the Classical Greek legal system, two key technical terms were employed: the prosecution delivered the kategoria, and the defendant replied with the apologia. Jesus’ covert trial before Pilate and the Jewish authorities where he offers very cryptic and stoic responses corresponds to the Greek apologia. It was also paradigmatic for the early Christian response when they were confronted by authorities as we shall later see. Now the first time the word is specifically used in the NT is by Paul in Acts 22:1 in his more public makeshift trial.
“Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.” – Acts 22:1 ESV.
In this case the idea of a legal defence is in view, even though it is in later trials that he is properly arraigned before the authorities. Right from Acts 4, this had been happening to the disciples of Jesus which they expected because it had happened to their master (Matthew 10:24-25.) In a legal setting the apologia was a form of testimony on the defendant’s behalf. The idea of bearing witness is very important in the New Testament since the Gospel was understood to be the divine testimony of God concerning Jesus his Son. Paul for instance, admonishes Timothy to bear good witness just as the Messiah did (1 Timothy 6:12-13.) It is from the Greek word for testimony martys that we get the English word martyr, which came from the example of the early believers who never renounced the Messiah and were faithful to death. Martyrdom was an honourable thing in the early Christian community because Jesus was the ultimate martyr and they were therefore encouraged to follow his example. We can see this in 1 Peter 3 and in many other places in scripture. In fact, it got to a point many commentators feel they were too eager to put their lives on the line. They had accepted suffering and persecution as a necessary feature of being a faithful believer, one who does not betray his confession in either his words or actions right to the bitter end (Romans 8:17-18.) By holding on to their testimony they were imitating the Messiah and in some way participating in his suffering which meant they too would share in his vindication.
In legal situations you can choose not to stay silent if you felt your words could incriminate you. Beyond the clear theological motivation to follow Jesus, it was not even hinted anywhere in the New Testament that the believer could think of choosing to be mute. Jesus even said the Holy Spirit would speak through them. Part of what Peter meant by honouring Christ as Lord was that the Christian’s response was a way of testifying of Jesus lordship to the powers that be. When they demand an explanation the believer in his defence was to appeal to an even higher power than them: The Lord God as the reason for their conduct. As Jesus said to Pilate, he would not have power over him unless it was given from above, the believer’s response was also a declaration of who truly had power. It was an official testimony proclaiming to the powers that be that God is actually in charge and he has installed Jesus as Lord. Though the believer had answered them, it was really an answer to the Lord Jesus which was far more important. The Christian’s apologia forces the authorities to confront the reality of Jesus’ lordship. As the Lord himself cheekily replied when he was asked if he was the Messiah, ‘if you are saying it, then it must be true.’
With Jesus’ lordship going on record, the circumstances and the stakes of the trial are radically altered by the believer’s testimony. When you look at Jesus’ own trial, his demeanour, his words and actions were not those of a man whose life was literally on the line. After his cheeky response to Caiaphas he continued to reference Daniel 7, identifying himself as the Son of Man who is exalted on the clouds of heaven to God’s throne. That apocalyptic picture was a court scene in which the persecuted people of God are vindicated and gain power over those who opposed and oppressed them and by extension resisted God’s rule. When Pilate throws his weight about Jesus replies the power was given him from above, therefore the one who handed him over had committed the greater sin. In other words, as a man about to be sentenced to crucifixion, the worst form of death in the ancient Roman world, he audaciously told his judge he had more to worry about. From his perspective, as portrayed through the various Gospel passion narratives, Jesus saw the rulers and authorities as the ones who were actually under trial. That is why in his final words during his trial he evoked the well-known cosmic court scene of Daniel 7 where he has been divinely authorised to judge the enemies of God. In his accusers’ minds, they had already decided to kill him but little did they know God had also made up his mind from the foundation of the world and had issued his verdict. Paul writes,
But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory – 1 Corinthians 2:7-8 ESV.
Jesus believed that the events of his crucifixion would be the decisive moment through which God’s kingdom would be established. He is depicted as acting in ways that will setup this final showdown. There is a lot prefiguration and intertextual references throughout the gospels. As the gospel writers tell it, he had already anticipated the entire scenario, trial and all. A true prophetic foreshadowing. According to John’s gospel, before his arrest he had declared that God had given him authority over all people to judge the living and the dead. He later on said no one could take his life away from him but he chooses to lay it down to pick it back up again. From these sayings along with his actions, it is clear that Jesus entered the trial room with the absolute confidence of a judge and not the accused even though he was paradoxically both.
Jesus’ taught his disciples that his own unique experience was the interpretative context for theirs. They were to pick up their crosses and follow him. He prepared his followers for trial and persecution as he eventually faced. By alluding to the prophet Daniel in his trial, he was saying it was God who presided over his case and not men and therefore the Judge of All would vindicate them. So he assures his followers that their lives are in God’s hand. They should not be alarmed by those who threaten them. The accusers were actually in their heavenly father’s court. Therefore, they should rather fear the judgment and condemnation of God. He also promises them the truth will out and they will be vindicated and rewarded if they remain loyal, just as he was. (Matthew 10.) The allegiance he required from his followers was literally to death.
When you look what Jesus said would happen on trial he indicated that they should not be anxious but the spirit of their Father would speak through them. I think he is alluding to how the prophets of old were inspired by the Spirit to speak truth power. If we continue with the court motif when a faithful child of God is being tried by men, the setting becomes the Lord’s royal courtroom, then God the Father must himself speak in the case he presides over. The Spirit therefore inspires believers to speak as representatives of God the same way Moses was God to Pharaoh. By the Spirit God is present, presiding over the case, vindicating his people and condemning their enemies. The theme of divine justice is better fleshed out in the Gospel of John. Jesus said,
Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself – John 12:31-32 ESV.
Continuing with this theme of role reversal, Jesus’ trial was actually the final indictment of faithless Israel, the pagan powers they had colluded with and ultimately the satan and the forces of evil. Such theological irony is not uncommon in the NT especially when it comes to events surround the resurrection. For example, Paul says the Messiah’s crucifixion was actually the disarming of the powers that had condemned him. The final judgment and overthrow of all these entities are themes that appear throughout the gospels which are dramatically fulfilled through the cross and the resurrection. In the gospels the true enemy Jesus confronts is the satan. He was convinced his crucifixion was the revolution that would result in his ascent to power as the true judge and ruler of the world. He would be glorified through the ignominy of the tree. He then says in private to his disciples that when the Holy Spirit comes,
…he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged – John 16:8-11 ESV.
By the coming and power of the Spirit, his disciples would continue the Messiah’s divine mandate to bring justice to the world against the powers of evil. In the Messiah and through the Spirit, believers are God’s instrument of justice in the world. This would sometimes include going on trial and confronting the rulers and authorities, seen and unseen. Situating the apologia in the wider context of its political and theological usage by Christians because gives it more gravity and a wider range of meaning than our modern apologetics which it also encompasses. The Messiah’s passion and exaltation, the crux of the Gospel narrative, is the archetypical apologia in the NT. Because he is king that is why we obey him above all. Apologia is a theocratically charged word about God’s rule being established and what happens when it is contested. Even within a theocratic context, apologia still remains a legal term, therefore rational systematic speech characteristic of modern apologetics, is still present. The modern discipline has those important ancient forensic roots but it is re-contextualised through faith in the Gospel of Jesus the Son of God.