Advice to Christian Apologists: Being Wise as Serpents and Innocent as Doves

Jesus exhorted us to love God with all our minds (Matthew 22:37-39). Explaining, commending, and defending the Christian worldview is not limited to experts; it is the call of every Christian (1 Peter 3:15-16). Arguing that Christianity is objectively true, compellingly rational, and existentially engaging over the whole of life is essential to Christian witness. Our salt and light must not be hidden, Jesus teaches. Since all Christians should be witnesses to the reality of the Gospel, every Christian is an apologist. Some excel at this task and others do not. All Christ-followers are called to worship God. We do not single out a group called “worshippers,” as a subset of all Christians. However, some are much more genuine, clear-eyed, and whole-hearted in their worship than others.

“Since all Christians should be witnesses to the reality of the Gospel, every Christian is an apologist.”

We are sent out as sheep among wolves (Matthew 10:16). Because of this danger, Jesus instructed his followers to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Jesus also instructed his followers to be witnesses who are wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Wise words matter for our mission. We do not want to mislead or muddle the Gospel. The word apologist aptly describes one who makes a case for Christianity. However, this word often connotes a biased presentation given for vested interests. The apologist is taken as a huckster, a propagandist, a shady salesman. Woe to the Christian who fits this description.

Since the word apologistis redundant for the Christian and because it carries unneeded opprobrium, I suggest we use it sparingly, if at all. Once a week, I am introduced as a “Christian philosopher,” on a secular radio program. I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy and teach the subject full-time. I am also a Christian. Yes, I have written much on apologetics, and this term designates a particular field of study. But none of my degrees are in apologetics. All them of are in philosophy. Thus, I do not advertise myself as an apologistper se.

Whether or not one has degrees in philosophy, it is wiser to explain and defend the Christian worldview without using the word apologeticsor apologist—if possible. Of course, some have received graduate degrees in apologetics. Good for them! My school offers one, and I direct the program. There is no reason to hide this. The church does not recoil from this term, by and large. But the non-Christian world is suspicious of it. Argue for Christian truth, by all means, but avoid being stereotyped. Be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove. What does this mean, besides not stereotyping yourself as an apologist?

Apologists should be wise as serpentsby being cunning and clever, but without sin. You can wisely insinuate Christian truth into unlikely places if you are enterprising and ethical. This was Paul’s aim: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20;NIV).

Deception, however, must be avoided. Just as Christ-followers must avoid being deceived, so must they shun deceiving others. As Paul writes;

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ (Colossians 2:8; see also 1 John 4:1-6).

When writing to the Thessalonians, Paul assures them that “our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive” (1 Thessalonians 2:3, ESV). For example, public lectures on apologetic themes should not use the bait and switchmethod found in advertising. A customer is lured in by one product only to find that selling another product was the real purpose of the advertisement. If this is morally questionable in business, how much more should apologist shun this technique which borders on lying?

I was once guilty of this myself, if only indirectly. In 2009, I gave a talk at a local college called, “The Deniable Darwin,” in which I challenged the sufficiency of natural selection to explain the bacterial flagellum, a molecular machine. The ministry that sponsored the event told me they wanted a woman in their group to give a short testimony after my talk about her Christian conversion. I did not suggest the idea, but agreed to it. Not long after the event, I realized that her testimony had little to do with my talk, which was limited to an apologetic against Darwinism and an argument for a Designer. In other words, it was a piece of natural theology, not a defense of the gospel per se. After all, not every apologetic event needs to be evangelistic; it can be pre-evangelistic, as the masterful apologist, Francis Schaeffer, put it. Some in the packed room may have felt that my talk was simply a set up for the testimony. This was untrue, but it may have seemed that way. But if being “wise as a serpent” precludes deception, what does in it include?

“Not every apologetic event needs to be evangelistic; it can be pre-evangelistic, as the masterful apologist, Francis Schaeffer, put it.”

In the early 1980’s, a friend and I taught a class at the University of Oregon in a program that allowed non-faculty to teach for-credit courses if they were approved by a professor. We knew the head of the sociology department, who signed on for us. Our subject was comparative worldviews. We used James W. Sire’s classic, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue(originally published in 1976 and now its fifth, and last, edition.) Each term, I would create a flyer advertising the course and put it up all over campus, staple gun at the ready. My copy said that “evangelical and orthodox Christianity” would be compared with other worldviews, such as naturalism, deism, pantheism, and more. My elder brother in teaching said, “Take out evangelical and orthodox” and just put ‘Christian.’ It will attract more people.” He was “wise as a serpent.” I was not as wise at that point. Today, I have grown in that grace.

How might apologists be “innocent as doves”? The contrast between serpents and doves seems unbridgeable. The cunning are not innocent, are they? Jesus thinks otherwise. The Messageparaphrase renders it, “Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove.” Defenders of the faith should never be con men or operators. We should seek no advantage for our cause outside of what is virtuous. Paul knows that even those with bad motives may still proclaim the true gospel, but he does not commend that.

