How Apologetics Hurts Our Witness

booksI grew up in a time when evidentiary apologetics was big in youth groups. It was not uncommon to use Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands A Verdict as youth group  curriculum. Then came Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christianity in the period of the mega church. Today it’s Tim Keller’s Reason for God that carries popularity. My question is to what extent do all these approaches to apologetics belie a Christendom posture that actually hurts Christian witness as opposed to helps it?

For instance, is it not disingenuous to come to a new cultural situation armed with an already prepared apologetic? We cannot know beforehand what issues, or with whom, we will be ‘arguing’ with. It therefore makes no sense to respond to ‘intellectual’ problems before listening and inhabiting a place for a good long while. It seems Christian apologetics trains us to think we have the answers before listening to the questions. For this reason, training in apologetics hurts witness. No?

It seems to me then that the continued popularity of evidentiary apologetics in some parts of evangelicalism reveals a Christendom mindset, a mindset that assumes we already know with whom we are arguing. But in the large expanse of American life, there are new and many cultures arising every ten years. We cannot and should not predict the questions? It seems to me traditional apologetics textbooks cannot help but be ten years behind the culture’s issues given the time it takes to formulate and publish them? By teaching these books therefore, we in essence preach to the choir, reinforce existing Christians with an already ensconced belief. But in so doing,  we are also turning them into over defended Christians unable to listen and open up space for witness. We are in essence malforming Christians for witness in post Christendom places. What am I missing?

In Hauerwas’ latest book he has a chapter simply titled “Witness” (written along with Charles Pinches). In the chapter he suggests that

“… the Story when told in witness, does not end all arguments but rather opens up space for them to appear (maybe for the first time).”

I think this is so key to “being with” those who live outside of Christ. We tell our story of the gospel in a posture of listening and responding in mutual learning. The challenges and arguments that flow from these kind of places grow us in our faith and open up space for the gospel. We do not assume to know the issues/problems that arise in each person as they hear the story told.  As Hauerwas (And Pinches say) “…if we are to have arguments, we will need people to argue with, ones who do not begin from where we begin. Witness assumes this to be the case. (p. 46).” Witness assumes the one we are in dialogue with will have different questions/concerns than our own. Hauerwas and Pinches then go on to show us how this kind of witness is illustrated through the book of Acts.

I highly recommend the book and that chapter.

What do you think? Are McDowell, Strobel and Keller revealing their Christendom bound posture (and assumptions) toward culture?

Happy Thanksgiving to all Americans this week.

Posted in Book Reviews, Evangelism, Stanley Hauerwas
24 comments on “How Apologetics Hurts Our Witness
  1. Gil says:

    It depends on who you see apologetics as oriented toward. If apologetics is mainly about debate or argumentation with “outsiders” then there is a certain force to the argument that says: “Don’t prejudge the conversation by arming yourself with conclusions.”

    Having said that, there does tend to be a fairly consistent constellation of issues that arise in these conversations. Keller might sound a bit different in tone than McDowell but they’re largely talking about the same themes. Could this be because there are a set of more or less persistent questions that occur to people (Christians and non-Christians) as they read the Bible and interact with Christian convictions?

    A final question: what if apologetics is also oriented internally? What if apologetics, as a practice of the church, is about helping Christians consider more carefully what they themselves confess but considering how that confession could sound to others (though I recognize the risk of putting words in the mouths of these “others”). This seems to me like a pressing need in an time when there is such a bewildering variety of alternative (and readily available) stories and claims and when many Christians seem to have such a tenuous hold on what they actually believe.

  2. Delonte Harrod says:

    I agree that argumentation and apologetics should not go together. It is wrong for followers of Christ to argue with unbelievers. James Baldwin (African-American novelist, civil rights advocate, essayist, and debater) used the story of the African-American struggle as an apologetic. He told the story of the struggle of our people- this included historical evidence- to make his point (Here is the link A method that I think is historical and one that you are talking about.

    In telling the story-but not just a story- of the bible is in itself an apologetic. However, sometimes I sense that when you guys (those in the missional movement and those who ascribe to narrative theology) talk the bible as a story, it seems as if your posture is passive and reactionary. The apologetic of Christendom is not passive but seeks out those who are outside of Jesus and seeks to bring them in. I think, something you guys could use!

    Grace and Peace

  3. I was taught in a class on apologetics in a post-modern/post-Christendom culture, that such logical, rational apologetics are ineffective in such a culture because of precisely what you pointed out. It assumes we have reasoned out all the questions and, therefore, have authoritative answers.

