As you know if you’ve been reading along, I’ve been attempting to persuade the Christian who reads this that the Bible expects us to be able to make a good case for what we believe as Christians. Most recently, I have been working on showing how the Bible models the use of apologetics; in The Biblical Model, Part 2, I described how Jesus used careful logic and philosophy to show the truth of His claims. Today in this post, I want to lay out for you the way Paul used and instructed the church in apologetics.
Let’s start in Philippians 1:16, in which Paul is writing to the church in Philippi. In this section of his letter, he is talking to them about his imprisonment, and how he is in this circumstance in order to provide “a defense of the gospel.” The word “defense” as used here is the Greek word apologia, which you will remember refers to making a case as in a court of law, and is where we get the word “apologetics”.
Since Paul considered himself a Christian case-maker, so let’s examine one example of his use of philosophy in making his case. As a Christian missionary, Paul concerned himself very much with proclaiming the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as actual events that took place. Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 15:17-20:
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
In this passage, Paul takes a big risk, putting his finger on an area where those who were hostile to Christianity could show it to be false. He hinges the entire belief system on the resurrection of Jesus: if He did not, in fact, come alive again after his death, Paul says that Christianity is a sham and that we as Christians are living a delusion. This sort of falsifiability clause strikes me as quite intellectually honest. If he was making this all up or otherwise knew this was false, there would be no reason for him to point out the way in which Christians, and Paul himself, could be shown to be fools. There certainly were plenty of people, then and now, eager to do just that. So by showing how to falsify Christianity, namely by producing the dead body of Christ, Paul provides another unique stamp on Christianity among religions, placing it in the realm of the empirical and historical, where it belongs.
The example above in 1 Corinthians is one specific example, but it isn’t the only one. Throughout the book of Acts, we have accounts of Paul reasoning and persuading wherever he went, finding common ground and building from what his audience accepted as authoritative. Several examples of this can be found all through Acts 17:
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” 4 And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. 5 But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. 6 And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, 7 and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”8 And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. 9 And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.
10 The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. 12 Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. 13 But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds.14 Then the brothers immediately sent Paul off on his way to the sea, but Silas and Timothy remained there. 15 Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and after receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed.
16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
This is quite a bit longer of a passage than I usually quote, but there are so many relevant things in this chapter that I want to draw your attention to, so I have bold faced the verses of note. To elaborate, notice in verse 2 how Paul reasoned from the Scriptures with the Jews. In verse 17, Paul is reported to have reasoned in the synagogue and in the marketplace, every day. And in verses 19-34, Paul reasons using the philosophical wisdom of the day among the assemblage of the wise in the Areopagus.
Paul’s method is the heart of cultural apologetics: knowing your discussion partner and what they consider to be authoritative, be it the scriptures, science, philosophy, or something else, and building on that foundation to show the truth of Christianity and the satisfying answers that Christianity offers.
Here is Paul’s description of the job of the Christian case-maker in 2 Corinthians 10:5 –
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.
How does one destroy arguments? Not through raised voices, brainwashing, or even hurling Bible verses, but through better arguments.
So, if the model of Christ and the apostle Paul isn’t enough to convince, in the next post I intend to point out the specific commands in the Bible instructing us as Christians to be case-makers.
Comments, questions, challenges? Email me through the form on my “about” page, we’ll discuss, and your comments may inspire a follow-up post!
(All Scripture in this post is from the ESV translation)