An apologia, or apology in the traditional sense, is a defense of something. Any scholar who proposes and defends a thesis (which is how most dissertations are written) does an apology in this sense. Monographs and articles typically advance and defend theses. (One reason that I enjoy writing commentaries is that they are less controversial!) So scholars are “apologists” in this general sense all the time. Many today, however, limit the use of the terms “apologist” and “apologetics” to the traditional Christian approach of defending the faith. Thus, they apply it more narrowly to a defense of Christian faith or Christian premises. In this way, if Richard Dawkins attacks belief in God and implies that there is no such thing as a smart Christian, Christians who respond to him are called apologists. Both they and Dawkins defend a thesis, but the title “apologist” is given to them rather than to Richard Dawkins.
So long as people are using the title in the traditional Christian sense, this narrower designation is understandable. Christians who answer Dawkins are apologists for Christianity, and Dawkins is self-evidently not one. Christians who argue that Jesus is an actual historical figure are apologists in this sense, and Richard Carrier is not. Those who argue for the historical reliability of the first Gospels are apologists for that premise; those who treat those Gospels as novels or mythography are not.
And yet: one could argue for the existence of God, or for Jesus as an actual historical figure, or for the historical reliability of the Gospels, without being a Christian apologist or even a Christian. One would still be defending a thesis, as would someone denying any of these claims.
The major problem is that some use the titles “apologist” and “apologetics” as terms of derision with which to dismiss the work of those with whom they disagree. They mean, “Oh, of course they would say that. They’re defending their Christian belief.”
For the dismissal to work, one must take for granted, first of all, that defending Christian belief is illegitimate. What if the defender actually believes that what they are defending is true? And what if they happen to be correct? How can you know that they are incorrect if you have never looked at the evidence that they present? If you disagree a priori, you should be gracious enough to admit that the reason you disagree is because you disagree with their belief, rather than challenging their credibility as a scholar.
Some also use this dismissal to cover not merely professional apologists, but any scholar who sometimes argues for a thesis consistent with historic Christian premises. Thus if the senior scholar Craig Evans shows how archaeology comports with some biblical claim, or if I find external corroboration for some features in Acts, or if Richard Bauckham revives the possibility of a significant measure of originally eyewitness testimony behind the Gospels, some writers on the internet dismiss these claims (and often our entirely scholarly output) as “apologetic.” If someone argues the opposite on any of these points, the person is considered “objective.”
These charges are leveled regardless of the amount of argumentation or documentation marshalled. They are leveled regardless of where the work is published. If someone’s position is Christian, no amount of research can surmount the suspicion that it is biased—never mind that the antiapologist who levels such a charge does not apply the same suspicion to someone arguing against a Christian position. The dismisser does not take into account the possibility that we argue for these views, and genuinely hold them, because we believe that the evidence points to these positions. The average dismisser appears not to have even read our work; they circulate such reports secondhand based on how some others have used our work.
When used in this manner, the labels “apologist” and “apologetics” function like an ad hominem argument, like any other kind of name calling/deviance labeling. This is essentially a lazy way to dismiss the work of another person without having to engage it.
Of course, some publications merit dismissal, but normally not before perusing them to see if they contain worthy arguments! Also, scholars are not obligated to engage popular-level arguments (blog posts and the like; so why am I doing so? Notice that I am doing so only in a blog post …). In today’s world, scholarship would grind to a halt if scholars had to respond to everything that anyone says. Moreover, even in scholarly work itself, it is no longer possible (at least in most areas of New Testament) for scholars to engage every scholarly work; there are simply too many to keep up with. But lack of engagement is not the same as dismissal—unless the scholars in question go silent specifically on every work that disagrees with them.
Most scholars are sometimes “apologists” in the most general sense of defending a thesis. Many scholars exploring the historical origins of Christianity will sometimes pronounce in favor of something historical (the vast majority at least agree on basic matters, such as Jesus being a historical figure, being Jewish, being Galilean, etc.) Some scholars specialize in demonstrating particular historical claims, and these may coincide with Christian beliefs (which the scholars may hold at times because they find such claims persuasive). So nonapologists should not dismiss all “apologists” even in the narrower sense unless they start with a premise that what the apologist is arguing must be wrong.
Some apologists do argue a thesis or one side of an argument without considering alternatives. That is the sort of approach that good scholars warn our doctoral students against: you may propose a thesis for your dissertation topic, but be ready to adapt it as your research shows its weaknesses or even voids it. But I know some professional apologists who do adjust their views as they discover new information—what any scholar, indeed, any honest person, must be ready to do.
Only when scholars do not genuinely believe what they are arguing for (normally difficult to discern, though some novel proposals published in quest of tenure these days seem suspect) or when they argue poorly, use misinformation, or are exceptionally careless do their works warrant dismissal.
So let’s be honest. Most scholars, and most people in general, defend viewpoints at times. Ideally, we should do so open-mindedly and always welcome new information that modifies our positions. But a hasty dismissal of those who argue for a position simply because that position is a Christian one is insufficient and, frankly, unacceptable. That may work in a blog post, but in honest intellectual inquiry detractors will have to do better than a priori dismissals.
Dr. Craig Keener
Dr. Keener received his Ph.D. in New Testament Studies and Christian Origins from Duke University. He is currently a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is especially known for his work in New Testament background (commentaries on the New Testament in its early Jewish and Greco-Roman settings). His award-winning, popular-level IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament has sold over half a million copies.