A faculty address is given only once in a lifetime of academic research, and it becomes part of the institution’s permanent record of a professor’s scholarship. I had the privilege of delivering my faculty address “Brothers and Sisters, We Are All Apologists Now” in Broadus Chapel on Wednesday, February 1, 2023. This address is my assessment of the current state of apologetics and my vision for one possible pathway into the future.
Two texts which I did not explicitly cite nevertheless deeply influenced my address: “De Descriptione Temporum” by C.S. Lewis and a forthcoming book by Joshua Chatraw and Mark Allen entitled The Augustine Way. I acknowledge the influence of both works, and I commend them to you. I also was made aware after having given the address that the clause “we are all apologists now” also appears in Fools’ Talk by Os Guinness; I read this book in 2016 and, though I did not intentionally draw from that book, I suspect that I owe an inadvertent debt to Os Guinness for this phrase.
A Description of the Times
Apologetics is no longer a task that’s limited to biblical scholars and theologians. In some sense, it never was—or at least it shouldn’t have been—but the scope of apologetics has necessarily expanded. Cultural and societal changes have turned apologetics into an unavoidable consequence of living publicly as a Christian. Pursuing a Christian way of life will inevitably require providing a defense of this way of being in the world, not merely for apologists but for all of us.
This is not to suggest that Christianity has only recently become counter-cultural. Authentic Christian faith has always pressed against prevailing cultures, even when the people in those cultures have considered themselves to be Christians. The point is that, for centuries, faithfulness to a Christian way of life was widely assumed to contribute positively to the social order in Western contexts. Even when the truthfulness of Christianity was questioned and the demands of Christianity were rejected, the positive impact of Christianity was broadly assumed. This assumption has taken a variety of forms over the centuries. In the Middle Ages, “the social bond … was,” in the words of Charles Taylor, “intertwined in the sacred, and indeed, it was unimaginable otherwise.” At the dawn of modernity, Christian piety was perceived increasingly as a means of promoting civility. And yet, even as the precise nature of the perceived utility of Christian faith changed, Christianity was still assumed to be good for the world.
Apologetics When the Goodness of Christianity Is Assumed
As long as the goodness of Christianity was assumed, it was conceivable for Christian apologists to restrict the scope of their work to defending beliefs that seemed unbelievable to unbelievers. Thus, many early modern apologists focused on defending the reality of the resurrection or the truth of Scripture by building a case for Christianity’s most miraculous claims from historical and scientific evidences. With the modern proliferation of worldviews in which theistic first principles were no longer perceived as necessary, apologists recognized the need not only to defend these miracles but also to contend for metaphysics that allow for a Christian view of the world. Even then, these apologists only rarely saw a need to defend the goodness of Christianity for the social order.
Today, however, it can no longer be assumed that Christian morality is understood to be good for the world. The public practice of Christian ethics is increasingly perceived as incompatible with human dignity and flourishing. This change has been underway for generations, but the precise stakes of this change have become more clear in recent years.
What Happens When Christianity Is No Longer Considered Good
In 2019, for example, British medical doctor David Mackereth lost his job for declining to use pronouns that conflicted with an individual’s birth gender. When he appealed to a tribunal, Mackereth lost his case because—in the words of the tribunal—the general practitioner’s “belief in Genesis 1:27, lack of belief in transgenderism[,] and conscientious objection to transgenderism … are incompatible with human dignity.” Such convictions—the tribunal continued—“conflict with the fundamental rights of others.” The irony of the claim that “belief in Genesis 1:27” stands in opposition to “human dignity” and “fundamental rights” is, of course, that the commitment of Western jurisprudence to human dignity and universal rights originates in a long tradition that traces back to Genesis 1:27. Describing a belief in Genesis 1:27 as “incompatible with human dignity” is like attempting to withdraw funds from a bank while simultaneously refusing to admit that the bank exists. It is akin, in the words of one author, “to insisting that seeds are incompatible with flowers, or grain with bread.”
What is clear in this instance and many others is that the public practice of Christianity is no longer presumed to be good for the social order. To pursue a Christian way of life is—based on the assumptions undergirding this decision—to stigmatize innocent people and to stand in opposition to human dignity.
