“but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and respect” (1 Pt 3.15).
Many hold out 1 Peter 3.15 as the patron verse for the ministry of Christian apologetics. (The Greek word behind the English “defense” is apologian, from which we derive “apology.”) Obviously, there are apologists for every sphere life: i.e. those making a reasonable and credible case for their cause. Christian apologetics is the effort to defend the Christian faith using reason, information and systematic categories. Christian apologists engage the secular truth-seeking mind using common philosophical and scientific categories to persuade skeptics of the truth of Christianity (“True Truth”). Perhaps Paul engaged in apologetics in Acts 15, where he sought to use what Athenians already affirmed to convince them of Christ.
The earliest apologists were Christians hoping to persuade Roman emperors that Christians are not in fact who they are charged to be. One the earliest and arguably most famous Christian apologists was Justin the Martyr, who began his First Apology (c. AD 155) to Augustus Caesar and his philosopher son, Lucius:
Reason requires that those who are truly pious and philosophers should honor and cherish the truth alone, scorning merely to follow the opinions of the ancients, if they are worthless. Nor does sound reason only require that one should not follow those who do or teach what is unjust; the lover of truth ought to choose in every way, even at the cost of his own life, to speak and do what is right, though death should take him away (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/richardson/fathers.x.ii.iii.html).
As authorities accused Christians of insurrection, agitation, and subversion, the early apologists sought to demonstrate that Christians were good citizens who paid their taxes and encouraged submission rather than rebellion.
I dare not question the value of apologetics. The church has long been and will always be well served by those defending the Christian faith before emperors. God be praised for men and women who take on the ivory tower under the banner of Christ.
I do wonder, however, if Peter intended his instruction to create and/or define such a specialized ministry (and industry!) called “apologetics.” Did Peter intend his exhortation to be taken up by PhDs, rhetoricians and philosophers using Ivy League vocabularies? Did Peter intend our ready “apology” to be about winning arguments and shaming red-faced skeptics?
Or, by making our “defense” did Peter mean good, old fashioned evangelism by the everyday Christian lampooned, exploited and persecuted in a world hostile to God?
Let’s consider Peter’s context. Since 2.11, Peter has been stressing the necessity for Christians to keep their cool when they are persecuted. We are to follow the example of our Master, who did not retaliate in word or deed (2.21-25). Rather, the Christian takes his lumps with patience, integrity and deference (2.12).
Christians under tyrannical governments will remain great citizens (2.13-17). Christians with terrible bosses will still be the hardest working employees (2.18-20). Christian wives married to jerks will be respectful and honoring spouses (3.1-6). Christian husbands will elevate their wives rather than devalue them (3.7). No Christian, no matter how painful the persecution, will “return evil for evil or insult for insult” (3.9).
The Christian will suffer for doing what is right, but the Christian must also suffer the right way for doing what is right (3.16-17). Why? Because Jesus the Just suffered for doing what was right (3.18). And if the Just One did so then those he justified will likewise do so. You and I are saved because Jesus didn’t so much as lift his pinky finger in retaliation against us. Rather, he died in such a way that a centurion confessed, “Surely, this was the Son of God” (Mk 15.39).
It’s in this context that Peter urges our apology. “Petrine apologetics” is not primarily about Christian intellectuals debating gene sequences at international bio-medical conferences. Peter didn’t envision a situation where the Christian sips lattes with the atheist, arguing theodicies. He envisioned the situation where the stake-strapped Christian doesn’t waste his last breaths blaming his captors. He exhausts himself in the praise of Christ for the sake of them. Peter’s apologetics were about Christians receiving the world’s sucker punches without lashing out in anger or protest. It’s about making our death useful. We die in such a way that the world is forced to admit we really did live for another kingdom (1 Pt 3.19).
What are we to defend? Peter says we “give an account for the hope that is in you.” Of course, Peter began his letter on the note of hope, the Living Hope into which we’ve been born again by God’s mercy (1.3). The defense Peter has in mind is the essence of the gospel: salvation wrought by God through the resurrected and unseen Christ for all who believe (1.6-8). The hope we defend is the grace coming with Christ on day (1.13). The hope we defend is the foreknown Christ who has appeared so we believe in God (1.21).
How are we to defend this gospel hope? Gentleness and reverence (3.15) echoes the sentiment already stressed (2.19-20, 23; 3.2, 6, 8-9). The Christian keeps his/her gospel cool in the face of all ridicule and persecution. While being cursed, he blesses his enemies with the “apology” of Christian hope.
Undoubtedly an unfair generalization, but we’ve regularly relegated modern apologetics to winning the philosophical or intellectual argument about God’s existence, creation, a global flood or a man-eating whale. Apologetics are for the brainy-types who love a good cerebral joust. The last word wins.
Peter appears to have a far different notion of apologetics in mind. His defense is the proclamation of the hope inside us, which is nothing less than good and gentle evangelism in the face of our enemies. While there are absolutely situations where we engage skeptics with evidence and proofs, we do so as a means to end. We don’t want them to agree with us, but to hope in God. And that is possible only when they hear that “Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Pt 3.18).