Was Jesus An Apologist?

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(Original post by by Sean McDowell here.)

A few years ago, I had a discussion with an influential theologian who claimed that Jesus was not an apologist. He pointed out that, except for 1 Peter 3:15, the New Testament appearances of apologia (“defense”) all come from the writing or ministry of Paul. Does this mean Jesus was not an apologist? Was Jesus more interested in proclaiming and illustrating the faith than defending it?

Jesus was certainly a master story-teller. And his teachings have shaped the world (arguably) more than any other teacher. But, when we consider the entirety of his ministry, it is clear that he was also an apologist for the faith, even if he didn’t use the word apologia. Two examples make this clear:

Jesus Uses Logic
First, Jesus used sophisticated argumentation to advance his claim to be the Messiah. For instance, in Matthew 22:41-45, Jesus uses the form of argumentation called reduction ad absurdum, which is a strategy that aims to advance the truth of an idea by demonstrating the absurdity of its denial.

In this passage, Jesus asks the Pharisees, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They respond, “The son of David.” But then Jesus asks how David, in the Spirit, could call the Messiah Lord: “If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” Jesus is showing that their views that the Messiah is merely the son of David lead to absurdity. In other words, while the Messiah is the son of David, he is also much more.

Jesus Offers Evidence for His Identity
Second, Jesus not only used reason to show the inconsistency of the Pharisees, he also put forth positive evidence for his Messianic identity. In John chapter 5, Jesus offers five lines of evidence that validate his testimony. He appeals to John the Baptist (5:33-35), his teaching and miracles (5:36), the Father (5:37), the Scriptures (5:39), and Moses (5:46).

In this example, Jesus gave positive reasons for his identity that his critics should have accepted. Of course, these two examples need to be explained further (as my father and I do in the updated and revised Evidence that Demands a Verdict). But the point here is simply: While Jesus was much more than an apologist, he was no less.

Jesus the Brilliant Thinker
Philosopher Douglas Groothuis has carefully studied the question of whether Jesus was a philosopher or an apologist. After giving many examples of how Jesus rationally defended the crucial claims of Christianity, Groothuis concludes:

Contrary to the views of critics, Jesus Christ was a brilliant thinker, who used logical arguments to refute His critics and establish the truth of His views. When Jesus praised the faith of children, He was encouraging humility as a virtue, not irrational religious trust or a blind leap of faith in the dark. Jesus deftly employed a variety of reasoning strategies in His debates on various topics. These include escaping the horns of a dilemma, a fortiori arguments, appeals to evidence, and reductio ad absurdum arguments.

Jesus’ use of persuasive arguments demonstrates that He was both a philosopher and an apologist who rationally defended His worldview in discussions with some of the best thinkers of His day. This intellectual approach does not detract from His divine authority but enhances it. Jesus’ high estimation of rationality and His own application of arguments indicates that Christianity is not an anti-intellectual faith. Followers of Jesus today, therefore, should emulate His intellectual zeal, using the same kinds or arguments He Himself used. Jesus’ argumentative strategies have applications to four contemporary debates: the relationship between God and morality, the reliability of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus, and ethical relativism.[1]

[1] Douglas Groothuis, “Jesus: Philosopher and Apologist,” in Christian Research Journal 25, no. 2 (2002).

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