The Dangers of Apologetics

Writing in the mid-2nd century, St. Justin produced his famous “Apology,” a defense of Christianity that plead for its toleration within the Roman Empire. Any number of famous examples of “apologetics” can be found in patristic writings – most serving as refutations of heretical teachings (such as St. Irenaeus’ Against the Heresies or St. Athanasius On the Incarnation). On occasion, these works were quite seminal (though anyone who has labored through the entirety of St. Irenaeus has a stronger constitution than myself) and serve as major landmarks in the faith. Apologetics has a noble history. It also has a potential darkness hidden within.

The darkness lies in the dangers of critical thought and argumentation.

What part of the heart is engaged by critical thought and argumentation? In most cases, it is quite possible that no part of the heart is engaged – the exercise can consist in nothing more than rational argumentation and limbic impulses (anger, fear, envy, etc.). This is to say that the “accuracy” of an apologetic article or video can be equally deadly (and sinful) in its effect.

Fr. Thomas Hopko famously taught, “Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.” (#43 in his 55 Maxims).

Hopko’s maxim is an extreme statement, one intended as a wake-up call (I suspect). As someone who has been accused of quietism, I take comfort in such extreme company. I also know that my heart struggles: many days my inner voices do nothing but argue and complain. They leave a trail of alienation and make prayer ever more difficult.

As years have gone by, the phrase, “Guard your heart,” has come to have increasing importance for me. In the course of any given day, I do not find myself struggling to believe “right things.” I am not tempted by heresies. The great struggle is to maintain the most fundamental meaning of the word, “Orthodoxia,” which is “right worship.” Right worship describes the fullness of the heart’s right disposition towards God. The heart is the true battleground of the spiritual life – it is there that I am tempted to put myself in the place of God and others in the place of objects. Such an image of hell! The self as god ruling over a universe of objects!

The reduction of human beings to mere rationality – as if thinking of things were the sum of a human being – is a terrible error. The Liturgy suggests a much greater vision. Just prior to the great prayer of thanksgiving (the Anaphora), the congregation joins in the recitation or singing of the Nicene Creed. The Deacon calls forth this common action with significant words:

” Let us love one another! That with one mind [ὁμονοίᾳ] we may confess, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence, and undivided.”

The “one mind” is not a reference to mere intellectual agreement, but to a true communion of love in which we speak as one. It is an agreement that can only be had through love. It cannot be coerced nor settled by argument.

There is a holy and divine “weakness” within the reality of love. Love must be freely given. In the most extreme case, we may say that God Himself must wait for our love.

St. John records the post-resurrection conversation between Jesus and Simon Peter. Christ asks him, “Do you love me more than these (the other disciples)?” He uses the word “agape” – love in its fullest and most complete sense. Peter responds, “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you,” but, in answering, he uses the word “philia,” a lesser word meaning, “friendship.” Christ asks the same question a second time, and gets the same answer. The third time, Christ lessens his question and says, “Simon, do you love (philia) me?” The text says that this troubled Peter, who said, “Lord, you know all things, you know that I love (philia) You.”

It strikes me that, in that conversation, Christ never hears from Peter that his agape is returned. Peter is offering an honest answer. He knows that he has failed the test of agape in his denial of Christ on the night of Christ’s betrayal. All he can say is, “You know I am your friend” (I love you with “friend-love”). Christ follows this last statement with a prophesy of Peter’s future – indeed, Peter was later crucified in Rome. What we can say of Peter’s lifetime, particularly as illustrated in his death, is that his friendship matured into true self-sacrificing agape. “Greater love (agape) has no man than this – that a man should lay down his life for his friend.”

The patience of God extends for a lifetime (and more). It is noteworthy that Peter himself writes this:

“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9 ESV)

The darkness hidden within apologetics can be its blindness to the heart. To paraphrase: “What shall it profit a man to win an argument and lose his soul?”

