Over the past few years, we have occasionally engaged in that practice which the church calls “apologetics” here at Mere Orthodoxy.
We never did it, I think, out of some sort of anxiety about the reliability of our Christian faith or out of some notion that we could “argue people into the truth.” I’m not sure any but the most resolute apologetics junkies–which we, manifestly, are not–thinks such a thing is possible.
The work of apologetics generally has two justifications within the church. The first is that it functions as a sort of “pre-conversion” work that makes the soil receptive to the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit. The second is that it functions to edify Christians by giving them a greater confidence in their faith by demonstrating that it is reasonable.
Peter Leithart found this excerpt by Austin Farrer, which highlights this latter aspect and expresses the real need for apologetics and argumentation within the ministry of the church:
What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.
The final clause highlights the inadequacies of both my suggested uses for apologetics, which are resolutely individualistic. And if pushed, Farrer might have to go that route.
But the notion that rational argument maintains a climate hints that it does much more than give the individual believer confidence in his faith: it establishes a world where the confidence of Christians in their faith is not dependent upon the arguments they are able to repeat from their heads. Instead, the confidence of those who are able to articulate and defend Christianity pervades and transforms the Christian community and enhances the faith of its respective members.
This is probably to push the language of “climate” too far. But it is an evocative image, and one that tempts me to think more about it in relationship to Plantigean-style reformed epistemology.