Starting Right Where I Am
Mention the word “study” and most of us want to run. “Training” might be worse as it conjures up images of sitting for hours hearing about a subject you’d rather not learn.
So, learning to defend the faith might just seem a little overwhelming.
Paul Copan, well-known philosopher and author, uses his ministry of writing, teaching, and speaking to help fellow Christians in their walk toward using the mind for the glory of God. In Dr. Copan’s answers to the questions below, there is something for everyone, no matter how far down the path you are. The starting point is right where you are.
Q: The world seems so different than the one I grew up in. Where are we as a culture and how did we get there?
A: R.C. Sproul says that we, as the church, are suffering from “the worst case of anti-intellectualism in history,” and I agree that we are failing to emphasize the importance of the life of the mind.
But it is true for our culture, as well, that truth and rationality are taken far less seriously than they ought to be. Two generations ago, many in our culture took biblical authority seriously. We have since slipped into a postmodern mood in which we have no universal, objective truths—just “your truth” or “my reality.” And the church certainly is not reinforcing the importance of the life of the mind. “Certainly you want to reach society, but unfortunately a lot of times churches are content with the status quo and don’t encourage the use of the mind, which equals a more superficial approach.”In the 18th century, great thinkers like Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley emphasized the importance of argument, logical coherence, and utilizing intellectual resources to deepen and sharpen their faith. By contrast, we are now living in a society of sound-bites and piece-meal information. The church has been affected by the spirit of the age.
Certainly you want to reach society, but unfortunately a lot of times churches are content with the status quo and don’t encourage the use of the mind, which equals a more superficial approach. Not taking seriously the life of the mind allows things to be perpetuated in a more shallow manner. For example, sometimes our praise songs are fluffy, me-centered, repetitious, and, I think, overlooking some the rich theological themes of our Christian heritage and neglecting the great things of the gospel.
Of course, emphasis on the life of the mind shouldn’t mislead us into intellectualizing the Christian faith. We are called to love God and to love others as our primary duties, and when the intellect moves us away from fulfilling this, we have lapsed into idolatry. And while defending the Christian faith (apologetics) is an important ministry that local churches should take very seriously, it is not the solution to all of the church’s ills. It is part of the broader, holistic mission of the church that involves worship, preaching and teaching, evangelism, helping the needy, freeing the oppressed, and using spiritual gifts of all sorts.
Q: In your book, How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? you say that Jesus is your favorite philosopher. Should we change how we portray Jesus to our people and how we talk about Jesus?
A: Absolutely. Dallas Willard talks about Jesus being the most logical, brilliant mind that ever walked the earth. And we need to remind people that Jesus was the one who was the embodiment of the wisdom of God. Jesus dealt with issues in a brilliant way. For example, when Jesus is confronted about paying taxes (see Matthew 22: 15-22. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”) Frequently Jesus offered these brilliant answers to his objectors and enemies.
Jesus said, “Love the Lord our God with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37)—that is often missing in our contemporary church and Jesus was one who exemplified the love of his Father by the use of his mind. We can use our minds to bring glory to God.
In Acts, the apostles often engage their opponents to show that the Christian faith makes sense. They said they were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry. Paul went into the synagogue debating and dialoguing, reasoning with people from the Scriptures. In Acts 17 where Paul goes to Athens, he engages with philosophers and presents the Christian faith with Jesus as the one on whom all of our hopes hang and the very source of salvation; that is, God has made himself known in Christ. Apologetics is not anti-biblical, but apologetics is a partner the proclamation of the gospel. In Scripture, we see the gospel being defended over and over again.
I think increasingly we are going to need to be not only the bearers of the gospel to others but a people who have answers available to questions such as, “What about the problem of evil? and “How do I know God exists?” We will need to give basic answers to these objections. Typically, the same questions come up over and over again. You won’t need to learn lots of new material with each person you talk to. If we have a mastery of some of the basics, we can really go a long way. And, as we’re evangelizing, as we’re talking about our faith, we will have greater confidence in presenting the gospel and won’t be daunted by the potential questions that might come up, but rather will say, “I believe the Christian faith does a better job of answering these sorts of questions.”
And, we need to be prepared to ask them questions about their viewpoint. How does it hold up? “You’ve been criticizing my viewpoint; well let’s ask some questions about how your viewpoint puts the pieces together.” If we do this, then people will be bolder in their evangelism. People who are reluctant to think that the Christian faith is true for all people will be hesitant in sharing their faith. Having a background in apologetics will remove that barrier to help them proclaim with more boldness.
Q: In what basic concepts should every Christian should be well-versed?
A: I think Christians need to know their own book. The biblical illiteracy we see in our churches is really quite startling. We can be so distracted by gadgets and video games, we diminish or obscure reflection, prayer and Scripture study. So Scripture, rather than being what roots us, becomes more like fast food—just as we go out the door.
To remedy that, to encourage people to become more biblically literate, we can do this: preach more expository sermons and help people understand the content of the biblical books and really delve into the biblical text, rather than simply offering topical messages or themes. This is an approach needed not just for sermons, but for Sunday school classes as well. Helping people understand whole books of the Bible—as well as solid Christian theology—needs to be strongly encouraged.
And, we need to help people be aware of the important issues with which they will need to contend. In the area of apologetics, we must give reasons for why we believe. We see so many believers who have only a superficial understanding of Scripture and have no basis for saying why the Christian faith is true and or why he is not a Hindu or a Muslim. “We see so many believers who have only a superficial understanding of Scripture and have no basis for saying why the Christian faith is true…”Without that awareness of an objective foundation for belief, they will buy into books like the Da Vinci Code and will be much more vulnerable to the tactics of new religious movements like Mormonism or Jehovah Witnesses. Because they are not biblically or theologically founded they can become more easily confused and rattled when they read a book like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. They just have not thought deeply about their own faith; so they become swayed by anti or non-Christian perspectives.
Another area in which Christians could certainly beef up their knowledge is in a greater appreciation of history. Often, we operate as if there’s been no Church tradition, no lessons learned from Church history, no theological disputes, or no sacrifices made by godly predecessors on our behalf. We jump from the book of Acts to the 21st century, thinking we can do church that way, all the while failing to see the lessons we can learn from church history. There is theology that is formulated that has been based on Scripture. Yet understanding some of those controversies and understanding some of those nuances can help us detect heresy when it crops up.
Coming Up Next:
In the issues that follow, look for Dr. Copan’s answers to questions such as: How can a pastor train his people? Given that Christianity has been marginalized in almost every corner of society, is there any hope for regaining the ground and influence we’ve lost? Since we live in a culture where many see no difference between Christians and other religions, such as Islam, what can we do?