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The Apologist’s Imperative

My dad, an ordained-minister, family therapist and all-around great guy, gave me an assignment a while back to help kick-start my own thinking about what it means to be an apologist.  Here was the assignment: write a paper titled, The Apologist’s Imperative that wrestles with the following statement from Wittgenstein as it relates to the topic of Christian apologetics, “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”

I was given two hints: 1) contextualization and 2) meta-communication.  I was not to use any resources save my Bible and a dictionary where I could look up the two terms above if I needed to.  It was a perfect topic for me to wrestle with since it essentially relates perfectly to my intended purpose for this site.

Here is what I came up with.  Let me know what you think.  Oh, and if this looks familiar, it is.  I first published this on my other site ( before my strategy changed and I developed this site.


Apologetics is the theological discipline concerned with producing systematic, well-reasoned arguments that defend the divinity and authority of Christianity.  An imperative is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “an obligatory act or duty.”  We are therefore concerning ourselves here with discussing the essential, necessary responsibility of anyone who claims Christ – that is, how do we effectively communicate the Gospel message of salvation to the world?

Using Wittgenstein’s quote above, I can infer certain characteristics of effective communication – principally, that a shared language is a basic helpful ingredient.  If a lion spoke to me, then I would have absolutely no way to discern what he was telling me because he and I would not (presumably) speak the same language.  The same could be said for an individual that approached me and asked me a question in Mandarin Chinese.  This truth is as old as time.  When God wanted to halt construction on the Tower of Babel, He confused the language of the workers.  Verbal communication was an a priori requirement, and without it they were lost.

Digging deeper though, it is evident that there is more to communication than simply the sharing of familiar words between parties.  From the time that we can begin to associate words with objects, we give those objects meanings.  But more than that, societally and culturally those words have shared meanings.  For example, if I were in England and told someone I needed to buy a stroller, I might get a quizzical look.  If, at that time, I happened to see a woman pushing her baby down the street I could point and say, “See!  A stroller!”  The response would likely be, “Oh!  You mean a ‘pram’?”  In this theoretical conversation, we were talking about the same object, but I grew up calling it one thing and my counterpart another.  To take this idea even one step further, we must understand that meanings can change through the generations.  For instance, if someone approached me today and told me they were “gay,” I would associate this with homosexuality.  If I lived in the 1920’s and someone did the same thing, I would assume they meant that they were feeling jovial, exuberant or happy.  Language, therefore, is not unique to me.  I do not speak “Jonathan,” I speak English; but more specifically, I speak the English I grew up learning.

There is another aspect to communication that is more nuanced, but no less important, than understanding and choosing the right words to convey literal meaning, and that is the way in which I communicate.  To call this non-verbal communication does not quite suffice, because certainly while eye-contact, posture, etc. is involved, we must also consider verbal tone, voice inflection, gesturing, facial expression, etc.  This is an aspect of communication known as meta-communication, and it is vitally important to match the meta-communication of your message to the verbal communication.  Mixing the signals can cause your intended meaning to fall short of its desired impact at best, and at worst your audience could walk away confused or, in fact, with the opposite meaning than what you intended!  Let us use the way you talk to your dog as an example.  If you look your dog in the face and say, “You are the worst dog I have ever known and I can’t wait until you die!” but you say it with bright eyes, animated gesturing and the same tone of voice you would use to praise the dog, then you get the same waggy-tailed, excited response you get when you say, “Good boy!” and give the dog a treat.

To bring the discussion back to the central theme, given the discussion above, how does the apologist effectively communicate the Gospel message to the world?  By not only successfully piecing words together into coherent, well-reasoned arguments that convey a literal verbal meaning, but by also educating themselves about the world around them.  Christ commanded us to “make disciples of all nations.”  I must be willing to understand the current climate of the nation I am called to in order to make the Gospel message relevant and practical to the ears that will listen.  Christians today need to be better educated about not only the Word of God, but also about the culture in which they live, and we need to learn the art of talking differently to different people.  Paul was able to effectively communicate the Gospel because he educated himself to the point that he could become “all things to all people.”  Paul could talk to an educated Roman politician or a poor, illiterate Jewish farmer.  In a like manner, apologists today need to be able to deliver a different type of message (but conveying the same meaning!) to college professors than they would deliver to an uneducated Appalachian farmer.  A large part of J. Hudson Taylor’s success as a missionary to China was the fact that he immersed himself in the culture of the Chinese people.  If apologists are ineffective today, it may likely be because we are losing our ability to engage our culture in its context.

Copyright © 2012 Jonathan Ruth


One thought on “The Apologist’s Imperative

  1. Brilliant work! If I were given that assignment I might have opted for another class!

    Posted by John | June 25, 2012, 3:45 pm

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