The term apologetics has its origin in the Greek word apologia meaning “a reply.” Apologetics as a special science was born out of a combination of a divine mandate and the pressing need to respond to false charges leveled against the early church. God requires that we be prepared to give a “reason for the hope that is within us” (1 Peter 3:15). In this regard the apologist echoes the work of the apostles who did not ask people to respond to Christ in blind faith. The apostolic testimony to Christ was buttressed both by rational argument and empirical evidence.
The early church apologists, such as Justin Martyr, gave “replies” (usually addressed to the Roman emperor) to clarify and defend the faith against false charges. It was reported, for example, that the emerging sect of Christians was seditious, irrational, and cannibalistic (meeting in secret to eat somebody’s body and blood). Justin replied by clarifying the Christian position on civil obedience, philosophy, and the Lord’s Supper.
At first the stress on apologetics was defensive. It replied to objections and misrepresentations used against Christian truth claims. Later it developed into a more pro-active science in seeking to develop a full-orbed Christian philosophy in which the truth claims of Christianity were set forth in a reasoned intellectual system of thought.
Reformed theology has a firm conviction that only God can convert the sinner. No amount of rational argument, cogent evidence, or forceful persuasion can change the heart of the unbeliever unless that sinner is first regenerated by God the Holy Spirit. Armed with this conviction some in the Reformed camp conclude that rational apologetics is either an exercise in futility or positively harmful.
As one thoroughly convinced of Reformed theology, I am in total agreement with the thesis that apologetics alone cannot convert the sinner. But I do not further conclude that apologetics is therefore unnecessary. There are several vital tasks left for apologetics to perform.
(1) Pre-evangelism. In defining the essence of saving faith the Reformers distinguished among three elements: (a) content of data of faith (notitia); (b) objective truth of the content (assensus); (c) personal trust or reliance on the truth (fiducia). The third, fiducia, can only be wrought by the operation of the Holy Spirit via regeneration. The first two are assisted by apologetics. The heart cannot trust what the mind does not affirm. There can be assent (assensus) without trust (fiducia) but not trust (fiducia) without assent (assensus). (For a further explanation of this, see Apologetics and Faith)
(2) Restrain evil. Calvin argued that one value of apologetics was to “stop the mouths of the obstreperous.” Here apologetics, though not able to convert the infidel, can restrain the unbeliever from unbridled assault against the faith.
(3) Support believers. Converted Christians can become so easily intimidated by intellectual critique that they lose their boldness to proclaim the Gospel. They are also vulnerable to being assailed by doubts.
(4) Commonplace benefits. There is benefit to culture derived when Christianity enjoys a status of intellectual credibility. When the faith is relegated to a reservation of personal religion or piety based solely on sentiment, it has difficulty informing the institutions that shape culture. Where Christian truth is established with credibility, it has a salutary effect on culture.
The apologetic task is difficult, complex, and never-ending. Yet it is the mandate of God to us. The responsibility is ours; its success is God’s.
— R. C. Sproul, excerpt taken from Tabletalk magazine, July 1991