Originally published on Mar 2015
In this essay, I offer some brief reflections on the theological foundations or assumptions underlying Christian apologetics. To begin with, our apologetics should always be informed by what our Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has done in salvation history.
1) As a start, it is because God the Father loves all humanity and wants to save us that we boldly proclaim the Gospel. If this is not the case – if God is a tyrant, or if He doesn’t care about us at all (for example), why should we even bother? Yet, it is because the Father loves us, that God our Father desires to adopt us as His children, that we take time and effort to help others overcome what may hinder them from faith. In short, the love of God motivates us to engage in apologetics.
2) Secondly, the Son of God, or the Word, the Logos, of God did not remain simply in the background to sustain the world from there. Rather, out of the same love for us, the Word of God put on flesh. He became a human being – Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish man who lived in first century Roman Palestine, so that he could be with us, so that he could teach us and, ultimately, die and be resurrected for us.
Now, the importance of the Incarnation cannot be understated. As I see it, two important principles can be drawn here.
a) Firstly, the Son of God came in the flesh, in order to show us what true humanity is all about, how the image of God ought to be. Like Christ, we ought to be loving, holy, just and creative, just like God our Father. Like Christ the true image of God, we were created to desire God, to enjoy His love and long for His immortality. “Our hearts, our human hearts, will find no rest, until we find our rest in God,” as Augustine puts it so well. For the task of apologetics, this is a significant fact. Because it implies that ALL humanity is hardwired in certain ways – to love, to desire, and so on, and will therefore ask similar questions about life – “What is the meaning of life?” “Why is there suffering in the world?” or “What is love?” etc. This common ground that we all share also implies us that it will be possible for us to find cultural analogies (or metaphors) that can help others understand the Gospel of Christ.
i) Take, for example, the idea of God the Father. Now, the notion of fatherhood can be quite different across space and time. In Roman times, for example, the father not only owned his wife and children, but could literally decide whether an infant should live, or be left to die in the open (should he dislike it). And many were actually exposed and died! In modern times, the understanding of fatherhood also differs across cultures, say, between a Singaporean and an Iranian. Nevertheless, I am also sure that both the Singaporean and the Iranian will agree that the idea of God the Father is a powerful analogy.
Why? Because it appeals to a common, trans- cultural understanding of fatherhood. That just as our earthly fathers love, care, protect and educate us, so also will God do all these for us and more. Interestingly, both cultures, I think, will also agree that there are limits to such analogies. One thing is for sure: neither the Singaporean nor the Iranian will take this analogy to imply that God is male or our biological parent!
ii) Take another example: God is our Shepherd. What do we mean by we say that God is our Shepherd? We mean that God relates to us in ways that are similar to that between a shepherd and his sheep. Like the Shepherd, He feeds us, He cares for us and He protects from dangers. This being said, we also assume a clear limitation to this analogy. Namely, none of us will believe that God will, like a shepherd, fleece his sheep, or worse, kill them for lamb chops! I think, by now, you understand what I am getting at. When I speak of finding analogies that are shared by all humanity, what I am saying is that we should look for analogies or metaphors in foreign cultures, religions, and philosophies that parallel, or are similar to biblical teachings of the Gospel. This is because these same analogies are not only more plausible to our audiences, but, when used appropriately, can become excellent vehicles for sharing the Gospel.
iii) One of the best cross-cultural analogies developed by Christians is actually that found in the bible. In the opening chapter of John’s Gospel, the evangelist declared “in the beginning was the Word (Logos) and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God” (Jn 1:1). Now, when an unbelieving Greek heard the word, logos, what he would think of would be the idea of the logos as a word, speech or a message. The same Greek would also take the word as the rational principle that created all things! As you suspect, something very radical took place when John co-opted the word, logos, for his Gospel. What he did was this:
And, 1,800 years later, in China, when a group of translators decided to translate the same word, logos into Chinese, what word did they use? They used the Chinese word, Dao [道]? Why? Not because the Chinese notion of Dao contains the idea that the Dao actually became a human being in history. Rather, like the word logos, Dao was a good starting point, a helpful analogy, to begin with.
Similar to logos, Dao is regarded by the Chinese as that which is behind all creation and that which animates all things in heaven and earth. This matches up very well with the idea of logos and the Son as creator. It is on this basis then, that Dao was employed by the translators of the Chinese Union Bible (和合本) to denote not only the logos but also Jesus Christ, the Son of God Himself! And in so doing, the word, Dao was transformed quite radically and became a bridge for communicating the Gospel to the Chinese. So we have it: “in the beginning was the Dao. The Dao was with God and the Dao was God.” (John 1:1) 太初有道 道与神同在 道就是神.
b) The second principle drawn from the Incarnation is this: just as the Son of God saw it necessary to come in the flesh, with all its physicality, smells, and limitations, to reveal God to us, so must we remember that the Gospel is never communicated through mere words, or arguments, but through the whole of ourselves.
