I am sometimes asked to offer advice to up-and-coming young Christian apologists. As one who is of the younger generation myself (having just turned 25), and who has been active in the public apologetics arena from relatively young (from around 20 years of age) I have some experience to speak of when it comes to being a young defender of the Christian faith.
In this article, I want to address those who are young, perhaps in their late teens or 20’s, and who aspire to do public work in apologetics. In particular, I want to reflect on my observations over the past five years of involvement in apologetics and what lessons I have learned in the process — sometimes, unfortunately, the hard way.
Lesson 1: Be Careful How Early You Enter into the Public Arena
It’s perfectly natural that, when you have a new idea, you want to share it with the world. Over the last decade or so, there has been an explosion in the popularity of online blogging, which has given people the ability to spread ideas and information quickly. This has its obvious advantages, but it also has some significant risk factors and draw-backs, especially for young people. Among these is the fact that what you publish publicly on the internet is effectively public material forever.
Why might that be a risk-factor for young people? When you’re young, your views and ideas are still in the process of crystallising. Being less wedded to a given paradigm than those of the older generation means you are more likely to revise your position or change your mind on certain issues. I, for one, have seen an evolution in my own views and arguments over the past five years. Your arguments also become more refined and sophisticated over time as you learn from the experience of defending them and conversing with people who are better acquainted with a given field than you are. You also become increasingly better informed as you read more and more about a subject. Imagine the frustration, then, when someone Googles your name, and the first hit is to an article you wrote some four or five years ago, articulating views or argumentation which you would no longer defend. You may well have expressed your current views and better refined arguments elsewhere, but that is not necessarily the first thing people will see. Things you said years ago can come back to haunt you for years. So, exercise caution!
A second danger here is that some areas relating to apologetics present particular risk factor when seeking employment in certain professions. For example, in the academic environment in which we currently find ourselves, being overtly public about your views on biological design may land you in seriously hot water when it comes to building a career in that field. The modern formulation of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has become so entrenched in modern academia that people do not want to put their own careers in jeopardy by being associated with someone who has public affiliations to intelligent design. Similarly, as we have seen with increasing frequency, public criticism of same-sex marriage may land you in hot water in certain career paths.
My advice would thus be to give careful consideration to how early you enter into the public arena to express your views. Think about allowing them to crystallise first. Otherwise, a pseudonym or alias may be a relatively safe option.
Lesson 2: Never Cut Corners — Research Your Argument Thoroughly
This should go without saying, but you would be surprised at the number of people who do not take the time to hunt down a primary source, relying instead on what other people have said about that primary source. This is a very bad habit. When you read a quotation in a book that has been taken from another source, try to avoid using it unless you can trace it to the primary source. If the quotation has been lifted out of context, or has been misinterpreted by the author, you are just as culpable if you do not check it for yourself. Always be ready with primary sources to back up points you make in debate. In addition, read the relevant sections of primary sources carefully. You would be amazed at the number of people who think they are engaged in good scholarship by basing their interpretation of a scientific research paper on its abstract, or even (far worse) its title! Never proof-text a passage of which you aren’t familiar with the context. Exercise great concern for factual accuracy. As Christians, we believe that Christ is ultimate truth itself (John 14:6). We are thus committed to a very high standard of accuracy and fair representation.
You should also be acquainted with the responses that have already been offered to the argument you are making. If you are making a new argument that hasn’t been addressed before, try to anticipate possible objections. Even better, get someone who takes a different view to read and critique your argument before going public with it. Friends can also be invaluable in critically appraising your work before it goes public.
Work to understand your argument well. Don’t just parrot an argument that you heard somebody else make.
Lesson 3: Strive to Understand the View You Are Criticizing Better Than Its Best Defenders
You should always, at least in principle, strive to understand the view or argument you are criticizing better than its best defenders. There is nothing worse than an apologist who discredits the Gospel by making basic misrepresentations of a view, such as evolution or Islam, that could have been avoided with a little research. My advice here would be not to limit your reading to books that already agree with you. Be courageous and read books representing the other side of the debate as well. If you are critically appraising a religion, read that religion’s primary sources. Don’t get your information on Islam, for example, solely from Christian sources. Apart from being intellectually responsible, this also opens up doors and builds bridges to people of other worldview persuasions. My familiarity with the Qur’an and Hadith literature, for example, has opened up numerous opportunities to have dialogues with Muslims. People respect it when you can demonstrate that you have done your homework, and will be more inclined to listen to what you have to say.