    Instead, the best evidentiary apologetic we can offer is one that is witnessed, not through logical assumptions and progression of logic, but in a life lived out faithfully. By our very lives we offer the evidence of the Truth in a way that logic and reason only skim the surface of.

    • Gil says:

      I think we sometimes buy into a false dichotomy between narrative and rational argument. We are complex creatures who employ all kinds of tools as we seek to understand, articulate and embody meaning. And it is undeniable to me that reason and logic are not the only tools in the toolbox.

      But the fact that narrative is more fundamental than reason does not require us to conclude that reason is opposed to narrative or some kind of inferior enterprise that will lead us astray. At its best, a Christian apologetic will use reason to interpret and explain the convictions that are embedded within our stories. Maybe this is an argument for keeping these two tethered to one another?

  4. For more on this topic, my friend Myron Penner’s ‘The End of Apologetics’. Amazon review page here:

    But buy David’s recommendation first, ’cause it’s his blog. :)

  5. John Hendee says:

    Apologetics have their place. But too often we are a doctor who sees a patient and without finding out what their problem is, just writes out a prescription. I see a bigger problem. I don’t care what culture, philosophy or life style one has, their is only ONE thing that will penetrate the closed mind or heart and that is seeing and hearing the Good News. And in my view 99% OF CHRISTIANS DON’T KNOW HOW TO BRING UP THE ISSUE OF THEIR FAITH, and if it comes up THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO, other than invite someone to church or condemn the others, or try and argue with them. In my observation, less than 1% of churches are doing any kind of ongoing, effective, not in your face, kind of training in disciple making or personal evangelism. We must change that.

  6. Philip Vitullo says:

    “It seems Christian apologetics trains us to think we have the answers before listening to the questions. For this reason, training in apologetics hurts witness. No?”

    We do have the answers before listening to the questions for two reasons: A) church history shows us the questions, and B) human beings are the same now as they were in biblical times.

    Dr.Fitch the “questions” have been the same since the fall. I put question in quotes because it is often merely a convenient excuse for not submitting to the lordship of Jesus Christ. The heresies we see today in our culture are the same ones the early church witnessed in their culture as well.

  7. Maybe a new (contextual) middle ground will help: the new apologetics is about bearing witness from within one’s context to make sense of Christian truth claims in particular contexts. In this sense all of Christian mission (and indeed theology) has an apologetic dimension (the whole history of doctrine unfolds like this). So, for example, a scientist who happens to be a Christian reflects upon issues and question her discipline raises but cannot itself answer. So, this kind of apologetics (1) actually is about witness and (2) actually goes both ways (i.e., dialogue between faith and science will deepen and challenge our knowledge in both areas). This might mean a turn away from the “professional apologist” toward a great many witnesses who speak and act for Christ within their own fields and relational networks. (Not to deny that the work of “professional apologists” might still have a place, i.e., in collecting and summarizing these various dialogues and hosting conversations). The ministry of the Veritas Forum is a good example. N. T. Wright is another. Dallas Willard. The American Scientific Affiliation. Etc.

  8. Dan Kimball says:


    I think apologetics can be used poorly and cause damage to mission if used non-relationally or like bullets shooting people’s doubts or questions. They can cause damage if we oversimplify our answers and give confident responses to difficult questions which then becomes misleading. I also believe apologetics (or any teaching) when used without our lives foremost being the apologetic of our faith and examples of love and grace is also damaging.

    Having said that, I think apologetics are needed all the more than ever today especially amongst younger people.

    What I see is when relationship and trust is built and love is there. Then the questions totally come. I just was on campus at University of Santa Cruz speaking in a sociology class who invited me to share why I believe what I do and then open for questions. I then was in a smaller lab after with some. Almost 100% of the questions asked would fall into evidential apologetics – and this class was by their own definition and internal survey 97% not Christian. I serve in a church which has a lot of younger people in them, last survey we did it was 1/3 college students. There is plenty of relational trust that needs to be built, but then the questions come. Apologetics is totally needed.

    I also think that when Christian teens reach college-age and into young adulthood, they need apologetics (as we all do) for themselves as they (we) go through the “is there any reasons to believe Christianity is really true?” “Why do I trust this Bible?” etc.

    So there are missional reasons and internal discipleship reasons of why I think apologetics are extremely important today. We ask a lot of questions and always do surveys and listen to people who are both of the faith and not (yet) and all I am saying is totally based on being immersed in a university town and involved with people who after trust is built, I mission ally forces me to be opening my William Lane Craig, Paul Copan books etc. all the time!