While this may be blatantly obvious to some, it is something that many of us (myself included) sometimes forget. Often, in an apologetic discussion, all we think about is to present our point of view, or to win the argument. But, what happens in the end? Half the time, we turn off our listeners. And even if he is convinced that our God exists, he will not be attracted to our God. Why? Because the listener will assume that Jesus is the same as us. All He cares about is winning the argument. He couldn’t care less about our feelings, our struggles, or our concerns!
Yet, as the Apostle Paul has reminded us in 2 Corinthians, we are actually Christ’s letters to the listeners, “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Cor. 3.3)
Two chapters later, Paul even speaks of Christians as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20). What he means is this: the ideas we convey, the way we say them, how we listen to the other, the love and care we show to our listeners (or the lack of them), all work together to testify to truth of Christ’s Gospel, and help our listener experience what the Good News means!
In short then, Christian apologetics is never a mere exchange of rational arguments, but always proclaiming the Good News through the WHOLE of our personalities and lives.
This problem is particularly serious for Asian cultures. Back in Canada and UK, where I did my theological studies, it is not uncommon for our western brothers and sisters to engage in heated debates but still conclude on friendly terms, chatting happily with one another over a cup of coffee after class. Not so for Singaporean or Asian cultures. For Asians, we still expect due respect from others, that they don’t shame us in the public, that they don’t confront us head on. Thus, whenever confrontations occur, you can be sure that there will be damage to our relationships, and that it will be much harder for the person to bring herself listen to us the next time. So, whenever we engage in an apologetic discussion, I suggest that we take a more dialogical stance: be willing to listen to the concerns of the other, try to understand him and to find points of agreement (rather than to say that the person is wrong!). Adopt a flanking strategy rather than a head-on debate. 3) Thus far, we have discussed the saving work of the Father and the Son, and their implications for Christian apologetics. What about the Holy Spirit then? What might the third person of the Trinity teach us about apologetics? It is this: To recognize, first of all, that the Holy Spirit is ever guiding and leading Adam, Abel, Abraham, Moses and so on, so that humanity may come to know God. To put it differently, even before the Church was formed, even before the first Christians proclaimed the Gospel, the Spirit of God has been working actively in Creation, among all civilizations, to reveal much of God’s truth to humanity. This is why we have people, like Job and Melchizedek, who despite being non- Israelites, or having little contact with Abraham and company, were still regarded as God-fearing people! Because they knew something about God, knew it correctly, and responded positively to it! What are the implications of this, of recognising that God’s Spirit is already at work among unbelievers before we speak to them?
iv) On a personal level, this should remind us to first listen carefully to the other’s concerns, to discern where the person is right now, so that we can grasp, if but in a limited way, the work that the Spirit has already began in her life. Years ago, I was on foreign exchange program in an East Asian university, where most of the students were atheists. During my many conversations with my new friends, I found it never easy, difficult in fact, to change their atheist bent. But not in the case of Joe. Joe stood out. Why? Because, when I first broached the subject of religion, he immediately concluded that the world could not have just evolved by itself. Rather, it must have been created by God. What was more astonishing [at least to me] was the fact that Joe had arrived at this all on his own, even before I spoke to him. Why? I believe it was because the Holy Spirit had already been working in his life, perhaps for years, preparing his heart so that he would believe in the Gospel, despite growing up in such an atheistic environment!
v) This brings me to my second point, which is doctrinal. Traditionally, Christian theologians have divided God’s revelation into two types: general or natural revelation, and special revelation. This distinction, I think, is helpful when it comes to thinking about how the Spirit reveals Himself to different civilizations.
a. Natural/ General Revelation:
Firstly, natural or general revelation. When we speak of God revealing Himself in general, or naturally, we mean that God speaks to humanity, first of all, through His work of creation – Nature, and human culture. The Bible seems to assume this on many occasions. Psalm 19 puts this positively by having the Psalmist declare that the “very heavens, that is, all of nature, proclaim the glory of God.” Romans 1:18-32 puts this in a more negative way, however, by declaring that all humanity not only knew the attributes of God but consciously suppressed or violate such knowledge. Now, I know that some apologists have often appealed to Romans 1 to conclude that all human knowledge of God, all human culture, are corrupted. There is nothing good there and so, we can only take a critical and negative stance towards human philosophy and religion. But, I beg to differ for two reasons.
b. Special Revelation
This being said, we cannot collapse all divine revelation to what Nature tells us. Scriptures also clearly teach that God has, in a very special and important way, revealed Himself to humanity, first through the life of Israel, and later through the Incarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ. More importantly, this revelation should also be the benchmark by which we understand all other forms of general revelations, religious or otherwise. It is for this reason that we need to uphold the distinction of Special Revelation.
vi) This does not, however, mean that there are no overlaps between general and special revelation. Rather, in order for the Gospel to make sense to the unbeliever, there must be an analogical parallel between what he knows (general revelation) and what Scripture proclaims (special revelation). Without which, there is no way he can understand the riches of Christ’s Gospel.
