A holistic, Augustinian apologetic gives us the resources to offer critiques of other worldviews and secular idols—paving a path to an eternal love that the human heart has always yearned for.
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Josh Chatraw: One of the TV shows I’ve gotten into recently was “Stranger Things.” And in one of the episodes, you had four of the heroes, these junior high school heroes, dressed up as characters from “Ghostbusters,” and they did it for Halloween. And they show up to school thinking they were gonna be the coolest kids in the class.
And so if you haven’t seen the show, you can just imagine four middle schoolers with their ghosts fighting jumpsuits on and their blasting packs on their back. And they show up, and pretty quickly, they realize they’ve made quite an embarrassing mistake. They fail to pick up on the unwritten rules of middle school, the unwritten rules of the coming-of-age process. No one wears costumes to school anymore.
And so they start looking around now that they’re stuck at the beginning of their day in these jumpsuits, and one of the boys complains. He says, “Guys, guys, why is no one else wearing costumes? When do people make these decisions? Everyone dressed up last year. It’s a conspiracy.” I think you can feel and sympathize with their distress. In fact, if you’re like me, it conjures up kind of repressed memories of middle school teasing.
The irony in the show, though, if you’ve seen it, is that, in this show at least, the ghosts are real. While the boys were anxious about the giggles and sneers from the other kids, these four boys were the ones who actually knew the reality that there was actually another dimension to the world. Though mocked, they actually were the only hope for the rest of the school and the rest of the city.
For those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
I like to suggest this is a parable for what it could feel like to be an apologist in today’s culture, but what might surprise some of you is the embarrassed looks and maybe even the sneers towards apologist or apologetics, not only comes from the outside out there in culture, but actually at times within the halls of the church itself.
Os Guinness in his book Fools Talk actually shares a story. He shares a story about how when he was a student on Oxford, he was…one of his professors, they were…he’s actually called a tutor. So he’s really just a professor. And the professor, they were working together, and Os Guinness brought up the topic of apologetics.
He describes this man as a very kind man, gentleman, but when he heard the word apologetics, he noticeably stiffened, Os Guinness, says. And he said to Os, “Excuse my candor, but I would never use that word again if I were you. Apologetics is a dirty word in Oxford.” But it’s not just a dirty word in Oxford, it’s not just a dirty word in the academy, it seems…well, really just so many of the reports recently have shown more broadly in culture apologetics or we could just say evangelism, Christian persuasion is not the cool thing anymore either.
The general cultural sentiment is that private faith is fine. That’s what happens in post-Christianity. Private faith is fine, and maybe even that’s a good thing for you, right? We’ve all heard that. But if you’re actually calling on someone to change their religious view, that’s impolite, at best, and intolerant more likely. So we feel the peer pressure, right? We feel the peer pressure.
And on the other hand, now some within the kind of house of faith, within the school of faith, Christian faith, are committed to this bold witness. They’re not giving in to that peer pressure, but they still see apologetics as a kind of signal for kind of childish attempt to argue someone into the kingdom. In other words, they suggest, “Our job is simply to proclaim the gospel, be faithful with the gospel, and let them deal with it.”
In fact, men I admire deeply and have learned so much from actually have been pretty skeptical of apologetics. So, this is risky. Mark suggested I don’t do this, but I’m gonna go on a limb and actually give you some of these quotes. It’s risky because these are my heroes. I’m guessing they’re some of yours.
So Martin Lloyd-Jones once lamented, he said, “I’m not sure that apologetics has not been the curse of evangelicalism for the last 20 to 30 years.” Maybe you’ve shown up to the wrong talk. I’ll give you another one here. Abraham Kuyper said this. He said, “In the struggle against modernism, apologetics have not advanced us, not one single step.” I won’t read you the Barth quote because, in here, you probably don’t care anyway, but Karl Barth, who many consider the most important theologian of the 20th century. He was not a fan. Let me just put it like that.
So peer pressure doesn’t just come from the other kids. At times, they’ve come from our own master teachers. And while this attitude is certainly not universal among Christian theologians, it has been common. There’s a certain uneasiness towards apologetic because that arose in the 20th century and the early 21st century, and it’s actually I would suggest been inherited by some of our best pastors and teachers. Again, not universal, but rather significant.
And I wanna suggest this uneasiness about it, about apologetics, has left us rather unprepared in post-Christendom. For example, I did my first graduate degree at a school I loved. I’m not gonna mention it. But at a school I loved, and I didn’t have one class in apologetics in a pastoral ministry track, not one class. It wasn’t in the core. No one suggested that maybe I should pick that up as an elective. So I made it through a 90 hour or so credit MDiv without one apologetics course.