Modernity carries within it the revolutionary (demonic) urge to dominate the world. My heart is filled with dread when I hear people ruminate over what the world or our country would be like if Orthodoxy were triumphant (I suppose that triumph would be cultural, political, etc.). It is utterly the wrong question for anyone to ask. Beyond that, we have seen, from time to time, that dream become a localized reality. I recall a conversation with my late Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas (of blessed memory). I asked him what he thought about the notion of Orthodoxy as the state church. He replied:

“On the whole, we haven’t found it to work out.”

Guard your heart. Beware of arguments and clever disputation. Become like God and be patient. Only love endures.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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30 responses to “The Dangers of Apologetics”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    To hurt, whether at the hand of a person(s) or in conflict with the mind of the world is inevitable and, I think, a form of death (I die daily).

    To overcome through my own I find nearly impossible. I hurt the ones I love all the time. Yet Jesus still loves me and calls me to Himself forgiving all.

    Still, I turn from Him. Yet He warms my heart deep within.

  2. Eric Kyte Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen
    I’m currently engaged in a lengthy study project regarding Iain McGilchrist’s work on the significance of the two hemispheres of the human brain and your words land right in the bullseye of my pondering. The Left Hemisphere of the brain which I increasingly understand not as but in relation to our ‘adversary’, thinks it can objectify the world. In so doing it encourages us to stand apart as if we can see in truth and therefore judge. Because it is that part of our brain which especially good at words, it rationalises and believes it-self to be True.
    The Right, Quiet, Beholding hemisphere Knows only relationally, understanding in communion.

    Thank you!

    Kindest
    Eric

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Eric….yet we need both plus Jesus to be whole in repentance and thanksgiving

  4. Preston Avatar
    Preston

    I very much appreciate this, Father Stephen. As someone living in a very much Western Protestant milieu, I can personally attest to the pervasiveness of the “apologetic” mentality you just described. It often feels like I’m the only person who sees the deadening effects of such an approach to life and faith. But in my heart of hearts I know that can’t be the case. Your perspective here is a profoundly validating breath of fresh air.

  5. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Preston,
    Sadly, there are corners of Orthodoxy where apologetics-as-religion is quite dominant. I believe it to be an import of sorts (though sin is kind of universal). It is clearly anti-Hesychastic (Hesychasm being the very depth of the Orthodox-monastic spiritual ideal), even while it would likely “defend” Hesychasm quite loudly. What I think is unseen is the danger of atheism that lurks within the world of argumentation and such. It’s quite clear that one need not believe in God to win an argument, even an argument about God. On the other hand, to live a life that authentically trusts in the loving providence of God – a life that is truly vulnerable to that – is impossible without God.

  6. Michelle Avatar
    Michelle

    This is just the right medicine for me. Thank you.

    Michelle

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I was received into the Church 37 years ago. I have never been a fan of arguing apologetics because of the experience I was granted–noetic from the beginning even though the priest who received my family and me was clearly troubled and later left his family and the Church.

    My favorite book is St. Athanasius “On the Incarnation”.

    The only disappointments come from myself.

  8. Steve Taylor Avatar

    Excellent and timely as usual Fr. Stephen. Thank you!

  9. opsomath Avatar
    opsomath

    Words are an instrument of this world, but silence is a mystery of the world to come.

    – St Isaac the Syrian

    I have this written where I can see it at my work, at which I must use a lot of words. Maybe one day it will sink in.

  10. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    It´s one of my favorite books as well Michael!

    I spent years studying apologetic arguments and engaging in apologetic arguments – all while in fundamentalist Protestant circles and tribes. It took me years to discover, for example, that attempting to prove the historicity of John´s Gospel is not nearly as important as what the Gospel itself teaches. It was like I was building my “faith” on argumentation and expecting prospective converts to do the same. “Oh where was your faith Matthew??”

    I think, too, when we realize it´s the Church that gave us the Bible and that it (the Bible) can only be rightly understood within the life of the Church – such places all proof-texting and apologetic arguments in their proper context.

