My Criticism: Apologists can often produce more difficulties than they solve due to harsh and imbalanced polemics.

Let me put it another way: It is often the case that our polemics are built upon misunderstandings which lead to mischaracterizations. These misunderstandings escalate. During the escalation, the cement begins to harden, making it virtually impossible gain perspective. So far so good?

No. Okay. Hang with me.

Anyone who has been a student of Church history has stood on the sidelines and watched as the great fathers of our faith in the East and the West clashed over word distinctions and politics. We watched as Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli agreed on 14 points of theology, but parted ways due to the 15th (the exact nature of the Lord’s supper). We bow our head as we see traditions of the same family go their separate ways over misunderstandings turned sour and bitter.

Theological rigamortis sets in when the discussion turns into lines drawn in the sand. We lose our ability to learn and grow. We then cement the opposing view in categories that are nuanced according to how our side sees the opposing view. The nuances of our view are not concerned with being fair. We normal just want them to look bad and get others on our side throwing darts at the dragon.  We often do this because we feel that we have to justify our separation, schism, and/or lack of compromise. Once the cement is set, the difficulty multiplies as ones own position becomes defined only by what it is not. In other words, people begin to define themselves according to the emphasis and abuses of the opposition.

My wife and I have had many arguments. We are better today as we know what “hot” buttons to stay away from. But early in our marriage, these arguments would often become severe to the point of us saying to ourselves “Who is this person I married?” Even minor petty, stupid arguments can become something ridiculously traumatic to an immature marriage that lacks perspective.

I have told this story before, but it is worth telling again (although coming on the heels of my last post, people may get the wrong idea!)

I remember one time in 2001 my wife and I were driving from Dallas to Colorado Springs for the ETS conference. There was a sign that said “50 Miles to Colorado Springs.” She said that we were almost there. I said, “No, not really. The sign does not refer to the city limits, but to the central office within the city.” She said with a surprise and smirk on her face, “No it doesn’t.” I don’t know why, it was just one of those days, but we argued for the next hour about this. The argument became so intense that we did not talk to each other for an hour. In truth, I did not really know if I was right. But her reaction and distrust to my “knowledge” on this issue caused me to defend something that I was not even sure about. Her persistent argumentation gave me resolve. I rolled up my sleeves and was ready to prove my case.

Now, as childish and utterly worthless as this argument was, for many years every time we saw one of those signs on the road, there was a distinct feeling that resurfaced of an old bitter debate. To this day, I don’t really know who was right or who was wrong (and I don’t care). The point was that the polemics of the situation caused both of us to defend something that we were neither sure about or cared much about. It also caused us to have a temporal breach in our fellowship. What we should have done was act maturely, take a time out, and discuss the necessity of this turning into a debate.

I often think that we do the same thing in theology. Because of age old battles fought, lines drawn, and punches landed, we define ourselves by things that make little difference and are not really important at all. We lose the ability to use our ears. We need to take a time out and assess whether the lines drawn in the sand really need to be there. We need to discuss whether the discussion, turned debate, turned theological rigamortis, is really worth it, at least at its current escalated status.

Why do we do this? I think it is because we feel obligated to defend our positions once taken. We don’t like to change. We are not comfortable with personal indecisiveness. We like to see things in black and white. Cases closed are better than cold cases. Frankly, we are prideful.

Hardening is something that has serious consequences. This is true whether it be in marriage or theology. By hardening, we often force the opposing party (who, by this time, is usually hardened as well) to defend their position in a way that is imbalanced. The opposition’s view becomes defined by your polemic against them and they feel forced to defend their position in a very subjective manner. Did you get that? Let me say it again: The opposition’s view becomes defined by your polemic against them and they feel forced to defend their position in a very subjective manner. They find themselves representing an interpretation of their position that you have provided and into which you have forced them to harden.

Let me demonstration how I have seen this in Protestant/Catholic divide:

Protestants, seeing the abuse of this authority, rejected the Church’s elevated status and replaced it with Scripture. Catholics responded and said that if you do this, people will interpret the Scripture in a way that is outside the tradition of the historic Christian faith. Protestants said better this than being forced to hold to distortions propagated by an abusive authority.

As this debate between Tradition and private interpretation raged, imbalance and misrepresentation became the norm. Hardening began to set in. Protestants became more and more defined as those who only rely upon and submit to their “personal relationship with Christ.” Why? Because Catholics set the agenda for us. We were backed into a corner and let the opposition define what we were all about and began defending a position that was not quite accurate. We defended this imbalanced representation and passed it on to those after us.

