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The Apologist’s Repertoire

“How could anyone do that?” I thought to myself when I heard Walter Martin explain what was required of a counter-cult apologist. Those who would challenge false religions with the truth of the Gospel had to be well-prepared and highly educated, he urged. They must know the Scriptures (preferably in the original languages), church history (to become familiar with both orthodoxy and heresies), theology (to understand the Bible as a whole system), apologetics (to defend orthodoxy), and they needed the courage and confidence to challenge cultic beliefs and practices. And add to this the ability to write well and speak well in public! All this should be in the apologist’s repertoire.

Dr. Martin, the founder of the Christian Research Institute, and author of the classic work, The Kingdom of The Cults, was a towering and daunting figure. (I was blessed to spend some time with him a few years before his death.) His clear and forceful oratory, fearless witnessing, along with his encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, theology, and biblical interpretation, placed him in a category by himself. But Dr. Martin knew that others needed to follow his example in “contending for the faith given once and for all to the saints” (Jude). In this, he was heeding the Apostle Paul’s concern expressed to Timothy:

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others (1 Timothy 2:2).

Moreover, we can apply to Walter Martin what Paul wrote to his friends, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). But how can we lesser mortals follow the example of Walter Martin? With Christ as Lord, there is always hope for us and for the propagation of Christianity under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

All Christ-followers must be obedient to the command to “always be ready” to defend the Gospel and the entire Christian worldview, and to do so with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15-16). The Holy Spirit, however, has uniquely equipped some Christians to go deeper into the disciplines necessary for apologetic engagement. No one can master all these areas, but no matter; we labor earnestly to know as much as we can about what matters eternally. As Paul said:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me (1 Corinthians 15:10).

First, to follow Dr. Martin’s charge, apologists must become studious students of the Scriptures. Vernon Grounds (1914-2019), a luminous evangelical statesman, counseled that “Christians should read many books, but be the master of one, the Bible.” The most well-informed generation in history is, paradoxically, the most ignorant of God’s living and active Word (Hebrews 4:12; see also Isaiah 55:11). The only instruction manual for this dark, daunting and marvelous planet lies in the ruins of ignoble oblivion.

My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. “Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children” (Hosea 4:6).

To counteract this scandal, Christians must sit at the feet of Scripture and sit at the feet of godly and knowledgeable Bible teachers and preachers. Some should pursue a seminary education to that end. Others, especially autodidacts, can learn much by attending seminars, listening to lectures, and by auditing courses at theological schools that adhere to the Bible as divinely-inspired and, therefore, without any error (2 Timothy 3:15-17; John 10:33).

Christians concerned about a godly witness in a dark and darkening world (Ephesians 6:12), need to read and study the Bible regularly; know where key ideas and events are located in books of the Bible; and memorize passages of evangelistic and apologetic note. They need also meditate on the Bible by prayerfully pondering its profundity, and praying through biblical texts, particularly the Psalter (see Psalm 119).[1]

Besides a deep and growing knowledge of Scripture, we should, secondly, be familiar with the great events and theological controversies of church history. Jesus promised that “the gates of hell would not prevail against the church” (Matthew 16:16), so Christians should explore how God has preserved his church through the ages. One reason why the preposterous claims of The Da Vinci Code (and its spin-offs) bothered so many Christians is that they knew little of church history, particularly how the books of the New Testament were selected. Dan Brown’s fantasy that the inclusion of books into the canon was merely political is laughable when one knows the facts.[2] Church history can be a daunting, but Bruce Shelley’s readable textbook, Church History in Plain Language, is a reliable and well-written study.

Having studied the history of Christianity and theology, I am never surprised at the heretical teaching of a new or old cult. There are only so many ways to fall off the cliff and into the abyss of heresy. Knowing the past is the key to understanding the present. We must heed the words the Apostle Peter:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves (2 Peter 2:1; see also Acts 20:39-41).

