Apologetics: Definition and Application


Surely in matters of trying to find a proper definition for the discipline of Apologetics a plethora of examples are available at hand for us to choose from. Alister McGrath in his recent autobiography entitled C.S. Lewis: A Life (2013) [1] defines Apologetics as the “business of identifying, understanding, and answering concerns and difficulties that ordinary people have about the Christian faith, and also demonstrating its power to explain things and satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart” [2]. This definition I find quite admirable since it is in line with the methodology of Lewis and exposes the rather “theologically practical” side of the apologetic endeavor.

In McGrath’s other works he simply defines apologetics as “the reasoned defense and justification of the Christian faith against critics” [3]. This definition is more interestingly a preliminary and textbook understanding of apologetics in its proper academic (as well as historical) context. The reason for this level of importance for apologetics being defined in this way is the historical significance of “reasoned defense” for the 2nd century struggling church. McGrath writes:

During the first period of Christian history, the church was often persecuted by the state. Its agenda was that of survival;there was limited room for theological disputes when they very existence of the Christian church could not be taken for granted. This observation helps us to understand why apologetics came to be of such importance to the early church, through writes such as Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165), concerned to explain and defend the beliefs and practices of Christianity to a hostile pagan public. [4]

The significance of apologetics historically was one of interesting character in the line of thought from St. Augustine (c. 354 – c. 430) to St. Anselm (1033-1109) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) where the need to systematize and expand Christian theology in the Middle Ages became a rather predominant matter among the Christian Scholastics. McGrath observes that the role of Christian theology at this point in time “led to a considered exploration of the role of reason in theology, a central and defining characteristic of scholasticism” [5].

Let’s try and explore further some other definitions of apologetics. One discussion of particular interest that we can make here is Cornelius Van Til’s famous Christian Apologetics (1976) [6]. This volume is a bit more tough to find an explicit definition of apologetics than what you can find from McGrath. Indeed, William Edgar gives an introduction to Van Til’s book by commenting that the book is “one of many syllabi that Van Til developed for his courses over a period of several years. It served as a basic text for his introductory course in apologetics” [7]. Edgar then finishes that “this book remains a course syllabus and is not intended to showcase particular literary merits” [8].

However, I do think we can scrape together a few elementary texts from the camp of Van Til’s thought. In his chapter entitled “The Problem of Method” (p. 123) Van Til identifies the basic principles associated with a “Reformed Apologetic”. He writes:

Our concern throughout is to indicate the nature of a truly Protestant, that is, a truly Reformed, apologetic. A Reformed method of apologetics must seek to vindicate the Reformed life-and-world view as Christianity come to its own. It has already become plain that this implies a refusal to grant that any area of reality, any fact or any law of nature or of history, can be correctly interpreted except it be seen in the light of the main doctrines of Christianity. [9]

Van Til then later goes on to finish in saying that the “Reformed apologist… For him the whole created reality, including therefore the fields of research with which the various sciences deal, reveals the same God of which Scripture speaks. The very essence of created reality is its revelational character” [10]. This understanding of Apologetics can best be otherwise stated as Presuppositionalism. As this tradition says, presuppositionalism took its definitive form in the thought of Van Til, but can be historically identified in the thought of St. Anselm’s famous credo: fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”) [11].

The line of reasoning associated with this method of apologetics is that we all have what are known as “presuppositions”. These can be defined as “the basic way an individual looks at life, his basic world view, the grid through which he sees the world” [12]. The manifestation of these presuppositions in apologetic form would be a person who “assumes the biblical revelation in all matters relating to conceptions of reality and logic…” In order “to demonstrate to the unregenerate, who is using irrational methods and distorted truth… that only biblical presuppositions provide the necessary means to make sense of the world and life” [13].

Though I will not go into an exhaustive manner of explaining presuppositionalism here (since we are not concerned with matters of method), in terms of defining the Van Tilian position we can find at least some merit in terms of defending the Christian worldview from an all-around perspective, regardless of the methods available (evidentialism, classical, etc.). Moving on in our discussion, we can examine some more elementary texts that have an important focus on the discipline of Apologetics itself.

R.C. Sproul in his interesting work entitled Defending Your Faith (2003), [14] in account of his ministry, says that “our work… is helping Christians know what they believe and why they believe it” [15] (emphasis mine). These two criterions in the discipline of apologetics boils down to an imperative matter of fortified faith for the contemporary Christian. Sproul goes on to say that “the task or science of Christian apologetics is primarily concerned with providing an intellectual defense of the truth claims of the faith” [16]. The implications of this statement will be seen more so in section II.

Mark Mittleberg in his essay An Apologetic for Apologetics [17] gives us a rather straightforward answer, that apologetics is simply a “reasoned defense of our faith” [18]. Surely we can go down the list of literature in terms of this rather simplistic definition of apologetics and come to a similar agreement. William Lane Craig simply defines apologetics as “making a case for the truth of the Christian faith” [19]. Francis J. Beckwith writes that apologetics is “responding to… challenges and offering reasons for one’s faith” [20]. Norman Geisler even more interestingly says that “Apologetics is simply to defend the faith, and thereby destroy arguments and every proud obstacle against the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 10:5). It is opening the door, clearing the rubble, and getting rid of the hurdles so that people can come to Christ” [21].