And then over 10 years ago, I was sitting in a conference smaller than this one, and there was this kind of new pastor up there that I had read…I’d read his first book, The Reason for God, and I said, “Man, this is good.” And Tim Keller was speaking about…just in a Q&A, he was talking about how his son had felt called to go into the ministry. And he said, “One of the things the adviser gave my son was, ‘You need to go get some serious apologetic training.”‘
And for me, as a guy who just finished his MDiv, that was jarring. I mean, I had read the basics, right? I mean, I’d read C.S. Lewis, some Schaeffer, a few other standard books, but it had never been emphasized as essential for pastoral ministry. It certainly wasn’t a key feature in my training.
While I was working on my Ph.D., I step into a pastoral context, and I realized this Keller guy was right. Even if we would like to give up on apologetics, we have a fundamental problem. We actually can’t, not really, not in a day when religious belief is seen as simply one option among many. In many of our communities, Christianity isn’t just…it isn’t just only just kind of one option among many, but it’s often the least plausible option for so many. It’s often a very strange option.
So we can’t give up on apologetics because…for just one more reason it’s because when our kids come home from school or our grandkids come home, even if you say, “You know what? Apologetics isn’t really my thing,” all of a sudden it becomes your thing when they have a list of questions, doesn’t it? And so what I wanna suggest is that in our increasingly secular age, this is not the time to embarrassingly retreat from apologetics. Instead now is the time to rally behind it. It’s a time to see apologetics as actually central to discipleship.
But on the other hand, I do need to say that I think those apologetic detractors were partly right. They were often responding to some problems within the discipline. Apologetics is often and really too often had been practiced in a way that gives people the impression that people make decisions basically kind of on this simple version of rational choice theory. And so with this kind of understanding of how people make decisions, it was basically like, “Hey, just give them evidence and reason from the ground up until you kind of coerce them intellectually into adopting your position.”
Or as Eugene Peterson describes where he grew up were defending the faith equaled using the Bible as a weapon. Or as one of my favorite former students confessed to me, her impression of apologetics was that it’s for immature boys in the dorm who liked to argue. Have you ever thought about this? Things are changing, some for the better here, but it does tend to be boys, doesn’t it? It does seem to be boys.
I think maybe some of that…some of the deficiency is not in apologetics but in how we’ve actually cast apologetics. We need women involved in this desperately. I would suggest though that…my student had a point. And though these detractors have a point, none of this is the essence of apologetics. Nor is it the future of apologetics.
To step into the future of apologetic maturity, we need to learn from the past, not in a nostalgic gaze, wishing for some kind of romanticized golden era of Christianity, which, of course, never actually existed. This isn’t the return to 18th or 19th-century evangelicalism. We have a lot to learn from that period. The culture has drastically changed. So we need to be rethinking certain models, certain ways we have conversations.
The need of the hour is a kind of apologetic maturity historically informed and theologically rooted in the gospel. And so, for Mark and I, three or four years ago as we kind of went on this journey for apologetics at the cross, we were looking for exemplars from the ancient past. And we found a friend in Saint Augustine. For the rest of my time, before Mark concludes our talk, I wanna talk a little bit. This is the second part of your outline about Augustine’s apologetic.
Now, we had six or seven points here, and we just boiled it down to three. So, really quickly, three kinds of points that I see are important, that we learned from Augustine as an apologetic mentor. Number one, pastorally and theologically attuned, pastorally and theologically attuned. You see Augustine’s pastoral sensibilities, for instance, in The City of God. Yes, that City of God, the one for you who went to seminary, you acted like you read, but you didn’t know what was going on there, a thousand-page work that he wrote over 15 years, that City of God. Buried in that City of God is Augustine who’s interacting with the street level objections of his day to Christianity.
So his whole work begins because he’s trying to help his friend, Marcellinus, who told him that he was… Marcellinus was evangelizing, and he got these objections about Christianity. And so he’s writing to great Augustine for Augustine to help him. So just briefly, the two objections were this. Christians could not or this is what was being claimed. Christians could not be good Roman citizens, and thus they were improperly oriented to the world. And the second objection was the fall of the Roman Empire, which was just cataclysmic in this time for Christians, was actually the Christians’ fault. That’s what the pagans were saying.
So notice the critique here being offered. The critique was that Christianity…it wasn’t just that it wasn’t true, but the critique was it was bad for humans. It was bad for human flourishing. It was repressive for society. It sounds familiar? So this is what I want you to see about Augustine starting off. This is not just like an academic debate in an ivory tower. All right. If you’re going through a class on Augustine, it can certainly feel that way, right? You can certainly feel that way. But Augustine is actually responding to the day-to-day every day of this context, but he doesn’t just…
And here’s what’s important to see. I said pastoral, so there’s these pastoral objections on the ground, not just this ivory tower debate, but on the ground, here are the objections. But then because he’s theologically attuned, he doesn’t simply just hastily respond. He doesn’t just kind of quickly like, you know, respond. One way to put this is because he’s theologically attuned, he’s able to react without being reactionary. He sets out to defend the faith without being overly defensive.