This change has profound implications for apologetics. Broadly speaking, one might say that the necessary scope of modern apologetics has extended from miracles to metaphysics to morality—and this change is not limited to courtrooms, classrooms, and boardrooms. I recently glimpsed it firsthand when I stepped into student ministry for a few months and encountered a different set of doubts than I had ever faced before.
The Doubt and the Dilemma that I Never Envisioned
I first worked with middle school and high school students nearly three decades ago, when Britney Spears was still new, Keanu Reeves had never plugged in to The Matrix, and George Lucas had not yet inflicted Jar Jar Binks on millions of unsuspecting fans. During those years, students didn’t typically struggle with their faith until the first year or two of college. When they did doubt their faith, the questions they asked had to do with the truthfulness of Scripture or the plausibility of miracles, and their perceived alternative to Christian faith was agnosticism or atheism. These students did not always pursue a Christian way of life, but they and their parents assumed that Christian ethics were good for them and that Christian faith makes the world a better place.
In 2019, I returned to student and family ministry for a few months in a temporary role, and I discovered a very different set of challenges and doubts. Doubts about Christian morals now preceded any questions about Christian miracles. One young woman in particular confessed that she found the historical evidence for the resurrection to be compelling. Yet she was willing to reject Christianity and the Bible if the Christian faith could not accommodate her conception of herself as bisexual and perhaps transgender. In her mind, for Christians to withhold affirmation of her self-conception was to disregard her dignity and to devalue her psychological well-being. According to her analytic attitude, evidence for the Christian faith was irrelevant unless the Christian faith could be conformed to her perception of what is good.
This is a dilemma I never envisioned in the 1990s—an acceptance of the evidence for the central miracle of the Christian faith coupled with a rejection of this same faith on the basis of its perceived immorality. Her simultaneous reception of the rational argument and her rejection of the moral requirements of Christianity suggested that her objections to the Christian faith were emotivist and pre-rational in nature. For her and many others like her, moral doubts about Christianity have taken precedence over challenges related to miracles or metaphysics.
When the Goodness of Christianity Is in Question, All of Us Are Apologists
As long as apologetics remained in this realm of miracles and metaphysics, it might have been conceivable—though perhaps not desirable—for apologetics to remain the domain of trained experts who argued for rationality and provided evidences based on their areas of expertise. However, when it becomes necessary to contend for the social good of publicly practicing Christian faith, no Christian can be exempted from defending the way of life that they are pursuing.
Brothers and sisters, we are all apologists now.
The question is not whether we will do apologetics; it is whether or not we will do apologetics well. When the very morality of Christianity is in question, we and every one of our students—regardless of their vocation—will be called to defend why they are pursuing their calling in a manner that is marked by their faith. Whether we are training students to launch businesses or teach the Bible, to counsel in the church or oversee corporate communications, to work in public education or write a commentary, to run for political office or lead a student ministry, apologetics must have a place in what we teach.
Furthermore, the primary mode of this apologetic must move beyond merely appealing to evidence for the reality of miracles and the reliability of Scripture. Evidences from science and history have their place, to be sure, but they are not the place where the challenges will begin. Neither will it be sufficient for our apologetics only to point out the flawed presuppositions of secular worldviews and the superior epistemology that begins with the Triune God. This approach also has its place. And yet, when doubts and suspicions are pre-rational, effective defenses of Christianity are more likely to begin with narratives and ethics repeated in community—but where can contemporary Christians locate an approach to apologetics that is fitted for a context in which the social good of Christianity is in doubt?
We Have Been Here Before
At this point, it is helpful to recall that the early twenty-first century is far from the first time that Christians have faced the charge that their faith is immoral. In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman rightly recognizes the second century A.D. as one possible precedent for this present era in which the very goodness of Christianity for the social order must be defended.
In the second century, the church was a marginal sect within a dominant, pluralistic society. She was under suspicion not because her central dogmas were supernatural but rather because she appeared subversive in claiming Jesus as King and was viewed as immoral in her talk of eating and drinking human flesh and blood and expressing incestuous-sounding love between brothers and sisters.
Pursuing a Christian way of life required second-century Christian apologists to provide a defense of their very way of being in the world. Nevertheless, Christianity flourished
by existing as a close-knit, doctrinally bounded community that required her members to act consistently with their faith and to be good citizens of the earthly city as far as good citizenship was compatible with faithfulness to Christ.
