I apologize for my faith: how pathetic is that?

by Mark Buchanan


t’s a curious accident of language and history that the act of speaking on behalf of the Christian faith is labeled apologetics. Of course, the word has a noble pedigree, stemming from Greek law, harking back to Greek philosophy, firmly rooted in biblical witness: when the Apostle Paul “defended the gospel,” he literally apologized for it. The two major works of Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian theologian, are called The First Apology and The Second Apology.

It had a different ring back then. It evoked the noble combat of the law court, where first a prosecutor toted out a kategoria–a hard-hitting argument against–and then the defense lawyer rebutted with an apologia–a vigorous argument for. To apologize was a form of counter-attack. In fact, if we practiced in the 21st century what the word meant in the first century, our apologetics would come across as pompous, heavy-handed, and aggressive.

Today, when Christians defend their faith, they usually practice something milder, gentler, subtler—closer to, well, a modern day apology: “I’m sorry I believe this….”

Is there a middle ground? I think so. The principal apologia Paul had in mind was a life that embodies what we profess. Use words, yes. But the primary validation of those words is a life made new. That’s clear in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. There, Paul several times mentions his own and others’ defense—apologia—for the gospel. Or he uses a closely related word, contending—to fight together—for the gospel.

He never spells out what he means, not quite. Has he boned up on the latest book by Ravi Zacharias? Is he still using More than a Carpenter? Does he systematically, blow-for-blow, take on his critics and opponents? Paul was certainly capable of such apologetics, and we have several examples of his cleaning up the floor this way in the book of Acts.

But Paul had a quick mind, a lawyerly bent, a golden tongue. He was theologically trained and usually spoiling for a fight. He relished, so to speak, hand-to-hand combat, whereas most of us avoid it at all costs. When the guys at work or the golf course or the hockey change room start spouting about the brilliance of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, or running down Christians, or cussing to make the devil blush—most of us either clam up, or blow up. We stew in silence or become sarcastic and belligerent. But rarely are we eloquent.

Paul commends to the Philippians the attitude of Jesus. I think Paul was well aware that most Christians lacked the set of gifts and temperament that God had mixed and fused in him, so his call for others to apologize for the gospel takes more the form of instructing us how we live, not what we say. Thus, in Philippians 2, after commending the humble servanthood of Jesus as our model, he says: “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become pure and blameless, children of God without fault, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life” (Phil. 2:14-16;my emphasis).

Don’t complain. Don’t argue. (So he tells us what not to say). Be pure. Live as God’s child, without fault. Shine your light.

In that way, Paul says, we “hold out the word of life. ”Maybe we’re to “hold forth” that word as well. But holding forth carries little conviction if the other things lack. And if the other things abound, that will often be all the apology that’s needed.

Most people aren’t argued into the faith. They’re wooed. They’re drawn by love, joy, hope. They’re pulled to the light. Some combination of several Christ followers’ winsomeness and the Holy Spirit’s promptings land them up in the kingdom. In time, a good dose of apologetics will help them stay there, and press in. But few arrive by that trail.

In The Brothers Karamazov–Feodor Dostoevsky’s greatest novel–two of the brothers stand on opposite sides of the Christian faith. Alexei, or Alyosha, is a novice monk, deeply devout. Vanya, or Ivan, is a rationalist, fiercely atheistic. Ivan is brilliant, Alyosha simple. Ivan presses his attack against Alyosha’s faith with a venom that would, I think, embarrass Christopher Hitchens. His kategoria, his prosecution, is devastating.

Alyosha’s apologia? Humility, forgiveness, love. The Philippians 2 lifestyle. I think it was Philip Yancey who, comparing the two fictional characters, summed it up like this: Ivan’s arguments are hard to refute. Alyosha’s life is hard to forget. And in the end, it’s his life you want to emulate.

So come to think of it, I apologize for my faith.

Mark Buchanan is an associate professor of pastoral theology at Ambrose Seminary in Calgary and the author of several books including Your Church Is Too Safe: Turing the World Upside Down.