How central was apologetics to the teaching and preaching of the early apostles? Discuss, with reference to both Acts and any one of the Pauline epistles.
Modern apologetics may be defined as the rational justification of Christian truth claims against relevant questions, objections and alternatives (Dahle, 2002, p. 313); it encompasses topics such as arguments for God’s existence and the reliability of Scriptures, as well as refutations of unbiblical worldviews. However, biblical apologetics seems primarily concerned with the defence of the Gospel (Bruce, 1981) in response to unbelievers slandering and persecuting Christians (Boa & Bowman, 2006). Is this apologetics at the heart of apostolic preaching and teaching? Prophets of old defended the faith (Bennetch, 1941), Jesus Himself employed apologetics (Bruce, 1981), thus it is only natural that apostles such as Peter (Barnard, 2014), Paul (Comfort, 1984), and John (Geisler, 1979), for example, did too.
Though many today draw various distinctions between apologetics and evangelism (Hanegraaff, 2016; Howe, 1978; Montgomery, 2004), we agree with McGrath (1998) that apologetics is integral to evangelism, and shall argue from the book of Acts that this is indeed the case in the apostolic era. We shall then use the epistle to the Romans to show how apologetics was part of the teachings, too.
In order to identify the full breadth of passages dealing with apologetics in Acts, we will employ Boa’s & Bowman’s (2006) fourfold classification: vindication (of the faith via arguments and evidence), defence (of the faith against attacks), refutation (of opposing worldviews), and persuasion (of individuals, so they may commit). According to DeWeese (2012), some keywords we can use to identify these four categories are apologia/apologeomai (defence/defend oneself), dialégomai (to reason), peithó (to persuade), bebaioó (to confirm).
2:22-36. Peter’s sermon is directed to a Jewish audience. The motif of Jesus’ death and resurrection as historical facts (v23,36), his fulfillment of messianic prophecies (v25-35), and the charismatic phenomena (v22) are used as cumulative evidences of the messianic lordship of Jesus and of the authority of the apostolic truth claims (Boa & Bowman, 2006, p. 10); eyewitness testimony (v32) is also used (Morris, 1971), together with the audience’s own involvement in the facts mentioned. This is both vindication and persuasion.
3:11-26. Peter’s second sermon is another speech of vindication and persuasion for a Jewish audience. The miraculous healing (v1-10) is said to be God’s proof of Jesus being the Christ (v13,16,20). Eyewitness testimony to Jesus’ death and resurrection is invoked again as evidence (v15). Fulfilled prophecy is presented once more: Messiah’s suffering preannounced by the prophets (v18), fulfilment of Deuteronomy 18:15,18 (v22), fulfilment of Genesis 22:18 (v25).
4:8-12. Same audience, same methodology: Peter proclaims Jesus’ death and resurrection, and presents Him as the fulfilment of Psalm 118:22 (v11).
7. Stephen is not an apostle, but his message is relevant due to paralles with both Petrine and Pauline speeches in Acts. The audience is Jewish, and it is a defence of the gospel he preached (6:7-10) in response to false accusations against him (6:11-15). He uses Israel’s history as a cumulative case against his own people, to prove they are “stiff-necked and always resisting the Holy Spirit” (v51), showing they have just repeated history by putting to death the prophesied Messiah (v52). By highlighting Israel’s habit of persecuting God’s prophets, Stephen achieves a twofold defence of both Jesus’ messiahship and his own truthfulness (Bruce, 1988). The appeal to fulfilled prophecy serves as vindication within the defence.
8:29-36. The audience is a Gentile man apparently possessing some familiarity with Hebrew Scriptures. Philip uses fulfilled prophecy to persuade the eunuch that Jesus is the one spoken of in the portion of Isaiah he was reading (v33).
9:22. An insight into vindication, Saul of Tarsus preaches to Damascene Jews “proving that Jesus is the Christ”.
10:34-48. Peter’s audience here is God-fearing Gentiles (10:1-4). He embarks in a task of vindication and persuasion, appealing to known historical facts (v37-38), eyewitness testimony (v39,41), Jesus’ death and resurrection (v39-40), fulfilled messianic prophecy (v43). Given the evident outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles, Peter also defends their right to water baptism before his fellow Jews.
