Fr. Brendan Pelphrey, a former Protestant pastor and missionary, has been a priest in the Greek Archdiocese since 2000. He has taught in a number of universities in different parts of the world, including Hellenic College in Brookline, MA. His academic degrees and publications are in the fields of Philosophy, Comparative Cultures, Christian Dogmatic Theology and Patristics, New Testament, Christian Medieval Mysticism and Christian Mission.
In the last few weeks, I have had several opportunities to think about Christian Orthodox apologetics. At our Greek festival, for instance, some of the volunteers who were helping us were Mormon “missionaries” or “elders.” These are young men and women who volunteer to take one or two years away from their education and work in order to spread the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Living in Utah, I and members of my Orthodox congregation encounter such missionaries frequently, usually on a daily basis.
Somewhat incredibly, at the same Festival a Muslim man who was married to a Greek woman interrupted my “church tour” by demanding how long the Virgin Mary was pregnant. “Only nine hours, not nine months!” he shouted triumphantly to an incredulous audience of my tour group. Originally from Iraq, he is a member of a Muslim sect which believes that Christ was born in Babylon, and that Allah caused the Earth to bend so that Mary could walk to Babylon from Jerusalem (!) in only a few hours to give birth to Christ, who could walk and talk at birth (an idea gleaned from Buddhism).
Only a few weeks earlier, on Sunday morning during the Divine Liturgy, our church received a telephone call from South Korea. The callers were asking for me by name, to extend a personal invitation to a conference on world peace to be held in Seoul. I have attended theological conferences in Seoul in the past, but I did not know these particular callers, who were from a cult group known as Shin Shun Ji. This group teaches that its Chairman, Man Hee Lee, is the only path to salvation, and that the only place where salvation can be achieved is in their temple(s). The group has gotten support from the United Nations and has sponsored “peace” activities all across Africa and Asia, together with the UN; and now in the USA.
And last week, two young people came to our door at home. One, whom I’ll called “Dmitri,” was from Russia. His friend, “Maria,” was from the Philippines. At first, they asked me if I would like to participate in a survey to help them in their youth work. But after a minute, I asked them if they were from the Unification Church, and they admitted that they were. After that, the young man became very aggressive, shouting that Christians “do not have the Holy Spirit” or we would recognize that the late Mr. Moon was, indeed, the Messiah.
These are just a few examples of encounters which I have regularly in the small town where we live. At the coffee shop, the waitress is a cheerful Pagan (she has a personal goddess, depicted in her tattoos). I meet Wiccans at Wal-Mart; the owner of the alternative-foods store advocates Yoga and Hindu meditation as well as chakra-readings and aura therapy; I talk with American Buddhists, including my former neighbor, who is a convert to Theravada. The list could go on.
These conversations are opportunities for what I call “Orthodox Apologetics.” Some Orthodox Christians, including priests and even hierarchs, say that there is no such thing. However, some of the most famous of the early Christian writers were apologists. These include the Apostolic Fathers as well as later witnesses to the Christian faith such as Ignatius the Martyr, Hippolytus, Tertullian, or Justin the Martyr (called “the Philosopher”).
But what is apologetics exactly? The English word, “apologetics,” is taken from the Greek word apología (apó, of, from + logía, reflection on something, an eloquent argument). Often it is translated as “defense,” meaning to make an argument in defense of oneself. This word is used in the New Testament ten times, for instance in 1 Peter 3:15, in which the Apostle Peter urges his readers to be prepared to “make a good defense for your faith when you are called to account.” However, to translate apología as “defense” can be misleading, since apologetics does not really mean defending ourselves.
The sense of “to give an answer” or “to justify” is more accurate. This is the sense in which it is used by the Apostle Peter. In the context of Peter’s epistle, it means to justify ourselves—our way of life, or our spiritual orientation—to those who demand an explanation from us.
A justification of something is to show how it is right or “just.” To justify ourselves as Orthodox Christians means to demonstrate to someone that our faith and way of life are good and sound, righteous or just. Apologetics, therefore, means showing someone that our way of life is worthwhile and “worthy to be praised,” in the words of the Apostle Paul (Philippians 3:8).
In the context of the First Epistle of Peter, however, apologetics means much more than simply persuading someone that we are right. The first Christians were frequently called upon to justify themselves before a court of law, or a tribunal, during times of persecution. Peter was talking to his flock about situations in which they would have to prove before a court of law that they were not atheists (the charge most frequently brought against Christians by the Romans). They had to show that they were good citizens. And they were defending not simply themselves, but the Christian faith as a whole.
When accused of being Christians illegally, the early martyrs wanted to be found “guilty.” At the same time, they wanted to demonstrate that it was better to be a Christian and to suffer the legal penalties for it, than it was to be a law-abiding Pagan. They were justifying a way of life and of personal belief which otherwise did not make sense in the context of their Pagan culture.
Often apología is also translated, both in some English versions of the New Testament and elsewhere, as “apology.” This too can be very misleading in the modern context, because apologetics does not mean saying “I’m sorry.” Historically, an apology was a speech in which the person’s position on some theme—religion, or politics, or science—was vigorously defended. Usually this verbal defense relied most upon the use of rigorous logic. The purpose was to persuade the listener through argumentation to accept a different point of view.
Today in America, many Protestant theologians and missionaries continue to believe that Christian apologetics should rely upon the use of sound reason or logic. A Protestant Christian radio program about apologetics even took the name, “Sound Reason.” But Orthodox apologetics is not based upon reason, because Christian faith is actually unreasonable.
Christianity is faith in Jesus Christ—or, to be more accurate, being faithful to Christ. Jesus of Nazareth, called the “Christ” or Messiah, manifested Himself as the eternal God in the flesh, the salvation of all humanity through His incarnation, death and resurrection. None of this is “reasonable.” None of it can be proven through logic. In the end, faith is (in the words of St. Paul to the Hebrews) the assurance of things which are hidden from us. They do not make sense to a reasoning world.
We can say that all the historic Christian heresies (teachings which are not the true Apostolic faith) have been attempts to make Christianity “reasonable.” For example, the heresy of Arius was to say that, reasonably, Christ could not be both God and man at the same time. The heresy of Apollinarius was to say that reasonably, Christ could not be divine if He had a human mind and will. The heresy of Sabellius was to say that reasonably, the Holy Trinity could not be three divine Persons who are nevertheless perfectly One. Today, modern heresies which persist into the 21st century are their own attempts to make Christian faith “reasonable.”
An obvious example is the Watchtower Society, known to most people as “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Frequently, representatives of the Watchtower Society who come to your door will begin their memorized “witness” by asking the question, “Don’t you believe that God is reasonable?” To this question or questions like it, I have learned to answer “No.” This is not the response which the Watchtower missionaries are expecting, but it is true. Christian faith is not “reasonable.” We are not philosophers in the worldly sense. In the hymns of the Akathist to the Theotokos, we sing that by giving birth, the Virgin made the philosophers “mute as fish.”
But if Christian faith is of itself unreasonable, how do we persuade anyone to be an Orthodox Christian? Part of the answer is that we cannot persuade anybody. St. Peter did not instruct his congregation to persuade the Romans to be Christians, but to make a good defense (or account, or justification) of their faith when called upon to do so. It is the Holy Spirit Who draws people to faith and Who gives them the gift of faith. Our task is simply to explain what the Orthodox faith is. We leave the rest to God.
At the same time, we may also add that the art of apologetics is to give a good account of the faith—or to make a good defense for the faith—in ways which can be understood and which are non-threatening. It is important to add these qualifications. Making ourselves understood requires knowing something about how the other person understands what we are saying. Otherwise, what we may think of as justifying ourselves, or making a “defense” of the Christian faith, is open to misunderstanding and might even be perceived as annoying or threatening. In such cases our “witness” might not only result in the listener walking away, but could even cause conflict or hostility, not only towards ourselves but also towards other Christians.
Orthodox apologetics is not about backing someone into a spiritual corner. Rather, the goal is simply to be heard and understood. Then, if a person does not want to accept our faith and way of life, they have every freedom (and even responsibility) not to do so. St. Peter writes about making a good defense when we are called to account—not an attack in the name of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we speak about our faith primarily when other people ask and are interested in hearing our answer. An important part of the art of apologetics is knowing when to speak, and when not to speak.
To be a good apologist does not mean to ignore obvious differences between our own point of view and that of the persons with whom we are talking. It does not mean skipping over features of a religion or ideology which, as Christians, we find offensive. There is the misconception today, in our “politically-correct” world, that Christians should not mention things which might not agree with someone else’s point of view. But this perspective is not Orthodox. It results in the paralysis of Christian witness.
In my own experience of speaking with non-Christians for over forty years, I can say that nearly all the time they appreciate hearing directly the “unreasonable” elements of the Christian faith. I recall an elderly Buddhist monk in China who said that he appreciated hearing clearly about Christ, because some of the Christians he had talked to were “afraid to be Christians.” “If I wanted to talk with another Buddhist,” he said, “I would have done so.”
Finally, to be a good apologist there are three things we need to do:
1) First, we should study our Orthodox faith carefully, including reading the Scriptures daily and being familiar with the Fathers and Mothers of the Church;
2) Second, we must learn to pray for the people we are talking to. We can say the “Jesus Prayer” quietly while they “witness” to us. (Sometimes, this does not mean a peaceful outcome. When “Dmitri” became aggressive and began to shout, I asked him to leave, because conversation requires mutual respect.)
3) Third, we should learn all we can about contemporary religious movements. The writings of the early Christian apologists, including the Apostles, show that they were very knowledgeable about the world religions of their time.
Above all, we want to be Christ for the person who is in front of us. We ask the Holy Spirit to bring grace and truth to our conversations, and we continue to pray for all whom we meet even after they have left our door. That is true Orthodox Apologetics.
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