A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Steve West
Table of Contents
Introduction: An Invitation to Apologetics at the Cross
Part 1: The Foundation for Apologetics at the Cross
1 Apologetics in the Bible: Part 1
2 Apologetics in the Bible: Part 2
3 Apologetics within the Great Tradition: Part 1
4 Apologetics within the Great Tradition: Part 2
Part 2 The Theological Structure for Apologetics at the Cross
5 Making Sense of the Methods
6 Taking People to the Cross through Word and Deed
7 Cruciform Humility before God and Others
8 Appealing to the Whole Person for the Sake of the Gospel
9 Contextualization through the Lens of the Cross
Part 3 The Practice of Apologetics at the Cross
10 Preparing to Engage (not Spin) in Late Modernism from the Inside Out
11 Engaging in Late Modernism
12 Dealing with Defeaters
13 Making a Case
The thought occurred to me when I was almost finished reading Part 2 that this was only going to be a book about apologetics rather than a book of apologetics. Up until that point the material had been good, but there wasn’t much in the way of actual arguments that anyone could use in an apologetic situation, and we seemed to be running out of time. There was survey, background, and methodological hints, combined with various interesting observations, but nothing really applicable in the way of detailed, substantive argument. That’s not to say that the first two Parts of the book weren’t good—they were. The material was excellent and it was well-written. It simply didn’t seem to be a book that would help people actually be able to think through what to say. There was a fair bit about how to say things, but not much content that could actually be said to an unbeliever (or even to a Christian struggling with doubts).
Near the end of Part 2, the book felt incomplete. However, as is relatively obvious, at that point I hadn’t completed reading it! Part 3 ended up bringing together many specific apologetic points that are immensely helpful both in theory and in practice. In fact, the last two chapters contain some of the most practically helpful material I’ve read. They contain the kind of material that is serviceable for almost anyone.
About a decade ago I finished my PhD dissertation on apologetic methodologies. Since that time I’ve taught courses on apologetics and philosophy at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Speaking from experience, it can be hard to find books for the broad range of students who take such courses. I’ve always assigned at least one book from a classical/evidential/cumulative perspective, like William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith or Douglas Groothuis’ Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case, as well as at least one book from a presuppositional perspective, like John Frame’s Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief, or Greg Bahnsen’s Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis.
Balancing something readable with something worthwhile and solid is a difficult task. It seems that a lot of students are impressed with the arguments, but sometimes also end up feeling deflated and inadequate for the task. Very few will have the intellectual capacity or interest to index away all the moves and countermoves, technical objections, and technical responses. If they get the impression that apologetics is like one long game of chess where they need to have every possible move memorized in order to force checkmate, they’ll opt-out of ever playing the game.
This feeling of inadequacy can be exacerbated in the church when apologetics is taught to youth, College and Careers, or adults. In these contexts, it seems that apologetics either goes far over the heads of the intended audience, or it’s so oversimplified—plus presented in such a triumphalistic way—that it can do more harm than good. Although Apologetics at the Cross should be supplemented with a more traditional type of book that focuses more on specific apologetic arguments, it is amongst the most helpful books for laypersons, pastors, and students to read in this subject area. It ends up providing an understandable approach that builds confidence rather than despair. At the end of the book the way the responses to common objections are articulated, and the way a positive case is constructed is in touch with how non-specialists talk and how conversational points can be made in real life rather than in the philosophy classroom. The basic responses are excellent, and it serves as a point of departure for further study.
This latter point is one of the book’s significant strengths. One course that I’ve taught a number of times is a course on the principles of research, guiding students toward efficient research strategies and methodologies. As professors know, the order in which students read books and resources is very important. The best way to learn a new subject is to start with general resources and move sequentially deeper. In apologetics, many of the best books are not good places to start, and many of the introductory or popular level books really aren’t that good. Apologetics at the Cross achieves something very difficult: it is excellent in material and also an excellent place to begin. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better textbook to round out a college syllabus.
One of the strengths of this book that allows it to function this way is that it has the rare quality of being succinct but accurate. Some very complicated issues and thinkers are covered in a very short compass, yet in a way that is fundamentally right. Often when I read works that try to be succinct at certain points they read more like glosses or oversimplifications. I find myself thinking, “I see what you’re saying, but that’s a rather distorted way of representing that.” In this book, I noticed that when things were being presented in a condensed way, I’d often find myself thinking, “Yes, that’s essentially it and expressed quite well.” The book could easily have been two or three times longer with the addition of more elaborate argumentation, but it remains true to its subtitle, An Introduction to Christian Witness. There is a place for surveys, and surveys by their nature should not be written like more technical pieces. This book gets the balance right, and in apologetics, that’s not easy to do.
Another strength of the book is that the authors have their own methodological approach, but those who favor different methodologies can still benefit from the book. The principles and points that are made can be utilized by those from a broadly evidential tradition as well as by presuppositionalists. Some will transpose the material into a particular key, but it is workable for virtually all. Too much time has been spent amongst apologists bickering about method, and thankfully these authors don’t add any fuel to those fires.
Some readers or teachers might find that Chapters 3 & 4 (which deal with the history of apologetics) can be skipped and then returned to after the rest of the book is finished. The material fits in that location quite well, but not everyone is interested in such history, and it would be a shame if students got bogged down there and had a flagging of enthusiasm. For an introductory book, it is a good material to survey, but it’s not as practical or vital as the material in the other chapters.
All things considered, this should be one of the first books on apologetics that people new to the subject reach for. Even specialists may find it a salient reminder of how to read people and respond to them in real life. This book provides a framework in which a more detailed study can be located. Readers gain the basic arguments and then can fill them out later. Even so, most of the main points in the book will be the points that people use over and over again, and unlike most books on apologetics, they will be able to imitate the same conversational, narrative tone that the authors utilize. They will also do so with the encouragement of the book’s solid biblical, ethical, and theological instruction. The more books that are published, the harder it is to provide a contribution that is genuinely needed and uniquely helpful. Apologetics at the Cross is a book that more than justifies its existence. It deserves a wide readership in both the church and the classroom.
Steve West is pastor of Madoc Baptist Church in Madoc, Ontario. He is also adjunct professor at Toronto Baptist Seminary and an assistant editor here at Books At a Glance.
Buy the books
APOLOGETICS AT THE CROSS: AN INTRODUCTION FOR CHRISTIAN WITNESS, by Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen