Apologetics Is Parasitic to Christian Proclamation
The following article is a piece by my good friend Jeremy Spainhour, a former M.A. Biblical Studies student at Asbury Seminary . He is a committed believer, a relationally involved youth pastor, and a solid thinker whom I respect immensely. As someone who does apologetics in some shape and form, I found this article extremely thought provoking and in need of some internal evaluation. My own views of apologetics, ever since starting Ratio Christi, have shifted drastically and have become much more nuanced than they were early on. Much of this has to do with what Spainhour calls “the perceived answers” and the fact that apologetics, often, has an ability to distance one from the faith rather than bring them towards it. I am not in agreement with all that is said (see my article Incarnational Apologetics), but I can say up front that I think he is largely correct in his general thesis (though, perhaps overstating it with the term ‘parasitic’). I will follow up in a week or so with a rejoinder, pointing out areas of agreement and disagreement. Nonetheless, what are your thoughts. Share them below!
1 Corinthians 2:1-5 “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with persuasive speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
Christians and nonchristians alike have sought to discover or verify the truth of the Christian faith by way of interrogation at least since Pilate’s question—What is truth?—to which Jesus responded with definitive silence. From the theological questions of Nicea to the existential questions of Heidelberg to the philosophical questions of Westminster to the ecclesiological questions of the Vatican to the cosmological and moral and historical questions of modern apologetics, the people of the world have sat with Pilate on the judgment seat to demand a word of truth from God in response to their questions. From its inception the perceived responses have formed and reformed the Church in a never ending dialectic–something like Hegel’s history–sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, sometimes inspired, sometimes not.
The problem is not the questions or the answers, per se; the problem is that the Church’s understanding of proclamation often finds its grounding in the perceived answers. This is never-ending dialectic may be necessary for Christian theology, but it is a never-ending threat to Christian proclamation, because Christian theology is always tempted to shove aside the Christian kerygma, such that the only time we hear the its words–Christ crucified; Christ is risen; Jesus is Lord–are in the context of a description rather than address. We might speak about the death and resurrection of Christ to the arbiter of midair or the microphone of a public forum in such a way that anyone so persuaded might reach up and claim these words for themselves, but they will claim them as the people’s word about God, not God’s Word to the people. The effect is that our descriptions, whether creeds, catechisms or cosmology, replace our prophetic role to bring “You!” and “God!” into the same space. We may come to believe in David’s God, but we will not hear David’s God say to us what he said to David, “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7).
My concern is not with apologetics as a specialized field, but with the fact that apologetics is no longer a specialized field, that it is becoming the normative form of our talk about God. The foreign language of the academy is becoming the colloquial language of the laity. That the truths of the historic Christian faith are under attack in our culture is as obvious as is unobvious our willingness to allow those truths to set us apart from the culture attacking them. The threat of this attack has sent our people into frenzy with Church’s running apologetics workshops and authors pumping out apologetics-for-dummies books and study Bibles to make sure everyone is armed and ready to defend their Gospel, which is apparently under great threat (e.g., Apologetics Study Bible; The Truth Project; Case for Faith for Kids; Fact or Fantasy: A Study in Christian Apologetics for Children; Evidence for Faith 101: Understanding Apologetics in Plain Language). The Church sees itself in valor trying to guard its treasured faith. The world sees the Church in panic trying to hide its anxious doubt.
Apologetics, for good or for ill, finds itself in an awkward situation, seeking to be both set apart and welcomed in. It needs to be distinct in conclusion but indistinct in method, to score a touchdown by rounding the bases. It seeks to become the beloved black sheep of the scholar’s pasture. And perhaps such a sheep needs to be sent to such a pasture to explain its odd color in a foreign language, but what is not needed the entire flock frantically attempting or pathetically pretending to understand the language by memorizing a few truncated syllogisms immune to anything but scrutiny. The rest of the black sheep who insist on speaking this foreign language, despite their glaring incompetence, only reveal their desire to be white sheep. They appear to be more loyal to the methods of the whites than the conclusion of the blacks, such that they speak of their conclusion as though it hangs in the contingency of these methods. Whatever trajectory the question of the skeptic points, the apologists can show that all questions point to God, thereby validating not only their own conclusions of truth but also, inadvertently or not, the skeptic’s path to truth. But the end of the skeptic’s path will either lead you to a very small god or to insanity. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, the witness only tries to get his head in heavens for a glimpse of the truth, but the skeptic tries to get the heavens into his head to understand the whole truth, and when he does, his head splits. Indeed, Christ has called us his witnesses, not his defenders.
