Rebuilding Spiritual Truth in a Secular World
Apologia and Prolegomena
Wait! Don’t turn the page! These are strange words, I know. They sound like the latest and greatest organic superfoods. Eat a daily serving with your kale and quinoa, blueberries and Brussels sprouts and you’ll be good to go. Actually, they have nothing to do with maintaining a healthy diet, but everything to do with making a hearty defense of the truths we believe and hold from the Bible. Many have wondered if it is even necessary to defend the Bible. Nineteenth century British evangelist C. H. Spurgeon famously said, “There seems to me to have been twice as much done in some ages in defending the Bible as in expounding it, but if the whole of our strength shall henceforth go to the exposition and spreading of it, we may leave it pretty much to defend itself …. Open the door and let the lion out; he will take care of himself.” The point is well made, and taken. Surely, we do not want to get out of balance and forget the sheer, Spirit-imbued power inherent in the Scripture that validates its message. Yet, while our main priority is to “preach the Word,” there is an important secondary role, in more instances than we realize, to integrate a defense of the truth into our present-day preaching and witness.
Defining our terms
Apologia – Scholars tell us that originally, this word meant a verbal or written defense of one’s beliefs or actions and was used especially in a court setting. We get our words apology and apologetics from the Greek word which was directly transliterated into English. That may be unfortunate, as we immediately think of our modern definition of an apology, of saying we are sorry. However, in ancient culture, making an apology meant giving a formal answer or defense to a question or charge leveled against you. This is what Paul referred to in 2 Timothy 4:16: “At my first defense (apologia).” An example from ancient Greece might be that a farmer named Alexius is missing a cow and thinks his neighbor has it. Farmer Bakchos says the cow is his and won’t give it back. Farmer A files a complaint, so farmer B must go to court to give an apologia, a defense to the charge against him and a statement of what he claims is the truth.
In 399 BC, Socrates gave his famous “apology” before the court of Athens against charges of impiety against the pagan gods and corrupting the minds of the youth of the city. In the early centuries of the church, it began to be used in theological matters as it became necessary to formulate a reasoned defense for the cardinal doctrines and practices of Christianity that were being attacked, corrupted, and denied. We will look more at the history of apologetics later, but in essence, instead of just ignoring attacks, fleeing, or shouting back insults, an apologia provides a response in an intelligent, reasoned, and scriptural manner. As such, apologetics is the discipline of collecting evidence, framing the argument, and presenting a reasoned defense against attacks. It is also providing a rational basis for asserted truths or beliefs.
It is important to remember, in spiritual matters, that mere apologetics is not the gospel. It cannot convert the soul, but it can, for some, clear obstacles to faith. No amount of convincing, argumentation, or marshaling of evidence can change the heart, but it might correct misconceptions and prepare the way for the Holy Spirit to work in salvation.
Apologia, and related words, occur 18 times in the Bible. They were used primarily by Paul in giving his defense to legal and ethical charges against him for preaching the gospel. The most well-known use of the word was by Peter. ”But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer (apologian) to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1Peter 3:15). This key verse reminds us of an important task that is part of the dual responsibility we all have as believers to not only share the good news (what we believe), but also be ready to give answers (why we believe). We are called to declare and defend. It will not be in equal proportions, but sometimes we do forget the defense part completely. In this verse, Peter gives the fourfold sine qua non (the absolutely indispensable part) of a good apologia, namely: a moral enthronement of Christ in our heart, a personal readiness to respond in our words, an intellectual understanding of truth in our mind, and a spiritual display of humility and respect in our attitude. True, we do not all have the need or the ability to be skilled apologists in every doctrine, but we can all at least be ready to answer an inquirer’s question from our knowledge and experience of the Lord.
In the first centuries of Christianity this was no small issue for believers. For many, one’s beliefs were not just a matter for polite discussion over tea and a danish in a local café, or for debating back and forth online in a Christian forum. Believers were facing serious threats and persecution from family, friends, neighbors, and the authorities, for speaking about and living out their newly found faith. Indeed, the testimonies and apologia of some of these early saints are humbling to hear as, for many, it cost them all they had and, for some, even their lives. By the way, when was the last time somebody asked you or me about the hope that lies within us? If we are not showing any evidence in our lives that we are Christians, there likely will not be many questions.
Prolegomena. Having just learned this word myself, I include it at no extra charge. It is another transliterated Greek word that had the original sense of “to say before.” Paul used it three times in his letters (2Cor 13:2; Gal 5:21; 1Thes 3:4). It has come to mean the “prefatory remarks” for a treatise or book. You may want to use it in your next term paper or presentation and make it sound even more impressive. Basically, it introduces your subject, gives your methodology, and outlines what you hope to establish. While a prolegomena is primarily for long and learned works, it is a helpful word that reminds us of the overall importance of the believer’s task to not only know what we believe, but also to be able to state and defend it in an orderly way. This is vital, not just to win arguments, but to refute error and advance the truth of the gospel. In our prolegomena, Lord willing, we will continue by asking a few simple questions, establishing some historical background, and laying out a blueprint for building a step-by-step defense of ultimate truth from “ground zero to glory.”