Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness

Christians in the United States face a challenging and unwelcoming cultural context. As we set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts, how do we prepare to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have in Christ Jesus? How do we rightly approach questioners and skeptics? How do we offer an apologetic for the Christian faith and life that remains faithful to the gospel while also attentive to the cultural changes that confront true belief, challenge the validity of Christian teachings, and complicate reasoned communication?

In Apologetics at the Cross, Joshua Chatraw and Mark D. Allen offer answers to these kinds of questions, presenting a gospel-centered introduction for Christian witness. Chatraw, the executive director of the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement and associate professor of theology and apologetics at Liberty University, and Allen, chair of biblical studies at Liberty, draw from Scripture, history, philosophy, theology, and practical experience to build a comprehensive and integrative apologetic measured by the climatic event in the biblical narrative and human history—Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (61). Defining apologetics as both an appeal for and defense of the Christian faith, Chatraw and Allen construct an apologetic house that is built to withstand the winds and waters of cultural trends in late modernity (17).

The authors divide Apologetics at the Cross into three parts. Part one lays a foundation using the Bible and significant people, movements, and apologetic approaches in Christian history. Part two builds on the foundation a methodological structure for apologetics, and part three decorates and furnishes the structure with the authors’ own apologetic touch—an “inside-out” approach that engages the cultural challenges, skeptical objections, and earnest questions of people living in late modernity (24).

Laying a foundation

In part one, Chatraw and Allen use an inductive approach to biblical texts to glean 15 apologetic performances, thus demonstrating how the Bible does apologetics. These biblical performances include, for example, general revelation in creation, polemics against idolatry, miracles, eyewitness accounts, personal testimony, raising questions to disarm false belief, addressing the problem of suffering, and so forth (27-61). Vital to each of these apologetic approaches, however, is the grand story that culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The cross remains central to apologetic appeals and for shaping the way Christians practice apologetics. For Chatraw and Allen any “apologetic should be measured by the degree of clarity with which it points to and functions in light of the most important event in human history,” the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (61, italics original).

Moving from a biblical foundation, the authors trace in broad sweeps a history of Christian apologetics. Along the way, Chatraw and Allen note challenges to the faith and provide portraits of notable defenders such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, Origen, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Pascal, Butler, Leibniz, Schleiermacher, Kuyper, Warfield, Lewis, Barth, and Newbigin. The historical survey is more than informative. It reveals both positive and negative examples: “Positively, the church has a rich history of developing biblical concepts to create different kinds of apologetic appeals appropriate for the need of the day. Negatively, history warns us of the danger of allowing extra biblical frameworks and a desire for relevancy to rule over Scripture” (105). Chatraw and Allen apply these lessons and warnings to their methodological construction.

Building a theological structure

Chatraw and Allen begin part two by building a theological structure for apologetics at the cross, using four common approaches—classical, evidential, presuppositional, and experiential-narratival. The authors propose that context should determine methodology. In other words, anchored on the biblical and historical foundation, contextual information gleaned from the situation and cultural setting should disclose which particular form of apologetic to use. Practitioners should be students of not only the craft but also the context in which they practice the craft. They should hold biblical, time-tested methods “softly” and charitably, apply methods holistically to “concrete individuals,” and practice apologetics with humility before God and toward others (106). Above all, the goal is to take people from where they are to the gospel through both words and deeds, speaking and acting as individuals embedded in local churches and shaped by the Word of God

Putting apologetics into practice

In part three, with the foundation and structure completed, Chatraw and Allen put into practice an apologetic at the cross. Relying on the insights of philosopher Charles Taylor, they first describe characteristics of the current cultural context—late modernism. The characteristics of late modernism most significant for the apologetic task are the autonomy of the individual and personal freedom, an imminent frame of reference suspicious of the supernatural, and a skepticism and distrust for any opposing viewpoints. An effective apologetic should avoid “spinning” the content of the gospel message and should take people where they are, starting with their assumptions, to create opportunities to call false beliefs into question and invite people to consider the plausibility of Christianity (ch. 10).

This inside-out apologetic begins with an attempt to discern people’s understanding of reality, affirm some aspects of their position, and ask a series of diagnostic questions to locate points of transition to the claims of Christianity: What can we affirm, and what do we need to challenge? Where do their assumptions and beliefs lead? How are their beliefs consistent? How are they inconsistent? In some ways, the inside-out method is similar to how Francis Schaffer takes false beliefs to their logical conclusions, or how Greg Koukl utilizes questions in his Columbo tactic to enhance and manage conversations with unbelievers about the Christian faith. The means is to get people to think about their own beliefs, and then the goal is to get them to consider the claims of Christianity and to hear and respond to the gospel.

To demonstrate the inside-out method, Chatraw and Allen set aside one chapter (ch. 11) to survey four significant features of late modernism that open the door for apologetic engagement. Modern pluralism, self-authorizing morality, religious lethargy, and the therapeutic turn provide opportunities and challenges to the Christian witness. If these cultural assumptions are understood, the Christian can work from inside an individual’s framework and help that person see how the strange message of the gospel makes sense of the world, fulfills the deepest human longings, and is more consistent and livable than any competing options (250). When moving the conversation to Christian convictions, however, the witness must be prepared to address tough questions about Christianity, what Chatraw and Allen call “defeaters.”

In perhaps the most practical chapter in the book, Chatraw and Allen address eight defeaters commonly used in conversations about Christianity (ch.12). Using the inside-out method, they address questions about individual freedom, sexuality, hypocrisy, reason and science, the problem of evil, God’s judgment and wrath, reliability of the Bible, and the doctrine of the Trinity. For each of these defeaters, the authors show how apologists can engage questioners graciously and craft responses. Their goal is not, however, to provide wooden answers to memorize and recite for every question in every circumstance; rather, the goal is for the apologist to keep the inside-out approach as the broader backdrop and to personalize answers to a particular set of challenges to Christianity. In other words, an apologist should know answers to questions but also discern the best strategy to answer questions within particular circumstances so that the conversation moves naturally to the gospel.

In the final chapter, Chatraw and Allen make a turn to the gospel by offering a survey of reasons why Christianity makes sense. They do not offer “coercive ‘proofs’ for God, stating that Christianity cannot be proven in that sense, though it can be justified. It can and should be trusted. Instead of ‘proof,’” Chatraw and Allen provide “signposts” for which the Christian faith “provides the deepest, richest, and most coherent view of reality” (292-93). Signposts include why can we make sense of the universe; why the universe appears to be fine-tuned for life; what makes the best sense of the consensus that the universe had a beginning; how moral realism can be grounded; and what is the best explanation for the numerous eyewitness accounts of miracles. True to form, in the end they turn to a defense of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the goal of all apologetics.

Apologetics at the Cross would be a welcomed addition to any Christian’s library, especially for those interested in understanding and defending the faith. It is a comprehensive, readable, and honest look at challenges to the Christian faith. Designed to equip believers, this book does not merely deliver information to regurgitate but teaches a strategy for living as a gospel witness.

Apologetics at the Cross is an introduction, so it is not designed to say everything. It is, however, an excellent introduction, in part because it creates a desire in the reader to know more and then points to where more can be found. Throughout the book, Chatraw and Allen reference and cite sources. The practical chapters consistently include text boxes of resources for further reading. Curious readers undoubtedly will get the urge to make a wish list of other books to add to their stack of items waiting to be read. For these reasons, Apologetics at the Cross can be read for individual edification, used to equip witnesses in the local church, or adopted as a textbook for an introductory class in apologetics. In short, my recommendation is that you get a copy and read it, and then start working on that wish list.