When we’re reactionary, we have to react, right? That’s the pastoral instinct. But if we’re reactionary because we don’t have this theological backdrop of who people are and how they react and how they interact in the world in a theology that’s driving this vision, then what happens is we often ignore the real person in front of us, and we begin to debate before we really understand the issues, before we really understand the person in front of us.
This leads to what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls conversation stoppers.
Taylor refers to conversation stoppers like this. He says it’s, “I have a three-line argument, which shows that your position is absurd or impossible or totally immoral.” Now, let’s talk. Try that line for a second in your next conversation with somebody. See how far you get in the conversation. Also, because Augustine is theologically attuned, he models an approach that refuses to simply defend Christianity on the terms set by others.
See, a reactionary approach just jumps right in without surveying, “Okay. Hang on. What’s the context for this? What assumptions are here? Am I jumping into something where I need to be kind of going underneath and dealing with the assumptions?” Augustine’s way too pastorally… theologically attuned to make that mistake. So number one, Augustine is pastorally and theologically attuned.
By the way, this requires for us to, not only think biblically about our world certainly, but also think theologically about our world, which is slightly different. If you wanna talk more about that, we’ll be around after. But number two, contextually aware. So number one, he’s pastorally and theologically attuned. Number two, contextually aware. Quite remarkably in The City of God, Augustine is simultaneously talking to several groups.
Now, if you are a preacher in the room, you feel the weight of that, right? When you get up and you know there’s different people in the room that you’re speaking to. And Augustine, throughout “The City of God,” is very aware, not only of the different people, but their assumptions, their objections. He’s speaking to unbelievers and believers.
He’s speaking to those who are struggling to believe as well as those who are outright skeptical about Christianity. He addresses those who saw Christianity just as another superstition and those who saw it as anti-human. He speaks to Christians who had put…listen to this. He speaks to Christians who had put too much hope in politics, who had bought into the imperial theology that was…
And, of course, with the imperial theology when you have the sack of Rome, then you have a theological and existential crisis within the church because their hope’s in the wrong thing. And Augustine’s having to deal with this amongst the Christians. He’s taken the time to understand these different groups and their assumptions. So sometimes I’ve heard it expressed with colleagues, with friends who are in this world of apologetics who think and write in this world that, you know, “Josh, I hear what you’re saying, but we really just need to get on with the arguments and the evidence. All this cultural analysis stuff, you know, it’s cute. It sounds good. We just need to give them the logic,” or, “We’re better off just explaining the text.”
Listen, I’m committed to expository preaching. We need to explain the text, but we need to remember we’re explaining it to people. Oftentimes we’re imagining a world that doesn’t exist here in these objections. The world that actually exists, we’re never dealing with abstractions. We’re dealing with real people. We’re dealing with people who are…because they’re people, they are cultural beings, and so much of how they think and imagine the world is bound up with the culture around them.
Several years ago, I was doing my pastorate in a small group…during my pastorate, a small group leader came to me and told me about a conversation she had with a high school girl in our church. She had confronted the girl about some guys that the girl had been hooking up with, and she said, “Why do you even…?” The small group leader was saying, “Why do you even hang out with these sorts of guys? They’re clearly no good. They’re no good for you.” And the girl snapped back, “Who are you to tell me what the Bible says?” Doesn’t the Bible teaches not to judge others? Who can really say that he’s bad for me? I’m doing what feels right.”
Now, I tell that little story, not because it’s unusual, but because of the very fact, it’s so common today. We’d all know stories like this. Here’s the big point. The young woman didn’t grow up in a large city. This was in the Bible Belt in a small town. She hadn’t come to this position because she loved to read the postmodern deconstructionist, right? No, she came to this position because this is the air she breathes every day, the entertainment she watches, the institutions and the vision they give us for the good life. This wasn’t so much reason to but simply just waking up and breathing the cultural air every day.
So how do we reason with someone who hasn’t arrived at their position through reason? How do we make a case for faith to those who are operating on an entirely different framework, this isn’t Christendom, folks? So how do we go about this? How do we persuade in this new cultural climate? I’m just posing questions. I don’t have all the answers. Mark is gonna give us the answers in a second. But I do wanna gesture before Mark solves it for us in a second. I do wanna gesture to say we can’t even get there unless we begin to understand the culture and learn how to speak to it. Okay?
So, Augustine was contextually aware, and so as we were trying to work through apologetics of the cross, one of the things we saw was cultural analysis isn’t something simply for like cultural engagement. Sorry. I hope you guys could actually hear me in the back before I just pulled this mic up and now it’s louder. Hang on. Can you hear me, Jack? Okay. Okay. Let me move to the third point. Sorry. Third point. Number two is contextually aware, number three, anthropologically balanced, anthropologically balanced.