A good example is our earlier discussion on God’s Fatherhood. The key reason why God uses earthly Fatherhood as an analogy of His love must stem from the fact that there is much in our earthly fatherhood that is similar to what God desires for us, surely.
vii) This brings us to our next section. If the Spirit of God has been working actively in human history and culture, to drop hints of Himself and His character, so that humanity can recognize Him when the Gospel arrives, how do we identify the human analogies and metaphors that can bridge the gap between general and special revelation?
The Search for Plausible Cultural Analogies
This brings me to the Paul’s ministry in the Book of Acts. When the apostle evangelized to different people groups in Acts 13, 14 and 17, he clearly adopted different communication strategies. To the Jews worshipping in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13), he appealed entirely to the Jewish Scriptures (or our Old Testament). Why? Because these Scriptures carried weight, they had spiritual authority and were thus plausible (believable) to his Jewish audiences. But what did he do in Lystra one chapter later? When he met villagers who knew only about pagan deities, like Zeus and Hermes, he stopped quoting from Scripture. Rather, Paul appealed to the existence of an almighty Creator “who made the heaven and the earth and the seas.” (Acts 14:16). Why? Because this was an analogy plausible, understandable, to these villagers.
A similar strategy was adopted in Athens before the Areopagus. Here, we find a more sophisticated Paul. Again, there was no quotation from Scriptures.
Rather, the apostle decided to appeal to Greek philosophy and mythology by using the idea of the “unknown God” familiar to the Greeks. Why? Because these were what mattered, what carried weight, for the Athenians.
In other words, what Paul was doing on these three different occasions was to:
(1) Discern the cultural or religious analogies that were respected by, or were plausible to his audiences – this could be the Bible, mythology or philosophy, and
(2) To use them as bridges to help his listeners understand who God is.
Let me illustrate this idea of cultural plausibility with another example. Before I became a Christian, I was brought up in a polytheistic family. Regularly, my mother would bring me to temples for worship, burn talismans for me to drink and have me pray to a variety of deities for blessings.
Once, I even witnessed my maternal aunt, who was trained as a temple medium, enter a trance and speak as though a deity had possessed her. Brought up in such a background, you can be sure that I am more inclined to believe in the existence of gods and spirits, rather than to be a staunch atheist.
The former, that is, gods and spirits, are simply more plausible and believable to me than the non-existence of these beings.
This, however, is often not the case for many westerners without this polytheistic background. For them, the advent of science and technology means that atheism is simply a more plausible option than belief in gods; spirits or any other forms of hocus-pocus.
In other words, our cultural background, our upbringing, develops in us certain instincts about what is true and believable, and what is not. For some, it is perfectly obvious that the spiritual realm exists. For others, it is ridiculous to even entertain such ideas.
For this reason, it is so important for us to prayerfully listen to the other, to discern where she is spiritually, so that we can assess what is culturally plausible for her and identify the right analogies to communicate the Gospel, or to resolve whatever intellectual obstacles she may have.
By way of conclusion, let me summarise. I have proposed a Trinitarian foundation for Christian apologetics.
First, Christian apologetics should be motivated by the love of God the Father.
Second, Christian apologetics is informed by the Son’s Incarnation. By this we mean two things:
a) Christ by His incarnation demonstrates to us what true humanity is like. It affirms that we are hardwired in certain ways so that we will have similar desires and aspirations;
b) The Incarnation reminds us that the Gospel is communicated not just in words but through our entire self!
Third, Christian apologetics presumes the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was already at work before the Gospel was preached to the nations, helping people to know God even through aspects of general revelation.
For this reason, we can forge bridges between the Gospel and an indigenous culture by identifying local cultural analogies that can be used for apologetics. Such analogical bridges are important because they render the Gospel plausible to our listeners.
DR. LAI PAK WAH
Principal of BGST and Lecturer of Church History and Historical Theology.
A graduate from BGST himself (Grad Dip CS) and Regent College, Vancouver (MCS, ThM), Dr Lai completed his PhD at Durham University, where he specialised in Christianity in Late Antiquity, that is, the history, theology and spirituality of the 2nd – 5th C church fathers (Patristic Studies) with particular research on John Chrysostom. He has also published The Dao of Healing: Christian Perspectives on Chinese Medicine. Previously, Dr Lai was a full-time lecturer at the School of Business, Singapore Polytechnic, and engaged in investment promotion work with the Singapore Economic Development Board.