I sat in a corner of the library with a stack of books, desperately wanting to find some shred of evidence to support my faith.

It was my first semester of college, and I was drowning in doubt. A few weeks earlier, I had been shocked to discover in a New Testament class that there were thousands of copyist errors in the biblical manuscripts. A psychology class had introduced me to Sigmund Freud’s claim that faith was a neurotic illusion. One of my textbooks listed a dozen parallels between pagan religions and Christianity. While searching for answers to these challenges, I ran across books by Carl Sagan and Bertrand Russell that multiplied my doubts.

Everything I read seemed to chip away at assumptions and beliefs I’d held since childhood.

When I mentioned my questions at my church, people seemed to be worried about the weakness of my faith. Yet no one was able to point me in the direction of any substantive answers. Despite my best efforts, my search for evidence quickly became a solo quest.

Somewhere along the way, I ran across the word apologetics for the first time. Discovering an entire genre of books that provided evidence for the Christian faith reset the direction of my life.

Apologetics texts by Josh McDowell, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and others showed me that my questions were far from new. To my surprise, the doubts that seemed so insurmountable when I first encountered them had been addressed many times before. This realization renewed my faith and made me determined to share this newfound evidence with as many people as possible.

Three decades later, I’m still grateful for the ways God worked in my life during my first lonely foray into apologetics. Yet even then, I wished my local church could have helped me more. After all, the apostle Peter’s command to “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks” (1 Pet. 3:15) wasn’t given primarily to authors or conference speakers. This commission was addressed to local assemblies of believers, with elders, ordinances, complicated relationships, and everything else that makes the church so messy and complex and yet so beautiful (1 Pet. 3:21; 4:8–9; 5:1–5).

Today, attacks on the Christian faith are far easier to access than they were during my first year of college, but so are defenses. With such an abundance of apologetics resources now accessible in print and online, churches seem to be increasingly open to integrating defenses of the faith into ordinary practices of discipleship. At the same time, church members have become less and less inclined to flock to the sorts of conferences, headlined by superstar speakers, that dominated apologetics in the opening decades of the 21st century.

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If Christians do begin to see their local churches as contexts for apologetics, this development will not be something new. It will be a retrieval of practices that are very old.

Ancient apologists such as Justin Martyr, Aristides of Athens, and Athenagoras presented the life of the church as primary evidence for the truth of the faith. Irenaeus, Augustine of Hippo, John Calvin, and many others pursued apologetics not as scholarly specialists but as pastors who were responsible for the spiritual well-being of ordinary Christians in local churches.

Resources like The Pastor as Apologist: Restoring Apologetics to the Local Church, a new book from pastors Dayton Hartman and Michael McEwen, give me hope that this venerable approach to apologetics might be making a comeback.

Hartman is lead pastor at Redeemer Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He’s authored several books, including Church History for Modern Ministry: Why Our Past Matters for Everything We Do. McEwen serves as the pastor of Hickory Grove Baptist Church in rural Tennessee. Their goal for this little primer is to “reclaim the historic role and biblical mandate for the local church pastor as an apologist.” The authors’ love for the local church is evident on every page.

By presenting the pastor as an apologist, Hartman and McEwen are seeking to recover “an ecclesial approach” that intertwines the whole life of the local church with apologetic engagement. From the perspective of the authors, “parachurch ministries are wonderful tools that can and should exist in order to support initiatives of the local church, but they must never take the place of the local church or its scriptural mandates for engaging the world.”

Hartman and McEwen begin their defense with an appeal to Scripture. In the New Testament, they write, apologetics isn’t merely “a defense with our words, but also a defense with our whole selves.” Sometimes, as in 1 Peter 3:13–16, this defense requires Christians to correct misrepresentations of the faith. In other instances, it calls us to correct false teachings within the church, as in Jude 1:3. In both cases, apologetics is one of the pastor’s primary responsibilities. No wonder, then, that when the apostle Paul listed the qualifications of a pastoral leader, he included a capacity to defend sound teaching (Titus 1:9).