A friend of mine, Jamie Smith, channels kind of his inner Augustine at this point. I’m gonna read Augustine through the lens of Jamie Smith. Some of you are aware of his work, and I’m gonna summarize it really quickly, one of his key points. What Jamie argues is that there’s…that he gives us this taxonomy to understand Christian discipleship, and he says basically, there’s three groups and how they viewed Christian discipleship.”
Number one, “Some have seen humans and the people they’re trying to disciple as basically thinking beings, rational beings.” He uses this imagery of big brains on a stick. And he says second, “Others have treated humans as basically believing beings, people who believe certain things,” and thirdly, he says, “Others view humans…” And this is what Jamie’s arguing, “For humans are understood at their core as loving and desiring beings.” And so Smith argues that this third category has largely been bypassed in discipleship.
I wanna suggest that Smith’s taxonomy can be applied to apologetics. Some tend to focus on the historical and scientific evidence as primary, assuming humans are basically thinking beings. Now, I just wanna say we are thinking beings. Okay. And the implications for this…and know more needs to be said on this, but let me just give you kind of cut to the chase. One of the implications for this is we can and should make positive arguments. We can and should make arguments for the resurrection.
Augustine does. I would suggest 1 Corinthians 15. Paul does. We should make positive arguments for the Bible, positive arguments for God. We should do these things. But we don’t need to give the impression that Christianity is basically just the people with a really high IQ convert, and the people who are dumb, well, they just can’t quite figure it out. In other words, there’s really smart people on both sides, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Haidt, pretty smart dudes.
And some people look at the evidence and say, “No, I’m not buying it.” And, of course, there’s other equally smart people who look at the evidence and say, “Yeah.” So why is this? If it doesn’t boil down to IQ, why is this? Well, part of the answer is found in the second part, the second kind of model that Jamie gives us. We are thinking beings. But what we find as rational is embedded in a framework of faith. What some people call fiduciary framework, this framework of trust.
Let me try to explain it like this. As believing beings, this means that what makes sense to us is largely due to the background beliefs, what Charles Taylor calls our social imaginary, the framework that we take for granted that we haven’t so much reason to, but it’s just the air we breathe every day. And so there’s actually some important scholarly work. I just kind of wanna reference this. There’s a new Alister McGrath book called The Territories of Human Reason.
And what McGrath does…he’s a theologian apologist and a scientist at Oxford. And what he’s done is he’s collected a ton of research on actually what are across-the-board secular and, you know, just mainstream science saying about rationality. He’s saying the consensus is there’s basically three parts of rationality. There’s natural human cognition, and this is things like two plus two equals four. This is kind of like universal logic. The second thing he says is the kind of what makes something…what makes a community perceive something to be rational is the evidence available to them. In other words, we have…you know, depending on the time and the place you live in and the history of the world, you have different evidence available. So whether you perceive something to be rational is partly based on the evidence you have available.
But here’s the third category, and again, this isn’t a particular a Christian understanding. I think it’s coming from mainstream scholarship, but they say human rationality is also based on the prevailing assumed cultural meta-narrative, the prevailing assumed cultural meta-narrative. The big story that’s so embedded in culture that it’s just the air you breathe. And so what the social sciences and the historians are saying is we all have these kinds of under-the-hood beliefs that we don’t even think about, and it’s the basic logic, the universal basic logic, that’s embedded within this framework of beliefs, things that you can’t prove, things that you assume. And oftentimes unless somebody brings them up, you just kind of naturally think is, well, universal knowledge. It’s just common sense.
And so we have these what we call, of course, statements, these kinds of common-sense statements that often causes people to object to Christianity, things that you’ve all heard. Of course, there cannot only be one way to God. Of course, a good God wouldn’t judge. Of course, science has disproved religion. Of course, the Christian sexual ethic is repressive.
Here’s a big point I want you to see. If you attempt to simply think of people…if you imagine people to be just primarily cognitive rational beings, and you hear these, of course, statements, and you start to kind of line up evidence, you’re probably not gonna get much attraction because, in some sense, what they’re saying is not based on them reasoning to that, but it’s based on these assumptions.
So part of the apologetic task is saying, “Hmm, what is this person assuming? What are they assuming that they don’t even know they’re assuming?” So we are believing beings. Augustine was right when he taught we believe in order to understand. And this isn’t just true for Christianity. Yeah. I would say more broadly, the sciences are based in a certain type of fiduciary…this type of trust, this framework of trust. So we have to learn to challenge people’s operating assumptions and the story about the world they’re taking for granted.
So, yes, okay, yes, we are thinking beings and, yes, we’re believing beings. And Augustine would acknowledge both of those, but we’re coming back here to Jaime Smith’s thesis. Picking up Augustine, he says, “We’re driven most deeply by what we love.” We are worshipping and desiring beings. How is it that people actually decide? Why do people make the big commitments, the real big ones? I had this experience with all my students in the class I was trying to make this point. One of these, you know, geared up. He’s like, “Well, I’m super-rational.” And I said, “Okay. You’re engaged, right?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Why do you get engaged to her, to this girl you got engaged to?” And he said, “Proverbs 31:1.” I was at a Christian school at another school. They would answer it very differently.
But Proverbs 31. I said, “She’s the only Proverbs 31 girl on campus?” “Well, no.” “So why this one?” And he kind of oh, okay. So we kind of went round and round and finally he was like, “Because I love her.” All right. The big decisions of life. This isn’t just like one snapshot. Well, that’s a romantic thing. Augustine’s theology and I would suggest this goes back to Jesus himself in the gospels that we’re gonna love and devote ourselves to something, and we’re driven by that.
Consider C.S. Lewis. An atheist, Lewis read Christian poets and began to wonder what if the poets enticed him with a vision that kept nagging at his heart. Alister McGrath in his recent biography of Lewis, he says, “These poets didn’t so much as persuade Lewis to believe in God.” In other words, these poets weren’t using logical syllogisms, although there’s a place for that, wasn’t their poetic approach. Instead, this is again McGrath, they led him to think that such a belief offered a rich and robust vision of the human life, making him wonder whether there might, after all, be something to be said for their way of thinking.
Part of apologetics, if we’re gonna recover this Augustinian vision, is about leaning into the what-ifs. But what if it is like this? How would that change? This is a notion you actually see in the work of Blaise Pascal, who, again, is picking up on Augustine. Pascal believed that the goal was not so much to prove Christianity but to make people wish it was true. A flame of desire lights the human heart for Pascal. And only later the mind catches up with its deeper intuitions. You get this in Confessions if you read it. You get this in The City of God if you can make your way through it.
Augustine is giving us what I think is missing in so many contemporary conversations about method, and by the way, I think the whole…the method of debates has been part of the problem here. And what Augustine does is he gives us the whole person back. He offers us an approach that sees humans as thinking, believing, and, yes, loving beings. And if we view people as one-dimensional mostly thinking beings, much of the times, it’s easy for people to simply shrug their shoulders and walk away.
I’m almost done with my part, but let me give you a quick analogy or a quick example. For instance, take the arguments from cosmology. It’s not that these arguments can’t be helpful. I’m kind of using science. But most people don’t walk around the world. I mean, don’t walk around each day thinking about, “Could there be an infinite regress?” Or even about the beginning of the universe. I mean, most of the people in my life just not thinking about those things. I mean, if you lead with that, if that becomes the key argument, I think you’ll find a lot of people in today’s world shrugging their shoulders, walking away, shaking their head.
What I’m suggesting, I think what Augustine would have us do, what we try to bring on apologetics at the cross is we must first step into their world, the everyday experiences of their world. And so to do this, we must step into their intuition that there is meaning in the world, that there is purpose in the world. We need to step in and interact with their sense that something is wrong.
You know, with all the talk about how…you know, a few years ago and still today, it’s popular to talk about how it’s a completely relativistic age. And I’m like, “Are you on Twitter?” These people seem to have serious, absolute moral convictions about a whole host of things. Maybe that’s an opportunity. There’s a lot of talk about justice these days. Maybe that’s an opportunity to actually talk about justice, to engage with this sense of the sublime, the beauty in the world.
What if we aren’t just a bunch of atoms? What would that mean about art? What would that mean about when you say you love someone? What does that mean? What if what you’re saying is true? But what if Christianity is true? To step into their unavoidable need to devote themselves to something, to give their life to something, and to ask the question, “How’s that working out for you?” And we maybe most of all need to step into their despair. We need to be people who give hope.
I would suggest that these are the inescapable categories that we’re all walking around assuming that we need to learn to begin apologetics there. Not that those other things aren’t helpful. We are thinking beings, we’re believing beings, but we’re also loving beings. Okay. So I’m about to turn it over to Mark. Here’s the question there. This has been up here, and Mark’s about to take it down here. Let me make one last point and how this actually helps in everyday conversations.
So if you think about the title of the talk, “Augustinian Apologetics,” I gave a brief kind of summary of why I think you should be in the room and stay in the room, and thanks for staying in the room so far. And then I said, “What do I mean by Augustinian apologetics?” I gave you three points. Let me give you kind of one final thing on Augustinian apologetics, and then Mark will take it from here. Augustine’s macro approach in The City of God is summarized in what Mark and I call “inside out.” The structure of the book is that the first 10 books within the book, I call them books, the first 10 books in “The City of God” offers what philosophers call an immanent critique of the Roman culture. Augustine has thought long and hard, not simply about the questions, but about what needed to be done as far as an approach.
