Cringing at A Street Apologist

Someone sent me a video of a popular street apologist. He goes to universities and makes a case for Christianity. He is very good on his feet, which is why he is so well known. However, every time I watch him, I find myself cringing many times during the video. It is not that I necessarily disagree with him or his conclusions. In fact, we are very close theologically. But I cringe because I don’t find any variance in his convictions. What do I mean by that? Well, he seems to believe everything that he believes with equal conviction. Whether it is the existence of God to his take on the details and timing of creation, everything is argued with maximal assurance. There is never any, “I am not sure about that.” or “Good Christians disagree about this, but here is why I hold to my view.” There is never any sense that he is willing to admit ignorance. It is all about winning the argument, not truly helping people understand how to responsibly think about the variance of issues involved. To put it another way, I cringe because he often overstates his case.

Overstatement in Christian Apologetics

“Apologetics” is a fancy word we use for defending the faith. It comes from the Greek word apologia, which means to “give an answer.” It is doing our best to responsibly give a rational reason for our beliefs. However, so often I see Christians defending their faith like the street apologist I spoke of above. We overstate our case. And when we overstate our case, while we may stir and excite the emotions of those who already believe the way we do, while we may even convince someone of our positions and make them unbalanced as we are, ultimately, we are discrediting ourselves in the marketplace of ideas.

Overstatement in Writing

Strunk and White, in their popular book on writing style (Elements of Style), have a profound contribution to make to our communication of our faith. I reiterate that this is not a book about how to write theology, or do apologetics, but how to communicate through writing. The wise and timeless principles expressed here can be applied to any communication venue (even an argument with your spouse!)

“When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise. Overstatement is one of the common faults. A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.” (Strunk and White. Elements of Style, Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 7).

Do you understand what they are saying? Once you characterize yourself with this type of imbalance, it is very rare that you will truly gain an audience. Well, let me say this another way: Once your arguments carry such imbalance, it is very rare that you will gain an audience except those who already agree with you. The true object of your enthusiasm—whatever or whoever that may be—becomes diminished, finding relative balance in the strengths of your other overstatement.

Holding Some Things Losely

We hold to so many things with relative assurance. When we emphasize everything we know as if we were equally certain about all we believe, the background noise is discrediting. I don’t mean to single out Christians or Christian apologists. Every category of people does this in every discipline, from pastors to politicians, scientists to historians, car salesmen to Mac salesmen (I had to get a Mac jab in somewhere!), and husbands to wives. The irony is that we do this because we are, deep down, insecure about so many things. We think if we admit this, it betrays some deep-down doubt or unbelief. So, what do we do? As the old saying goes, “When you are not sure about what you are saying, pound the pulpit harder” (or something like that).

A Place to Confirm Our Prejudice?

It is important to note that there are circumstances where we do gather around our beliefs without the same critical eye I am promoting here. For example, as Christians, when we gather with other believers in church, we often do so celebrating our beliefs. This doesn’t necessarily mean we are doing so and failing to live up to our obligations to the Lord to use our minds (as I will speak to in a bit). But these are the times when we are gathering around our commitment already made. At church, we are often not there to critically engage our beliefs, attempting to test and probe them, but for a type of “covenant renewal.” We are there not because we want to evaluate whether we are going to accept and make a covenant with God, but because we already have. We gather with others of a like mind who are also wearing the wedding ring of Christ, and we were convinced enough to accept His proposal. We are there, not because we believe everything with the same degree of assurance, but because we believed enough to stand at the altar of Christ and made our commitment.

A Place to Critique Our Prejudice

However, in certain settings, we come together to critically examine the beliefs. This rigorous scrutiny arises not from so much from our willingness to doubt, but from our resolve to subject our convictions to testing, as mandated by our Groom. Such forums should be the crucibles of our apologetics, where our aim transcends mere defense of beliefs to uphold the sanctity of truth—even when it challenges our current understanding. Our presence in these discussions is not to flaunt the rationality of our faith, but rather to demonstrate our need to be humble. We approach these foundational matters with a reverence that befits the gravity of potentially misrepresenting the God.

Navigating this landscape of critical engagement demands an openness to our own fallibility. Acknowledging that we, unlike God, are prone to error, is a humbling but essential aspect of this journey. The discomfort one might feel in such a setting speaks to the seriousness with which we undertake this engagement. It’s a testament to our devotion to God that we willingly enter this space, cautiously moderating our arguments to avoid overstating our case. This approach echoes a biblical paradigm, one that continually invites us to confront our limitations in the light of Scripture’s enduring wisdom.

God’s Disdain for Uncritical Beliefs

You may feel like you are dishoring God when you loosen your grip on what you already believe. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. We are taking a sober look at ourselves.

This passage from Isaiah is long, but is so illustrative of what God thinks of an uncritical mind—a mind that never considers it might be wrong. Read this carefully:

“All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame. Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit nothing? People who do that will be put to shame; such craftsmen are only human beings. Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to terror and shame.

The blacksmith takes a tool and works with it in the coals; he shapes an idol with hammers, he forges it with the might of his arm. He gets hungry and loses his strength; he drinks no water and grows faint. The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in human form, human form in all its glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. It is used as fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.’ From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, ‘Save me! You are my god!’

They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. No one stops to think [emphasis mine], no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, ‘Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?’

Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?’”

