Seriously, don’t get a degree in apologetics.
These are thoughts that I have been dwelling on for many months now. Then Max Andrews told me that he was going to say it (and he did), so I was happy to offer a brief comment in support of what he was saying. And now I’m going to say it too. Don’t get a degree in apologetics. You shouldn’t do it. Could I be wrong about that? Absolutely, but at this point I’ll need to be persuaded of that. Getting an apologetics degree appears to be something of a new development in Evangelical academia, one that is being embraced with zeal, particularly in the United States. That fact alone means that even if I am dead wrong, it is only healthy that there be a good strong push back against this for the young and enthusiastic to consider before they commit to something like that. But I don’t think I am dead wrong at all.
I know that I am treading on toes when I say this because there are some beloved Christian colleges out there offering degrees in apologetics. The fact that I am saying this might also confuse or surprise some people, because they might see me as an apologist. It’s true, I am, in the sense that sometimes I offer people reasons to think that what I believe about God is true, and sometimes I offer responses to criticisms of those beliefs. I’m on record defending the practice of apologetics in general. If you really think that there are good reasons to believe as you do then of course it’s appropriate to share them. If people offer criticisms of what you believe and you think they are mistaken or unfair, then yes of course it’s appropriate to offer a response. So let nobody misconstrue me here as saying that you shouldn’t engage in apologetics. I am saying nothing of the sort.
Think for a moment about your favourite published defenders of the Christian faith of the 20th century or later, if you have any. Think about those who have reputations as being the best apologists out there (whether they use the word “apologetics” or not). Everyone’s list will be slightly different, but the list will probably include names like C. S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Ravi Zacharias, William Lane Craig, John Lennox, Peter Kreeft, Richard Bauckham and others.1 Do you want to be a great apologist? Great. Do you think these people are / were great apologists? I agree. OK, now ask yourself what all of these people – along with probably every other person you might add to this list – lack. They probably lack a whole lot of things, but one of the things they lack is a degree in apologetics. “But there were no degrees in apologetics when my favourite apologist was at university!” Perhaps there weren’t, but that didn’t seem to stop them, did it?
Suppose that you had a friend who wanted to be a scientist. Actually, “scientist” is probably too broad a word. Specifically he wanted to get a degree called “A Master’s degree in proving that Darwinian evolution is true.” As he progressed through his studies, he learned about the parts of biology that are useful for constructing arguments proving that Darwinian evolution is true, and he took part in mock debates where the object was to verbally refute an opponent who was defending creationism. He studied the arguments of creationists and how to rebut them. He also learned about how to politically manoeuvre in such a way as to keep the teaching of creationism out of public schools.
I have a question especially for my creationist friends (but also for everyone else): Is this person an expert in biology? Would you find it meaningful or persuasive if a proponent of Darwinian evolution cited this fellow as an expert in science and therefore a credible authority? If you have no problem with evolution, what do you think?
I’m not saying that this person isn’t an expert in biology. Maybe he is, but for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t regard him as such because he had a qualification like this. Apologetics is a skill. It’s something you do. It’s the art of setting out arguments for a claim or point of view, of commending a point of view as credible, or of defending a point of view from critique (or anything similar). When a person’s innocence is defended in a courtroom, that’s an apology – a defence. That’s apologetics. But the lawyer who offers the defence didn’t invest years getting a BDP, a “Bachelor of Defending People.” They got a bachelor of law, spending years learning about law. In the courtroom they draw on the resources of their understanding of the law, applying to it their skill of speaking and persuasion.
Apologetics is the application of expertise across a range of subject areas to the defence of the faith. To do this, obviously you need the resources of expertise to draw on. Here is where you either gain the expertise yourself by being a scholar of philosophy, science, biblical studies or some other discipline, or you turn to those who have the expertise and you draw on their work. You go to the scientists to draw on their work in science. You go to the biblical scholars to draw on their work in biblical studies. You go to the philosophers to apply their insights. Or you become a scholar yourself, investing in training in (for example) New Testament studies so that you can (for example) grapple with questions related to the historicity of the Gospel accounts. But the thought of undertaking a higher degree to show that you know (or can draw on) just the bits of science that are useful for arguing that Christianity is true, and just the bits of philosophy that are useful for arguing that Christianity is true, and just the bits of biblical studies that are useful for arguing that Christianity is true and so on – this thought just horrifies me.
Surely the result of a manufacturing process like that can only be somebody who is not an expert in science, philosophy, biblical studies or any of the other fields upon which apologetics draws.