So for us, we hear a question, how am I gonna answer it. Augustine’s theologically attuned. So he’s thinking about, “Okay, what approach do I need to take?” And he knows he must enter into their world to cite their thinkers, and by the way, this is why Keller is so good, right? When he is talking in New York City, he’s actually quoting their authorities. And this is what Paul does in Acts 17.
And Augustine engages their assumptions to show that they’re being inconsistent, to show that the Roman Empire and the thinkers in the Roman Empire that they’ve got some problems in their view. And he goes underneath it to get to the very underpinnings of their thought to show them what’s missing. The Augustinians scholar Charles Matthew says that Augustine imaginatively entered into his opponents’ worldview, apprehending their insights, and then I love this line, and what made them worry about his position. Have you thought about apologetics? What about Christianity makes people worry? Not like you’re gonna take over type of worry, but then they see there’s something to it.
But then in the second half of the book, chapters 11 through 22, Augustine turns toward the Christians story. Augustine realizes that we’re fundamentally part of us being loving beings. Part of the human nature is that were story-telling beings. And so Peter Brown in his biography of Augustine says, “Augustine didn’t just absorb and digest, but he transformed his opponents’ positions.” In other words, the goal is not just to show them the problems to tear down, but Augustine is actually showing them how the gospel itself offers a deeper and more compelling way to view and live life. We call this inside out, and I’m gonna pass the ball to Mark now.
Mark Allen: Thank you. Thanks, Josh. Can you hear me okay? Yeah. Can you give me a little help here to get this thing? I appreciate it, Josh. I was worried that I had enough material to fill our time left, and I’m not worried about that anymore. We’re good to go. My purpose is to get down to earth really practical and conversations. And I’m gonna answer three basics questions. What is the inside out approach? What is the basic structure of the inside out approach? And how can inside out help us to have better apologetic conversations? To begin, let’s ask what is inside out. And it is a method, a frame of reference that Christians can internalize and apply to a wide array of apologetic situations.
It’s an other-centered approach or as Josh said, a person-centered approach that begins with the assumptions of the other person about the world. It works within what some would call their plausibility structures, and it engages with it. And the objective behind starting with the other person’s assumptions is to help them to create some space to consider some of the problems with their perspective and to begin to acknowledge the plausibility of Christianity. And then having created this space through the inside, the approach ultimately moves more toward the outside of the person to the Christian conception of the world to demonstrate how the Christian story is a better story, one that is more livable and better accords with the reality of what they experience every day.
The inside-out model insists that the gospel and a robust Christian theology be at the center of the apologetic enterprise and woven into the conversation throughout. As you will see, the gospel shapes the approach. The gospel is at the beginning, the gospel is in the center, and the gospel is in the end. Now, that’s what it is.
Next, let’s look at the structure. When we were thinking about this, we said, “We need to give a handout.” Okay, where you can see the structure as I work through it. So let me just go through it quickly, and then we’ll slow down a little bit and work through it in a very practical way. First, we start with the inside, and this is the non-Christians assumptions about the world. And there are two diagnostic questions for engaging inside a non-Christian take on the world. Number one, what can we affirm, and then what should we challenge? The second question is where does it lead? Where does their worldview…where do their assumptions ultimately lead? We help them play that out.
Second, we move out to the Christian way of conceiving the world, and there are two diagnostic questions here that help us to move from a non-Christian perspective to Christianity. Where do the competing narratives borrow from Christian story? So, maybe even subconsciously, unconsciously, the others in their worldview are actually borrowing from the Christians story, part of the story. How can we point that out and help them to see that? And then how does Christianity better address our experiences, observations, and history? How can we tell a better story? How does Christianity match with our everyday experience who we are and what we observe? So that’s the basic structure. Inside, two diagnostic questions, then we go outside, two diagnostic questions.
In really practical terms now, how does this inside out help us to have better apologetic conversations? And here’s where I wanna make a point, important point. The whole method of inside-out rests on the importance of listening. As we engage with another person’s way of conceiving the world, we must genuinely listen to truly understand why others see the world the way they do and why they do not believe in God or the gospel. This is not just functional listening but listening to know because we all truly, truly want to be known.
You’ve read recently the articles on the level of guilt and shame and aloneness that people feel. I remember as the pastor, people would say to me, “Pastor, I understand how God loves you. I just don’t understand how He could ever love me.” People feel that. They might express that, play that out in various ways, but they feel it deeply. We do not listen just long enough to make a counterpoint but to hear our conversation partner, listening empathically to the perspectives, their thoughts, their desires, their true honest doubts of another person. This is an act of love, of Christian love.
We acknowledge another person’s value in humanity by truly listening to them. And now if we do whole person listening that is our whole person listening to their whole person, we’ll be able to respond to their thoughts and feelings in a way that’s more accurate and more helpful to them. For example, maybe the real reason a conversation partner does not believe in God isn’t actually that they do not believe in miracles, which may be how they present their disbelief. A disbelief in the supernatural may be a surface issue.
