For my Introduction to Theology Students: Please read

The other day I was listening to a radio program. The speaker is someone who is very popular in Evangelical apologetics. He is someone that I have learned a lot from and whom I respect a great deal. However, he propagated something that I think is, more often than not, a very poor apologetic response to questions for which the individual does not have answers. It goes like this:

Apologist teacher: “We need to be ready to give an answer for our faith.”

Student: “But I am scared. What if someone asks a question that I don’t have an answer for.”

Apologist teacher: “Don’t be scared. It is okay if you don’t know. Don’t feel bad about your lack of knowledge. You just need to remedy it. Tell them that it is a good question and that you will go find the answer and get back with them about it.”

However, I often find this sort of carte blanc response disturbing and quite demeaning.

I am not saying that it could not be a good answer in certain circumstances for certain questions. But when it comes to our defense of the faith we had better be more prepared and more reflective. What do I mean by this?

Think about it. Let’s put this in a particular situation. You are an enthusiastic Christian who believes deeply in the Gospel. You are talking to a co-worker about Christ one day. They begin to tell you about why they don’t believe in God. The crux of their issue is the problem of evil. “How could a good God allow evil?” That is their question. You respond, “I don’t know. Good question. I will research this some and get back to you next week.”

What you have just done here is legitimized your faith to this person. As well, you have diminished the seriousness of the question and the person asking it. To this person, your faith is carried even though you have not dealt with one of the most serious theological questions that anyone can ask. You have just told the person, “Hmmm…Good question. Never thought of that.” Once this person (who obviously does think deeply) recognizes that you have not personally wrestled with this issue, they might see your faith as shallow and fake. And you know what? They might be right. I am not saying that our faith is not true in such circumstances, only that it may be unreflective. 

Not only this, but you may be belittling the person by demeaning the question. How did you demean the question? By not engaging it, but simply saying “I will get the answer and come back.” Quick fix, eh? How do you know you will get the answer? Is it really that easy? Is it as simple as “getting the answer and coming back.” Here is the key point of what I am saying: You are saying to this person, “I know that this is the main reason why you reject God. You may think you are a smart chap, but you are not that smart since I can simply go get the answer and come back in no time!”

I am not saying that we have to have an answer for everything. After all, there will be a time in our Christian walk when we are first starting to deal with some of these difficult questions ourselves. Most pop apologetics today are concerned with good Evangelical cliché answers. It is not about engaging the issue. It is not about wrestling with problems. It is about “getting the answer and coming back.” Often there will be good answers. Other times there will be many legitimate options. Still, other times there will be no answers, just an understanding of the difficulty.

This is why Christian discipleship of the mind is so important. We need to show others that we are not disqualified due to intellectual shallowness. We need to have wrestled with the issue ourselves. We need to have been encouraged to do so by our mentors. We need to show others that we understand the problems not simply because we have read a question/answer book on the subject, but because we have been in the same place and asked the same questions. We have engaged and wrestled with the question personally. Therefore our answer comes from the depth of who we are, even if the answer is “I don’t know.”

Another example: Think about this. You are witnessing to someone and telling them about Scripture as God’s word. They begin to inquire about the contents of Scripture saying, “So many people have different books in their Bibles. How do you know that the books you use are the right ones?” You say, “Good question, I will get back to you on that.” Say what? You have not even wrestled with a foundational question such as this? How real can your faith actually be? That is what is going through their mind.

Or, how about this: They ask you how you know historically that Jesus rose from the grave and it is not just a Christian myth. You respond, “Good question. I am going to find out and get back to you on this.” You are going to find out how you know Jesus rose from the grave? You are going to find out how you know Jesus rose from the grave?? You are going to find out how you know Jesus rose from the grave???? You, a Christian, are going to go (future tense) to find out why you believe the central element to the Christian faith is true? And you expect this person to follow you?

This comes in all areas of theology. As a Calvinist (one who believes in unconditional predestination) I am often asked many questions about why God did not choose everyone. I don’t have an answer for this. It disturbs me too. But this is not from lack of studying or reflection. I know all the options. I have spend many a night dealing with this with the Lord. However, I don’t have a good answer. But I do have an informed answer: “I don’t know.” Sometimes an informed I don’t know is better than an unreflective text book answer. Why? Because it legitimizes the question (and the one asking) and legitimizes your faith. You have shown that you are a real person, not a theological bot. Theological bots are simply concerned with the “right” answer to everything, not the struggle and the depth that accompanies true belief.

We are not theological bots. God wants us to love him with all our understanding. But our discipleship process must engage issues truly. We need to avoid surface level shallow defenses of our faith. They can do more harm than good. And, remember, on some issues, informed agnosticism is the best and most effective position to have.

If you are one who has done this often, if you are one who has yet to wrestle with your faith, take heart. I am not saying you have to be perfect. I am not saying that you have ruined your witness and someone is going to be burning in hell due to your negligence. If so, count me guilty as well. These things are tough. But you know what? God works in and with us even though we stumble, fall, and look, from the outsiders perspective, illegitimate. That is what grace is all about. When he is ready to change a heart, it will happen. If we fumble the ball, he does not—ever! However, we do need to be as diligent as possible, having allowed ourselves to personally wrestle with hard questions.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    12 replies to "Are We Theological Bots?"