Trueman does not detail precisely how the habits of the second-century church might shape cultural engagement and apologetics today. That is what I would like to do in the remainder of this address. My goal is to consider what such an apologetic might look like in practice, recognizing particularly the ways in which what we see in the second century might inform what we do in our churches and in our classrooms in the twenty-first century. The writings of second-century apologists will provide the framework for this discussion, with a particular focus on a work that I have spent much of the past year studying, the Apology of the second-century Christian philosopher Aristides of Athens.
How the Apologists of the Second Century Might Inform Apologists and Apologetics Today
The original Apology of Aristides seems to have been written in the early or mid-second century. Little is known about Aristides himself beyond what Eusebius of Caesarea preserves, that the author was “a believer earnestly devoted to our religion” who addressed an apology to Emperor Hadrian. This placement of the apology in Hadrian’s reign may represent a misunderstanding of the text that was known to Eusebius, but Eusebius is undoubtedly correct that the text belongs to the second century. Jerome adds the further detail that Aristides was “a most eloquent Athenian philosopher” who retained his philosopher’s garb after becoming a follower of Jesus.
This earnestly-devoted Athenian philosopher begins his Apology by appealing to the beauty of the created order. According to Aristides, the beauty and orderly motion of the cosmos require a deity who is “immortal, perfect, incomprehensible,” and self-existent. “He stands in need of nothing,” Aristides declares, “but all things stand in need of him.” After this declaration of the necessary nature of the divine, Aristides turns to the implicit concerns that drive his defense of Christianity: Which of the four types of people in the world—barbarians, Greeks, Jews, or Christians—is devoted to a deity that meets these necessary qualifications? And what way of life does each type of devotion produce?From the perspective of Aristides, because human beings imitate what they venerate, defective devotion inevitably produces defective ethics. It is at this point that the Apology of Aristides becomes particularly helpful when it comes to doing apologetics in an era when we are all apologists.
1. Christians Practice Radical Civic Good without Bowing to the Civic Gods
One of the central arguments Aristides makes is that it is possible to practice radical civic good without participating in the veneration of the civic gods. For Romans in this era, religion was not primarily a matter of beliefs or morals. Religion referred, as one historian notes, to “the binding ties of duty to the gods, the state, and the family, expressed in the virtue of pietas. It was therefore the cement of society and the foundation of justice.” Civic devotion was primarily a matter of divination, supplication, and sacrifice with the pragmatic goal of securing divine favor and avoiding divine wrath. According to Polybius, writing three centuries earlier, these patterns of recognizing and reverencing the venerable gods were what held the Roman state together. To reject such reverence was to risk provoking the disfavor of the gods in such a way that the social order itself might be torn apart.
Because Christians refused to participate in these religious rites, the church was seen as a threat to the cohesion and stability of the social order. It is for this reason that Aristides and other second-century apologists go to such lengths to make their case that Christians pose no threat to the social order. Christians accomplish civic good without venerating the civic gods. In fact, according to Aristides, Christians do more to strengthen the social order than barbarians, Greeks, or Jews. According to Aristides, the cosmos itself remains due to the prayers of the church. “To me there is no doubt,” he writes, “that the earth itself abides through the supplication of Christians.” One aspect of the good that Christians do is asking God for his mercy on the world, but the church’s contribution to civic good does not end with supplications directed toward the Christian God. It includes the lives Christians live together and the care they direct toward their neighbors.
Aristides begins his summary of this way of life with clauses that echo the Jewish Torah: Christians “do not adulterate or fornicate,” “they do not covet what is not theirs,” “they honor father and mother,” “they love their neighbors,” “they judge with justice,” and so on. Despite the Jewish origins of these declarations, many of these values would have been, at the very least, recognizable to second-century Romans. Some of these ethics would even have caused philosophically-minded Romans to nod their heads in agreement. Yet Aristides does not stop with this summation of familiar ethics. He moves quickly to actions so radically generous that they would have been ridiculed as absurd among most of his neighbors.