Possibly the real reason for their unbelief is that God allowed their 12-year-old sister to die of cancer, and the miracle they needed so desperately they didn’t get. And now they’re disappointed with God. We will not help them with their unbelief. Instead of listening to their pain, we present them with a canned argument for five proofs for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. With inside out, eventually, we get there. Okay. We get there. We eventually get there to the hope of the resurrection, but when we do it, it will have context and meaning for the other person. And it’ll touch and connect with their pain.
Further, we listen to culture like Josh referred to Paul. He read Greek poetry. He walked around in Athens. We listened to the thoughts and longings of our culture. And Augustine, rarely if ever misunderstood the views of the culture-makers of his day. In fact, he often understood the implications of their point of view even better than they did. He quoted regularly from their most respected thought leaders like Cicero and Barrow using their writers to undermine the prevailing cultural assumptions of the day.
So too, we listened to the cultural influencers of our day in order to become familiar with who is influencing our conversation partner, who are they reading, and why do they conceptualize the world the way they do. Now that we have listened well and we continue to listen well, we use our two questions to provide the scaffolding that helps us respond to unbelieving conversation partner from the inside out. I hesitate to call what we’re describing here as a technique or a method. Let’s think of it as scaffolding or maybe even a way that we relate to others.
First, what do we affirm and what do we need to challenge? To begin, it’s beneficial to affirm things we agree with such as fighting for human rights, appreciating diversity, and serving the oppressed and marginalized. But let me stop here again because I wanna make something crystal clear. Affirming points of agreement is not just a technique. Acknowledging common ground is not the same thing as superficially agreeing with them simply to gain a hearing. It’s more than being nice so that they will lower their defenses.
Discovering a point of agreement helps us to connect with the conversation partner’s humanity. Sometimes we may be afraid to concede. Listen to this. Sometimes we might be afraid to concede anything to them as if admitting that they have anything figured out might undermine our argument or at least dull the apologetic point we’re trying to make. Let’s stop worrying about giving ground. Instead, let’s risk showing them that we truly agree on some things here. We do connect.
Ultimately, this act of knowledge is richly theological. It recognizes the reality of the image of God or Calvin’s conception of sensus divinitatis or the common grace of God expressed and experienced in their lives. We truly agree. We truly agree with them on some things. We honestly connect on certain important points. In doing this, we are leaning into the good, and we are participating with what God is doing in their lives. However, we can’t stop there. I’m tempted to stop there. If we do, our relationship will be in danger of dissolving into just trivial niceties.
In order to ensure that our apologetic conversations are substantial and productive, we next need to confront carefully and discerningly the underlying assumptions that need challenged. For example, several prevalent cultural givens need contrasting with Christianity like moral autonomy. You hear folks say this, “No one, not even God should tell me what to do.” That’s contrasted with the moral dependence that we believe in on God or a denial of divine accountability. A loving creator would not judge his creatures. Have you heard that? Judge not lest you be judged. We’ve heard that one, right? Contrasted with the reality of God’s divine judgment. He is coming, and He will set things right, or expressive individualism. I look within myself to define myself.
I was shocked when this phrase started floating around a few years ago. It’s my truth, my truth. This is contrasted with people finding their identity in Christ and submitting to his lordship. With this diagnostic question, it’ll be tempting from some of us to be too agreeable and not confrontational enough. And then for others of us, maybe like many of us, we will tend toward confrontation with very little agreement. But we must wed together gentleness, kindness, and understanding with a willingness to confront. Like Augustine, our ultimate goal is not to show people how they are wrong. Our ultimate goal is to show them how we can begin to become right. That’s why we do this.
The second diagnostic question from the inside is where does it lead? Here we carefully help our conversation partners see that their views are inconsistent and unlivable. Let’s say you have a friend, and you probably heard something like this. And I’m believing a friend who objects to Christianity because she thinks it’s wrong to regulate other people’s lives. For her, everyone should be free to follow their own hopes and desires. That’s how she finds meaning and is guided in life.
But by asking good questions, we can help her to see the implications of her reasoning when applied consistently and taking to its logical end. We may ask her questions such as this. Don’t you think we should regulate people’s lives in some areas? What would a society be like that didn’t regulate people’s lives at all? At that point, she’ll probably concede, admits, “Okay. Some regulation is necessary.” So then our next question, which is an important question in all of this, in that case, what should the source of these ethical norms be for individuals in society? Where do we ground? Where are you grounding your beliefs? Are they just floating in the air?
We are helping her to see that hopes and desires are not a valid way to determine morality, value, or even meaning. Further, we are helping her question the grounding for her way of looking at the world and making more moral judgment. In an ironic sort of way, we’re opening her eyes to see that she herself is making moral judgments and placing regulations on Christians, but she’s making these assertions on no real foundation.