The next section then will deal with the important implications of apologetics that every Christian finds inescapable in his task of evangelism. Though I will be dealing with only one small part of apologetics, the discipline of philosophy is a discussion I would like to have in regards to its kinship with apologetics, theology, and Christian evangelism for tools of effective gospel-making connections with unbelievers.



In the first section we saw a number of selections from various literature in terms of obtaining some fundamental definition of apologetics. In short, we can side with Alister McGrath’s preliminary definition of apologetics as “the reasoned defense and justification of the Christian faith against critics”. Surely so far we have often spoke of apologetics in terms of an affirmative discussion (i.e., what apologetics is), however it is just as equally as important to have a negative discussion in respect to our topic as well (i.e. what apologetics is not).

John Montgomery in his essay Apologetics for the Twenty-first Century [22] discusses a four-fold nature of Apologetics that is helpful in understanding “the real needs of the unbeliever”. These are:

  • (1) Apologetics is not dogmatics.
  • (2) Apologetics is not philosophy.
  • (3) Apologetics is not preaching.
  • (4) Apologetics is always giving a reason for the hope.

In respect to (1), Montgomery writes that “whereas dogmatics begins with God’s special revelation of himself in the Holy Scripture and expounds its content, apologetics begins where the unbeliever” [23]. The importance of this point is that it recognizes the existential matters regarding “where we are”. Ronald Mayers writes, “As Creator, God is primary and logically prior to all our thoughts. There is a difference however, between logical priority and existential beginning. We are not God and thus must begin ‘where we are'” [24]. However in doing this, we are not suggesting that apologetics alters the “eternal message to fit the unbeliever’s situation or needs” [25].

The importance of point (1) is to embody what Greg E. Ganssle calls the “academic theme” of apologetics [26]. Ganssle writes, “The academic themes include the content of apologetics, whether we are thinking about the content of a 30-second answer to a question or about the broad outlines of an academic treatise. As we know from experience, a 30-second answer quickly generates more questions that, in turn, leads us into deeper and more complicated answers. Somewhere along the way, what begins as apologetics becomes philosophy of religion, historical criticism, biochemistry, or physics” [27].

Point (2) is interesting for our consideration. Montgomery writes that “Some learned conservatives make the deadly mistake of confusing apologetics with philosophy. How do they do this? They spend their energies discussing questions that have little or no bearing on the truth of the faith or relevance to the acceptance of it” [28]. In harmony with Ganssle, Montgomery observes that “apologetics employs every true fact and every true discipline in its behalf: history, science, jurisprudence, literature, art” [29]. Therefore, point (2) can be synced along nicely with our discussion back on (1) – that, apologetics can “leads us into deeper and more complicated answers” than what can be reduced merely to philosophy alone.



  • [1] Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis: A Life (Colorado Springs: Co, 2013)
  • [2] Ibid. pp. 200-201
  • [3] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Malden, MA: 2001) p. 8
  • [4] Ibid. p. 8
  • [5] Ibid. p. 49
  • [6] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics 2nd edn. (New Jersey: 2003)
  • [7] Ibid. p. 11
  • [8] Ibid. p. 11
  • [9] Ibid. p. 124
  • [10] Ibid. p. 125
  • [11] In speaking of Van Til, Edgar writes, “Within the discipline he was a reformer, spending much of his time challenging the prevailing schools and articulating the approach to apologetics that has become known as presuppositionalism. Though its distant roots are in the Anselmsian soubriquet, ‘faith seeking understanding,’ the more contemporary context is the Dutch and Presbyterian theologies of his immediate horizon” (Ibid. p. 3).
  • [12] Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (L’Abri 50th Anniversary edn., 2005) p. 19
  • [13] from H. Wayne House, Biblical Argument for Balanced Apologetics, in Norman Geisler’s Reasons for Faith (2007) p. 57
  • [14] R.C. Sproul, Defending Your Faith: An Introduction to Apologetics (Wheaton: Illinois, 2003)
  • [15] Ibid. p. 13
  • [16] Ibid. p. 13
  • [17] from Norman Geisler and Chad Meister, Reasons for Faith (Wheaton: Illinois, 2007)
  • [18] Ibid. p. 18
  • [19] W. L. Craig, On Guard (Colorado Springs: Co, 2010) p. 13
  • [20] W. L. Craig, J. P. Moreland and F. J. Beckwith eds., To Everyone Answer (Downers Grove: Illinois, 2004) p. 13
  • [21] Ibid. p. 9
  • [22] from Norman Geisler and Chad Meister, Reasons for Faith (Wheaton: Illinois, 2007)
  • [23] Ibid. p. 42
  • [24] R. Mayers, Evangelical Apologetics, in Michael Bauman, David W. Hall, and Robert C. Newman, eds. (Camp Hill, PA: 1996) p. 35
  • [25] J. Montgomery, in Norman Geisler and Chad Meister eds., Reasons for Faith (Wheaton: Illinois, 2007) p. 42
  • [26] W. L. Craig and Paul Copan eds., Come Let Us Reason (Nashville: Tennessee, 2012) p. 4
  • [27] Ibid. p. 4
  • [28] J. Montgomery in Norman Geisler and Chad Meister, Reasons for Faith (Wheaton: Illinois, 2007) p. 43
  • [29] Ibid. p. 43

2 responses to “Apologetics: Definition and Application

  1. Pingback: Question: Apologetics for a Young Beginner | Hellenistic Christendom·

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