  11. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew, et al
    I think the trouble with apologetics (and it should be noted that I described it as a noble work) is that we take an easy route in which we substitute rational argumentation (and limbic passions) for the difficult work of true Orthodox Hesychasm. We love to quote St. Seraphim’s admonition, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved,” but we tend to do nothing with it. His statement is very positive. It could also be said, “Fail to acquire the Spirit of Peace and thousands around you will be damaged…”

    There’s nothing new in this – but the call to true repentance – the acquisition of virtue – remains.

  12. Luke Nieuwsma Avatar
    Luke Nieuwsma

    Father Stephen,
    Christ is risen!
    I feel like you’re touching on exactly the same issues that Father Sarah from Rose was trying to deal with when he urged converts in the 70s and eighties to focus on what he called “Orthodoxy of the heart” – The development of a soft, gentle, warm, compassionate and generous core within us produced by the true application of the Faith and the services and seasons of fasts and feasts, yet also without any compromise toward the man-pleasing spirit of the age.
    If I’m reading things right, it seems that many Orthodox who tended toward perfect logical reasoning back in the 80s ended up in most bitter schism with the canonical jurisdictions in America… the “hyper-correct” as he called them. They had sharp wits but hard hearts.

  13. Luke Nieuwsma Avatar
    Luke Nieuwsma

    Sorry that should say Seraphim Rose. Silly voice-to-text…
    -Luke

  14. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “We love to quote St. Seraphim’s admonition, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved,” but we tend to do nothing with it. His statement is very positive. It could also be said, “Fail to acquire the Spirit of Peace and thousands around you will be damaged…”

    There’s nothing new in this – but the call to true repentance – the acquisition of virtue – remains.”

    I guess, Fr. Stephen, for all the brilliant apologetic arguments one could make in defense of the faith, these questions remain:

    Have you repented? Are you thankful to God? Are you at least trying to live a life of virtue that produces fruit? Do you love God and others?

  15. Andrew R Avatar
    Andrew R

    Bless, Father!

    Christ is Risen!

    I tend to be left-brained and analytical (I write software for a living). When I see articles, op-eds, and other thought pieces of an anti-Christian nature, I tend to get a strong desire to write and submit a (respectful) critique of the work. I will develop, sometimes, a hyper-preoccupation with the article and the writer’s arguments. I agree with you, that it is not a spiritual exercise when I do this, but a purely mental one.

    I am conflicted whenever I write a critique. On one hand, I believe that doing this is probably a moot point, because the Holy Spirit is what converts people to Christ, not my own fallen reasoning. On the other hand, I know people personally who feel persuaded by these types of articles, and I want to provide a counter point to the things they read in popular media.

    I have to add… the “strong desire” I feel to write could very well be a passion. I am of the opinion that these famous apologetic works (“On the Incarnation”, “Against Heresies”, etc), though similar in form to modern apologetics, were written with a different mindset.

    Is there a place for common people doing critiques and apologetics to affect their immediate social circles? I’m very happy to take advice from opsomath’s Isaac the Syrian, quote.

  16. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Andrew,
    I don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast rule on all of this, though the rule-of-thumb to “guard your heart” is important whether you write or not. It is interesting to me that over the past year, I have seen increasing evidence of some successful push-back against the easy atheism of folks like Dawkins. Indeed, there have been some very prominent voices who are beginning to see that the Christian faith is actually foundational to Western civilization. It’s significant, and welcome, even if its still somewhat small.

    There are certainly apologetic efforts that have accompanied some of this – but not mean-spirited or winner-take-all in their approach.

    Above all else, it is important as a believer to cultivate a growing trust in the providence of God. The End of history has been revealed (and accomplished) in the death and resurrection of Christ. Everything is inexorably headed towards that point (cf. Ephesians chapter 1). This does not mean we do nothing (heck, I’ve been writing this blog and stuff for 18 years, with over 2500 articles and about 100,000 comments), so, it would be hard to describe myself as a “quietist” – I’m not quiet. What is important, however, is silence – the stillness of the soul that has anchored itself in Christ and His crucifixion.

