Where Science and Faith Converge

Evaluating Christian Apologists

By Krista Bontrager - June 1, 2018

Imagine for a moment that you’re watching a message on YouTube by Hugh Ross. You find the video incredibly faith-affirming. Your brother-in-law is an unbeliever and you wonder if you should send him the link. Maybe it will present some evidence that will persuade him to come to faith in Jesus. At what point do you click on that “Share” button?

Well, it depends.

Is your brother-in-law a scientist?

Does he have scientifically oriented objections to faith?

If yes, then, sharing a Hugh Ross video might be a good idea. But there are other factors to consider as well. Just because someone wears the label of “apologist” doesn’t mean they all have the same level of expertise. Various apologists write and speak for different audiences and different purposes. Some resources work better for students and others work better for faith seekers. So how can you wade through the sea of choices in order to find the right resource to fit your need? Here are three questions to help you figure it out.

1. Is the apologist primarily a researcher or an educator?

I have found it helpful to classify Christian apologists in one of two ways: either as a researcher or an educator. Let me explain how I’m using these terms.

Researchers include those kinds of apologists who are constantly looking for ways to respond to emerging faith challenges. They are engaged in the process of developing new arguments. Their work includes knowing how to interact at the highest levels of academia, incorporating research from peer-reviewed papers, and careful integration of the Christian worldview. This kind of apologist is rare because their background requires a unique mix of academic expertise. Apologists who are researchers tend to write resources that are the most appropriate to share with an unbeliever. Examples of books in this category include Who Was Adam? and The Creator and the Cosmos.

The second category of apologists are what I call educators. These apologists take the information generated by the researchers and then recast it for laypeople or students. They are great communicators, able to take complex ideas and explain them to a general audience. Many of the popular apologists on the speaking circuit fall into this category.

2. What kind of advanced degree does the apologist have?

If you want to share a resource with a nonbeliever, then vetting the academic qualifications of the presenter is critical. Questions about his or her credentials are usually a high concern to nonbelievers. In order for someone to be considered an expert, they need to demonstrate competence in the area they’re speaking about. While there can be exceptions, having a graduate degree offers a baseline indicator that the person has invested the money, time, and energy into gaining a high level of expertise in their field.

There is added credibility if their doctoral work was completed at a secular university. It means they have successfully navigated the realm of academia and demonstrated a high level of proficiency, even in a hostile environment. It’s also a likely indicator that they have significant real-world experience interacting with unbelievers. When discussing issues related to science, these qualifications are especially important.

Sometimes Christian apologists like to venture outside of their academic discipline. This isn’t automatically a problem, but sometimes it becomes one. For example, if I see that a speaker has a PhD in philosophy but is speaking on evidence for design in biology, this makes me pause. People with training in philosophy don’t have the same level of understanding for the operation of science as actual scientists who have labored for a couple of decades in a laboratory. A philosopher’s understanding of science tends to be more theoretical rather than practical.

When this happens, it means I know that I’ll need to do some additional fact-checking before passing along that person’s research to an unbeliever. This step requires getting additional verification from an expert in that discipline. One thing I’ve noticed is that when it comes to science, apologists who aren’t actually scientists often misrepresent the research. That’s not to say that good cross-disciplinary work can’t be done, but it’s the rare exception when it’s done well.

A number of seminary programs offer a master's degree in apologetics. These degrees are helping to develop more apologists, most of which are educators. The programs tend to be interdisciplinary degrees that provide a valuable complement for someone who already has an advanced degree in a specific field and wants to explore how to integrate that field with their Christian faith. But a master’s in apologetics is not a substitute for an advanced degree in a specific field, such as philosophy, history, science, or biblical studies—and neither does it automatically generate a research-level apologist.

3. Is this person able to articulate his or her research to others?

One of the key challenges for apologists who are in the category of researchers is communicating their findings. The great tension here is accessibility versus accuracy. People like Carl Sagan and Brian Green—researchers with great communication skills—are rare. But if you’re sharing a book or video with someone who is an expert, then they’re usually a little more forgiving if the information is somewhat dense or not concisely presented. In fact, they will likely even prefer it. They often enjoy exploring the details of the research.

Apologists who are educators tend to make a name for themselves because they have stronger communication skills. These are often the personalities that excel on the apologetics speaking circuit. Their talks are great to share with students or people who are new to the apologetics conversation. But they don’t always have the strongest academic credentials, so use caution when sharing their materials with unbelievers.

The bottom line is this: know your audience. If you’re wanting to pass along a resource to an unbeliever or a Christian in need of more sophisticated answers, it’s better to select something from someone who is a researcher. But if you’re trying to introduce apologetics to your youth group or a mom’s group who have no background on the issue, then choosing an educator with strong public speaking skills is probably preferred.

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