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice (Philippians 1:15-18).

Being innocent also pertains to what should not be known. Paul tells the Romans that, “I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil” (Romans 16:19). There are some things that apologists should not know, in some cases even about the worldviews and practices they attempt to refute. Jesus says to the church, “Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, I will not impose any other burden on you” (Revelation 2:24).

Earlier in my career, I wrote much about the New Age movement. My research was extensive over several years, and I read some unsavory stuff. However, I tried to never read anything not necessary to my apologetic against the New Age worldview (pantheism, monism, reincarnation) and for Christianity. When I studied particularly dark subjects, I prayed for protection and read the bare minimum necessary. Further, I have studied very little about Satanism, since I had my hands full with my other research and discerned no call to minister in that area. I take seriously Paul’s admonition: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Ephesians 5:11).

Having been an apologist for the last forty years, I could give much more advice. I have only highlighted the need for defenders of the faith to be wise, but innocent, witnesses to Jesus Christ and the Gospel. Without these values, apologetic arguments, no matter how powerful, will sit unused and be ineffective. But when we pay heed to Jesus, our arguments will find their home in the hearts and minds of those who need his saving grace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

17 thoughts

  1. Well said, a fine exhortation and caution. These words of wisdom become increasingly important anywhere the Christian worldview and witness faces deep hostility. And those who live and evangelize under the threat of martyrdom learn their way around this pair of concepts of serpentine and dovish witness.

  2. I guess you hold philosophy in high regard. How about the value of facts/evidence? If science reveals that there is no evidence for an interventionist deity, does philosophy trump it? Thanks.

  3. Brother, thanks for the great insight. Love this: “But when we pay heed to Jesus, our arguments will find their home in the hearts and minds of those who need his saving grace.”

    I am not sophisticated about things like apologetics but I know the power of King Jesus to redeem us.

    Blessings, grace and peace.

  4. Dear Dr. Doug, How i appreciate this article. I have always felt this, that you do not need to speak of Christianity directly to be a Christian witness. If we speak Truth, we are a Christian witness, as all truth is God’s truth. (Many of my companions think i leave Christ out when witnessing, but how can this be so if we speak of Truth? I leave the door open!) Philosophy is a great place to begin Apologetics. I wish all Apologetics began there. In my humble opinion, speaking from such a vantage point requires a more rigorous defense than is commonly associated with Apologetics. Thank you for fortifying my own assumptions, and giving me confidence to press on in it.

      1. Correct, science does not “prove” anything, only mathematics does so. However, perhaps you do know that science, through observation and experimentation, analyzes claims on reality based on probability. With that said, all claims for an interventionist deity have been rejected by science. Yes, indeed, there may be a god. However, he/she has not revealed him/her self. In other words, our reality does not need a god. All apologetics is nothing more than arguments from ignorance/God of the Gaps arguments. (https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_ignorance)

  5. Dearest Thomraff, There are many variations on the meaning to the word ‘proof’. Many scientists will openly admit that there are some fairly large gaps in many known ‘proofs’ in science as well. What it boils down to, as Ethan says, “If someone tells you a scientific theory has been proven, you should ask what they mean by that. Normally, they mean “they’ve convinced themselves that this thing is true”. He is speaking of SCIENTISTS here, not religious people. We choose what we wish to believe, and determine conclusions from the same set of evidence. You do not wish to believe there is a god. That’s fine. I’m not twisting your arm. I myself do not believe science can tell us everything. It can tell me almost everything about water boiling in my tea kettle at 212 degrees, but it does not know the reason why I put the kettle on. It can tell me why there is a sunset, but it cannot measure it’s beauty, or tell me what beauty is. It can tell me the chemicals that make up my body, and their value, (i think it is something like $2.97?), but it cannot tell me the value of a single human life. It understands only mechanism, not agency. It can tell me the WHAT, but never the WHY. But that’s just my conclusion. I’m a nobody. I do not have a physics degree. I only love science. Dr. Groothuis would be better able to address your question from a philosophical standpoint. But in addition to Dr. Groothuis, there are many noble and famous scientists who have looked at the same evidence that you have, and have come to vastly different conclusions–some on the staff at Oxford University. So it certainly doesn’t mean that they are ‘ignorant’. Now, if i played poker with you and won 26 rounds with a royal flush (or however many cosmological constants you believe there are, and even scientists disagree), you would naturally conclude the deck was stacked, or that i had some agency beyond the normal human brain. That is not an illogical conclusion at all. The simplest conclusion is that I cheated. And for myself, if the deck is stacked, I have concluded there is most likely a stacker. The cosmological constants alone are enough for me, because of the sheer unimaginable odds, yea statistical impossibility, for life to exist at all. If believing that makes me a fool, then I accept the title, most UNapologetically–pun fully intended. Even Christopher Hitchens agrees that the Christian worldview is consistent IF there is a god. But It is not my job to convince you of something that you do not wish to believe in, or to pressure you to believe in something you do not believe to be true. God forbid! Keep searching for Truth. I’m so glad you are!!! That’s a philosopher’s job.