    Do the next good thing – write or don’t write – and trust God, giving thanks for all things.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …and above all pray for mercy and do the deeds of mercy.

  18. Nikolaos Avatar
    Nikolaos

    Some articulate push-back against Dawkins and rationalistic atheism based on “scientific evidence”, has been provided by Irish Christian apologist, Prof John Lennox, Oxford mathematician. Lots of videos in YouTube.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Portia’s speech in The Taming of the Shrew is a good guide: “The quality of mercy is not strained. It dropped as the gentle dew upon the earth beneath..

    Some apologetics I have read is often concerned with justice. That does not fit with Our Lord on the Cross.

  20. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Nikolaos,
    I’ve watched some of his videos. He’s very articulate and well-reasoned. It is interesting to me that C.S. Lewis was very involved in apologetics for a number of years – doing debates at Oxford and such. But, at a certain point he became frustrated with problems associated with it and gave it up. I think that afterwards, he stuck more to his fiction-writing. He’s been an important influence for many English-speaking believers over the past 70 years or so – and probably more through his imaginative fiction than through his logical talks. Not to say that both aren’t helpful at certain times.

  21. Michael Williams Avatar

    Thank you for this reflection. I have always felt either shy, or like there was something wrong in my heart when it comes to me creating arguments with another person. Because it involves my limbic system, anything that disturbs my inner peace just feels “wrong.”

    “Oh no, another human argument, to dominate or be dominated” is often what I feel.

    Christ counsels:

    “But when they arrest you and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand, or premeditate what you will speak. But whatever is given you in that hour, speak that; for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” Mark 13:11

    and

    “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.”

    As a nurse I practice active listening with clients, and this is as important to that job as it is with my wife, children, mother, friends, etc. I practice listening for understanding. I also practice when to offer advice, and only if I feel it is necessary.

    I need to be like Job’s friends who sat in sack-cloth and ashes with Job for seven days, and keep my mouth shut when someone is suffering; to be with them in that suffering, to validate it, and as a sentinel, just be with them to show that they are not ever alone.

    I find that it is even closer to my heart when I speak of spiritual things. I do need to be mindful what I say and do and be watchful of my heart. If someone is in despair and suffering, I have found that the Spirit will often move my heart to speak, and I feel peace when I allow Him to do this.

    I would imagine it is the same way for governors and kings, if they come to me and demand it, I will let the Spirit move in my heart, and I hope to be a conduit for Christ at those times. But, only if I am asked what I believe, and Who and What I am faithful to and Why!

    “I believe in One God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth….” etc

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The main trouble with modernity is that it tends to ignore and/or debase the reality of being human.
    My mother was a professional dancer with Martha Graham’s troop a 100 years ago. (She was 40 when I was born). She was also a student of ancient tribal dances {which were always community prayer}.

    To dance well, the dancer must be aware of their “center”; the physical/spiritual point in our bodies from which all prayer comes and indeed the awareness of our humanity.

    As a young man, my mother brought several top flight dancers to Wichita to do performances and master classes. One of those was a Trinidadian named Geoffrey Holder(famous in the 70s as the 7 Up “uncola man).

    A huge man. He stepped up on stage and said in his inimitable voice: “I have seen God baby! And he is right here{pointing to his center}. Every time He wants to talk to me, He starts my body moving.”

    He then brought to life a series of people he had known growing up. Some quite small and petite.

    …this is one example of the continued contact God has with His Creation that is reflected in the testimony of the Saints that “scientist’s” refuse to consider. Even through the Truth of it is present in almost every act of corporate prayer and worship in every culture of which we have knowledge back even unto Adam and Eve.