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After laying this biblical foundation in the opening chapter, Hartman and McEwen offer a quick historical survey that highlights how Christian apologists throughout history have refused to separate their defenses of the faith from the life of the local church. As they observe, generations of ancient and medieval apologists recognized that “one of the best ways to engage and navigate hostile cultural environments is to ground apologetic engagement under the oversight and auspices of the local church.” Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, for example, is rightly recognized as a work in which Calvin developed a sustained argument that the Reformed faith was the historic faith of the church.

The book includes a useful chapter on apologetic preaching, especially as it emphasizes the resurrection of Jesus and the reliability of Scripture. The recommendations for using transcendental and cosmological arguments in preaching are somewhat less helpful than the sections on Scripture and the Resurrection. The cosmological argument, as the authors present it, defends God’s existence by pointing to the logical impossibility of an infinite regression of events that excludes an initial cause. The transcendental argument contends that the laws of logic must originate in a source that transcends the cosmos.

These arguments are cogent. And perhaps there are a few churches where a sermon that highlights the objective transcendence of logic would reassure members of God’s goodness in response to the problem of evil. I suspect, however, that there are far more churches where such arguments would leave listeners bewildered. I’m certain that when the authors themselves preach, they do bring their arguments down to the level of their congregations, but a few simpler examples of how to do this might have been helpful.

The closing chapter of The Pastor as Apologist provides pastors with a series of practical ideas for their churches. The authors point out that the most effective movements toward apologetics won’t occur because of large-scale conferences. Instead, churches will develop lasting apologetics cultures when leaders consistently “drip” defenses of the faith into a variety of contexts. These contexts include not only preaching but also member training, small-group discussions, and occasional events that provide opportunities for non-Christians to have their questions answered.

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For all its virtues, The Pastor as Apologist is curiously brief and somewhat uneven. There are only four chapters. Taken together, they barely surpass 100 pages.

In my view, the authors’ defense of presuppositionalist apologetics is unneeded in such a short work. This method pushes back against philosophical categories that treat truth as a neutral category. As the authors argue, presuppositionalism regards “truth itself as distinctly Christian,” with all forms of thought reflecting “a duel between Christian and non-Christian philosophies of life.” Although discussions of differing apologetics approaches have their place, appealing to one in particular seems out of place in a basic primer. As a whole, however, the book is perfectly compatible with a range of apologetics methods.

Two appendices provide readers with a list of recommended resources as well as an example of how a church’s liturgy might function apologetically. The one titled “Liturgical Apologetics” is perhaps the most creative and useful portion of the entire book. There, the authors provide a step-by-step plan for developing an Easter service that engages non-Christians with a clear and winsome defense of the most central claims of the Christian faith. Reading this appendix, I found myself wishing that it might have been developed into one or two more chapters, with suggestions for other worship services throughout the year.

Despite its minor weaknesses, The Pastor as Apologist is a welcome work at a moment when apologetics training seems to be shifting from public debates and conference stages to local churches. Hartman and McEwen are correct to say that “for far too long churches have relied on professional apologists, slick websites, branded videos, and snarky memes to do the heavy lifting of engaging our world with a reasoned defense of the gospel.”

Decades ago, I wrestled with my faith in a tiny congregation with godly members who loved Jesus but who weren’t equipped to aim a struggling college student in the direction of any reputable evidence. I pray that future pastors and churches take the message of this book to heart. If they do, maybe future students like me will not find themselves on a solo quest for evidence. Perhaps they will discover their answers in the context of the church, this glorious and beloved bride for whom Jesus gave his life.

Timothy Paul Jones is chair of the department of apologetics, ethics, and philosophy at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as a preaching pastor at Sojourn Church Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the coauthor, with Jamaal Williams, of In Church as It Is in Heaven: Cultivating Multiethnic Kingdom Culture.

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The Pastor as Apologist: Restoring Apologetics to the Local Church
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
The Pastor as Apologist: Restoring Apologetics to the Local Church
Author
Publisher
B&H Academic
Release Date
April 15, 2024
Pages
160
Price
14.99
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