The New Testament Crime Scene: The Apostles as Early Apologists
POLOGETICS is at the heart of the gospels, the four inspired historical biographies about Jesus of Nazareth. While the New Testament writers are clearly doing more than apologetics, they are not doing less. The apostles and their associates offer us an inspired examination, interpretation, and application of the first century crime scene: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
Author Avery Dulles summarizes the use of apologetics in the New Testament, “While none of the New Testament writings is directly and professedly apologetical, nearly all of them contain reflections of the Church’s efforts to exhibit the credibility of its message and to answer the obvious objections that would have arisen in the minds of adversaries, prospective converts, and candid believers. Parts of the New Testament — such as the major Pauline Letters, Hebrews, the four Gospels and Acts — reveal an apologetical preoccupation in the minds of the authors themselves.”
While the New Testament does not read like an apologetics manual, there are clear traces of apologetics concerns inherent within multiple passages, accounts, and sermons. As Dulles says, “the apologetically significant themes that are present, in a diffused way, throughout the New Testament .” The apostles were not reticent to use reasoned arguments or even tangible historical evidences in presenting and defending the gospel.
Dulles explains, “apologetics was intrinsic to the presentation of the kerygma [gospel proclamation]. ” We find apologetic resources in the gospels and throughout the epistles. Paul’s sermons in Acts 14 and 17 are helpful examples. Paul explains the harvest and feasting as “witnesses” of God’s provision (Acts 14), and the resurrection as “evidence” that God will judge the world (Acts 17).
The result of Paul’s apologetics? Some of his audience scoffed, others inquired, but some believed. Contemporary apologists should expect a similar response in their apologetics work today.
The primary focus of the early church was the fulfillment of Christ’s commission (Matt 28:19-20). This often included apologetics, but was not focused exclusively on arguments or evidences. It was focused on presenting the gospel. Even the sign gifts of prophecy, tongues, and healing, served the purpose of demonstrating the authenticity of the gospel message. To put it plainly: we must not conflate the message of the gospel with external evidences for the message.
One thing upon which apologists of all methodologies should agree is the centrality of the gospel message in the work of the early church. Though times and challenges change, this remains the central task for apologists. This is as true today as it has been throughout the history of the church. Our methods might change, our message never will.