Apologetics

It's recently struck me that I've been using this word incorrectly. Or, rather, that I've been attempting to use it correctly, but in a sense far broader than the one in common use. "Apologetics" has been defined in common use today as the defense of the Christian faith. But what that most often means is the defense of a set of theological opinions from those on all sides who disagree. Usually, the angry and aggressive defense of said. Apologetes are men fighting a war for what they believe. (And occasionally also women.)

The Westminster set defend this usage (though they will deny that there is anything of "opinion" about their dogma) by reference to a forensic definition of apologia. That apologia belongs to courtroom defense, the testimony of those who are being prosecuted. (Or is it persecuted?) And I won't deny that the Greek term does apply to that circumstance. That one does in fact render an apologon, or engage in apologēsis, in court—and under specific constraints because of the situation. But I will deny that the forensic case is in any way exhaustive of the lexeme invoked here. Though one apologizes in court, apology is not essentially forensic.

Fundamentally, apology is not so much defense as explanation. It is the giving of an account. That may be forensic, as when we give an account of what happened from our perspective on the event in question. It may be financial, as when we give an account of where the money entrusted to us has gone. But both of these uses assume something that may not be present in all cases. In the Greek, the opposite term to apologia in these senses is katēgoria: accusation. Be wary when you see someone defend themselves in the absence of an accusation! Self-justification often comes from self-accusation.

Apologetics without Apologizing

"Apology" does not demand an accusation, however. Apologetics need not be the reflex of one who anticipates accusation. Leaving that context aside, we find that apologetics is the construction of narratives, fables, tales—stories that account for things in the world. Homer gives us this meaning when he uses apologos for the tale Odysseus tells to King Alcinous, and it sticks. Such apologues often include what we call "etiologies," more literally aitiologues: accounts of the causes of things. An apologue proceeds from common evidence about the way things are, grounds that one's audience will accept. Apologetics uses such facts of a worldview to tell a story that fits and extends that worldview. It is the construction of coherent and sensible pictures of the world on the basis of accepted data.

In terms we might more readily use in the sciences, apologetics is a matter of building a model to explain a theory that unifies a given set of data. On the one hand, the model only really works if the audience accepts the data. On the other hand, the model is frequently the basis on which the audience can say whether the theory about that data is any good. The theory attempts to account for the data; the model tells the story of that accounting. In theology, apologetics is the half of the field in which we tell stories on the basis of doctrines. And in the classic division, the other half is dogmatics. In dogmatics, we do the theory work. In dogmatics, we attempt to account for the data; in apologetics, we tell stories built on that accounting. We turn dogma into something more useful to the audience. And in the process, we make the dogmatic foundations of our stories more acceptable.

The problem is that a good story can keep a bad doctrine alive indefinitely, if we believe the story. Stories are dangerous. We make them, but we do not control them. We make them for the audience, and they belong to the audience. The audience gives them what life they have. You cannot untell a tale. And that tale will become doctrine itself. We will tell stories of the story, because we take it to be data in its own right. Dogma taught as story begets dogma, which is retold in new stories, which beget still more dogmata.

... All the Way Down

The "historical Adam," for example, becomes absolutely essential to the faith—an Adam not found in Genesis, but built from tales told on the basis of dogma, itself built on the basis of the tales told in Genesis. Tales told not to explain that there was a first man—as though that were the central dogmatic fact—but that the world has been going wrong from the very beginning, because of human decisions and actions. Tales told to explain the context of God's ongoing work of redemption, because the world is not a place in which God's will is done, except by God. And if that is so, we must find some way to understand how it is that we live in a world that is not ordered according to the will of its Creator. And we tell that story because we must find some way to understand how it is that the God who redeems us has power to do so, in a world that claims to owe nothing to our God. Creation is an apologetic worldview built from the dogmatic facts of redemption as seen through history. And in the telling of creation as a fact underlying our redemption, we sow the seeds of a dogmatic future in which creation stories cannot be extracted from the discussion of redemption, because the stories have become data in their own rights.