13:14-43. Barnabas and Paul are invited to share a “word of exhortation” (v15) before Jews and God-fearing Gentiles (v16,26,43). Paul’s speech (v17-41) starts with the God of Israel, and is primarily a review of biblical history and recitation of fulfilled prophecy (Little, 1984, p. 50). It is a message of vindication and persuasion, and has similarities with both early Petrine speeches and Stephen’s speech (Vielhauer, 2012); given the audience, this is not surprising: their understanding of God ontologically was founded in the same Scriptures (Little, 1984, p. 55), and this point of contact led to a presentation of Christ as the fulfilment of the Davidic covenant (Bruce, 1990) that was coherent, thus appealing to the hearers (v42-43).
14:15-17. Given their reaction to Paul’s miracle (v11-13), the audience in Lystra is clearly pagan. The Jewish men address them with a brief message consisting of two intervowen parts: undermining their vain, idolatrous worldview (v11-13); proclaiming the Gospel so they may turn to the Living God, Creator of all things, who alone could be the author of Paul’s miracle (Little, 1984). This God—they add—though seemingly absent from the lives of Gentile nations, did not in fact leave them without the witness of creation (Bruce 1988; Robertson, 2014).
The speech starts with a refutation and progresses into a vindication; after all, a negative case without a positive one is not good apologetics (Boa & Bowman, 2006). The argument itself is very logical, presenting God in antithesis to the hearers’ worldview of men-gods and idols (Bahnsen, 2007). Due to a different kind of audience, this time the starting point of the speech is God the Living Creator, and the evidence of natural revelation is the common ground (Spencer, 1988), rather than the God of Israel and the special revelation of Scripture. But Paul’s approach follows a similar pattern.
17:1-4. Paul practices vindication and persuasion, reasoning from Scriptures (v2), providing evidence to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles that Jesus was the Christ that was supposed to die and rise again (v3).
17:22-31. This speech is traditionally regarded as a paradigm for apologetics (Dahle, 2002); we find here a defence, followed by vindication and persuasion. Paul had been reasoning with Jews and God-fearing Gentiles alike (v17), preaching the resurrection of Jesus (v18). Epicureans and Stoics—naturalists and pantheists respectively (Little, 1984)—accused Paul of preaching foreign deities, so he was called to the Areopagus for clarification. It is with this background that Paul’s speech begins, and he once more starts with God; although the definition of God was not shared, the concept was. Paul exploits their worship of “the unknown god”, to prove he is bringing them knowledge (i.e. the correct definition) of the God they know exists, but are ignorant about (cf. Ro 1:21). This would challenge their worldview, which included a truly unknownable portion of knowledge (Van Til, 1978, as cited in Little, 1984, p. 80). Like in Lystra, the Living Creator is presented in antithesis to the idols (v24-25,29), with creation being enough witness for some to turn to Him (v26-27); to this, Paul adds the testimony of their own poets, highlighting their culpable ignorance (Bahnsen, 2008). He then concludes, stating that the times of ignorance are over, and everyone is now called to faith in the risen Messiah, who will judge all men at the resurrection (v30-31).
18:4; 19:8-10,26. Paul is shown persuading people.
22:1-21. An apologia according to Paul’s own words. By speaking in Hebrew, declaring his Jewish origins, his pharisiacal education, his zeal for the Law, and his former persecution of the Church (witnessed by High Priest and Council), Paul refutes the false accusations moved against him (v2-5). He then argues he is acting according to the will of the God of Israel (v14), all the while recognising Jesus as Lord (v8,10,19), the Gospel (v16), and proclaiming to the crowd that this Lord already knew they would have rejected Paul’s testimony (v18), thus holding them in guilt.
24:10-21. A defence by Paul similar to the previous passage. Consistent with every apologia, the defence of oneself is just a reflection of the defence of the Gospel, which here is presented as fulfilment of Hebrew Scriptures (Boa & Bowman, 2006).
26. Paul’s defence (v1-9) here is very similar to that in 22:1-21. It is then followed by a more elaborate work of vindication and persuasion (v10-32), with the Gospel disseminated throughout. Agrippa’s belief in the Scriptures (v27) allows for Paul to appeal to the Torah as authority (v22), and to the resurrection as historical fulfilment of messianic prophecy (v23).
28:23-28. Paul tries to persuade the Jews in Rome about Jesus and the kingdom of God, from Scriptures (v23). When a dispute arises, Paul uses fulfilled prophecy to vindicate his message (v24-27).