    The trick of the “scientists” is to exclude such reality as not being evidence.
    The neat trick the “scientists”

  23. Gavin Campbell Avatar
    Gavin Campbell

    I think that the crucial thing is the original apologetics of St. Justin the Philosopher are meant as legal defences. He’s trying to persuade the authorities to not persecute Christians. Whereas today, in the West, Christianity is not illegal. Where the mean-spiritedness of would-be apologetics comes in is from people convinced that Christians in the West are getting persecuted or that such persecution is immanent. Which in turn becomes a way of shoehorning a political agenda into the conversation. Or worse yet, paranoid conspiracy theories.
    Also, Orthodoxy is not undergoing doctrinal disputes the way it did in the past. We’re not arguing about the Incarnation or the Trinity or hesychasm. We take all that for granted. Today’s would-be apologists instead want to get heavy handed about theologoumena.
    There is need for apologetics to defend our views from secularism. Richard Swinburne is an Orthodox philosopher who does a good job of that. But on-line influencers are not the one to do that,

  24. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Gavin,
    It’s a mixed bag, to my mind. As I noted, apologetics has a noble pedigree (far beyond St. Justin Martyr). Indeed, I would say that they definitely have their place throughout the whole of our history. Orthodoxy still has plenty of challenges.

    What I think is new is the internet phenomenon. The advent of the printing press presented plenty of challenges as well with poorly crafted and spurious materials spreading false ideas and mindsets in a new manner. The internet gives us a whole new level of information technology that, as yet, does not admit of much filtering.

    I spoke at a large Orthodox conference last year and was introduced as an “influencer,” which made me cringe and want to crawl into a hole. 🙂 Mostly, I’m simply aware that only God’s good providence sorts us all out in the end.

    Nevertheless, the point of the article was not to impugn the noble work of apologetics, but to admonish all of us (myself especially) to “guard the heart.” Christ told us that we would “know them by their fruit.”

  25. Gavin Campbell Avatar
    Gavin Campbell

    To be sure, I did like article and I do agree with it.

    I fully plead guilty to having been confrontational, provocative and quarrelsome while on-line. So I can understand why some gets their backs arched when I show up. But I am trying to put those ways behind me.

  26. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    The priest at the Catholic Church nearby spoke about guarding the heart in his homily yesterday at Mass. I thought about this article while sitting in the pew. I wonder if God is trying to tell me something? 🙂

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Guarding one’s heart is never ending no matter the environment. One has to know one’s heart, at least a little, before it can be guarded.

    However, it does not appear to be a linear process or limited to three dimensions. Challenges are frequent, often in small ways at first.

    Matthew, I have no doubt our Lord was speaking to y
    you.

    This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

  28. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thank you Michael!

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    We had a Churching this morning. A beautiful service where newly Baptized are blessed to participate in the common life of the Church and introduced to the congregation as one of us. Our retired Bishop Basil performed the service.

    The service begins in the Narthex of the Church which is analogous to the foot of the Cross. The celebrant carries the infant up towards the altar, chanting prayers. At the point of dome in the center of the Sanctuary, the celebrant pauses and lifts up the child, offering them to the Christ as Panocrator.
    After that the pair continue toward the Altar. With a female child the pair stop at the Royal Doors, the celebrant finishes the prayers, turning and introducing the child to everyone assembled before returning her to her mother. With a male child, celebrant continues with the child into the altar processing with him around the altar before the introduction return.

    The ceremony proclaims the life journey of the child in the Cross and that the child will never be alone in that journey. I was deeply reminded that I, too, share in that same blessing even when I feel alone and isolated. I am and will always be a part of the gathered people.

    My wife and I are not always able to make the drive into worship. Today reminded me we are still a part of the Body in a tangible way by the Grace and Mercy of our Lord, His Saints and angels.

    God is good.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    One other thing: I am blessed to give tours of sanctuary every year during our annual Big Lebanese Dinner fundraiser. It is a journey some do not really comprehend but it is a brief introduction to the Christian life in the Cross as it was designed and built to provide the literal experience, especially as we worship there. http://www.stgeorgecathedral.net.
    If any happen to be in Wichita, Ks during our October fund raiser. Please come. I would be honored to share its beauty and mercy with any of you.

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