Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review: "Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers & Skeptics Find Faith"

Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers & Skeptics Find Faith

Baker Books / 2011 / Paperback

Retail:$16.99 US

In the spirit of C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, Alister McGrath's Mere Apologetics seeks in his own words to equip readers to engage gracefully and intelligently with the challenges facing the faith today while drawing appropriately on the wisdom of the past. Rather than supplying the fine detail of every apologetic issue in order to win arguments, McGrath aims to teach a method that appeals not only to the mind but also to the heart and the imagination. It is an introduction to apologetics.

Focusing on the core themes of the Christian faith and its effective communication to the non-Christian world, McGrath sees this as a mindset of engagement that interacts with the ideas of our culture rather than running away from them or pretending they can be ignored. His states that his aim is to convert believers into thinkers, and thinkers into believers, engaging our reason, imagination, and our deepest longings. He does not see this as a defence or hostile reaction against the world per se, but sees it as a welcome opportunity to exhibit, celebrate and display the treasure chest of the Christian faith. He encourages believers to appreciate their faith and to explain, and commend it to those outside the church, in all its intellectual, moral imaginative and relational richness. (p.11).

McGrath states that he is not committed to any particular school of apologetics but drawn on their collective riches. Although not defined as such, I would see his approach as primarily an evidentialism approach to apologetics with slight hints of presuppositionalism and classical apologetics. He takes great pains to avoid using such terminology and states that he will give "pointers to more advanced resources that will allow you, the reader, to take things further in your own time" (p.12).

Starting at perhaps a classical apologetic base, McGrath begins with Augustine, and quotes 1 Pt. 3:15 seeing apologetics is essentially “a defence” (15). He states the basic themes of apologetics, first with defending (p.17). Searching out the barriers to faith, arising from misunderstanding or misrepresentation he draws on apologetics like Pascal and shows how apologetics engages the mind (Mt. 22:37; Rom. 12:2). Secondly, in Commending, he sets out to allow the truth and relevance of the gospel to be appreciated by the audience (p.19). Third, in Translating, he draws on apologists like Lewis to show how the Christian faith is likely to be unfamiliar to may audiences and the need for it to be explained using familiar or accessible images, terms, or stories (p.20). He distinguishes apologetics from evangelism (p.21) and gives the limitations of apologetics (p.23).

Chapter two moves from Modernity to Post modernity showing how each age generates its own specific concerns and critiques of the Christian faith (p.28). McGrath defines his approach in first understanding the faith, the audience, communicate with clarity, find points of contact,  present the whole gospel, and practice, practice, practice. He is helpful in specifics such as finding points of contact through the witness of history that are already embedded in human culture and experience (Acts 14:17) but misses a key opportunity to succinctly define what he means when he says in presenting the whole gospel. A simple, succinct, scriptural statement is woefully lacking on this point.

In the third chapter McGrath specifies that apologetics is not a set of techniques for winning people to Christ or a set of argumentative templates designed to win debates, but a willingness to work with God in helping people discover and turn to his glory (p.41). The approach almost seems anti-Christocentric, and frankly made me a bit nervous at this point. Thankfully he begins with setting things in context with a story from the ministry of Jesus in Mark 1. McGrath seems to be drawing on more presuppositional thoughts in specifying that conversion is not brought about by human wisdom or reasoning, but is in its deepest sense something that is brought about by God (1 Cor. 2:5). He is a little weak in saying that human nature is only wounded and damaged by sin (and not dead in trespasses and sin) yet accurately states that people are not capable of seeing thing as they are (2 Cor. 4:4). He concludes the chapter in a very helpful picture of how the cross and resurrection of Christ achieves victory over sin and death, brings healing to broken and wounded humanity and demonstrates the love of God for humanity.

Using Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2), Paul’s sermon to the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17),  and Paul's legal speeches to the Romans (Acts 24-26)  McGrath sums up their approaches to address specific audiences, identify the authorities and use lines of argument that will carry weight with the audience (p.68).

McGrath then goes on to show the "Reasonableness of the Christian Faith" showing how apologetics is an important tool in “persuading people that Christianity makes sense” (71). His evidential base shines here in his statements of how apologetics shows that there is a good argumentative or evidential base for core beliefs of Christianity. He sees such an approach to include developing intellectual arguments for the existence of God, or historical arguments for the resurrection of Jesus (p.72).  His metaphysical treatment of science is insightful showing how science can give explanation as the identification of causes, the quest for the best explanation and the metanarrative of the unification of our view of reality. For someone who is so careful to avoid terms to classify each approach of apologetics, this chapter certainly defines elements of an evidentialism approach. .