Before getting into the thrust of the epistle, Paul develops further the epistemic common ground he used in his apologetics in Lystra and Athens, taking over Hellenistic Jewish apologetics on the folly of Gentile culture (Boa & Bowman, 2006).
1:1-4. In the opening, Paul briefly defends the Gospel by hinting at fulfilled prophecy (v2), at historical evidence of Christ’s birth as a descendant of David, and at His resurrection, which vindicatesHis divine sonship (v3-4).
1:16-32. The core of this passage (v18-23) is used by many advocates of natural theology (Spencer, 1988), and is foundational to the epistemology of presuppositional apologetics (Turner, 1981). Paul has used these principles before, as common ground with his pagan audience in Acts 14:15-17 and Acts 17:22-31.
Paul declares God’s righteousness is revealed (apokaluptetai) in the Gospel (v16-17), and contrasts that with how God’s wrath is revealed (same Greek word) from heaven as the natural consequence of unrighteousness and ungodliness (v18). Some pagan worldviews might think the deity is too transcendent to even notice man, but God does notice indeed (Hodges, 2013). By descending in unrighteousness, man suppresses (katechontōn) the truth; the word means to hold down continually (Evans, 2019), so it is something unrighteous men do actively to avoid dealing with the God’s truth. Man “knew God,” (v21) but refused to honour Him and fell into idolatry (v23), becoming like the fool of Psalm 14 (v22). This led to the debasing of physical experience (v24) and to all sorts of sinful behaviour (v26-31), rooted in replacing truth with lies (v25) (Hodges, 2013).
This staircase of thoughts has been understood in two ways (Boa & Bowman, 2006): (1) a “history of humanity” perspective wherein humankind as a whole goes from knowledge of God to idolatry (Spencer, 1988, p. 70); in support of this, it may be noted that Paul elsewhere consistently says that the Gentiles do not know God (Acts 17:23; 1 Co 1:21; Ga 4:8; 1 Th 4:5; 2 Th 1:8; Tit 1:16); (2) it may mean that all people in some limited sense know God but refuse to worship him properly. These two views can be reconciled in the “unknown God” situation at the Areopagus: both a remainder of knowledge of God and His moral standard (v32), and non-knowledge of His involvement and will in history seem to coexist in man (Spencer, 1988). Thus, the reason for the wrath is that God has revealed plainly to mankind what is known (or knowable, (Hodges, 2013)) about Him: creation reveals the attributes, the power and the divine nature of God so clearly that man’s choice of idolatry is inexcusable (v19), as he knows enough about God to be able to ask for the whole truth (Hodges, 2013).
2:14-16. This corroborates 1:32: even without the Mosaic Law, man knows the moral standard of God, and they may decide to do wrong despite that. Therefore, they shall be judged fairly, according to the Gospel.
4. A different category altogether, but still noteworthy, is Paul’s use of Scriptures in this chapter to vindicate and defend justification by faith.
Apologetics should reflect on the religious roots of the culture in which the gospel is proclaimed, and criticise such roots (Knudsen, 1986, p. 230); Acts seems to show us exactly that. We have confirmed that all four functions of apologetics (Boa & Bowman, 2006) are found in apostolic preaching. Common to all the selected speeches is the initial postulation of God as fundamental truth. God simply is. Who God is exactly, is then clarified via arguments and evidence set in the appropriate ontological common ground for the audience: Scriptures for Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, natural revelation—of which the book of Romans gives us a more detailed explanation—for the pagans. The presentation of the Gospel then follows.
The biblical worldview is uniquely rooted in objective revelation: creation, Scriptures, and Jesus Christ and His resurrection. It is therefore no surprise that apostolic preaching and teaching is intertwined with apologetics; this in turn renders void the objections of those who hold apologetics as either useless (Stott, 1992) or even counterproductive (Johnson, 2015).
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 Eyewitness testimony as evidence (Morris, 1971), divine images applied to himself in parables (Payne, 1981), sharp logic and reason (Willard, 1999), and miracles to validate his divine message (Geisler & Turek, 2004).
 Ps 16:8-11, Ps 132:11; 2 Sam 7:12f; Ps 89:3f; Ps 110:1.
 Ps 2:7; 16:10; Is 55:3
 Although Acts 14:15-17 seems to conclude with common grace (Little, 1984).