    Great question and always love your blog! That’s my input from Santa Cruz, CA……


  9. Dan Kimball says:

    One other thought is that we do need to be “listening”. That is implied in when I mention relationships and trust are built as that includes a posture of listening to obtain that trust. But wanted to make that clear as listening is huge in apologetics today and how we then know how to respond as well.

  10. David Fitch says:

    you know I don’t think we’re that far apart here … and it’s hard to universalize any statements on these kind of issues. One thing I was trying to think through here (with Hauerwas) is how traditional apologetics train Christians in not listening in the encounter with those outside Christ. I think we should see “gospeling” (as McKnight calls it) as calling forth new questions that we have not yet thought about …and allow the Holy Spirit to work in that space to grow us as Christians as well as seriously connect and be present with those outside our faith. I think the way traditional apologetics has been done, within mainline evangelicalism, this kind of ‘training’ has harmed the way we posture ourselves in mission. Peace bro ..and blessing on your continued labors for Christ.

  11. Eric Chabot says:

    I am the director of Ratio Christi, a nationwide apologetics ministry on college campuses. I lead the chapter at The Ohio State University. As for myself and many others, apologetics is needed more than ever. Yes, it needs to be deeply relational and cant be done in an arrogant fashion. I tis true that at times, apologists have been gracious and have hurt the witness of the Church. However, in many cases, apologetics has played a crucial role to many people. Strobel, Bill Craig. Keller and others will tell you they have lost count of the people that have come to Christ from their books.

    Many apologetic books are addressing the questions people are asking. Given the issue of the internet and pop atheism, we need to have responses to these issues. I am also well aware that people have other issues with the faith that are obviously emotional and volitional. But for myself and others, I would say about 70 to 80 percent of the people I have spoken to the last 10 years at OSU have had objections. Two apologetic events we have had included lectures with Craig and Frank Turek- I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist. We have between 4-500 people show up for these lectures and they have asked very good questions.

    As someone who has taught apologetics as well, I can say that apologetics is needed for adults as well. Many of the people in my classes are not confident in what they believe and want to be more effective evangelists. So I am sure we all know the early Christians used apologetic in much of their evangelism. We still need to follow their example.

    Note: I will leave a link listing the objections I have heard at OSU over the last several years. I think it is very telling.


  12. Eric Chabot says:

    One edit:

    “It is true that at times, apologists have NOT been gracious and have hurt the witness of the Church”

    Sorry about that.

  13. Dan Kimball says:


    You are writing what I also experience here in northern CA. At least from being amidst college students here in non-Christian universities, if anything there is a growing need for apologetics in our setting here. The questions are coming and evidential apologetics is proving very helpful. So it seems we are having similar experiences in our context in the field of secular campuses. Anyway, look forward to reading the link you provided. Hope we get to meet some day!

  14. Eric Chabot says:


    Thanks so much! Blessings to you!

  15. The main thing that seems to be missing in your thinking is the value of apologetics training for believers. With all the students leaving the faith after high school, it is pretty obvious to us at Ratio Christi that these kids are entering college without an understanding that Christianity is THE truth. They have not been taught any critical thinking skills when it comes to Christianity, and quickly abandon ideas that have “no answers” when challenged by logic and reasoning.

    At secular universities they will face intellectual challenges to their faith. We should never lose one of them because there is no logical,scientific, or historical answer to these intellectual challenges. But we are losing them because we are not teaching them how to give an answer (defense) for the hope they have (1 Peter 3:15).

    Ratio Christi trains high school and college students how to give these answer with gentleness and respect. The amazing thing is that they gain so much confidence because they see their faith is based on TRUTH, and they become incredible conversation evangelist. There understanding of how to give an answer under-girds their gospel witness.

  16. Jeff says:

    David, I think you’ve raised some important questions and also important flaws in apologetics. But, I also think you’re seeing abuses that are real and throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater on this.

    There is no doubt we must listen to our neighbors and engage with humility and love. And, canned answers or arguments can sometimes fail to hear them.

    Still further, it is right as you and several others above note that living the narrative, witnessing by our humble love, is vital in all this and often is missing.

    But, I don’t think that apologetics are a product of Christendom. Even Keller is well aware of the fact that Christendom is finished but still sees the import of apologetics. But, more than that, while many operate within a model of Christendom and offer apologetics as such, I’m not sure there is a logical link there that you are drawing.

    Apologetics have been around since the beginning of the church. Peter practiced such in Acts 2 as did Paul in Acts 17 – to two entirely different groups and cultures (and the uniqueness of their approaches certainly speaks to the missional, subversive, incarnational nature of Christian witness). While “canned” responses, or rather a canned set of arguments, may be missing some items – I don’t think books are out of date on this, for a few reasons.