Catholics on the other hand were defined by Protestants as those who submit only to an outside authority, and this outside authority was not Jesus Christ, but Jesus Christ as represented by the visible Church headed by the bishop of Rome, the Pope. Protestants said Catholics are against personal Bible interpretation and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Therefore, Catholics picked up this ball, shaped by the polemics of the day, and began to defend it and pass it on to those after them.

The problem is that Protestants, historically, are not against outside authorities that shape and guide their theological accountability. They are just against these being the ultimate authority. As well, Catholics, historically, are not against personal Bible interpretation or a personal relationship with Christ, they just seek to balance these with accountability in the visible Body of Christ. Notice, therefore, that it is not the positions themselves that were defined by the opposing side, but the particular imbalanced nuance of the position.

Since we don’t like to allow rest in these issues, since each side’s apologists already have all the answers, since there has been so much time and energy put into this debate, we are now obligated to make the other side focus on a polemic which is imbalanced, misrepresented, and completely dismissive of the other side. We have now hardened into a particular nuance of something we are not. And old wounds like this cannot heal this way.

The point is that sometimes the better the apologist we are—the more we “win” a debate, the more we “fight” for the cause–the more we actually lose because we make the situation worse than before.

Apologists are greatly needed in the Church. But we need to be wise apologists with great humility, giving time for rest and reflection. In a sense, we need to protect the opposition so that it does not turn into something worse than it actually is.

Does this mean that given time, rest, and reflection to issues that all issues will all be solved? Of course not, but at least we will have then acted with humility, gained a fresh perspective, have a better understanding about when compromise can occur. We will begin to only fight the battles that are truly worth fighting. We will be apologists with tact, humility, and wisdom.

What does this mean? It means that our first goal is to be intellectually honest. We have to represent the opposing side well. But this is not enough. We have to look out for them, knowing that argumentation and debate has the tendency to cause the other side to misrepresent themselves.

We also have to be willing to concede. We have to be willing to change our opinion. This is not easy as we may have to disavow a commitment to our previous blogs, papers, books, debates, and thoughts.

We also have to be willing to let the other side change without requiring them to admit their wrong. The “Kristie, just admit you were wrong about the road sign” concession needs to go.  It means we don’t get to say “I told you so.” We humbly accept their change without a conceded attitude of personal victory.

My advice to Christian apologists is this: We need to be careful that we are not actually making the situation worse, hardening the opposition, causing them to define and defend a position that does not really represent who they are. We need to make sure we are giving the issue time to rest and the wound time to define and heal itself. Otherwise, we might find we are doing more harm then good.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon 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. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    26 replies to "My Problem with Christian Apologetics"

    • Scott

      Great post. I completely agree and this is where I really like Greg Koukl’s “Tactics” (although I think we should be careful with his “I’m not sure let me look into that and get back to you” advice). His book helped me to be more conscientious of what others actually believe and are trying to convey or “prove” as well as making me more tactful in my approach with them.

      Also, as a side note I really like the new look of the site!

    • Sarah

      Agreed, but I would add that this could have also been adequately titled “My Problem with any Christian who Defends a Reasoned Position on Controversial Topics.” On the apologetics bit, “Why Good Arguments Often Fail” by James Sire is particularly helpful. A winsome, loving argument is what is needed in areas of difficulty within disciplines ranging from textual criticism to theology and apologetics (even politics), all the while keeping in mind that people are more important than winning an argument.


      Could you elaborate a bit on why you hedge on Kokul’s advice of “Don’t know right now, but I’ll get back to you?”

      • Scott

        Sure Sarah. Actually Michael covered it pretty well in his “…and other stupid statements” series (see here:

        However, to boil it down. There are times when that is a valid response and would be the wise thing to do, but there are also times when answering that way makes it seem like you haven’t given your faith much thought. One great example used in the post was when someone asks “why do you believe the Bible is true?” Sure you could say “good question let me get back to you on that” but what you’ve really just said is “I have no idea why I believe the Bible. I just chose to base my entire worldview around what it says.”

        I think this line from the post sums it up best:

        “What you have just done here is illegitimized 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”

        • Sarah

          Thanks for the reply, Scott.

          I agree with you on that. The best way to avoid this problem in the first place is to adopt a proper epistemic humility. If a person doesn’t know much, then she should do her homework before engaging in conversations likely to result in tough questions. Likewise, the person who does know a great deal ought to have the epistemic humility to acknowledge the limits to her understanding and give a Kokul-like response when such limits have been reached.

    • John From Down Under

      ‘humble apologetics’ has almost become an oxymoron, in the blogosphere at least. That’s perhaps because apologists feel a mandate for polemic engagement, hence polemics by default nullifies the need for humility (or so the prevailing notion seems to be).

