Apologetics vs. Polemics vs. Both

Just an Illustration

One of the most enjoyable aspects of working in the field of Christian education is coaching sports. While there is the immediate enjoyment of the competition, there is a much more fulfilling prospect of seeing the kids walk away from a particular sport with life lessons of eternal value. What’s not as apparent, however, is the benefit a coach can gain from the whole situation. Coaching high school basketball this year, I had a reoccurring thought throughout the season that changed the way I think about certain spiritual issues.

Most people have heard of the famous athletic motto, “the best defense is a good offense.” The idea behind the motto is that if an offense is able to build enough of a lead in a game, the opposing offense will never be able to win. While there is some truth to that statement, it obviously cannot be taken to an extreme. If a team only practiced offense to the total neglect of defense, then that team would not be successful regardless of how many points they scored.

I have also heard the reverse of the motto taught: “the best offense is a good defense.” The idea here is that if a defense is consistently able to stop the opposing offense, that team will more easily succeed offensively. There is plenty of truth to this statement as well, but, as with the first, it cannot be taken to an extreme. If a team concentrated only on defense to the complete neglect of offense, the team will never be successful regardless of how effective they are defensively.

In the end, at least with basketball, the team has to arrive at a good balance of both. In order to be successful a team has to be consistent both offensively and defensively. An emphasis may be needed from time to time, depending upon the current opponent. Nevertheless, it is not so much a matter of having the best offense or the best defense as it is a matter of having both. To be successful on a long term basis, the best team is good at both.

Just an Observation

It seems as though in today’s evangelical scene there is a conflict that is similar to the two mottoes just explained. The difference is, rather than speaking in terms of athletic defense and offense, the conflict is between spiritual defense and offense, that is to say, between apologetics and polemics. Just as with the sports illustration, it is apparently possible to emphasize one over the other. The result is a deficiency in the neglected area despite the need for a thorough balance of both.

First there is the area of apologetics. It has been defined as a reasoned and systematic defense of the Christian faith. W. Gary Phillips states, “It is the task of Christian apologetics to show on what grounds the Christian religion possesses such a knowledge of God.” He goes on to say, “Apologetics attempts to render the Christian faith persuasive to the contemporary individual.” Bernard Ramm gives a good purpose statement which sums up the need for apologetics. He explains that “For unbelievers it is belief forming….For believers it is belief sustaining.”

More importantly, there is a definite biblical foundation for apologetics. Such famous verses as Jude 3, 1 Peter 3:15, and Colossians 4:6 stand as mandates for a consistent reasonable defense of the faith. New Testament figures, in particularly the Apostle Paul, also provide biblical examples for reasonably defending the gospel of Christ.

Then there is the area of polemics. The word polemic comes from a Greek root which means “to make war, to fight.” It is an expression that would have originally been used to describe an armed conflict. Over the years of church history it has been used in reference to a theological controversy or argument. Polemics, as it is used today, refers to the study of such controversies.

Galatians 2:11-14 is perhaps the most well-known passage that shows polemics in action. Paul is as well known for his willingness to call out a fellow believer on the basis of their error as he is for defending his reason for doing so. In essence, Paul’s focus was not on apologetics or polemics to the neglect of the other, but rather his focus was on both.

A lack of balance between these two necessities manifests itself in evangelicalism today. On the one hand, there are groups of evangelicals, particularly in new evangelical circles, that place a great emphasis on apologetics, while, in many cases, neglecting polemics. The leaders of these circles do a tremendous work in building a written defense for the Christian faith as well as a spoken defense in the public arena. However, many of these leaders fail to see the need for applying polemical principles and their personal and ecclesiastical separation is therefore limited if existent. The end result is a movement characterized by an anemic disposition toward compromise.

On the other hand, there are groups of evangelicals, particularly in fundamentalist circles, that place a great emphasis on polemics, while, in many cases, neglecting apologetics. The leaders of these circles are constantly working to maintain separation from any form of heterodoxy and always ready to attack any hint of compromise. However, many of these leaders fail to see the need for building a credible defense, whether written or spoken. The end result is a movement characterized by an abrasive deportment and a superficial theology.

It may seem as though the first position with its overemphasis on apologetics would be the “lesser of two evils.” After all, why wouldn’t people be sooner driven away when fighting is seen as the primary focus? Then again, as was already said, the application of polemics is a necessary and worthwhile endeavor. In the end, what is needed is a consistently balanced emphasis on both apologetics and polemics.

A Fundamentalist Failure

There was once a movement which had such a balance. In the early 20th century, the original fundamentalist movement rose in defense of orthodox Christian doctrine against the attacks of modernism. Those original fundamentalists saw the desperate need for a reasonable defense to be generated in both written and spoken form. In building that defense, they constructed a foundational library for the late 20th century as well as the 21st. All the while, they exposed whatever teaching had to be exposed and called out whatever name had to be called out. All this was despite their crossing denominational lines.

Modern fundamentalism has in a number of ways detoured from that original example. We have become characterized more for our fighting than for our defending. New fundamentalist leaders often criticize “neo-evangelicals” for having no sense of separation. However, just as much if not more criticism could be directed toward new fundamentalism for its neglect of defending its own position, at least in a respectable way.

I know this from first hand experience and can only speak from that perspective. Fundamentalism is losing its next generation, not because of modern Bible versions, dress standards, or CCM. Fundamentalism is losing its next generation because the next generation sees no reason to be fundamentalist. I know because I belong to that generation. When my generation looks for a defense of its Christianity it does not find a fundamentalist answer. It only finds fundamentalists fighting.

Let me be clear. I do not want to appear to discredit the need of polemics or fundamentalism’s alacrity for polemics. I do, however, wish to challenge new fundamentalism to regain its balance, to not just focus on fighting, but to not just focus on defending. Let’s focus on both.

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