Chapter six, Pointers to Faith: Approaches to Apologetic Engagement, has some of the best apologetics treatment in the book. In the section entitled Clues, Pointers and Proofs he moves into the concept of `worldviews` to signs pointing to the greater reality of God. He makes an important point that `No one is going to be able to prove the existence of God... yet one can consider all the clues that point in this direction and take pleasure in their cumulative force` (p.95). McGrath then gives clues from origins of the universe, design, structure, morality (ontology), desire-longing, beauty, relationally, and eternality in how they all weave together clues as to a pattern. These address “both the ‘reason within’ and the ‘reason without’—the rationality of the human mind, and that embedded in the deep structure of the universe” (102). He contends that these identifying “clues about the meaning of the universe . . . are significant pointers to the capacity of the Christian faith to make sense of life” (121). He charges that the apologist then must demonstrate how these pointers actually direct us to the reality God has graciously revealed in his Word. 

Chapter seven moves into Gateways for Apologetics in Opening the Door to Faith. McGrath states how the classical rational defence of the faith is largely ineffective in the contemporary post-modern culture. He states that ``Apologetics is about building bridges, allowing people to cross from the world they already know to one they need to discover. It is about helping people to find doors they may never have known about, allowing them to see and enter a world that exceeds anything they could have imagined`` (p.127).  He  states how we must answer questions such as: Who am I? Do I really matter? Why am I here? Can I make a difference? It must be kept in mind that: ``Neither science nor human reason can answer these questions. Yet unless they are answered life is potentially meaningless… There are times when it is just as important to show Christianity is real as it is to show it is true’ (p. 138). We must remember that ``Many Christians… prefer to use words…to commend our faith. Yet we need to be aware that, in a post-modern context, images [have] special authority and power, transcending the limitations placed on words’ (p. 149). Linking historical examples, he moved from approaches of explanation, argument (from design, origination, coherence and morality), stories to images. He provides some of the most balanced treatments in this section giving both arguments, examples and critiques of each approach.

If it is not quite evident at this point, the challenge of apologetics is enormous: ``Apologetics is about communicating the joy, coherence, and relevance of the Christian faith on the one hand, and dealing with anxieties, difficulties and concerns about that faith on the other`` (p. 157). McGrath encourages the apologetics to develop a personal approach in reflecting on: ``the questions being asked, the situation of the people asking them, and the resources available to answer them, yet never to give an answer to a question that doesn't satisfy you in the first place`` (p.159). He then proceeds to give some basic points to be gracious, consider the real question, and don't give pre-packaged answers to honest questions. Real biblical wisdom is employed here by McGrath: ``One way of dealing with this issue that I have found helpful is to welcome the question, and then ask the questioner if he would mind sharing why this is a particular concern for him. This helps me work out what the real question is and address it properly (p.161). Finally, McGrath suggests we learn from other apologists, in noting both the tone and content of their responses. In putting the theory to practice, McGrath considers two of the most common challenges in apologetics of why God allows suffering, and if Christianity is just a crutch. He considers these topics theologically and then provides apologetic responses. If this wasn't insightful enough, McGrath explains why he approached these question in the manner in which he did.

The final paragraph sums up the book well: ``This short book can never hope to teach you everything about the science and art of apologetics. It can only get you started. yet hopefully if will have gotten you interested in this field, and helpful you to appreciate why apologetics is to stimulating and important. Don't be discouraged if you have found the ideas difficult to master or apply. This book simply maps out the territory, now it's up to you to explore in depth and in detail-something that is both fascinating and worthwhile. And how many things in this life are like that? (p. 185). The sections ``For Further Reading`` at the end of each chapter enable the research to continue. The rest is up to each apologist. The rationale, theory, and explanations are given for the task. There are no excuses left. This is no mere theoretical exercise, souls are at state.

My only wish, was that McGrath would have included the technical categories, at least in footnotes, to allow for precise classification and further study. Without these, the book becomes limited for formal study in a seminary or bible college. For the everyday reader, it is hard to come up with a more comprehensive yet readable volume for defending the faith. May God use this work to change lives for His kingdom.

Product Information

Format: Paperback
Number of Pages: 208
Vendor: Baker Books
Publication Date: 2011
Dimensions: 9.00 X 6.00 (inches)
ISBN: 0801014166
ISBN-13: 9780801014161

 “Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.
Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group“.

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