    1. Geri, you said, “I myself do not believe science can tell us everything.” I fully agree with this. In fact, science holds that there is much more about reality that is, and will remain, unknown and unknowable than what we now know and will know. But, please focus on this: religions that claim there is a god that interacts with our reality make claims that certainly are testable by science.

      You said, “It (science) can tell me the WHAT, but never the WHY.” Not true. Science does BOTH. For example, WHY does an object fall from a height from the ground at the same speed IF wind resistance is eliminated? Science can evaluate how emotions are generated from neurological action potentials in the brain.

      You said, “The cosmological constants alone are enough for me, because of the sheer unimaginable odds, yea statistical impossibility, for life to exist at all.” This is a classical logical fallacy because, in order to calculate the odds of anything, one must know the denominator of the odds (- – – out of – – -).

      You said, “Even Christopher Hitchens agrees that the Christian worldview is consistent IF there is a god.” Of course. However, there is no evidence for an interventionist God so the IF is meaningless.

      You said, “Keep searching for Truth. I’m so glad you are!!! That’s a philosopher’s job.” NO, philosophy adds nothing to understanding reality. All philosophies have NO mechanisms to verify any claims on reality!! SCIENCE is the ONLY method to objectively evaluate claims on reality.

      I appreciate you interacting with me here, Geri. If you want to know more about my attitude toward religious apologetics, I invite you to read this blog post of mine, to include all of the links. Yes, it is a lot to read, and, even more so, to understand. Your choice. (https://understandrealitythroughscience.blogspot.com/2018/03/a-letter-to-christian-apologists.html)

      Peace.

      1. Dearest Thomraff, Then certainly you can provide an MRI machine that provides the value of a human life, and a scientific sliding scale for the measurement of beauty. Your argument is circular. You begin feigning that you do not believe science proves everything and end up saying science proves everything. Heres those missing odds you were wanting: it is 1 in 700 quintillion, (depending on how many constants you believe there are). “In the earliest picoseconds of the universe, the fine tuning of things had to be so amazingly precise. If you consider just one variable of the many, the expansion-contraction ratio, it had to be so exact, that it would be like taking aim at a one-square-inch target at the other end of the universe, 20 billion light years away, and hitting it bulls-eye. And that is just one of the contingencies that had to be precisely so for the universe to come into existence.” – Dr. John Polkinghorne (also not of the christian persuasion). And your argument that philosophy is unneeded for science? You can’t even think without the law of non-contradiction, let alone do science. Dr Groothuis would be much greater debate companion however, and we just hijacked his post. Thanks for your time. Ill leave off here.

      2. Geri, you said, “Then certainly you can provide an MRI machine that provides the value of a human life, and a scientific sliding scale for the measurement of beauty. Your argument is circular.” No, you are making a categorical error. Science objectively (3rd person) evaluates reality. Emotions are individual, subjective and 1st person. That said, science can do experiments on reported subjective thoughts and experiences to best understand that reality.

        You said, “You begin feigning that you do not believe science proves everything and end up saying science proves everything.” You misunderstood me. Science humbly understands that it doesn’t have complete knowledge. However, it is the best tool to understand reality.

        You said, “Heres those missing odds you were wanting: it is 1 in 700 quintillion, (depending on how many constants you believe there are). – – – ). No, your “denominator” is made up. Why? No one knows the real size and complexity of reality. If we are in an infinite expanding (beginning) and contracting (ending) single universe or part of an infinite multiverse doing the same thing, our “fine-tuned” universe would not only be possible without a god but would be inevitable. Again, your thinking is a logical fallacy of ignorance/God of the Gaps.

        You said, “And your argument that philosophy is unneeded for science? You can’t even think without the law of non-contradiction, let alone do science.” Again, you continue to misunderstand me. I did not say philosophy is unneeded for science. I said that science has ways of determining the validity of its findings (peer review, repetition of experiments and/or observations by experts in the appropriate fields, etc.) and philosophy does not. Why do I say this? Compare how scientific consensus is formed versus the total disagreement in philosophy regarding truth. Now, what I do agree with here is that science began as a branch of philosophy called natural philosophy. As time proceeded, this branch evolved formalized methods and materials leading up to what we have today: the best way of understanding reality, avoiding subjective bias.

        I will close by saying that you obviously are intelligent and well-educated. However, you also are in a bubble of religious dogma. I challenge you to read deeply the blog post to which I linked above. Your choice, are you curious enough to really understand me?

        Peace.

    1. Nice. You responded to my comments and I tried to educate you with respect for you personally. You are representative of why I oppose all religions and other magical thinking. They poison everything.

  6. In all due respect to you, dear Thomraff, as long as you perceive yourself as the answer to the world’s delusions, you will not get very far in anything. You came here to educate the unenlightened, and see yourself as a beacon to the rest of the world? Thank you for making it clear. Truth is not your primary pursuit. You have other agendas. Whatever your past experience, a wound perhaps, i do hope you can find help. I’m really not interested in ego or agendas.

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