Isaiah‬ ‭44‬:‭9‬-‭20‬

Stop and Think!

The highlighted phrase, “No one stops to think,” serves as a powerful reminder for all of us. To stop is to entertain the possibility that our beliefs might be incorrect, thereby opening ourselves to critical self-reflection. This process is inherently uncomfortable because it disrupts our established internal status quo, challenging us to consider change. Despite its difficulty, many resist this pause; it feels like admitting uncertainty, revealing a vulnerability we’re often reluctant to confront. However, what’s perceived as a weakness is, in fact, a profound expression of humility. Pausing to question not only has the potential to truly engage those who are skeptical and need to believe what you are defending but also enriches our own understanding and conviction.

Are We Going in the Right Direction?

This act of stopping is much more than a momentary hesitation; it’s an acknowledgment of our imperfections and an admission that we are fallible. It’s a signal to others, too. While we may see this pause as a crack in our armor, it’s actually a demonstration of our humility and openness to growth. This willingness to question our beliefs shows that our convictions are not merely inherited beliefs from mom and dad, or to say that we accepted them without scrutiny, but are the result of thoughtful consideration. We don’t hold our beliefs simply because they’ve always been with us or because they were passed down by family. Instead, we’ve arrived at them through a process of critical engagement. Continuing on our path with this renewed humility not only strengthens our beliefs but also makes our journey more authentic and relatable to others. It humbly asks God, “Are we going in the right direction?”

Not Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain

Perhaps what I’m doing here is akin to journaling, reflecting aloud in an effort to remind myself of the importance of introspection, even when it proves challenging. It’s not my intention to flex my own muscles or to insist that others adopt it merely on my say-so. Rather, I’m exploring these thoughts, constantly reminding myself to pause and reflect.

Above all, my deepest hope is that I’m faithfully practicing the art of contemplation in all areas of my life. Skipping this crucial step of stopping to think, I fear, might lead us astray from the very essence of what it means to follow the third commandment, to honor God’s name and not take it in vain. It’s not merely about ensuring we’re right but about adhering to a divine directive to seek truth with a reverent heart. This capacity for critical thought, this invitation to pause and reflect, is one of the gifts of our faith. It stands as a testament to the depth and richness of Christianity, a faith that doesn’t shy away from questions but welcomes them as a means to grow closer to the divine truth.


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

    5 replies to "Stop and Think: The Peril of Overstating All Our Christian Convictions"

    • Dwight Clough

      Well said, Michael, and you make an important contribution to the Christian community by reminding us that there are different perspectives, and we’re usually not as smart as we think we are. An important point; we would all do well to listen.

    • Eric Quek

      I wanted to express my gratitude for your recent piece. It resonated deeply with me, particularly in its emphasis on humility and self-reflection in defending our faith. Your acknowledgment of the discomfort that can accompany questioning one’s beliefs struck a chord with me, as I’ve navigated similar doubts and concerns in my own journey. Your personal reflections added a layer of depth to the discussion and made it relatable to those of us who have grappled with these issues. I appreciate your willingness to share your insights and experiences.
      I was intrigued by your exploration of the distinction between confidence and overconfidence in matters of faith. While I may not fully agree with your assessment of assigning varying degrees of certainty to different aspects of our beliefs, I appreciate the nuance you bring to the discussion. As you explain and illustrate further on this topic in your Patreon, I’m eager to delve deeper into your teachings on this subject. Could you please point me in the direction of where I can access your lectures on this topic in more detail?
      Now, I must address a response from one of your readers, let’s call him Teenage Theologian (TT). His critique lacks depth and substance, veering instead into a polemical tirade that does little to further meaningful dialogue. TT’s assertion that you oscillate between trust in reason and skepticism towards it, as well as vacillate between acceptance and rejection of faith, lacks specificity and evidence. It seems the critic is grasping at straws rather than engaging with your arguments in a substantive manner. Furthermore, the characterization of your theological reflections as “poor quality” and your philosophical musings as “sophomoric” is both unfounded and unhelpful. Such ad hominem attacks only serve to undermine the credibility of the critique. If TT disagrees with your arguments, it’s imperative that they provide specific examples and reasoned analysis to support their claims. Additionally, the critique lacks nuance and fails to acknowledge any potential strengths in your arguments. Rather than offering constructive criticism, TT chooses to dismiss your ideas outright, perpetuating an atmosphere of hostility rather than fostering genuine intellectual exchange. As fellow Christians, we are called to engage with one another in a spirit of love and humility, even when we disagree. I urge TT to reconsider his approach and strive for a more respectful and thoughtful dialogue in the future. Instead of acting like a Teenager Theologian.

    • C Michael Patton

      Dude. This is so completely wrong!!! What is your problem? Do you have no eyes to see or ears to listen. My name is CMP, not MCP foolish child. 😃

    • C Michael Patton

      Haha. Yes. My introduction at the theology class of the theology program really deals with this from sessions one through 10. But if you wanted to be specific, I think it’s split sessions number eight and nine.

      • Eric Quek

        Yes, I do have The Theology Program (Copyright 2011). Courses #1-6

        And yes, you are right, in the appendix of Course 1, the emphasis on “Essentials & Non-Essentials” is noted. I believe there has been an update to this section. If so, could you confirm and guide me on how I can delve deeper into this topic?

        Thank you

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