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When engaging with non-believers, including atheists, agnostics, apatheists, pagans, and others, two distinct approaches come to light:

The first is the Apologetics approach, involving the presentation of a rational case for the truth of Christianity via intellectual arguments and evidence. Noteworthy examples include:

The second approach is Evangelism, with Spirit and power. The Apostle Paul advocates for this approach in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:

1 And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. 3 I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. 4 And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Considering these two approaches to proselytizing, my question is as follows:

Are there established and widely recognized principles in Christianity that guide the decision of when to prioritize the approach of evangelism over apologetics, or vice versa? More specifically, is the preaching of the gospel with Spirit and power in evangelism always the preferred method, relegating the use of sophisticated philosophical arguments often associated with apologetics to a secondary and complementary role?

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  • Aren't apologetics usually used with people who are already Christians, but are having doubts? And while they might be written as if non-believers are the intended audience, I feel like I don't hear many stories of people who were logic-ed in to Christianity.
    – JonathanZ
    Jan 30 at 16:24
  • There are differing thoughts on what good apologetics is. I hold to the view that has been popularized by teachers like Cornelius Van Til, K. Scott Oliphint, John Frame, and others. When you view apologetics that way, it's often hard to distinguish evangelism and apologetics. Or perhaps apologetics is just the beginning stages of evangelism. I'd recommend looking at what Oliphint has taught on Covenantal Apologetics.
    – aswine
    Jan 30 at 18:17
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    If you look at apologetics in the early church it's evident that they were aimed at refuting attacks on the faith and thus reassuring Christians than on winning people to Christ, though they were often posed as trying to persuade. But apologetics rarely wins anyone over; the best that can be done, as C. S. Lewis once noted, is to show that the Christian faith is not unreasonable.
    – Traildude
    Feb 26 at 21:35
  • As for apologetics, do not forget Aquinas' "Five Ways" drawn from ancient Greek philosophy (Aristotle). 20 hours ago

3 Answers 3

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For Gospel-minded Christians, sharing the Gospel must be the priority. So yes, evangelism is typically the driving approach. Apologetics is then a tool that can be utilised in evangelism when specific stumbling blocks are encountered. As everyone has different things they find easy to accept about the Gospel and others they find hard, there's no single way to effectively use apologetics, it needs to be tailored to the individual's concerns.

But apologetics is not only about convincing unbelievers that Christianity is rational. It's arguably even more important for people who are already Christian, to give them an intellectual foundation that will hold up to the pressure of competing belief systems, and to strengthen them when they go through times of doubt.

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    +1 i like the idea of apologetics as evangelical tool. In that sense, apologetics is an avenue or tool to reach those of an intellectual orientation. A camp meeting is an evangelical tool for those who can be moved by powerful preaching amidst a "cloud of witnesses." A direct testimony from an close friend can also be a powerful form of evangelism. Paul and others were moved by a personal revelation, not preaching or testimony. Others are born into a faith and inherit it from their families, then come to "own" their faith either gradually or after dramatic test.. One size does not fit all. Jan 29 at 22:13
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    Good answer. An example of the crossover is Acts 17. First Paul was disputing (apologetics) then he got invited to speak in the Areopagus (evangelism). He was also asked to speak again on the matter and, if he did, it would likely have been more apologetic, I think. +1 Jan 30 at 20:55
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    I always say that we must never hide the truth, but we are called to cater our presentation of the truth - without misrepresenting or fundamentally changing it - so our audience will be more receptive of it. I absolutely detest when clergy say (with regards to Catholic teachings), "we cannot do/say that because it will cause people to leave our church." 20 hours ago
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Expanding the horizon of "evangelism"

First, a note about how you frame evangelism. Evangelism is broader than "preaching of the gospel with Spirit and power" which smacks of the now prevalent charismatic approach of

  • wanting to see evidence of "Holy Spirit" working in sudden conviction of the heart in the hearers, or
  • wanting to see evidence of "power" in seemingly supernatural phenomena such as miraculous healing, prophetic "word of knowledge" that is personally tailored to a specific person in the audience, etc.

That's too narrow. The verse you quoted (from Paul's letter to the Corinthian church) was tailored to the Corinthian's church's need; it is insufficient as a definition although Charismatics love to emphasize Paul's coverage of spiritual gifts (given by the Holy Spirit) and the manifestations of power in the absence of "human wisdom". Paul's specific rebuke (the context of the verse) doesn't mean he rules out the role of "human wisdom" when talking to other people.

In the New Testament time (1st century AD), the main sense for "evangelist" is the 'angel' (messenger) of 'good news' (see etymology), so the root meaning of "evangelism" is naturally the act of proclamation. But in Christianity, Jesus himself IS the good news and its proclaimer, thus 1) the gospel, 2) the messenger, and 3) the proclamation are rolled into one person, sent into the world by God himself as his self revelation (special revelation). So we shouldn't reduce evangelism to mere communication of propositions to be believed, but the evangelist should ALSO embody the proclamation like Jesus. Yes, there IS a place for spiritual gifts and miracles in evangelism, but they should serve as sign, not essence, let alone the criteria of success as Charismatics would have it.