Christians, according to Aristides, “rescue orphans from those who abuse them, and they give without grudging to the one who has nothing.” Although some philosophers did criticize the practice of abandoning unwanted infants, rescuing the fatherless would have seemed ludicrous in a context where children unacknowledged by a father were widely perceived as disposable. Aristides continues, “Whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each one according to his ability pays attention and carefully sees to his burial. If anyone of their number is imprisoned or oppressed for the name ‘Christ,’ all of them provide his needs, and if it is possible for him to be delivered, they deliver him.” These patterns of giving to the impoverished and caring for the imprisoned are precisely the habits that Lucian of Samosata mocks as preposterous in his second-century summary of the events leading up to the death of the Cynic philosopher Peregrinus. This Cynic philosopher falsely played the part of a Christian for a time and ended up in prison. Lucian’s account of the event ridicules the compassion that Christians showed to Peregrinus. His satirical rhetoric reveals the degree to which the generosity of the Christian way of life went far beyond anything cultured Romans would have expected. A few years later, Celsus similarly criticized the ways that the church brought together people from every background and social class.
Persons outside the Christian faith in the second century questioned how Christians could do anything other than civic harm since they abstained from the civic liturgies. The response of Aristides and other second-century apologists was that, despite their refusal to participate in the cultus deorum, Christians constituted a voluntary association, a habitus whose virtues contributed to the civic good without submitting to the civic religion. Christians contributed good to the social order not only through prayers to their God but also through their care for the disadvantaged, and this good was greater than any good enacted by those who practiced the rites of the venerable gods.
The questions posed by those outside the faith in the second century were not identical to the challenges of the twenty-first century, and I do not pretend that they were. Today, the challenges have to do with whether a Christian can possibly contribute anything other than civic harm if he or she does not wear a Pride patch on a uniform or use someone’s preferred pronoun or affirm a young woman’s conception of herself as bisexual. Yet perhaps there is more similarity than one thinks at first. In some sense, these contemporary cultural demands constitute a civic liturgy that includes vestments and rituals, blessings and confessions and absolution, coupled with widespread incredulity that anyone who refuses these rituals could possibly contribute to the common good. In such a context, all of us are apologists now because the conflict is between two contradictory sets of religious commitments.
How, then, can Christians today demonstrate their contribution to the common good while refusing to conform to these civic liturgies? One possible response, grounded in the Apology of Aristides, is for Christians to be characterized by such generosity toward the disadvantaged and the marginalized that these habits of life seem absurd to the world.
What if the church’s participation in care for the impoverished, our love for prisoners, and our welcome of children in the foster system was so widespread that an awareness of these habits was at least as widely known as our stand against progressive sexual agendas? What if these habits caused contemporary equivalents of Lucian of Samosata to develop comedy routines that mocked not merely our supposedly out-of-date morals but also our inexplicable generosity? What if the church’s pursuit of communities that are richly multiethnic, multisocioeconomic, and multigenerational caused the twenty-first century counterparts of Celsus to turn up their noses at the strangeness of Christian community? And, as the faculty that is forming the next generation of Christian leaders, what might we add to our lectures and readings and course activities to move students toward these realities?
Aristides was not describing civic good that the world would recognize as good.
He was describing something better—a goodness so rich and radical that it could not be fitted into the world’s categories.
So should we.
2. Christianity Is a Coherent Commitment that Requires Consistency Between Profession and Practice
A further point that Aristides makes is that Christianity represents a coherent commitment that requires consistency between profession and practice. This stood in stark contract to the competing commitments that characterized his cultural context, and his point is deeply relevant for our apologetics today. It was generally agreed in the second century that “even if rationality led to skepticism about the nature of traditional gods, the ancient customs [regarding the worship of these gods] should be maintained,” according to one analysis of second-century apologetics. In other words, profession and practice were separable. Participation in the rituals of the gods did not require belief in the stories repeated about the gods.
Christianity, unlike Roman religion, required consistency between the beliefs professed and the habits practiced. Belief in a singular deity who has “no other god as his companion” compelled Christians neither to reverence “idols made in a human image” nor to consume “food consecrated to idols,” according to Aristides. The coherence of Christian profession and practice provided evidence for its superiority.
This argument for the truthfulness of Christianity may be found in other early apologists as well, and it persisted for some time. More than two centuries after Aristides, one of the evidences for the truth of Christianity that Augustine of Hippo presented to Romanianus was the consistency between Christians’ beliefs and their practices. The Greek philosophers had, according to Augustine, participated in pagan worship, yet these same philosophers taught in their schools that the gods were not real. The consistency of the Christian life was what the philosophers sought but never achieved, according to Augustine.