    • Tyler C

      Nice post! I sometimes feel like I’m not prepared to answer ‘on the spot’ if I need to go review some of the reasons for things I believe, even those big, central things you mentioned…at least I feel like I need to go review and prepare to be able to *present* my ideas well. So often, if a conversation comes up in the middle of other daily activities such that we can’t discuss in depth then and there, I often suggest that we “get together later” or something to talk about things more, and I go and review. But obviously, sometimes you’re talking with someone for a long time right then and there as it is, and hopefully your previous wrestling with such issues will become evident in the cogency of your presentation even if you stumble at first for lack of recent review. Anyway…good warning of the shallowness of evangelical apologetics cliches. They make me want to be sick sometimes, too. I mean, even otherwise very strong apologists sometimes use little quaint ‘sound bites’ in the middle of their generally very good conversations, and it makes me cringe!

    • Mike

      Some thirty-plus years ago I struck up a conversation with a young man who was an avowed atheist. I was a new believer – maybe a couple of years at the time – and he asked hard, philosophical questions. My response?

      “I don’t know the answers but I think we can find out together if you want.”

      So we began to read and discuss books by Schaeffer and Lewis, along with one by Macaulay and Barrs. And, in time, we started looking at what the bible said.

      He came to faith a little while after that, graduated from Dallas and Gordon-Conwell, and now pastors a church in Madison, WI.

      But if I understand your post aright, maybe I shouldn’t have engaged him to begin, seeing as though I was woefully under qualified to do so.

      Although, once he got to DTS, he told me that it wasn’t my information or knowledge that influenced him – indeed, he said, some of it was just wrong! – but the fact that I loved him kept him coming back.

      You know, it was almost as though God didn’t need my expertise. It was – I know this is ridiculous – like the Holy Spirit worked through me to love the young man for Christ’s sake, and that was what drew him to Christ as his Savior.

      Boy, was I ever stupid! I guess I should have waited to take all your courses first (even though I think you might have been in elementary school at the time).

    • NW

      I don’t know, the sort of advice criticized in the main entry might have been appropriate for previous generations if not for our own. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective, Christian apologetics needs to keep pace with both the present state of Biblical scholarship as well as the culture, and this is certainly a difficult task given the pace of change in both areas since the close of WWII.

      What’s more frustrating to me is when the older generations turn their various shibboleths into idols that the younger generations must also accept (e.g. Biblical literalism, KJVO, YEC, premillennial dispensationalism, Christin Zionism, one-point Calvinism). The amount of nuttiness that the previous generations of were willing to indulge in is breathtaking.

    • Shaun Campbell

      While I agree with your sentiment, especially the aspect where professing Christians should have understanding of their faith, I have met many who have a childlike faith. In this instance answering a deep theological question may not be a good move. Instead an explanation of an individuals faith and short testimony can be more profound than philosophically pondering on the intent of God. Personally, I study all aspects of theology because I want to help people understand. The last thing I want to see are those who have little or no knowledge leading the blind. As your post was addressed to theology students, I will assume this is not your intent. Theology students, depending on their progress, should be well ready to tackle the tough questions, but if not testimony is best. God Bless!

    • Mike

      Way off topic, but how do I change my avatar for this site? I don’t remember if it’s a WordPress thing or not.

      Sorry and thanks.

    • Mike

      Never mind. Sorry.

    • Cindy Yarbrough

      Thanks for the post. The humbling effect of the breadth and depth of Scriptural truth leads some of us to less understanding rather than more.Wrestling with hard truth ourselves and then loving others enough to listen to their questions, pray for understanding and search God’s Word when coupled with an understanding that though we have the Holy Spirit we are not able to fully comprehend the magnificent, Holy, Awesome God we serve because our finite brains are limited has the intended effect. Knowledge puffs up–love builds up.

    • John James

      My favorite ‘pat answer’ (if one wants to use pat answers) is similar, but, I believe, lessens or avoids some of the problems: ‘There’s been a lot of ink spilled over this question and I haven’t settled on an answer yet, but it’ll be good to take a look at it with someone else for a while, if you’re willing.’

      Doesn’t dismiss the question, lets the other know you have thought of the question before, and puts out an invitation to tackle the question together/on the same side. That is assuming one is willing to take another look at the question.

    • Steve Martin

      The best time to share the faith (I believe) is when someone is down. The law is already having it’s way with them in a quite noticeable way.

      You could tell them about the ways that you have been or are being had (by the world) also.

      Then share what Christ has done about it. How He will one Day dry every tear. Explain how this has changed your life. And then leave it alone.

      After that, handle what comes back in the best way you know how.

    • Zachariah

      I haven’t thought of that before. Excellent.

    • Ben Thorp

      Thanks for the great post. Really helpful, and a good way to introduce people to the importance of apologetics.

      However, I think we also need to recognise that sometimes people’s questions aren’t actually about getting an answer, so we also need to read between the lines.

      I also think that we need to be aware of the “postmodern dilemma” and know how to frame our answers appropriate to the culture of the questioner. Sometimes the “I believe this, because the Bible says this” answers don’t cut it. As someone invested in the “geek” subculture, which is usually very well read, but also very indoctrinated by pure science, the Bible answers aren’t satisfactory, and I’ve been very impressed with Tim Keller’s work that comes at it from a much more philosophical angle, which I believe is a more helpful approach in this culture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.