The language of apologetics has to begin on the defensive. It only speaks when spoken to. It exists under the lordship of culture, never having the freedom to proclaim, “Jesus is Lord!” to all and sundry, only the provision to make a case for faith to those who ask. This is why Christian apologetics can never be Christian proclamation. Proclamation is address and can only be spoken by the mouths of witnesses. There may be proofs for the existence of God, but, as Abraham Heschel has remarked, “There are no proofs for the existence of the God of Abraham. There are only witnesses.” Anyone can make an argument for God, but only those who have heard the Word of God—Jesus Christ—from the Word of God–from Jesus Christ–can say, “Thus saith the Lord!” Witnesses must speak of God as though he has spoken to them. “Christ crucified,” for example, Paul’s distilled words of foolishness to the sophisticated people of Corinth, are couched in proofs of the historical Jesus in the wise words of apologists. So with much effort in the quests for and the seminars of the historical Jesus, most now agree that a man named so named walked the streets in the first century Palestine and ended up on a cross outside Jerusalem. Apologists seek to get scholars to go just one more step. So the historical arguments for the resurrection begin. Something has to account for the rapid expansion of the Christian religion despite the unlikely circumstances of this otherwise failed messiah. How else could one explain the empty tomb, the women as first eyewitnesses, the disciples’ newfound courage, the crowds who witnessed his appearing? And so the arguments go, being held up like links that only need to be yoked together on the causal chain of history. The goal is to make the resurrection of Jesus the best explanation of the phenomena. Whether or not the goal is reached, the result is always the same—the truth of God is moved obediently along the chain, in the way men have always moved their subjects along their chains, so that God and God’s ways become necessary, expected, and somewhat prosaic. They speak as though via negativa had to lead to Via Dolorosa, no matter the god, no matter the universe.
So the resurrection is proven with historical proofs and thereby buried in a tomb of history. People come to believe in the persuasive words of eloquent speech and frankly need not encounter the Spirit’s power. The proclamation of the Church moves out of the category of witness and into the category of argument. We need not rely on the Spirit to convict as long as we have the ability to persuade. All the world will believe in the necessity of God, even the Christian God revealed in salvation history, and as such everyone will forget how unnecessary were his saving acts. We will forget the foolishness that is the Gospel—that the Lord of Life, in infinite freedom, became smaller than all, slave of all, to subject himself to the great contradiction of a Creator’s defeat, the death of Eternal Life. There may be something rational about God creating life, but there surely is nothing rational about life uncreating God. This can never be viewed as the expected wisdom of God, as though that is just what a god should do. It should always maintain a firm grasp on foolishness. It must not first be expected, explained, or argued, but only beheld, treasured, and humbly proclaimed as something too high for us, something that, if true, has a claim on all those who speak of it and those who hear it. That claim cannot be received in the form of an answer to a question or a response to an argument, but only an address, as proclamation. In Karl Barth’s words, “The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths…It does not require representatives with a sense of responsibility, for it is as responsible for those who proclaim it as it is for those to whom it is proclaimed. It is the advocate of both…God does not need us. Indeed, if He were not God, He would be ashamed of us. We, at any rate, cannot be ashamed of Him.” The Gospel will offend or enrapture. It is the supreme work of art that only requires all of our love or all of our hatred. It is the image of God in all his beauty and the image of Man in all his gore brought into focus at one three-day intersection of history with one multidimensional declaration that defines all history, all truth, all goodness, all beauty—Christ crucified, risen Lord.
The elemental kerygma for Paul had at its nucleus one event that, in its most distilled form, can be stated as three historic facts (two past, one future) which verified one universal fact: (1) Christ was crucified; (2) God raised him from the dead; (3) Christ will return in judgment; thus, Jesus is Lord. These statements were the starting point for Paul’s proclamation. Even when he was saying something else he was doing so because of and in light Christ’s lordship as such. Paul proclaimed these facts as though they were as concrete and intrusive and unacommodating as Mount Everest, as though the indicatives of lordship carried with them the imperatives of the Lord, so that believing what Paul said was as stark and life altering as discovering Nepal on the way to China by arriving at the base of the biggest mountain in the world. Apologetics, on the other hand, seeks to make a model of the mountain so that it not seem so intrusive to the human will, not so massive and objective–so other–that it is unable to accomodate for the size of the human brain. No one walks away from an apologetics conference saying, “Here am I!”, at least not in the way Isaiah said it, because apologetics can only speak of the historic facts of the faith, not the universal facts. Not a skeptic on this earth has asked, “Who is my Lord and when is he coming again?” So Christian apologetics must remain mute of Christian imperatives. Besides, the only evidence of Christ’s lordship [and thus his return] is the goodness of the Church, a proof that cannot fit into a prideful mouth.
The elephant in the room of every Christian-nonchristian debate is that Christians have not only been asked to affirm an apparent contradiction, but we have been asked to base the universe on that contradiction. God was not oblivious to this design. He set it up so that the contradiction would have to run its course before it can do the work of drawing people back in. We must first look away only to realize we cannot look away. We must be repulsed by his death only to be seduced by it. We must see who God is in Christ, so that we can see decisively who God is not in us. We must first see the infinitive qualitative distinction of Christ crucified in order to see the infinite qualitative beauty of Christ crucified. We must behold the One lifted up as we behold the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as an unattainable spectacle of impossible grandeur, as something that is kept from our reach but given to our eyes, as something so absolutely alien but somehow so absolutely at home. We must learn not only to handle the truth of God, to follow the goodness of God, but, perhaps at the very center of it all, to behold the beauty of God. But we cannot run to the academy for proofs of God’s beauty, because, in Von Balthasar’s words, “Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another.”