If we are effective in asking good questions, our conversation partner will begin to doubt their doubt. We’re beginning to create some space, creating uncertainty, and the other person’s views will create the space needed to discuss other options namely Christianity. As you can see even while we are working on the inside, we’re beginning now to make a turn. We’re beginning to turn to the outside to the Christianity and the gospel. So second, we move outside. So that’s inside.
Then we move outside. Going from inside to outside should be fairly seamless. Okay. And in the course of the conversation, we call this scaffolding. Usually, it becomes automatic. Okay. In the course of the conversation, we’ll begin to go back and forth moving inside and out. So here are two more diagnostic questions for moving outside of the non-Christian take over to Christianity.
Where do competing narratives…so it’s the first one. Where two competing narratives borrow from the Christian story? And so we returned to our friend. How does she come to believe that she should be led by her hopes and her desires? Perhaps, unknowingly, she is borrowing from the Christian tradition. The pursuit of our desires has a long Christian history. Augustine recognized and affirmed the human pursuit of happiness. We also see Augustine’s perspective on desire showing up in Pascal and C.S. Lewis.
In fact, C.S. Lewis once argued that our desires are not strong enough. They’re too easily satisfied. But according to Christianity, there’s more to the story. Our hopes and desires are fulfilled within a certain moral framework and structure. The fires of hope and desire give warmth and light, but they are devastating when they burn out of control. So what we are doing is we’re hitching something together.
We’re trying to hitch a Christian doctrine or belief that they affirm with a good doctrine that they might deny and show how both are necessary to function together. We’re asking, “Since you believe this, why not believe that?” Or you believe that hopes…and in her case, you believe in the hopes and desires can guide us. Why not believe that our longings can lead us to God? Is it possible that He is the fulfillment of all that we want, and He knows how to best meet our desires?
Now, the second diagnostic question under inside out is how does Christianity better address the experiences, observations, and history? This is where we need a rich, robust understanding of the gospel. In the case of our friend, the gospel makes the most sense of our hopes and desires. In order to show her how the gospel makes the most sense of her experiences and observations about life, we might tell her Augustinian version of the biblical story that would go something like this.
In the Garden of Eden, humanity fulfilled its deepest desires in a world filled by the presence of God. It was shalom. Adam and Eve our original parents loved God and loved each other in God. And for their own good, God placed a moral restriction on their freedom that they chose to violate. As a consequence, we all lost Eden. At that point, the rivers of desire began to spill out in so many directions, seeking fulfillment in places of our loss of God, but we still have the Edenic intuition that there gotta be something more.
But God came to us in Jesus Christ. He was Emmanuel, God with us. He died for our moral sins, failures, and rose again to give us life. He will come again to remake the world into a wonderful place, more wonderful than Eden, finally to fulfill our deepest God-given desires. And he will be internally present among us, and we will love him and love each other in him. Until then, he has sent his Holy Spirit like Tim Keller talked in his big talk, the eschaton invading our lives now through the Holy Spirit.
Until then, until the new heaven and new earth, he has sent his Spirit. And the world is still fallen, and we are not home yet. But we can be as Augustine phrases it, happy in hope. In this part of the inside out framework, we tell a better story. As you can imagine this short narrative, and we’re about to wrap it up here, this short narrative might raise other apologetic issues, right, even sin. No worries. This is how the conversation advances.
As we listen to their questions, we get to understand even better how they conceive the world so that we can engage with their real concerns about the Christian faith. As we respond to their concerns, we begin to fill the story for them, showing how it addresses humanity’s experiences, observations, and history.
In closing, let me answer the question quickly. Where did this inside out methodology come from, Josh and me? No. No, it really didn’t. Some say its structure’s found in Augustine’s The City of God. We would agree. As Josh explained in the first part of The City of God, Augustine gives an immanent critique inside the culture. And then in the second part, he goes outside to tell a better story, one that is more consistent and livable. But however, we think the origination of this approach goes even further back than Augustine’s.
Augustine just picked up on it and developed the idea for his time. Now, it’s our turn. Inside out originated in the gospel. Jesus Christ came inside our world, shared in our humanity, listened to our truest longings, challenged bravely, courageously our assumptions, identified with us on the cross, died for our sins, came up out of the grave, raised us to a new life in him, gave us a better story and left us with never-ending hope. And that’s apologetics at the cross.
I wanna pray right now. Let’s pray together.
Father, we thank you so much for the gospel. We thank you for Christ entering our world, not being aloof, coming and living among us, touching us, knowing us, dying for us, raising us, and giving us a better story. Thank you for that vision we have and hope of the new heaven and new earth when we are with you. And thank you for sending us the Holy Spirit that we in this room enjoy this presence of the Spirit making us happy in hope. Thank you. In Jesus’s name. Amen. We’ll hang around if anybody wants to talk.