Secondly, evangelism's goal is lasting conversion, whether it is sudden or years-long. Evangelists do not control the Holy Spirit, they are merely partners while the Holy Spirit simultaneously and independently (with His own timeline) works on the heart of each would-be-believer to personally prepare the heart of the person using the person's circumstances and God's life plan for that person. The Holy Spirit is the better agent for this task because God knows each heart intimately, more than the person knows himself/herself, not to mention the evangelist.

Thus, a wise evangelist would be sensitive to select the appropriate approach to use for a particular person, which makes getting to know the person FIRST very critical so that as a partner of the Holy Spirit he/she can be His vehicle to speak the right words into the particular circumstance of the person. This article is a good example to widen the horizon of evangelism beyond the typical direct approach of proclaiming of the gospel and the invitational approach which usually follows preaching:

  • intellectual approach: strategically destroy false reasons for rejecting the gospel
  • testimonial approach: people love personal stories, in this case how you yourself came to Jesus and your faith journey with Jesus
  • relational approach: starts with friendship showing how Jesus befriends everyone even today
  • service approach: soften the heart through loving service that Jesus himself did

And we shouldn't forget lifestyle evangelism by simply BEING a Christian in the world through imaging Jesus in our interaction with others especially at workplaces, schools, and activities (restaurants, sports, music events, clubs, etc).

Expanding the horizon of "apologetics"

The etymology of "apologetics" is apologia, which means "a speech in defense". Although you are right that the contemporary usual meaning of "apologetics" is "presentation of a rational case for the truth of Christianity via intellectual arguments and evidence", I think we can make the case that the meaning in Christian practice is also too narrow. apologia as a speech is more general than the "rational case".

But Christians can take one step further: apologia does NOT necessarily have to take the form of a rational argument or a speech. Should we say that select martyrs and Jesus himself were NOT apologists simply because they didn't explicitly present a rational case for Christianity and didn't have an eloquent speech? I'll argue that in Christianity apologia can ALSO be embodied, following the pattern of Jesus who provides the defense in his own person (nail holes on his hands and feet), St. Paul who carry marks of his being whipped and beaten in his body, and others who are persecuted because of the gospel.

Non-persecution-related suffering can also count as apologia, especially effective if the person we are evangelizing to has also experienced tremendous suffering (loss of child, cancer, etc).
Consider C.S. Lewis's own suffering of the loss of his wife Joy to cancer (yes, he is one of the greatest 20th century intellectual apologists, but now that we have more of his letters and biographies, his own LIFE provides another dimension of Christian apology). Or consider the testimony of Carol Cross who suffered the loss of one child and is co-suffering with another child with life-long disease. In both cases, narrowing evangelism to charismatic style "Spirit and power" proclamation will be counterproductive because Jesus didn't plan to heal Joy or Carol's two kids. Everyone will eventually die, but a suffering Christian who dies in faith and with praise on his/her lips is an apologia in person.

Thus, a wise apologist would know the limit of rational presentation, especially when the audience doesn't care much for reason, but need answers in the form of meaning of life that Christianity boldly claims to possess, especially in this time of nihilism. This is despite Christianity's rationally insufficient theodicies, to which we need not apologize since Jesus himself is the ultimate sufferer beyond His physical suffering on the cross. Catholic philosopher Eleonore Stump argues that on the cross Jesus read the mind of every single one of the BILLIONS of people past, present, and future (including their suffering) as an act of divine compassion, possible because in his divine nature Jesus is omniscient. Thus it's not a surprise that on the cross Jesus seemed to lose sight of God, crying 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani', the cry of many intense sufferers.

Conclusion

Yes, "evangelism" and "apologetics" have distinct meanings and distinct approaches; the former's root idea is "proclamation" while the latter's is "explanation". But in Christianity "proclamation" and "explanation" can go beyond propositions and rational argument, since the gospel we are proclaiming and the ultimate explanation of the gospel are both the ONE person Jesus Christ, and Christians are His ambassadors who act as both evangelist and apologist.

You asked:

Are there established and widely recognized principles in Christianity that guide the decision of when to prioritize the approach of evangelism over apologetics, or vice versa?

I can identify two such principles:

  1. FIRST is the principle of embodying Jesus IN our lives as ambassadors through compassion, words and deeds by knowing and loving each person we are proselytizing. The New Testament and the 2,000 year of Christian history provides us with countless examples, which includes the lives of the saints. Serving others in this context means listening to their specific challenges in raising the horizon of their lives to the eternal horizon. After we know the challenge they are facing in comprehending and accepting the gospel, we provide the missing piece or refer them to someone who can.

    • For some, the challenge can be addressed by apologetics (traditionally more narrowly defined).
    • For others, they need to hear the gospel proclaimed through the lens of our personal life history.
    • For all, seeing our lives as good ambassadors of Christ can oil the way.

    Finally, we should take care not to sully the reputation of Jesus by acting contrary to what Jesus would have done.

