by John Frame
[This article was originally published in Kevin Vanhoozer, ed., Dictionary for the Theological Interpretation of the Bible ( Grand Rapids : Baker Book House, 2005), 57-58. This is copyrighted material, used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright © 2005. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group. Baker’s URL is https://www.bakerbooks.com, and the URL for the Baker Publishing Group is https://www.BakerPublishingGroup.com.]
Apologetics is the theological discipline that defends the truth of the Christian message. One important subject of recent debate among apologists has been the relationship between apologetics and Scripture. All apologists seek to defend the biblical message, and they usually defend their apologetic method as itself in accord with Scripture. But they disagree on such questions as (1) whether the Bible teaches anything specific about apologetics, or about related topics such as epistemology (see, e.g., the debate in Cowan, 208-219, 256, 350-351), (2) what it teaches about apologetics, and (3) how Scripture itself should be used (alongside other tools like general revelation, logic, reason, etc.) in the work of apologetics. For purposes of this dictionary, it is also important to consider (4) howScripture teaches us about apologetics and (5) how apologetic concerns may affect our interpretation of Scripture more generally. My discussion below will address these topics, not necessarily in sequence.
The Bible does not discuss apologetics as an academic discipline, but it does speak about defending the faith. The term apologetics comes from the Greek apologia, apologeisthai, which in the NT usually refers to an individual’s defense of his conduct, as 1 Cor. 9:3, sometimes against legal charges, as in Acts 19:33, 22:1, 24:10. In the Acts passages, however, Paul defends himself by defending his message. So in Phil. 1:7, 16 apologia refers explicitly to a defense of the Gospel, in 1 Pet. 3:15 to a defense of the Christian hope.
Moving beyond the apologia-vocabulary, we can see that defense of the gospel appears frequently in the Bible. There is a strong apologetic element in the “signs” of the fourth gospel (John 20:30-31), and in Luke’s attempt to impart “certainty” to Theophilus (Luke 1:4; compare the reference to “proofs” in Acts 1:3). Paul’s epistles contain much defense of his Gospel against objectors. This emphasis on defense goes back to Jesus’ own confrontations with opponents and, still earlier, to God’s prophetic indictments of unfaithful Israel. (In these cases especially, we should bear in mind the maxim that often the best defense is a good offense.)
All of this suggests the broader thesis of Ezra Hyun Kim, that from one perspective the whole Bible is apologia. For in the Bible God presents his truth over against error, speaking it into a sinful world, always having in view the objections of his opponents. The authors of the Bible, divine and human, seek to present their message cogently, rationally, persuasively. This is not to say that the Bible is a collection of rational syllogisms, but that in all its genres, even in its poetic, narrative, and wisdom teaching, it seeks to present God’s message as right, true, and persuasive.
Defending the faith, therefore, is a biblical practice. The discipline of apologetics seeks to instruct Christians in such defense. As analysis of a biblical practice, apologetics is a properly theological discipline. If theology is “the application of Scripture to all areas of life,” then apologetics is “the application of Scripture to unbelief” (Frame, Knowledge of God, 81, 87), including the unbelief that remains in Christian hearts.
As with all theology, the Bible is normative for apologetics. It does not teach apologetics in a focused or systematic way, even to the extent that it teaches about justification in Romans 1-5, the Resurrection in 1 Cor. 15, or the events of the last days in 1 Thess. 4-5. However, it has much to say about the theistic worldview, the nature of the Gospel, knowledge, wisdom, the noetic effects of sin and regeneration, the opposition of belief and unbelief, the Spirit’s illumination, God’s revelation in the natural world, and the role of Scripture itself as our authority for all areas of human life.
My own reading suggests that a “biblical apologetic” would take this general shape: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7) and wisdom (9:10); indeed, wisdom and knowledge are summed up in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:30, Co. 2:3). Though God is known through his creation, people repress this knowledge (Rom. 1:18-32) until God’s grace renews their minds (Rom.12:2). The apologist should press upon the non-Christian the evidence that God is clearly revealed in nature. But he should present it in the context of a biblical worldview, with an epistemology reflecting what the Bible says about knowledge. And he should present the Gospel in God’s own authoritative voice, using Scripture’s own arguments (as 1 Cor. 15:1-11) and other arguments that follow scriptural leads. As an example of the latter, when Scripture says that God is revealed in creation, it authorizes us to find evidence in creation to use in apologetic witness (as Acts 14:15-18, 17:22-31). When it says that the events of redemption occurred at specific times and places, it authorizes us to find apologetic resources in the historical study of those times and places (Acts 26:26).
Having learned from Scripture what we can about apologetics, it is natural that those conclusions influence our reading of Scripture in other areas. All theological conclusions serve as hermeneutical grids in this sense. But there are dangers in this area. For example, apologists have sometimes drawn a very sharp distinction between miracle and providence, for the sake of the “argument from miracle.” Miracles must be very distinct from other events, it is said, so that we can identify them for use in apologetic argument. In my judgment, however, Scripture itself does not make such a sharp distinction (Frame, Doctrine of God, 241-273). The implication for apologetics is not that the argument from miracle is faulty, but that both providence and miracle reveal God to human beings in somewhat, though not sharply, different ways. We need to hold loosely enough to our theological/apologetic conclusions that we will be able to revise them in the light of further study of Scripture. There must be a true hermeneutical circle: our theological conclusions influencing our exegesis, and our exegesis influencing our theological conclusions. Openness to revision in both directions requires humility as well as perspicacity.
Cornelius Van Til’s work in apologetics led him to a model similar to the one I sketched earlier. This model, in turn, inclined him toward theological interpretations of Scripture that emphasized the sovereignty and authority of God, the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, the ontological Trinity, the fullness of wisdom in Christ, and the foolishness of unbelief. His apologetic creativity influenced his theological creativity, and the reverse. On the whole, I think his work is a good example of fruitful hermeneutical reciprocity between these disciplines.
Boa, Kenneth D., and Bowman, Robert M., Jr. Faith Has Its Reasons. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001; Cowan, Steven B., ed. Five Views of Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000; Frame, John M. Apologetics to the Glory of God. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishers, 1994; Idem. Cornelius Van Til. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishers, 1995; Idem. Doctrine of God. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishers, 2002; Idem. Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishers, 1987; Kim, Ezra Hyun. Biblical Preaching is Apologia: An Analysis of the Apologetic Nature of Preaching in Light of Perspectivalism. Escondido, CA: D. Min. project for Westminster Theological Seminary, 2000; Van Til, Cornelius. Introduction to Systematic Theology. Nutley, NJ : Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962.