    First, as in Acts 2 and 17 to two different groups there still is a universal apologetic. In other words, not everything is relegated to the cultural situation. There is a universal – that is found in Acts 2, 17 and described in 1 Cor. 15. That Jesus died, was buried, and rose from the dead on the third day. In reality. In bodily form (Luke 24:36-43). This was the consistent message to every group in the first century and it is the core differentiating message of Christianity. That these were real historical events. This is useful both for the non-believing pluralist and for grounding faith in the Christian. It’s not the only question asked or needed to be answered. But, really, it is at the heart of the answer to every question. Indeed, the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection must be lived out by the church as well. But we will do that imperfectly.

    And, though culture changes, there are a series of repeated questions that emerge. Human beings are not altogether different. Ecclesiastes still resonates today – perhaps as much as ever. Understanding that culture changes and being incarnational does not, it seems to me, mean that there is not a universal story for all – the D-B-R of Jesus and that he now reigns as king.

    Theologically, I can’t get past this without denying a core element of the gospel. This is the one story, as Bauckham notes in one of his great essays, that is not a dominant power story that postmodernists loathe. But, the resurrection witness evidence is something that appears to be universally proclaimed in the NT to all people and all cultures and it continues to convince and ground people today. I’ve seen it effectively impact non-believers for the past 30+ years.

    Thanks for the conversation on this.

  17. McDowell, Strobel, and Lane Craig aren’t ‘sexy’ evangelicals. Keller somewhat is which is why his “Reason for God” was a NYT best seller.

    It’s easy for us to criticize the above guys, but we don’t critique N.T. Wright who does a lot of apologetic work on the resurrection of Jesus.

    I think the solution is to not impose or infuse a best-selling apologist and his arguments into one’s context as if Keller, Wright, or Strobel are universally persuasive. We need to be more ‘prodigal’ than that. What scripture apologetical texts resonate most with our context? Which apologists and their presentations resonate the most?

  18. Cat Bismuth says:

    I would just add that different folks need different things/methods/words/ideas at different times. In every case, God is sovereignly at work. Owe no one anything, except love. Speak the truth in love as you are called and given opportunity. One tills. Another sows. Someone else waters. God gives the fruit in due time, wasting none of the labors…

  19. Mike says:

    Clearly you haven’t read the guidelines of apologetics, because you would know it’s not about answering the questions, but the questioner. Just because there are answers out there for many objections, doesn’t mean an apologist is going to spew them all out on someone at once. P.S. Homosexuality is an abomination to the Lord. It’s not about what the Church says.

  20. Mike Spencer says:

    The presuppositions of scripture are what the “witness” is to be about. A witness simply reports what he or she has seen, heard, that is, witnessed. The truth that all men know that God exists, have the law written on their hearts and understand that justice requires payment are far more valuable than the evidence external to God’s revelation of himself.

  21. Rich Davis says:

    David: you rightly ask:

    “[I]s it not disingenuous to come to a new cultural situation armed with an already prepared apologetic? We cannot know beforehand what issues, or with whom, we will be ‘arguing’ with.”

    That seems right. But who among us is doing that? Who, for example, is using “an already prepared apologetic” from, say, the likes of, say, Schaeffer, McDowell, and E.J. Carnell. None that I can see. Strobel’s books are based on interviews w/ leading Christian academics (e.g. Craig, Moreland, Habermas), who travel widely, read widely, and root their apologetic writing and speaking on what *is* happening (right now in culture), not what *was* happening in some earlier era.

    Could you give examples, perhaps, of these disingenuous apologists, who “come to a new cultural situation armed with an already prepared apologetic?”

    • David Fitch says:

      Possibly I might agree with you about the actual work there done in those books by Strobel etc…although the people he interviews are hardly an audience derived from the ciontext of evangelism … which is the primary context I am arguing that apologetics is inappropriate for. But more to the point,it is the way these books and materials are used to train Christians to engage non Christians that creates this dynamic of coming to a new cultural situation armed with an already prepared apologetic? Wouldn’t you agree?

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  1. […] Keller (e.g., in his The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism [2009]). In a post entitled How Apologetics Hurts Our Witness (Nov 26/13), but also in his Moody radio debate (Jun 21/14) with Nancy Pearcey (link), Fitch […]

  2. […] here) is that it “trains us to think we have the answers before listening to the questions” (2). But presumably, training in MLA involves encouraging Christians to answer ‘Question’ before […]

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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