A friend recently asked me on an Instagram Q&A, “What’s your preference—apologetics or theology?”
Honestly, I couldn’t pick one or the other. Both have been so essential to my growth as a follower of Christ! As I discussed that during the Q&A and a few others resonated with my response, I realized that the relationship between apologetics and theology is seldom discussed in the church.
It’s perfectly understandable to have a preference on the books we read; perhaps you enjoy J.I. Packer’s Knowing God more than C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. That’s okay!
However, when it comes to actually preferring the study and practice of apologetics over that of theology or vice versa, we venture into muddy waters.
First, for the sake of clarity, let’s define some terms:
· Theology is the study of God
· Doctrine is Christian belief [i]
· Sound doctrine reflects what Scripture affirms [ii]
· One’s theology is a product of whether or not they hold sound doctrine[iii]
· Heresy is that which contradicts sound doctrine
· Apologetics is a branch of theology that seeks to provide a rational justification for Christian truth claims [iv]
If we aspire to be faithful defenders of Christianity, we should firmly grasp how theology and apologetics work together—because they absolutely do! Here are 5 ways how:
1. God has provided a biblical mandate for doing both apologetics and theology
In 1 Peter 3:15, Peter encourages us to participate in apologetics, “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.” At the same time, flip over to the next book, and you’ll stumble upon a similar command for studying theology: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
2. Good apologetics can’t exist without good theology
We need to truly know what we believe, and in whom we believe, before we can attempt to make a reasoned and respectful defense of our faith. In Passionate Intellect, Allister McGrath writes, “…A right understanding of apologetics, resting on a secure theological foundation, insists that God is involved in the apologetics enterprise.” [v]. Poor apologetics, then, insists that God is not involved in our apologetics work. We can act like he isn’t involved by treating a skeptic like an evil opponent rather than a person made in God’s image. Or by pretending to be a know-it-all, as we discussed earlier, rather than a humble disciple of Christ. Each of these examples arise from the theological misunderstanding that God isn’t involved in apologetics. So even in a practical sense, when doing apologetics, it goes hand in hand with our theology.
3. Theology provided a framework for the early apologists to do apologetics
Gnosticism posed a threat to the early church. Essentially, when applied to Christ, Gnosticism rejected both the incarnation and the suffering of Christ.
In response to the heresies spreading, Irenaeus, an early apologist, constructed the treatise, Against All Heresies. Within this treatise, Irenaeus defended the doctrine of Christ and Creation against the false ideas prevalent in his day. Irenaeus writes, “Learn then, ye foolish men, that Jesus who suffered for us, and who dwelt among us, is Himself the Word of God…” [v].
Even in the early church, apologetics thrived within a strong theological framework—in this example, of God as Creator and Jesus as God in flesh. Granted, the early apologists made a number of mistakes since they didn’t have the resources we have now. However, whether he realized it or not, Irenaeus still uniquely displayed the relationship between theology and apologetics in his treatise.
What might the relationship between theology and apologetics look like for us today?
4. As a branch of theology, apologetics can defend the existence of God, moving forward from there
A few core doctrines susceptible to attack today include the doctrine of God (including his existence and character) Christology, (including the historicity, incarnation, and resurrection of Christ), and the doctrine of Scripture (including the reliability and inerrancy of Scripture). Consider the doctrine of God. The situation for the early church was slightly different, as pantheism remained more prevalent in the Greco-Roman world than atheism. However, with the rise of atheism in culture and public education today, apologetics enables us to defend the existence of God. Once the existence of God is established, then we can move into the arena of theological exposition, asking questions such as, “What is God like?” and “How can we relate to God?” Depending on the situation and person, that may propel us into further apologetics work, such as presenting evidence for the reliability of the resurrection. In short, apologetics is necessary for theology today because it defends the existence of God and can introduce non-believers to the study of God.
5. Both apologetics and theology solidify our faith
While theology answers the ‘who’ and ‘what’ of our faith, apologetics answers the ‘why.’ Within our study of theology, we learn the meaning of our faith. We discover the character of God, how to relate to him, and how to live in light of our beliefs. Within our study of apologetics, however, we unveil the truth and historical reliability of our faith. Both apologetics and theology solidify our faith, teaching us how it stands apart from all other systems of thought as objectively good, beautiful, and true.
The Relationship Between Apologetics and Theology: A Tapestry
Think of apologetics and theology as the needle and thread of a tapestry in the works. They serve different purposes, but they’re both equally valuable to the church. They work together, like needle and thread, to form a complex and meaningful picture of the Christian faith.
So instead of asking, “Apologetics or theology—which one is the best?” let’s ask, “What’s the relationship between apologetics and theology?” Only then will we display the stunning tapestry of the Christian faith in our apologetics work.
[i] Gregg R. Allison, “A Brief History of Doctrine.” ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible, 1628
[ii] Allison, 1628
[iii] Levi Dade
[iv] William Lane Craig, “Foundations of Christian Doctrine, Lecture 2, What is Apologetics and Why Study It?”
[v] Against All Heresies, Irenaeus
[vi] Allister McGrath, The Passionate Intellect, 87
^Tapestry analogy came in part from McGrath’s book, though he did not use the example of needle and thread.