Dallas Willard shows us how to do apologetics
During my first year of college, I made sure I was well prepared for what lay ahead. In addition to the shower caddy, new sheets and towels, and school books, I also packed along a copy of Josh McDowell’s The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
I was a young Christian at a secular school, and I wanted to prove to myself and others that Christianity was true. I wanted arguments that would win debates. I don’t remember ever using the book for those purposes. During the next four years, I never converted anyone by winning an argument. In fact, I’m not sure I ever converted anyone, period.
A few years after college, I parted company with my big book of apologetics, its pages still fresh. I have also come to see that evangelism and apologetics are not about winning an argument or getting someone to say, as they do sometimes in medieval theological dialogues, “It could be no other way!” Spreading the gospel begins with living it out in the small details of life. It doesn’t bring about immediate success. Jesus talks about the harvest being ripe for the reaping, but he also talks about his followers as laborers in the vineyard. Vineyards take slow, careful cultivation before you can press the wine, let alone drink it.
Dallas Willard’s The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus is about this kind of apologetics. Willard himself died before he could write the book, but his daughter, Rebecca Willard Heatley, pieced it together from his lectures and notes. Its greatest benefit comes in its reminder of how to go about apologetics.
Willard reminds us that apologetics is “a helping ministry” (what Catholics like myself would call a “spiritual work of mercy”). It requires that we make ourselves honest seekers of the truth when in conversation with others. As Christians, we believe that we have found that truth in the person of Jesus Christ. That shows us the Way, but we are still on the way. The task of apologetics is to help others also on the way find the Way. It is a call “not to beat unwilling people into intellectual submission, but to be the servant of those in need, often indeed the servant of those who are in the grip of their own intellectual self-righteousness and pride, usually reinforced by their social surroundings.”
The touchstone verse of apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is within you.” Willard reminds us, this comes at the end of a description of what Christian life looks like, especially in the faith of suffering. It is a life of joy that, among those who see it, produces wonder about its source: “The ultimate apologetic is the life of the individual who is living out of the resources of the kingdom of God.”
Right after that part about making a defense, St. Peter cautions, “do it with gentleness and reverence.” The Allure of Gentleness is a model of both.
Apologetics, as Willard sees it, is not about giving evidences for the truth of Christianity, as important a task as that can be. Rather, it’s about “the big issues: what the premises are, what the conclusions are, what the real questions are about, what doesn’t make sense, and how to make sense of it.” Perhaps because the book comes from notes and is not one of his finished works, it is weakest when it gets into arguments one can make for common objections.
For stronger arguments, readers will want to turn many of the authors from whom Willard borrows, especially C.S. Lewis and J.P. Moreland, among others. Still, The Allure of Gentleness is a starting point for a mom headed to a coffee shop to talk with her friend, who will ask how a loving God would allow her to miscarry.
In addition to arguments, Willard counsels that you speak out of your own experience and spiritual life. Above all, remember that apologetics is about being a servant of the Lord, a laborer in the vineyard of a Master who knows what he is about:
“We do not suppose that we are going to convert people or change their lives merely by the power of our own reasoning. But, as with everything in life, we are called by God to put forth our efforts in expectation and faith that they will be anointed and that in the effect of those efforts we will see a greater difference than we could possibly make on our own. . . . If you look through the Bible or listen to the testimonies of Christians, you will see that that is the way it always works. We put forth our effort, and the result is much greater than could possibly be caused by our effort alone.”
Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College. This is his first contribution to Aleteia.