Friday, November 13, 2015

By Dr. Joshua Chatraw

The past few weeks, we have highlighted a series of posts, inspired by Jonathan Edwards, on the subject of posture in engaging the culture. Edwards encouraged believers to allow the Gospel to set the course for living out their message. What might it look like if we allow the Gospel to set the course for our engagement?  The rules that we have seen so cover topics such as the need to truly listen to others, why we should not judge the motive of others, and  always trying to find points of agreement. Today, we have reached the fifth rule of the Gospel for engaging with others.

Rule #5: Resist focusing on the periphery.

It is important to stay focused. At times, the people we are speaking to will bring up something we think is silly, illogical, or just plain wrong. The tendency can be to respond to everything with which we don’t agree. Yet, if we don’t pick and choose what we will address and what needs to be responded to, the conversation can easily become a 15 round sparring match. It could be pride that fosters the need to hoist your every opinion over the other person each time they say something, even something that is relatively minor, that you disagree with. The proverbs warn us, “Where there is strife, there is pride” (Proverbs 13:10).

Paul calls the gospel that which is of “first importance” and the “power of God for salvation.”[i] What determines one’s standing with God is not one’s view on the age of the earth, the authorship of Hebrews, political affiliation, or the question, “Do animals go to heaven?” As important as some of the issues are, we need to stay focused on an individual’s problems with Christianity and how we might effectively open the door to the gospel.

We are articulating something akin to what C.S. Lewis famously referred to as “mere Christianity.” What is meant by this is not that doctrine, outside of a few core things, is insignificant. Lewis himself clarified this,

I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodox or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.[ii]

To build off of Lewis’ metaphor, apologetics is about bringing unbelievers into the halls of the Christian house rather than into a specific room. They eventually should decide to go into a room or leave the house, but first they must enter the house and walk through the halls.

Another image that allows for more practical application is an “apologetic triage.” This is similar to what medical professionals refer to as “medical triages.” For example, recently I took my daughter to the emergency room after a head injury in which she had blacked out for a few seconds. Upon arriving to the ER, hospital staff quickly began to ask my daughter questions: “From 1 to 10, tell us how much it hurts.” The staff was trying to figure out how potentially critical her injury was compared to other patients. A head injury in a child could be very serious. She was probably put before any patient who came in that night with a sprained ankle. Someone who was having a heart attack, however, would probably have been treated before my daughter. A medical triage determines what injury is most critical and needs to be given priority.

An apologetic triage recognizes that not every objection to what we think of as “correct doctrine” should be treated with the same priority. In other words, we must decide what is most critical to the gospel. Many times, believers and skeptics alike who are experiencing deep doubts have not learned to triage their questions in order to distinguish the essentials of Christianity from the periphery. Christianity begins with some basic questions: What do you believe about Jesus and the gospel? Can you trust Jesus and the gospel accounts? Did Jesus rise from the grave? Is he Lord?

Often believers will face challenging questions about what they have always believed about some particular doctrine, which they have inherited from their theological tradition. They have been taught that “this is just the way it is,” and then they find skeptics and other Christians who challenge one of these “this is just the way it is” doctrines and it seems that their house of faith begins to crumble. Part of the problem is that they were never taught about the difference between core Christian beliefs (what C.S. Lewis referred to as “mere Christianity”) and beliefs that are important, but not essential for conversion or orthodox theology.

This lack of nuancing can also effect the apologist’s dialogue with the person to whom she is attempting to minister. If every doctrine is triaged at the “critically important” level, then the result is that dialogues with non-believers, who obviously see the world very differently, will unravel into arguments that never build a bridge to the gospel. 

[i] 1 Corinthians 15:3, Romans 1:16

[ii] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), xv.