Go back to your list of your favourite apologists. What makes them an authority? What is their strength and what is their source of credibility? Take Richard Bauckham, whose most celebrated work among apologists is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Yes, it is a work in which Bauckham employs the skill of defending aspects of the Christian faith, namely the historicity of the Gospel accounts (he does this by arguing persuasively that eyewitnesses played a strong role in the writing of the Gospels). So it is apologetics, make no mistake about it. But what fuels the apologetics is a rich, in-depth background knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. Or think of Alvin Plantinga, someone whose work might be thought of as apologetics of a very different sort: Analytic philosophy. In particular, philosophy of religion, epistemology and metaphysics (and perhaps a couple of other fields in philosophy for good measure). And these are the areas in which he got his degrees. The same will be true of most everyone in the list (with exceptions – C. S. Lewis didn’t get a degree in theology, but he didn’t get a degree in apologetics or anything like it either, so he’s no counter example). I don’t presume to stand in the company in that list, but there are people who appreciate (some of!) what I have to say and who have called me an “apologist.” I don’t have a degree in apologetics, so on what do I draw when I offer comment in defence of what I believe? A couple of theology degrees and a PhD in philosophy – and a good deal of the sort of thing I discuss that could be construed as apologetics draws on neither of these things but from my own post-degree research and reading the work of other people. Adding a degree in apologetics to this, as I see it, would be something like adding a degree to teach me how to take the knowledge gained from my studies and to use it to make a case for a particular set of claims, which is surely overkill. Do I not already understand the subject matter? Do I not already have a good idea of the implications of what I’ve learned? If not, then how did I manage to graduate? Am I just unable to communicate them? Perhaps a short course in public speaking or a couple of communication papers would help.
Now, maybe the apologists for degrees in apologetics will object to all this. Perhaps they would tell me that really a degree in apologetics is a degree in, say, biblical studies, along with a focus on applying that knowledge to the defence of the faith. I reply: So you take classes in the basics of biblical interpretation, and classes on chosen books or sections of the Bible, and a biblical language, and systematic theology etc? And a class in apologetics to top it off (as in, a study of the arguments that are used to defend Christian belief)? Yes? Then why would you call it a degree in apologetics, since its content is the same as what the rest of the world calls a bachelor of theology (or divinity)? So I won’t be moved by any answer that effectively tries to dismiss the differences between a degree in apologetics and a degree in theology or biblical studies. I’m talking about a degree that is called a degree in apologetics because it is not a degree in something else but a degree in… well, apologetics.
Maybe the apologists for a degree in apologetics will – as one did already – accuse me of “academic snobbery.” I’m saying, it might be said, that apologetics isn’t a “real” subject, but my degrees were in real subjects. But it’s no good to make this complaint, if this really is my point. And it’s not that I have said that apologetics doesn’t matter, isn’t serious, or doesn’t require any skill. But what I have said is that it’s not something that warrants a degree devoted to it.
Apologetics is, in the abstract, a specific skill that draws on subject matter to do a job.
So what degree, if any, should an aspiring apologist get? If you want a degree that will help you be a good apologist, maybe some papers in communication, public speaking or critical thinking would help. Or if you want a degree that will help you get a grip on the material that apologists often draw on, how about a degree in philosophy, or science, or biblical studies? What is the best choice will depend on what subject area interests you more. But “using scripture, philosophy, history and science to argue that X is true,” while it may be a perfectly good thing to do, is not a discipline in which you should even consider getting a degree, no matter what X is. That is not a worthwhile degree (again, provided that’s really what the degree is in). Even if I had no idea what X is, I would be very unlikely (unless I had very good reasons to the contrary in a particular case) to recommend (in a formal academic context), hire (for an academic job), or invite as a guest speaker (in a context where there was an expectation that the speaker is an expert with credentials), somebody whose highest degree was in apologetics (not that it currently matters, given that nobody is likely to ask me to do any of these things!).
And now I brace for the response. I have been intentionally provocative, but I meant every word. I say again, I could be wrong. But I’ll have to be persuaded.
- The lack of women on this list is not intentional on my part, it just happens to reflect reality as many others have noticed I welcome a change here, and the likes of Mary Jo Sharp, Sarah Ankenman, Melissa Cain-Travis, Holly Ordway, Madeleine Flannagan and others are, in their various capacities, working to this end. See the International Society for Women in Apologetics if you’re a woman with a strong apologetics interest. You may find some great networking opportunities there. [↩]