When I first heard the term, it was worded as “Apologist for the Catholic Faith”. I couldn’t help the thoughts of some guy walking around apologizing for his Christian views popping into my head. I wanted to ask what exactly he’d be apologizing for…maybe for offending people with his beliefs?
Usually when you hear the term “apologist” or “apologetics”, a name is associated with it. You might be familiar with Peter Kreeft, Scott Hahn, Tim Staples, John Martignoni or William Lane Craig. And most people who have done any historical research will have heard of Augustine of Hippo, Justin Martyr, Thomas Aquinas, or Ignatius of Antioch. These men could all be considered apologists in one way or another. But what does that mean, and where does the word come from?
Apologetics involves giving a reasoned defense for one's faith, and apologists are people who do that. The word comes from the Greek "apologia", which means to make a defense for one's opinions, position, or actions. It describes what a lawyer would do for his client in court, defending his client’s position or "apologizing". In recent times we use this word to describe a person saying he/she is sorry for having done wrong. But in the ancient world this was not so. Peter uses this word in Scripture in 1Pet 3:15, "...Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you...". "Make a defense" in this verse (some translations say "give an answer " or "give an account") is translated from the Greek "apologia". The same root word used in Acts (in this case, "apologeomai") where we read, "...And Alexander motioned with his hand, wishing to make a defense to the people" (Acts 19:33). So, using the Biblical understanding of the word, we can see that apologetics involves making a reasoned defense for the faith, and describes those who do this valuable and necessary work.
So, what kinds of apologetics are there? Several I suppose. The two most important to me would be Christian apologetics and Catholic apologetics. Christian apologetics is the reasoned defense of the Christian faith; giving explanations of what we believe as Christians, and why, to non-Christians. The goal of Christian apologetics is two-fold: to win converts to Christ and to help fellow Christians to better understand and be able to explain their faith. Catholic apologetics, on the other hand, involves not only Christian apologetics, but also the giving of a reasoned defense for the Catholic faith as a whole to those who are not Catholic or don't understand Catholic Christianity. The goal of Catholic apologetics is three-fold: to win converts to Christ and to help fellow Christians to better understand and be able to explain the Catholic faith...AND, sadly in recent decades, to show that the Catholic Church is not only Christian, but is THE original Christian Church. Regardless of how you want to describe it, however, apologetics is giving a reasoned defense for our faith.
Is everyone called to this task? Well, yes and no. Naturally there will be people who are not gifted at public speaking or engaging in any manner of debate without it turning ugly. That’s not to say that apologetics necessarily has to involve formal debate or public speaking, but a person must at least be comfortable enough to intelligibly discuss their faith openly and honestly with their friends, families, co-workers, or whoever else might call us to account for our faith. And let’s face it, some of us have a short fuse and become impatient with others. It’s in these cases where we can safely say that not EVERYONE is called to pro-actively engage in apologetics. However, EVERYONE MUST be prepared to give some reasoned account for their faith. Even if it’s just a quick “I believe ‘this’ because…and if you have further questions I recommend ‘this book’ [or website, or article, or friend who can discuss it, etc…] because I’m not great at explaining it…”. Another answer that we must all be prepared to give is one I had realized until I heard it from John Martignoni: “I don’t know, but I will find out and get back to you [in person, with a book, over email, with a tape/CD, etc…]”. Part of avoiding frustrations and blowing our own fuses necessarily involves being able to admit when we don’t know something.
Then who IS called to be an apologist? ‘Anyone and everyone’ is called to this mission, to at least some degree, of defending the faith in some way or another. We might not be as talented and learned as Peter Kreeft or William Lane Craig while showing atheists how reasonable Christianity is. We might not be as eloquent and beautifully spoken as Scott Hahn when explaining the book of Revelation or that the Eucharist is the New Testament. We might not have put years of study and research into learning the faith and recognizing the heart of the issues and asking the important questions like John Martignoni, or in recognizing how to be charitable in our arguments like Mark Brumley. But ALL of us are given this mission in 1Pet 3:15.
"Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right? But even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (1Pet 3:13-16).
"Always be prepared", he tells us, "to make a defense to any one", ANYONE, "who calls us to account for the hope that is in [us]". Each and every one of us is called to be prepared to give a reasoned defense, an "apology", for the hope within us. How do we do that? We have to KNOW our faith first...or at the very least know where to find the answers and be able to intelligibly bring the information from 'point A to point B’. We don't have to be perfect at it, and we don't have to know all the answers 'right now'. But we need to constantly learn our faith so that we can be ready give that reasoned explanation for what we Christians believe.
Of course, there is an ending to that verse that is paramount: "yet do it with gentleness and reverence". The best-studied apologist in the world, even with every Scripture passage memorized and the entire history of Christianity engrained in his head, will be an absolute FLOP if he has not made an attempt at "do[ing] it with gentleness and reverence" (some translations use "respect" or "modesty" or "meekness and fear"). Apologetics not only involves giving that reasoned defense, but it involves a method of delivery that is gentle, patient and respectful.
I think that pretty well answers what an apologist is and what he/she does. The next question is, are YOU ready to be one when someone calls you to account for your faith?