If the Church’s concern is not only to proclaim the Gospel to the world, but that the world embrace its Gospel, we must avail ourselves of more than a defense of scientific/historic truths and philosophical and even lived goodness. We must point away from ourselves into the infinite and declare a deep mystery. We must build into our understanding of proclamation a gap, so that we never assume a direct correlation between what we say and how people respond, so that we never assume that our words are enough. Let the reader reflect on his or her own coming to faith. Was it a judgment of what is true? Was a judgment of what is good? Or was it something beautiful beyond words? Is it easy to describe why you believe, like it is easy to describe a mathematic formula? Or do you, if you are honest, find yourself at a loss for words, as though someone had asked you to explain why you stop to look out to the horizon at sunset or up to the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel? How could you explain that? “Well, it’s the lines and the colors and the shades and…I don’t know! It’s just beautiful! Can’t you see?” The irony of true Christian proclamation is that for all our accurate, objective descriptions of God, unless there is a subjective encounter with his Spirit, faith fails to transcend the human ego. God-as-conclusion-to-argument needs no referent outside human thought. The words of the Church never become the living Word of God until they are heard as an address from God himself.
Apologetics can stick around for Christians who are curious to know if the foolishness of God has some points of contact with the wisdom of men. And perhaps for the nonchristian the apologist can show that there are links that point to heaven, even some that reach much higher than the nonchristian ever imagined. But he must never do so without pointing to the gap. He must always concede that his highest link on the chain of reason is like the distance between the highest title wave and the moon. But then, for all lack of appearances, and in an act of self-humiliation, he must proclaim that there was a day that the moon came down and drown itself in the sea, only to return three days hence to rule the night sky. He should not expect that he can prove this actually happened. He should not pretend it is not a foolish story. More foolish still, he must concede that he was not even there when it happened, and yet proclaim it as though he witnessed it himself, because he did witness it himself. It is such an absurd story indeed that when one does believe it, it will be nothing short of a miracle, and his faith will not rest in the wisdom of men but this miracle of God (cf. 1 Cor. 1-2). He will only believe it because he cannot get the vision of it out of his head, because it is in his head in a way unlike any other fleeting idea or fact or truth is in his head. It is in his head not like people are in an airport but like busyness is in an airport. He will only believe because he cannot help but believe it, because it has taken up residence in his mind, wrapped its roots around his heart, and sprouted hope in his eyes. It will change the way he sees everything, and this new vision will seem so necessary, so beautiful, that he will want others to see as he sees, not because it makes him feel so large and in control, but precisely because it makes him feel so small and out of control; precisely because it has restored for him a vision of the wonder and mystery that he had as a child tromping around in an infinitely large and wonderful world; precisely because he has again become a child. So he will tell others, not as a man with a unified theory of the universe, but as a child pointing aimlessly into the night sky. He will begin by conceding the great gap between the end of his finger and the beginning of the moon, and continue by declaring what he saw, all the while praying a naïve prayer, as naïve as a child’s birthday wish, that the moon would once again descend from the heavens and land in the abyss of another’s heart.
The gap of Christian proclamation is the ether through which God travels in an atmosphere of otherwise eclipsed and clouded by godless, human wisdom. It is the only place where a person will see the “demonstration of the Spirit’s power,” so attending to the gap is the only way the Church’s words will ever become God’s Word. Truth and goodness are two of the pillars holding up a triune proclamation, a proclamation that falls into description if it tries to stand on two legs. If we lose the beauty of the gap, we lose the vision of the God who arrests our affections, awakens our adoration, and fills in the dark, static, corners of our faith with the living, warming radiance of his glory, which is the aspect of God we understand the least but compels us the most. It is the aspect of God that the Church has largely exchanged for Enlightenment.
The following excerpt is from a letter that Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote to Natalia Fonvizina, who had given him a copy of the New Testament before he would spend four years in chains. In it is perhaps the truest expression of what faith in the gap looks like. My hope and prayer for the Church of Jesus Christ today is that no matter how well we are able to articulate the Christian faith to the satisfaction of our own skepticism and that of others, we will at the end of the day, as we watch the sun set, be more readily able to confess that the gap between our articulation and the beginning of God is an infinitely beautiful gap, a gap that only God can cross, and that crossed he has, cross he does, and cross he will again. Indeed: Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!
“I shall tell you that at such a time one thirsts for faith as ‘the withered grass’ thirsts for water, and one actually finds it, because in misfortune the truth shines through. I can tell you about myself that I am a child of this century, a child of doubt and disbelief, I have always been and shall ever be (that I know), until they close the lid of my coffin. What terrible torment this thirst to believe has cost me and is still costing me, and the stronger it becomes in my soul, the stronger are the arguments against it. And, despite all this, God sends me moments of great tranquility, moments during which I love and find I am loved by others; and it was during such a moment that I formed within myself a symbol of faith in which all is clear and sacred for me. This symbol is very simple, and here is what it is: to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous, and more perfect than Christ, and not only is there not, but I tell myself with jealous love that there cannot be. Even if someone were to prove to me that the truth lay outside Christ, I should choose to remain with Christ than with the truth.”