      Paul’s polemics in the NT were of a different ilk. He addressed groups of people for the most part, challenged their thinking quite sharply but did not personalize his defense with vitriolic comments. This says something about the shepherd’s heart in him who was interested in the spiritual health and of his sheep and not the carnal delight that comes from winning an argument.

      Yet, despite her frequent appeals for pious living, hostess with the mostest of the Online Discernment Ministries feels licensed to confidently berate those she disapproves of, with all sorts of assumptive characterizations.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      “The opposition’s view becomes defined by your polemic against them and they feel forced to defend their position in a very subjective manner.”


      Your no-holds-barred polemic against Christian apologetics is making Christian apologists feeling forced to defend their position in a very subjective manner.

      Please be willing to change your opinion on Christian apologetics.


    • Vinny

      I’m a little confused. If the sign measured to somewhere in the center of the city, that means that you were more like forty-five miles to the city limits. Wouldn’t that tend to confirm your wife’s assessment of being “almost there” rather than contradict it?

      • Jonathan

        ditto. just so i could get some sleep, i just had to do some research now.

        03 The distance displayed should be selected on a case-by-case basis by the jurisdiction that owns the road or by statewide policy. A well-defined central area or central business district should be used where one exists. In other cases, the layout of the community should be considered in relation to the highway being signed and the decision based on where it appears that most drivers would feel that they are in the center of the community in question.”

        That’s from the US Department of transportation website.

        And just to make it more confusing, the numbers on milestones, those stone markers, show a number distance to southern or western state lines. Not the center of a community.

    • John From Down Under

      In case you were not aware, KEN PULLIAM who frequently commented on this blog died of a heart attack.

    • cherylu


      Thank you for letting us know about Ken Pulliam. I’m saddened to hear of his death.

    • I think one of the great dangers in apologetics is when it becomes about us and our ego rather then the truth. If we are really looking for truth we should be willing to look at all sides of an issue and try to understand the real strong points of those who disagree with you and be willing to change if we learn we are wrong. The problem comes when we start seeing ourselves as defending “my” position or “my” beliefs or “my” faith then the ego gets involved and we feel we have to “win”.

    • Boz

      My problem is with christian(and muslim) apologetics is that in my experience it is rare to get a balanced discussion. I have found that many apologists are like lawyers in an adversarial court case – they make a big show of the suporting evidence, while ignoring, dismissing or downplaying the opposing evidence.

      This is the same situation with politics, as casey and sarah have mentioned.

      This is against C Michael Patton’s exhortation for our first goal to be intellectually honest. Which is frustrating, because it leads me to be suspicious of benign, non-controversial statements.

    • Rintaun

      I’ve kind of wondered for a while about–because it seems like an unguided attitude will sort of take a position that is “against” the person they’re trying to speak with–if it’s possible to sort of…You know, maybe speak in a way that shows you’re wanting to help, to come at an issue apologetically…”with” them, and not “against” them?

      Sort of a matter of the heart, I suppose. ^^;

    • Undergroundpewster

      It is not just the number of miles you have to go, but how you choose to spend them.

      Same thing with apologetics.

    • Vinny

      I think the analogy between lawyer and apologist is quite apt. They make arguments that they hope will convince others of the truth of a particular positions but their reason for holding the position has nothing to do with those arguments. The lawyer holds the position he does because his client has retained him and the apologist holds his position due to a personal faith-based experience.

    • Bill Trip

      Presuppositional apologetics is the only valid apologetic to use when dealing with the unbeliever.

    • Bible Study

      I wish we could all just quit arguing about the bible and believe it. I know this is not going to happen, but salvation is supposed to be simple, believe and be saved. What ever happened to simplicity?

      • Scott

        I understand where you’re coming from Bible Study and we should try to keep it simple (as in focusing on the essential beliefs) but telling a person that doesn’t believe to “just believe it” is not only ineffective but can also be very frustrating. I’ve had several friends that left their Christian faith because every time they asked questions they were met with “you just have faith and believe it”. The fact of the matter is that you can’t “just believe” something you have no reason to believe no matter how hard you try.

        I have a friend that always uses the example of telling a person there’s a flying pink elephant in the corner and they’ll be able to see it if they just believe that it’s there. No matter how hard the person tries he’s not going to be able to make himself believe in something he has no reason to believe is true. Apologetics can help people by showing that there are good reasons to believe that Christianity is true, not just good, but true.

        As I stated before though, I agree completely with this article. Just arguing for Christianity is not enough. You have to focus on what really matters and also be respectful, tactful, and loving when discussing your faith with others. And that goes for discussions with unbelievers as well as for discussions with fellow believers.