Aristides articulated not only this external coherence between profession and practice but also the internal coherence of Christianity. According to Aristides, barbarians, Greeks, and Jews all lived within contradictory narratives that only the Christian narrative is able to reconcile. The barbarians claimed, for example, that the elements of the cosmos were divine, but they protected, manipulated, and even destroyed these same elements, revealing that the elements could not be divine after all. The Greeks made righteous laws yet venerated and imitated unrighteous gods whose actions contradicted these righteous laws. The Jews received a righteous law from God but they did not keep it—according to Aristides—and chose to worship the angels through whom the law was given instead of the God who gave it.
As he engages each alternative commitment, Aristides follows the same pattern: he re-narrates the story of each genus of people—barbarians, Greeks, and Jews—and shows the contradictions within their constitutive narratives. Then, after showing the contradictions in each alternative commitment, Aristides retells the constitutive narrative and present practices of Christianity. When he does, he reveals that, in Christian faith, there is no contradiction. There is, instead, coherence and consistency between the truths professed, the liturgies practiced, and the lifestyle required. Because a sovereign and singular God is both Creator and Redeemer, any apparent inconsistency in the faith originates either due to a misunderstanding of what God has communicated or because of rebellion against what God has commanded.
In a time when apologetics is the task of every Christian, this coherence between beliefs and practices becomes a crucial argument for the Christian way of life. For one thing, Christianity’s call for consistency between profession and practice provides an explanation—grounded in the venerable witness of the church throughout the generations—for why a Christian should not verbally affirm that which he or she knows to be false regarding an individual’s gender. This call for consistency also stands as a reminder of the importance of the local church in the life of the apologist, since church discipline is a divinely ordained means for maintaining consistency between Christian profession and practice.
Perhaps most importantly for the sake of apologetics today, the internal coherence of Christian faith reminds believers that any commitment which contradicts Christian faith will also, in the end, contradict itself. Every human commitment includes some fragment of truth, goodness, or beauty. These crumbs of truth, goodness, or beauty—no matter how fragmentary they may be—will cohere with Christianity in some small way, but they will do more than cohere with some aspect of Christian faith. They will also introduce internal contradictions in any commitment that stands against Christian faith. In the Apology of Aristides, even the barbarians recognize the beauty of the cosmos; it is not their recognition of this beauty that introduces the contradictions in their commitment, it is their divinization of it.
The contradictions of the twenty-first century are not the same as the ones that Aristides faced, but the responsibility of apologetics to point out these contradictions is perhaps more crucial than ever. Today, the inconsistencies may be found in other places—for example, in the contradiction between the affirmation of human equality and dignity on the one hand and a rejection of humanity’s formation in God’s image on the other hand.
What this should shape within the Christian is humble confidence—confidence because Christian faith does indeed provide a coherent and comprehensive account of the way the world is, yet humble because God alone comprehends this account wholly and completely. A Christian marked by this humble confidence can simultaneously recognize the world’s narratives as false and yet celebrate every strand of truth, beauty, and goodness that appears in them. The Christian can do this because each of these strands stretches back to transcendental reality and thus reveals a contradiction in the world’s narratives that Christian faith alone can resolve.
The strategy that Aristides followed was to re-narrate the constitutive story of each alternative commitment in his context, showing the contradictions in each one; then, he recounted the beautiful coherence and explanatory strength of the Christian metanarrative. What if this strategy became more predominant in our classrooms as a way to engage the commitments that stand against Christian faith? Every developmental theory, every secular practice of leadership, every approach to marketing, every philosophical system—each one has a story which draws from a well of common grace but which is at the same time rightly critiqued as defective by the Christian metanarrative.
What this requires practically is to practice retelling the constitutive narratives of these defective commitments in a manner that recognizes both the fragments of the transcendent within them and their contradictions. When critiquing these claims, we re-narrate their own narratives in a manner that reveals their brokenness and their beauty, showing how they have failed even to measure up to their own best ideals—which is, at least in part, what Augustine did with the history of Rome in the first ten books of City of God. Then, much like Augustine in the second half of City of God, we highlight how the glimmers of truth, beauty, and goodness that mark these claims are known in their fullness only in the coherence of the Christian community and the Christian metanarrative. As the dominant cultural narratives in our own day turn from a neutral perspective on Christianity to a negative view, the glimmers of common grace within the culture’s stories may grow dimmer and more distorted, but they are never completely absent—and every glimmer of light within them, no matter how faint, is an evidence of their own contradictions.
