Research Fellowship - Philosophy & Apologetics

What is Apologetics?

This essay is the first in a series considering various aspects of philosophy and apologetics. Shawn Langley is a Research Fellow with the BibleMesh Institute.


The term apologetics is often heard in Christian circles, but what does it really mean? We can gain a clearer sense of what an apologetic should entail by first looking at the biblical context giving rise to the concept. After this we will be able to outline some defining characteristics of how we defend our faith. 

One of the most commonly cited passages in connection with apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15. Here Peter tells his readers, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” (ESV) The Greek word Peter uses for “defense” is where we get “apology” or “apologetic”, a term typically evoking scenes from a courtroom in the New Testament (Acts 25:16).

A number of insights into the task of apologetics can be gleaned from this verse. First, the object Peter chooses to attach to our defense is hope. In other words, Peter is not encouraging us to be prepared to make a defense in some abstract sense, but rather to defend “the hope that is in you.” Like runway markers on a dark night protecting a pilot from putting down in a pasture, our hope in the gospel can help direct how we discuss and defend the faith by keeping us from becoming distracted by all the possible difficulties we might run into.

Second, our defense is to have a particular manner. We are not merely to be prepared to make a defense. But we must above all “honor Christ the Lord as holy” while showing “gentleness and respect” to those we have opportunity to talk with about our hope. Many of us likely do not need to look further than our own hearts to be convinced how easy it is to lose sight of honoring Christ or being gentle when we open ourselves up to potential criticism (or worse) of our soul’s deepest, most personal commitments.

And so, with this biblical context in mind, let’s look a little more closely at apologetics in practice.

Hold out the Hope of Christ

When opportunities arise for us to talk about the truths of the gospel to the unpersuaded, focusing on the reason for the hope we have keeps us from wandering into unhelpful or unfruitful asides that, while important, often take away from the main questions at hand. Further, if we only have a few moments to spare, this helps us know how we ought to make the most of our time.

But, practically speaking, what does this look like? We can get a glimpse from Paul’s reminder to the Ephesians of their transformation from hopeless to hopeful. He writes, “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Eph. 2:12-13)

For Paul, the heart of hopelessness is to be without God, separated from Christ who by his blood brings near those who are far off. When we are asked to give a reason for our hope, then, we should have in mind this very specific hope of the gospel, “that we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.”1

And yet, when we think of the countless reasons someone might have for distrusting the truth of Christian belief, the responsibility to defend our hope can quickly become daunting. How does holding out the hope of Christ in this way help us in the face of so many possible objections?

Discerning Between Primary and Secondary Questions of the Faith

Consider some typical reasons people reject the faith, such as religion is bad for humanity, or the Bible is filled with errors, or the church has been complicit in unspeakable evil. When giving a reason for our hope, it can be helpful for us to see challenges like these as what we might call secondary questions. Even though they may pose serious intellectual problems for many people, they are always ultimately derived from the deepest, most primary question of Christian belief: has God revealed himself?

Whenever we point someone to the hope of Christ, we are trying to help them move beyond the surface-level challenges that might be careening around their heart and bring them face-to-face with the simple, singular claim that God has spoken.

This is because, no matter what someone thinks about religion or the Bible or the church or a thousand other derivative difficulties, at the end of the day our most basic concern comes down to whether there is a self-revealing God. This is made incredibly clear in a passage like Philippians 2:8-11, where Paul tells us that soon every knee will bow at the name of Jesus. If this is true, then when all is said and done every contrary opinion or objection will evaporate before his presence.

Whether it is something as complex as evolutionary biology or as common as envy, any potential obstacle to the faith in the end hinges on if God has made himself known (Heb. 11:6). For example, does the physical universe somehow undermine the existence of God? Well, not if the God who exists creates and sustains the physical universe, as he has said (Gen. 1:1). The question of the revealed God ultimately determines what is real or possible, and as such it can only be truly answered before, not after, we ask anything else.

How we show this to others, and how long it takes them to see it, will usually be impossible to predict. Our goal is simply to set our hope in the context of this primary problem as clearly as we can.

Of course, this does not mean that all the many questions someone might have about the truth of the gospel are relatively unimportant or should be ignored. As Paul tells the Colossians, we should give great thought to how we speak with those outside the faith, “so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:6) There is certainly a place for careful, well-developed responses to any obstacle someone is wrestling with, and much ink has been invested in this very enterprise.

All this means is that we will never be able to answer such questions satisfactorily unless we see how they are ultimately rooted in the most basic question of God’s self-revelation. It would be like trying to purify a polluted stream at random points along the bank without having first gone to the source of the impurity.

Further, we must remember that our responsibility is not finally to persuade someone of the truth of our hope, but merely to help them see it. Peter tells us to be ready to give a reason for our hope, not to ensure it has been embraced, which is the work of the Spirit alone (John 3:8).

This makes the end of the verse just as important as the beginning. There might be a time or place for heated debate (Acts 17), but we must be careful not to substitute a combative spirit with the Spirit of gentleness (Gal. 5:22-23).

Peter’s portrait of gentle, respectful dialogue should so characterize our apologetic efforts that, as he says in the following sentence, those who would speak evil against us would be put to shame in the light of our good conduct (1 Pet. 3:16). May we never undermine the beauty of the gospel in our attempt to defend it.

And so, while giving a reason for our hope will often require much more, it will never be less than this appeal to our God revealed.


1 New City Catechism, Question 1: What is our only hope in life and death?

Shawn Langley

Shawn Langley

Shawn Langley is also a Research Fellow at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge, England. His writing focuses on the relationship between philosophy & theology, particularly the way epistemological questions shape and are shaped by biblical interpretation.