Of course, this isn't a problem we can escape. The problem is foundational to our faith. To any faith, in fact, that is based in scripture. Or did you think that we had any purely dogmatic writings in there? Any that weren't built on story in their own rights? Any that were more about the data than about telling it convincingly to an audience? How would such writings survive? Who would preserve them? Remember that scripture has canonical status on the basis of its catholicity: the breadth of the audience that valued it enough to use it regularly. Even the Tanakh is composed of works valued by their audience before they were canonized as scripture. The Pentateuch is the telling of stories. The law codes in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus do not live without their narratives. The Deuteronomistic history is the telling of stories that the Chronicler will later retell. The Prophets are stories told, some in more restricted particulars and some in expansively longer narratives. The Wisdom literature seeks to do dogmatics precisely by telling stories—and within it, Job and Ecclesiastes ridicule the theories of the Proverbs by telling different stories. The Esdras and the Maccabees each proceed as historical stories of the reclamation of the kingdom, in apocalyptic terms. I could go on, but I'm into the part the Jewish tradition calls "the Writings" already, so that point should be obvious.

The gospels are stories told by outsider communities in the wake of the fall of Jerusalem, stories built on the material of earlier stories and cast in the molds of still earlier stories. Paul's authentic letters may be the only non-literary works we have, as correspondence, but even there Paul is building on story after story to teach his communities. But even if we believe that he is a first-person witness to the resurrected Jesus, as he claims, he does not tell that story in his writings. The author of Acts tells a story about that story, using Paul and Peter as characters. The pseudonymous and "catholic" epistles are closer to dogmatic writings, but on what basis? Only when they begin to tell stories do they reveal what they take to be theological data. And much of it is objectionable! Only those who agree with their worldviews tend to be able to accept their theologies. And do I really need to go into detail on the Apocalypse?

Teaching and Faith

Dogma, and story. Story, and dogma. Doctrine is both, because we cannot teach dogmatic theory without apologetic narratives. But for that reason, our theology is inextricably bound up with worldviews that cannot all be essential to the faith. We are not given essentials—and when we are, they often make demands on the basis of presumed facts of the world rather than God. We should question whether they are in fact essential! We are given no objective data, and no choice but to work through the stories in order to define for ourselves what our faith in God will look like.

Certainly, we also do battle with our stories. And that is what "apologetics" has come to mean, this waging of narrative warfare. Why believe them? Tell better stories, and use all of the data you have available to you to do so. You are your first audience, when it comes to telling the story of your faith. Tell it credibly to yourself. Be faithful to God, and to yourself, and to your neighbors, and let these other stories be what they are. Use them, and do what they do, but don't place your trust in the story as an end in itself. It is not your job to defend these stories. They are in no danger from you. Judge them. Judge their worldviews, their theologies, and their versions of God. That is your right, and it is also your duty. When you tell a story of the faith, when you teach your own audiences, they may believe you. You are responsible for the stories you tell, whether they are your own or those of others. As James says, "We who teach..."

Scripture does not demand your faith for itself. It recommends to you a God in whom its authors trust, according to their understandings. It recommends that you trust this God, for these reasons. But ultimately, it tells you that this is a real and living God, whom you will meet for yourself, and before whom you will make your own decisions. The canon of scripture was not made to be a final authority of any kind. Scripture will not judge you, though its authors might have, and though others may. Scripture is a tool. Like everyone else, you are responsible for what you do with it. If you obey someone else because they claim to have authority, you are no less responsible. If you reject outside authorities, you are just as responsible—but you'll feel it more. All of our systems will break. The advantage is that when my systems break, I expect it. And I'm good enough to know where the weak points are, much of the time. It's my job as a teacher to tell you where the weak points are, to tell you where things are likely to break—because I don't want your faith to rely upon the unreliable! And it is my job also to learn where things do break, and what is in fact unreliable, so that I do not endanger others.

Apologetics is inescapable, and we had better do it well, but it always raises exactly this problem. We use the materials around us to fashion explanations of God, who is not in fact made of the materials around us. Who is not exactly like them, or necessarily even remotely like them. Our faith in God is always expressed in things we also believe. There is no fides qua creditur, no faith that believes, without some form of the fides quae creditur, the faith we happen to believe. And we constantly get those two things confused! We are constantly mistaking things we believe for our belief in God. This is the danger of apologetics: that it becomes what it so often is in common use, the defense of things we believe—and not the more tentative and responsible explanation of our belief in God in terms we cannot guarantee, but which make sense to us.

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