    • […] Parchment and Pen – My Problem with Christian Apologetics […]

    • Tim Martin

      I agree that there are apologists out there doing the kind of work you are criticizing. But, it would be nice if you could acknowledge that not everybody does this, and the field of apologetics is more diverse than some make it out to be. I have often felt like my work has been lumped with others, then dismissed unfairly.

      Would you also put Rob Bowman in your critique?

    • Dave Z

      I already posted this on Lisa’s thread, but it seems to fit even better here…

      Last night I attended a service at Harvest in Riverside CA. It’s a Calvary Chapel affiliate pastored by Greg Laurie, who was not there because he’s headed out to do a Harvest Crusade in Seattle. So as guest speaker, they had well-known author and apologist, Norman Giesler. I was looking forward to hearing him, but by the end I was so upset, offended and saddened, I nearly walked out.

      He spoke on “Why I am Not a Five-Point Calvinists” (sic), and by the time he was done, he had proclaimed all Calvinists as unbiblical. And the 2000+ people in the room were sucking up every word. In refuting Irresistable Grace, he said that Calvinists believe God forces people to love him, and forced love is called rape. The clear implication is that Calvinism makes God a sort of cosmic rapist!!!! Can you say “inflammatory?” I knew you could.

      He made numerous references to “their God,” implying the Calvinist worships a different God and believes a different gospel.

      I was astonished. He set up a definition of Calvinism fit for a 10 year old and proceeded to demolish it, to the laughs, applause and head-shaking dismay of the congregation.

      The thing that saddened me most was that the whole message was delivered with a subtle mockery, along with the charge of “unbiblical,” which was tossed out for each of the five points. No grace, no humility, just grounds for division, delivered in a church that (IMO) is already teetering on the brink of being defined by a legalistic and separatist ethos.

      And, just to be clear, I too am not a five-point Calvinist. I have at least one foot on common ground with Geisler on this issue, but I felt the way he presented it was highly inappropriate and divisive.

    • Bob Hahr

      Council of Toulouse, 1229, Canon 14: “We prohibit the permission of the books of the Old and New Testament to laymen, except perhaps they might desire to have the Psalter, or some Breviary for the divine service, or the Hours of the blessed Virgin Mary, for devotion; expressly forbidding their having the other parts of the Bible translated into the vulgar tongue”

      Council of Trent: Rules on Prohibited Books, approved by Pope Pius IV, 1564: “Since it is clear from experience that if the Sacred Books are permitted everywhere and without discrimination in the vernacular, there will by reason of the boldness of men arise therefrom more harm than good, the matter is in this respect left to the judgment of the bishop or inquisitor, who may with the advice of the pastor or confessor permit the reading of the Sacred Books translated into the vernacular by Catholic authors to those who they know will derive from such reading no harm but rather an increase of faith and piety, which permission they must have in writing.”

      The Papists are historically against personal Bible interpretation.

    • Bruce Robinson

      I think that any discussion of Christian apologetics must begin with the assumption that religion involves the merger of the contents of a holy book, a person’s culture, and a person’s worldview…. at least it does for those religions that have a holy book.

      Secondly, we need to realize that it is impossible to assess the will of God through prayer. We conducted an interesting pilot study that seems to indicate this (

      The result is that whatever culture and worldview we bring to the Torah, Christian Scriptures, Qur’an, etc. will profoundly influence the conclusions that we reach. Also, there is no way to check which position is correct.

      Thus one can conclude that the holy books are ambiguous and that a clear understanding of many theological points will be impossible.

    • Tyler

      Always do enjoy your posts! Thanks for all you share with us. Listen, this one made me think of an event that was recently shared with me that I am attending this Spring & I think you & your readers may be interested. March 12, 2011 a simulcast called The Case for Christianity is taking place that will address many questions raised by critics of Christian apologetics. Led by Lee Strobel (former Legal Editor of the Chicago Tribune) & Mark Mittelberg, all of the most avoided questions Christians don’t like to answer or even discuss. Both are authors of extremely intriguing books, I encourage you to check them out as well as the simulcast in March. Definitely worth the time & I do think something you may enjoy. Thanks again!

    • Liam


      Thank you for this post.
      It reminds me that the biggest problem I see is the lack of a loving apologetic.

      Plenty of Christians can use logic
      but they don’t use love.
      They can win arguments
      but not hearts.

      Apologetics ought to clear barriers to the preaching of the Gospel. Where there is no love in the apologetic, it creates a new barrier.

      This post by Wes Widner and his responses broke my heart. He is an apologist without the love of Christ.

      How do we cultivate a loving apologetic? I ask because it is something we all, me too, need.

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