Tremendous advice from the great C. S. Lewis:
When one thinks of Christian apologetics, the name of C. S. Lewis instantly springs to mind. He certainly was one of the most important and influential apologists of last century, and his impact is still being fully felt today. To write a short article on this may seem like a lost cause: simply trying to properly deal with books like Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain would require many large articles.
But here I want to deal with just one short article of his – one that was originally delivered as a talk to young religious students. The paper, read during Easter of 1945 in Wales, became the article “Christian Apologetics” in the book God in the Dock. There might be more than one edition of this available. Mine is the Eerdmans 1970 version (reprinted in 1978), so I will utilise it: the article appears on pages 89-103.
He begins his brief talk with characteristic humility and humour:
Some of you are priests and some are leaders of youth organizations. I have little right to address either. It is for priests to teach me, not for me to teach them. I have never helped to organize youth, and while young myself I successfully avoided being organized. If I address you it is in response to a request so urged that I came to regard compliance as a matter of Obedience. 89
He reminds his listeners that some boundaries are needed when discussing Christian orthodoxy:
It is not, of course, for me to define to you what Anglican Christianity is–I am your pupil, not your teacher. But I insist that wherever you draw the lines, bounding lines must exist, beyond which your doctrine will cease to be Anglican or to be Christian: and I suggest also that the lines come a great deal sooner than many modern priest think. I think it is your duty to fix the lines clearly in your own minds: and if you wish to go beyond them you must change your profession. 89-90
Apologetics is about defending the faith. But as Lewis importantly reminds us, we are to defend THE faith, and not just our personal opinions about it:
We are to defend Christianity itself–the faith preached by the Apostles, attested by the Martyrs, embodied in the Creeds, expounded by the Fathers. This must be clearly distinguished from the whole of what any one of us may think about God and Man. Each of us has his individual emphasis: each holds, in addition to the faith, many opinions which seem to him to be consistent with it and true and important. And so perhaps they are. But as apologists it is not our business to defend them. We are defending Christianity; not ‘my religion.’ When we mention our personal opinions we must always make quite clear the difference between them and the faith itself. 90
And Lewis had to remind these students that truth is what matters in all this:
The great difficulty is to get modern audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity solely and simply because you happen to think it true; they always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort. Now a clearly maintained distinction between what the Faith actually says and what you would like it to have said or what you understand or what you personally find helpful or think probable, forces your audience to realize that you are tied to your data just as the scientist is tied by the results of the experiments; that you are not just saying what you like. This immediately helps them to realize that what is being discussed is a question about objective fact–not gas about ideals and points of view. 90-91
Moreover, ALL biblical truth must be defended:
Science progresses because scientists, instead of running away from such troublesome phenomena or hushing them up, are constantly seeking them out. In the same way, there will be progress in Christian knowledge only as long as we accept the challenge of the difficult or repellent doctrines. A ‘liberal’ Christianity which considers itself free to alter the Faith whenever the Faith looks perplexing or repellent must be completely stagnant. Progress is made only into a resisting material. 91
He urges us not to be “slaves of fashion”:
If one has to choose between reading the new books and reading the old, one must choose the old: not because they are necessarily better but because they contain precisely those truths of which our own age is neglectful. The standard of permanent Christianity must be kept clear in our minds and it is against that standard that we must test all contemporary thought. In fact, we must at all costs not move with the times. We serve One who said ‘Heaven and Earth shall move with the times, but my words shall not move with the times.’ 92
We must be relevant to our audience while being true to the faith:
Our business is to present that which is timeless (the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow) in the particular language of our own age. The bad preacher does exactly the opposite: he takes the ideas of our own age and tricks them out in the traditional language of Christianity. 93
The West is now a missionary field, says Lewis, and we must proclaim the gospel with that understanding in mind:
Our great danger at present is lest the church should continue to practice a merely missionary technique in what has become a missionary situation. A century ago our task was to edify those who had been brought up in the faith: our present task is chiefly to convert and instruct the infidels. Great Britain is as much a part of the mission field as China. Now if you were sent to the Bantus you would be taught their language and traditions. You need similar teaching about the language and mental habits of your own uneducated and unbelieving fellow countrymen. Many priests are quite ignorant on this subject. 94
We obviously must still proclaim the reality of sin, even if most folks no longer believe in it:
A sense of sin is almost totally lacking. Our situation is thus very different from that of the apostles. The Pagans … to whom they preached were haunted by a sense of guilt and to them the Gospel was, therefore, ‘good news.’ We address people who have been trained to believe that whatever goes wrong in the world is someone else’s fault–the Capitalists’, the Government’s, the Nazis, the Generals’, etc. They approach God Himself as his judges. They want to know, not whether they can be acquitted for sin, but whether He can be acquitted for creating such a world….
I cannot offer you a water tight technique for awakening the sense of sin. I can only say that, in my experience, if one begins from the sin that has been one’s own chief problem during the last week, one is very often surprised at the way this shaft goes home. But whatever method we use, our continual effort must be to get their mind away from public affairs and “crime” and bring them down to brass tacks–to the whole network of spite, greed, envy, unfairness, and conceit in the lives of “ordinary decent people” like themselves (and ourselves). 95-96
Apologetics is always about knowing both your faith and your audience, and connecting the two:
To conclude – you must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular. This is very troublesome and it means you can say very little in half an hour, but it is essential. It is also of the greatest service to your own thought. I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning. A passage from some theological work for translation into the vernacular ought to be a compulsory paper in every Ordination examination. 98-99
He offers some practical advice here:
Uneducated people are not irrational people. I have found that they will endure, and can follow, quite a lot of sustained argument if you go slowly. Often, indeed, the novelty of it (for they have seldom met it before) delights them.
Do not attempt to water Christianity down. There must be no pretense that you can have it with the supernatural left out. So far as I can see, Christianity is precisely the one religion from which the miraculous cannot be separated. You must frankly argue for supernaturalism from the very outset. 99
He once again emphasises the importance of truth:
One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. And in the discussion they will at every moment try to escape from the issue ‘True–False’ into stuff about a good society, or morals, or the incomes of bishops, or the Spanish Inquisition, or France, or Poland–or anything whatever. You have to keep forcing them back, and again back, to the real point. Only thus will you be able to undermine (a) Their belief that a certain amount of “religion” is desirable but one mustn’t carry it too far. One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. 101
And he closes with this vital truth:
I have found that nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of that faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as the one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate. For a moment, you see, it has seemed to rest on oneself: as a result when you go away from the debate, it seems no stronger than that weak pillar. That is why we apologists take our lives in our hands and can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from our intellectual counters, into the Reality–from Christian apologetics into Christ Himself. That also is why we need one another’s continual help–oremus pro invicem [Let us pray for each other]. 103