3. Apologetics Calls the Church to the Public Practice of the Truth
According to the apologists of the second century, it is possible to practice radical civic good without bowing to the civic gods, and the coherence of Christianity testifies to its truth by revealing the contradictions in every competing narrative. Having heard my considerations regarding how these truths might be contextualized in the twenty-first century, some of you may now find yourselves wondering, “Will these tactics from the second century work? Will they persuade the world that Christians are, in fact, good for the social order? Might they at least provoke the broader culture to embrace our presence in the public square?”
My answer is, “No, they won’t, and I never intended them to do so.”
Encouragement clearly is not one of my spiritual gifts.
I have no confidence that these arguments will persuade any contemporary secular progressivist that Christian professions and practices are good for the world. As far as anyone today can tell, the apologies of Aristides and Justin and Athenagoras did not change imperial perceptions of Christianity; in the second century, the worst persecutions were, after all, yet to come.
Why, then, have I provided you with these ancient examples? And why have I dared to declare that we are all apologists now?
It is not because I expect these practices to convince any secularist of the social good of Christianity. It is because God works through practices such as these to form us into the type of community that will persist past the rise and fall of every power that resists God’s truth. What is likely to take shape through these particular practices is not the persuasion of the world but the formation of a people—a people who persist in publicly practicing and proclaiming their faith.
The very literary form of apologies such as this one from Aristides seems to have been meant to call the Christian community to persist in living its commitments publicly. At least three second-century apologists—Aristides, Justin, and Athenagoras—wrote their apologies as appeals to emperors of Rome. Yet it seems probable that none of these apologies ever reached an emperor, and it is quite possible that the apologists never intended them to do so. Why, then, did these apologists address their apologies in this way? There is more than one possible response to this question, but I will propose the answer that I find most compelling: the inclusion of the emperor’s name moved these documents into the public sphere. The apologists’ purpose was the formation of Christians; however, addressing the apology to the emperor imbued the church’s catechesis with public accountability, even if the document never reached an emperor. By presenting these declarations of Christian faith in a way that extended beyond the church, the apologists helped to form communities that publicly practiced truth. Still today, public declarations of our beliefs and practices might not persuade the world, but such declarations are important nonetheless because they make us publicly accountable to live the truths we have declared.
I have the privilege of teaching in two distinct fields of study here in this institution: apologetics and family ministry. It is at this point of catechizing God’s people to persist in the public practice and defense of the faith that these two fields come together. Seen in this way, apologetical catechesis of the church and parental catechesis of children represent two facets of the same calling, with similar challenges.
The public practice of Christianity is no longer assumed to be good for the world. The points at which the faith must be defended have expanded from miracles and metaphysics to the very morality of living publicly as a Christian. No one among us or among our students will be able avoid defending our way of being in the world—and so, brothers and sisters, we are all apologists now.
Even if our defenses do not persuade the world that Christianity is good for the social order, they form a community that persists in holiness, love, and proclamation of the gospel. And, no matter how vast the gap may grow between us and the prevalent culture, this gospel remains “the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
And this brings me back to the young woman who preferred her own bisexual self-conception over evidence for the resurrection that she herself admitted was compelling. During the pandemic, I lost track of this teenager but, throughout 2019, her engagement with church followed a predictable pattern. She would attend student ministry for a short time before declaring she would never return, due to her disagreement with the moral implications of the gospel. And yet, a few weeks later, she would be back again. I never asked why, but I think I know. It was because the people of God loved her and cared for her in a way that no one in her home or at school did, despite her unwillingness to embrace the gospel.
As far as I know, she never was persuaded that Christianity is good for the world, but she had discovered that Christians could be good to her. Someday, somewhere, I pray that God will work through that knowledge to clear her moral confusion as he draws her to himself.
In the meantime, we persist in defending the goodness and truth of the Christian faith, forming God’s people to proclaim God’s truth knowing that God is still at work through the gospel, even in a world where we are all apologists now.