While my (Mark’s) son was in college, we would occasionally listen to TobyMac’s song “Feel It.” If you’re familiar with the song, you may know the following lyrics: “Everybody talkin’ like they need some proof, but what more do I need than to feel you?” At the time, my son and I would laugh and dismiss the lyrics as empty emotionalism. However, I recently took another look at those lyrics. While I maintain my position against emotionalism, I wonder if the artist may have recognized something that apologetics often misses: The affections matter.
In seeking to clear people’s pathway to the gospel, modern apologetics has too often become unbalanced, focusing solely on the intellect. When we do this, we overlook the affections in favor of a kind of rational-choice theory that assumes an impoverished conception of humans, treating people as basically logical machines.
In the New Testament the word heart is usually used to refer to the center of a person’s whole being, and when Jesus explains, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21, emphasis added), he’s implying what we treasure most will ultimately control not merely our feelings, but our entire direction and purpose in life (Carson, 212).
How, then, can apologetics avoid a dualistic and reductionistic approach and instead mirror the New Testament’s ethic of the heart?
Augustine, the famous fourth-century bishop, provides one of the best examples of a whole-person apologetic. (And in case you’re suspicious of where we’re headed, Augustine didn’t dismiss arguments in favor of just “feeling” God.) In Confessions, Augustine uses his analytical and intellectual skills to expose the idols of his own heart, laying bare his restless desire for God and revealing the way that the intellect and the heart are intricately woven. Later, with his critique of Roman culture in the City of God, Augustine uses his intellect to deconstruct their idolatrous worship, enabling him to analyze both the false beliefs and disordered affections of Roman society in order to make an appeal for the beauty of Christianity to the whole person—mind, heart, and soul.
How can apologetics avoid a dualistic and reductionistic approach and instead mirror the New Testament’s ethic of the heart?
Augustine’s pastoral and theological integration of the heart and mind reminds us that in our persuasive efforts we can’t force someone to convert by using logic to back them into a corner. People are multidimensional, and we need an apologetic that takes this nature into account.
By understanding people as intellectual, moral, and worshiping beings, we can begin to follow Augustine’s example and craft a more holistic apologetic approach.
Many contemporary apologetic models use highly cognitive or rational approaches, taking an evidence-based posture toward apologetics. These approaches have much to offer in the strength of their defense of the historical and rational cogency of the Christian faith.
We mustn’t, however, separate these rational appeals from appeals to tradition, desire, and imagination. Focusing primarily on more analytical and empirical apologetic methods can leave the false impression that apologetics is exclusively an intellectual activity in which people make a decision for or against Christianity just by sorting out all the facts (Clark, 112–14). But apologetics isn’t done in some abstract theoretical realm; it’s done in the real world with real people who have unique perspectives and are driven to their deepest commitments for complex reasons.
God created humans as moral beings responsible for the decisions they make. Because he made us this way, we can’t help but make decisions based on what we sense is “right” and “good” (Smith). As humans we not only have desires, but, unlike animals, we reflect on these desires and evaluate them, making moral judgments. Only humans are capable of losing their temper and then, after reflecting on the situation and realizing their anger was illegitimate, feeling bad about it. Making moral judgments is both unique to us and universal among us. Now, we don’t mean to suggest all humans and cultures agree on a particular moral standard, but simply that all humans and cultures have a moral standard and make moral judgments about what is good, bad, and meaningful (Smith, 7–13, 28–29, 148).
Humans are also worshiping beings. All people worship something, no matter how irreligious they may appear to be.
Jesus taught that each of us inevitably serves a master—whether it be God or money—and that we will ultimately be devoted to one master alone: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24).
The thing we love most is what we will serve, and what we serve is what we will love most.
What’s Love Got to Do with It?
While Augustine is a central figure to reference in recovering this emphasis, he doesn’t stand alone. After observing that the difference between believers and demons isn’t knowledge of God, but rather an affection for him, philosopher Alvin Plantinga—building on Martin Luther and John Calvin—writes, “There is an intimate relation between revealing and sealing, knowledge and affection, intellect and will; they cooperate in a deep and complex and intimate way in the person of faith” (79). This is in line with Jonathan Edwards, for whom the term affections did include emotions but more broadly referred to a whole and enduring sense of beauty and the good.
Theologian and philosopher James K. A. Smith has sought to recover this emphasis on desires. Smith suggests a model for understanding humans primarily as lovers, as “embodied agents of desire or love.” Smith, channeling Augustine, argues that “we inhabit the world . . . not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it” (47).
Marriage serves as a fruitful analogy that demonstrates the interplay between thinking, believing, and desiring, In my own marriage, for example, the more I (Josh) have come to a deeper knowledge of my wife, the more I have believed in her high character and grown more deeply in love with her, and the more my desire to serve her has grown. Even in marriage, though, when we use the word knowledge, we’re implying something much more than an intellectual awareness of facts. A mere description of facts about my wife could hardly do justice to the “knowledge” I have of her. Clearly, there is at a deeper level an aesthetic knowledge of my wife’s beauty—the way she laughs, the way she tells a story to our kids, her smile, and other things about her that I can’t find the words to articulate—that has captured me (Smith, 216).
Apologetics isn’t done in some abstract theoretical realm; it’s done in the real world with real people who have unique perspectives and are driven to their deepest commitments for complex reasons.
Like any analogy, this one will fail if you push it too far, but our point is we weren’t primarily driven to marry our spouses by the facts we knew about them or by our belief or trust in them. We were driven to make a lifelong commitment to them because of a deep affection that’s far more than just a feeling.
Believing truth is essential. Yet a list of facts alone isn’t what fuels a healthy marriage. Likewise, a list of evidences alone doesn’t fuel a healthy apologetic. Yes, placing trust in the God of the Bible and having knowledge of his truth are essential to Christianity. This means part of the role of apologetics is to provide reasons for faith and to answer why this covenantal God should be trusted. But a list of facts and evidences is simply not enough. We must learn creative ways to ask, not simply, “What do you think?” but also “What do you love?”
A holistic, Augustinian apologetic sets us up to not only offer critiques of worldviews but also of secular idols, not only rational frameworks but also the path to an eternal love that has eluded the human heart since Eden. Our own imaginations must be so absorbed by the gospel that we intuitively know not only how the story of Christ fits with the world we inhabit, but also how it fulfills our culture’s deepest aspirations.