The modern American university campus is a product of three centuries of secular culture. The roots of that secular culture are found in the earliest attempts within the university to engage in what was thought to be a “safe” biblical criticism aimed at the first books of the Old Testament. Radical surgery on the Old Testament was soon performed within the university on the New Testament, and the untethered campus man concluded that he did not need any word from God to give him either morals (found so obviously in nature and her laws) or an explanation for the origin of the species. The Bible was dead. God was dead. Man was free and had in hand a self-diagnosis of perfect health. This brief moment of delusional peace came to a decisive end with World War I. Man was now dead, too.
Culture and university life went from a total optimism in man’s ability to create his own meaning and to save himself, to utter pessimism and a retreat into despair. Painting, music, and literature, unleashed from any concept of being entrusted with gifts from God, degenerated into narcissistic efforts to shock the conscience. Good or bad did not matter because it was all about accepting the mantra on the university campus that all views (save for biblical Christianity) are equally valuable. Rushing into the vacuum came Eastern religious positions like Buddhism and Hinduism, pointing out that Christianity in particular had kept man from discovering inner divinity and his essential oneness with the cosmos.
Christians on campus were defenseless against the inroads of Eastern and New Age religious positions. Why? Instead of proclaiming the faith once delivered to the saints and defending it with the factual arguments honed over the centuries by apologists from Cyprian to Chesterton, Christians defaulted from defending the Gospel to being the Gospel. The casualties on campus have been the loss of apologetics, evangelism, and the Gospel itself.
Ignore Apologetics on Campus and You Get a Defense-less Christianity
The word “apologetics” comes from the Greek text of I Peter 3:15– “be ready always to give a defense (apologia) for the hope that is within you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” Two broadsides are delivered from this passage.
First, apologetics, or defending the faith, is biblically commanded. It is not optional to give a reason for the hope that is within us, nor is it relegated to the pastoral office or to a special class of “intellectual” Christians with a university degree. Second, sharing you (whether it is your heart or your testimony) is not biblical, let alone apostolic, apologetics. Instead, we are to give reasons for believing in Jesus’ perfect life, atoning death, and resurrection from the dead, and are to persuasively present the evidence that demands a verdict. We can see how Paul brilliantly did this before Herod Agrippa in Acts 26:26-28.
Apologetics is about giving reasons. It is not, therefore, simply a form of philosophy, nor is it a species of systematic theology, nor is it simply a subset of preaching, as if defending the faith is something only pastors do!
Apologetics is not only biblically commanded, it has a long and noble history. There was even a so-called “Age of the Apologists” in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries that developed a Hall of Fame of defenders of the faith (Cyprian, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Augustine to name but a few). Today, there is an impressive pedigree of trial lawyers that have investigated the truth claims of Christianity and found them utterly compelling. The Canadian Institute (www.ciltpp.com) has the finest array of resources for the college student on the defense of the faith today.
There is something to learn from the fact that the most effective apologists in the last century were not trained in formal theology at all (C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien). One need not have a seminary education to be effective in the defense of the faith on the modern secular campus. In fact, an insulated theological education may end up impeding one in the apologetical task since theologians tend to maximize the assumptions that are to be accepted and minimize the evidence to be marshaled.
Lose Apologetics on Campus and You Get A Christ-less Christianity
We ignored apologetics on campus and lost what apologetics was defending. Well, what is it we are defending in apologetics? The Gospel, of course! Or, to be more specific, what C.S. Lewis of Oxford University called “Mere Christianity.” Think of the central propositions of the Apostles’ Creed, most especially that Jesus Christ, true God and man, died for the sins of the world and rose again to life.
But this is exactly where so many well-meaning Christians on campus miss the 3:10 train to Yuma. Because the Gospel is not the center and circumference of their theology (it is just one of many equally important doctrines), they end up with what is secondary in Scripture becoming primary while what is primary becomes secondary. Arguments are centered on, for example, what went on before time, or at the beginning of time, or what happens at the end of time. Speculation has the front seat, and facts get stuck in the back seat if they are there at all.
So apologetics is about the defense of the faith, and specifically of the Gospel. What then is the Gospel? Just this: Christ died for sinners and you qualify. The Gospel is all about what was done for you and in spite of you. We are the problem, not the solution. Any “apologetic” that is about your anything (except your sin) is decidedly not defending the Gospel.
In summary, when defending the faith in the dorm or in the classroom, every once in a while stop and ask: Is what I just talked about in the Apostles’ Creed or not? If not, a flare should go up that you are very likely headed in the wrong direction.
Christians on campus thought they could ignore apologetics with no harm to evangelism or the Gospel. Christians in the college square stopped contending, then stopped evangelizing, then stopped believing there was anything worth contending for or evangelizing about.
Defense-less Lutherans and Christ-less Liberals: A Campus Trainwreck
Our situation today on campus? A multiplicity of religious options are being presented, essentially all claiming to change one’s life, and none of them offer anything resembling persuasive factual evidence. The Christian at the modern university has the answers. In fact, offering evidence for belief is unique to Christian truth claims.1 Apologetics that focuses on the case for Christ is not antithetical to evangelism. In fact, such a defense of the faith is evangelism.
Instead of providing historical, scientific, and legal evidences on behalf of the Christian position, Christians on campus have jettisoned the apostolic admonition. Instead of learning the many convincing proofs referred to by Dr. Luke, they are way too busy learning the purpose-driven life while buying work out programs so that they can exercise like Jesus did.
Apologetics as Evangelism on Campus
It is not apologetics instead of evangelism. It is not apologetics versus evangelism. It is not apologetics without evangelism.
Apologetics on campus that centers on the authenticity and centrality of the death and resurrection of our Lord for the forgiveness of sins is apologetics as evangelism. It is the tool of apologetics that helps Christians to boldly give to others those reasons for the hope that is in them.
- 1* For a superb summary of those evidences, see John Warwick Montgomery’s Tractatus Logico-Theologicus, 4th ed. (Bonn: Culture & Science Publ., 2009, available through the Canadian Institute for Law, Theology, and Public Policy), esp. Proposition 3 (“Historical, jurisprudential, and scientific standards of evidence offer the touchstone for resolving the religious predicament by establishing the truth claims of Christian proclamation.”), pp. 65-128. See also, R.C. Sproul, Reasons to Believe (Dallas: Regal Books, 1978), which deals with the ten most common objections raised on campus by unbelievers.
Craig Parton is a trial lawyer and partner in a law firm in Santa Barbara, California. He is the author of three books on the defense of the Christian position and is the United States Director of the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism and Human Rights (www.apologeticsacademy.eu) which conducts its annual summer study sessions in Strasbourg, France. He can be reached at email@example.com.