Third, those eager and bold to defend the gospel of Christ should be at home in church’s basic theological traditions. This chimes in with what I wrote about church history. The apologist should discern between a theological difference within orthodoxy Christianity (say, concerning eschatology) and a heretical deviation from orthodoxy itself (such as denying the Trinity). A fine work on this subject is by Robert Bowman, Orthodoxy and Heresy.

The fourth element in the apologist’s repertoire is the skill of biblical interpretation or hermeneutics. Cults and false religions usually appeal to the Bible for support, yet they invariably twist the Scriptures to support false doctrine and to their own destruction, as Peter said (2 Peter 3:16). Whenever someone defends a false gospel with the holy Bible, the Christian should counter with an appeal to biblical texts in their literary and cultural context and understood according to the plain meaning of language employed by the author. Scripture Twisting: Twenty Ways Cults Misinterpret the Bible by James Sire is a modern classic on how hermeneutics bears on false teachings.

Some claim that “you can interpret the Bible to prove anything.” To this, we retort that this approach is intellectually lazy. Further, we do not apply this reasoning to interpreting a will or doctor’s instructions. The Bible is not made of wax.[3]

Fifth, the apologist must know apologetics proper. Points #1 through #4 build a solid foundation for Christian witness, but the nature, areas, and method of apologetics requires study as well. A skilled surgeon becomes knowledgeable of many things before she is allowed to operate. The American Board of Surgery says that initial certification requires experience in “Alimentary Tract (including Bariatric Surgery), Abdomen and its Contents, Breast, Skin and Soft Tissue, Endocrine System” and six more areas. But she must also learn how to operate.

Likewise, the well-equipped Christian will learn how to operate intellectually by reading classics in apologetics such as Pensées by Blaise Pascal and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis as well as the best contemporary writers and speakers, such as Francis Schaeffer, Os Guinness, and J.P. Moreland. This study should address the various spheres of apologetics (such as science and history) and the method of apologetics (presuppositional, classical, or cumulative case).[4]

Apologetics needs philosophy to make its case in any domain of Christian truth. While we must eschew “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Colossians 2:8), sound thinking is always conducive to commending the Christian faith, as the Apostle Paul demonstrated in his address to the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17:16-34). Jesus himself was a philosopher of the highest caliber, who never ducked a significant argument and won them all.[5]

Basic to philosophy is the ability to detect, construct, and evaluate arguments of various forms, such as deduction, induction, and abduction (or inference to the best explanation). To this end, apologists should learn and sniff out common fallacies, such as false dichotomy, poisoning the well, begging the question, and argumentum ad hominem.[6]

Philosophy further aids apologetics by identifying the basic worldviews advanced throughout history, such as theism, deism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, pantheism, polytheism, New Age thought, and postmodernism.[7] The basic alternatives to Christian theism are limited. One must know the basic alternatives in order to defend Christianity over against them.

Sixth, the apologist’s knowledge of Christianity and its defense needs to be communicated to others (Matthew 5:14-16). In our inarticulate age, Christians should write and speak with lucidity and logic. Apologists should have their writing and speaking evaluated by experts. Books abound on these topics, but two are particularly helpful: How to Speak, How to Listen by Mortimer Adler and Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White.

With examples such as Walter Martin, it behooves those eager and earnest to defend Christianity to build on a foundation that gives us a place to stand and to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).


[1] See James Sire, The Psalms of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).

[2] See F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977).

[3] On hermeneutics, see William Klein, Craig Blomberg, Robert Hubbard, An Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, revised and expanded ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004).

[4] Steven Cowan, ed., Five Views of Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000).

[5] Douglas Groothuis, On Jesus (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003).

[6] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig,“Argumentation and Logic,” Philosophical Foundations for the Christian Worldview (InterVarsity Press, 2003).

[7] James Sire, The Universe Next Door 5th ed. (orig. pub., 1976; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

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