Lesson 4: Be Honest About The Weaknesses of Your Position
An argument is rendered far more credible and respectable when the person articulating and defending the position is willing to honestly state the position’s weaknesses upfront. This allows the intended audience to objectively evaluate the pros and cons of your position and come to their own conclusion about where the balance of evidence lies. Unfortunately, this is something we need to see more of in apologetics. All propositional claims have their share of both strengths and weaknesses — yes, even Christianity. The evidence may well be (as I maintain that it is) overwhelmingly in favour of Christianity being true, but there are always facts on the other side of the balance as well, which are just as worthy of consideration. We are all susceptible at some level to the confirmation bias, and it is important that we take steps to minimize the impact of this bias on our public presentation of the arguments and evidence.
Lesson 5: Be Charitable
Always look for the most charitable way of reading your sources. Give the benefit of the doubt wherever possible. Show that you can responsibly critique a position or argument even when presented in its strongest possible form. If a critic makes a mistake, don’t immediately blast him for lying or having deceptive or malicious intent. More often than not, they just made a mistake. Point it out. If they admit their mistake, commend them for it. If, on the other hand, someone has had a mistake pointed out to them repeatedly, yet they persist in stating the falsehood, I would be inclined to be less charitable. A common example of this is when Muslim apologists confidently claim, over and over again like a mantra, that the canon of the New Testament was determined in A.D. 325 at the council of Nicaea, a fiction that has been exposed time and time again (see my article here for what really went on at Nicaea).
Related to this, one should always seek to engage with the most respected and capable defenders of a given position. Richard Dawkins and other members of the ‘New Atheist’ community have often been criticized for criticizing the worst representatives of Christianity, and avoiding the best possible opposition. This is not a trait that you want to emulate. There is a time, of course, for critiquing poor defenders of a position, particularly if they are popular, so that the vacuousness of their argumentation may be exposed. It is unfortunate that the most popular apologists for atheism also happen to be the least intellectually sophisticated (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins, A.C. Grayling). Since these men are popular, they ought to be responded to. But your engagement shouldn’t be limited to them. Likewise, so many Muslims listen to Zakir Naik and Ahmed Deedat that their arguments must be responded to, even if they are very unsophisticated. But try to engage Islam’s more reflective apologists, such as Shabir Ally, as well. To quote Proverbs 26:4-5, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”
Lesson 6: Be Consistent
The application of double standards is the surest sign of a failed argument. It is always important to be intellectually consistent. Don’t, for instance, use an argument against another religion which would work equally well against Christianity. Apply standards consistently!
Even more important, ensure that your style of living is consistent with the message you are proclaiming.Ignatius of Antioch, the second century church father and disciple of the Apostle John, in his epistle to the Ephesians (15), put it so well: “Indeed, it is better to keep quiet and be, than to make fluent professions and not be.”
Lesson 7: Be A Good Listener
Be prepared to listen carefully to people with whom you are conversing. Seek to understand where they are coming from. Don’t presume things about them based upon what you have read about their religion. Let them have their say whenever they wish to speak. Be wary of steam rollers, but be careful about not being one yourself. It is better to allow them to speak too much than too little. Respond to the position that they have articulated, not the position that you think they should adhere to. Try to keep them on point, however. If you’re debating about Scripture, ask them to stay within one passage and reach a verdict with you on that passage (or at least admit to not having thought it through before and ask for time to reflect on it) before moving on to another passage. I speak from experience when I say that this is particularly important in dialogues with Jehovah’s witnesses!
There is an additional reason why it is prudent to be a good listener. Just because you disagree with an individual does not mean that you have nothing to learn from them. Every individual has unique experience and ideas that you can learn from. Remain teachable, even from those with whom you vehemently disagree.
Lesson 8: Be Prepared to Admit Mistakes And When You Don’t Have An Answer
Everybody makes mistakes from time to time. When someone legitimately points out an error or mistake on your part, do not try to cover it up. Admit to it, noting that it was an honest mistake. If someone contends that you have erred and you are not convinced that they are right, promise to check your sources and get back to them on it. It takes a lot of grace and humility to admit the occasional error, but people will respect you for it, and you will have greater credibility. Just don’t make a habit of making mistakes!
It is also important to confess when you are unable to answer a question or challenge. Everybody’s knowledge is limited, and there is only so much you can have researched. There will come times, on occasion, when you are met with a challenge that you have never considered or encountered before. When that happens, do not attempt to ‘wing’ it. Instead, graciously admit that you haven’t yet encountered this point and promise to investigate it further.
Lesson 9: Never Repay Insult With Insult
Ad hominem attacks, which are by nature leveled against an individual rather than an argument, have unfortunately become common, especially online, where people feel safe behind the anonymity of the internet. One should never repay insult with insult, however. Set a good example for how intellectual discourse ought to be done. Show the world how Christians conduct themselves in argument and debate. To quote Ignatius of Antioch’s epistle to the Ephesians (10),
Meet their animosity with mildness, their high words with humility, and their abuse with your prayers. But stand firm against their errors, and if they grow violent, be gentle instead of wanting to pay them back in their own coin. Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers, and try to imitate the Lord by seeing which of us can put up with the most ill-usage or privation or contempt — so that in this way none of the devil’s noxious weeds may take root in you.
Did Christ retaliate against those that mocked and insulted Him? As 1 Peter 2:23 says, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” Follow the example of Polycarp of Smyrna. When the mounted policemen came to track him down and closed in on his whereabouts, he reportedly ordered at once that they be given all the food and drink they wanted. By doing this, to quote another Proverb, “you will heap burning coals on his head [i.e. make them feel guilty for the way they treated you] and the Lord will reward you.”
Lesson 10: Generally Don’t Be Confrontational In The University Setting
My advice for youths has always been to not draw attention to themselves by being confrontational with their professors in their place of study. Granted, there is sometimes a time and place for challenging professors, but these opportune and appropriate times are not common. The reason you should not be confrontational is that you do not want to come across as portraying yourself as a peer. In a professor-student relationship, this comes across as rather arrogant.
Lesson 11: Be Above Public Reproach
Personal integrity is so important, particularly for the Christian. Like it or not, as a public ambassador for the Christian faith, people are observing your life. Many of them are looking for things to find fault with. As a Christian apologist, there would be nothing worse than to have your reputation sullied by a momentary lapse in moral judgment. The life of the believer is the ultimate apologetic. If the way you live your life does not comport with the message you are proclaiming, people are going to think “This Christ has evidently not had much of an impact on his life? Why should I expect Christ to impact mine?” 2nd Clement 13:3-4 illustrates the point well:
For when outsiders hear the sayings of God from our mouths, they are astonished at their beauty and greatness. Then when they discover that our actions do not match our words, they turn from astonishment to blasphemy, saying that our faith is some kind of myth and error.
For on the one hand, they hear from us that God has said, “It is no great accomplishment for you to love those who love you; it is great if you love your enemies and those who hate you.” And when they hear these things, they are astonished by their extraordinary goodness. But then when they see that we fail to love not only those who hate us, but even those who love us, they ridicule us and the name is blasphemed.
As Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 10:16, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Lesson 12: Your Academic Studies Must Take Priority
It doesn’t matter how much you know. You are going to be very limited in what you can do as a public intellectual if you have no academic credentials to your name. Striking the right balance between academic study and other intellectual interests is hard, but the former must take priority.
If you adopt intelligent design (ID) theory as your view and this becomes known among the faculty in your department, this is of particular importance, since you are now an ambassador for this view. You don’t want to discredit the ID community by poor performance and you also don’t want to give any defensible justification to those who may want to penalize you for adopting such a view.
Lesson 13: Don’t Let Your Intellectual Endeavors Take Your Eyes Off Christ. Be Soaked in Scripture.
In his book The Doctrine of Repentance, the 17th century puritan Thomas Watson wrote,
Some bless themselves that they have a stock of knowledge, but what is knowledge good for without repentance? It is better to mortify one sin than to understand all mysteries. Impure speculatists do but resemble Satan transformed into an angel of light. Learning and a bad heart is like a fair face with a cancer in the breast. Knowledge without repentance will be but a torch to light men to hell.
It is of up-most importance that Christ form the cornerstone of everything that you do. Take care to maintain a healthy prayer life and meditate daily upon the word of God. Remember that we are not saved by our adherence to a body of doctrine, nor our ability to articulate and defend the Christian faith. Continuously examine yourself to see whether the beliefs of your intellect reflect the beliefs of your heart, manifested by your actions. Be sure that you are not one of the ones to whom Christ will say “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
The above are just a few of the principles that I have picked up through my own involvement in apologetics. Some of these I can relate to through my own experience. Others, I picked up from observing and learning from other people. If you commit to applying the above principles consistently, you cannot go far wrong.