  2. SECOND is the principle of how human psyche works, in which DESIRE, WILL and INTELLECT are tightly interconnected even in little kids who have desires to reach for more cookies than what's good for them necessitating their responsible parents to speak reason to that act hoping the kids would listen for their own good and modify their will. More formally, see a diagram of Thomistic 12 stage analysis of the human act showing the interconnectedness of the INTELLECT (more general than how moderns define REASON) and WILL in which DESIRE is satisfied in various ways. Applying to evangelism and apologetics:

    • evangelism as gospel proclamation (the "do this" part) is an appeal to the WILL side
    • apologetics as gospel explanation (the "why" part) is an appeal to the INTELLECT side

    Every person has different disposition; in some their INTELLECT needs correction or satisfaction. In others their WILL need some prodding and steering in the eternal direction. A wise evangelist and apologist (in a loving, compassionate, serving manner) would identify the missing element and aim to supply it to the hearer. Evangelists who don't nurture the INTELLECT side (when needed) or Apologists who don't nurture the WILL side (when needed) will not have sufficient power to present human DESIRE with the ultimate and eternal satisfaction that in Christianity terminates in fellowship with God through Jesus Christ.

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  • @Mark If you read my answer before the final version 14 hours later. I think I'm done now. Feb 27 at 14:25
  • Good answer. Question: what exegesis of 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 are you using? Here are parallel commentaries: biblehub.com/commentaries/1_corinthians/2-5.htm. None of the commentaries mentions miracles or the charismata. It's certainly possible, but, as far as I understand the commentaries, it's not logically entailed by the passage.
    – Mark
    Feb 27 at 17:09
  • Sorry, in the parallel commentaries of 1 Corinthians 2:4 there are mentions of miracles: biblehub.com/commentaries/1_corinthians/2-4.htm. However, many acknowledge room for nuance. For instance: "But in demonstration of the Spirit; by which Grotius and some others understand miracles, by which the doctrine of the gospel was at first confirmed; but Vorstius and many others better understand by it the Holy Ghost’s powerful and inward persuasion of men’s minds, of the truth of what was preached by Paul".
    – Mark
    Feb 27 at 17:12
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    Evangelism must always be accompanied by the influencing activity of the Holy Spirit in order to provoke genuine conversions (with or without miracles involved), would you agree?
    – Mark
    Feb 27 at 17:13
  • @Mark Of course. The main point of my email is the mode of how humans participate in conjunction of the work of the Holy Spirit (which has unknowable and knowable aspects as well as empirical and non-empirical effects). I also argue that the mode is more full orbed than propositions and arguments (i.e. personal embodiment, compassionate and serving rather than presenting cold facts and explanation). In my other answer, I tried to conceptualize one of the effects of the Holy Spirit in terms of providing "light of faith" manifested (in the observable interior of the soul as the "aha"). Feb 27 at 17:20
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Fallacy of Logic There is a fallacy of logic called the Either/Or Fallacy. Understanding of this reveals the fact that quite often there are more answers to a dilemma than "two" that were presented. We must be careful not to commit this fallacy here.

No Gap There really is no gap (like the Grand Canyon) between Evangelism (personal or public) and Apologetics (logical or miraculous). Apologetics without Evangelism--the presentation of THE GOSPEL--is merely philosophical diatribe. And Evangelism without Apologetics--confirmation--is a "form of Christianity without the power!

Apostolic Customs Taken and presented together, people are convicted, convinced, and converted. This was the custom of the first century Apostles. Classic example of apologetics presentation (Natural Theology) to introduce the Gospel, is Paul's evangelism on Mars Hill in Athens. Another is the introduction to the book sent to the Romans (Chapters 1-2). Many other times, Acts recorded the effectiveness of Believers in converting Jewish villages with a combination of proclaiming the Gospel and confirming the message with miracles. (See Hebrews 2:3-4, salvation confirmed...by signs, wonders, miracles,,,)

With great power the Apostles gave witness of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus(apologetic confirmation of the Gospel).(Acts 4:33)

And the people with one accord gave heed to those things which Philip spoke, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. (Acts 8:6)

Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars Hill, and said...And when they heard of the resurrection...others said, "we will hear thee again of this matter...certain men clung to him and believed... (Acts 17:16-34)

The tool kit of the Evangelist has many instruments which are used at various events to various degrees. It even contains a hoe because Apologetics is pulling weeds so that Gospel seeds can be planted. And on the other hand, Apologetics works with Evangelism as a herbicide to prevent seeds of doubt from sprouting and choking out the Gospel news in new believers.

Versus? It is inappropriate to mention versus in conjunction with E and A. No more than it would be customary to say "Peanut butter OR jelly," "Jack OR Jill," "Faith OR hope OR love". Both / And are words that best represent the awesome ministry of presenting the Gospel to a dying world.

And Jesus said unto the disciples, "Go into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature...and these signs shall follow them... (Mark 16:15-17)

You shall receive power after the Holy Spirit is come upon you, and you shall be witnesses for Me...unto the uttermost part of the Earth. (Acts 1:8)

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of Heaven and Earth...From one man He made every nation of men...and He determined the times set for them...God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each of us. (Acts 17:24-27)

More to the Point The Questioner asked,What guides the decision of when to prioritize each 'approach'? The answer is found in the basic Principle of Speech 101: Analise the audience. Notice the various starting points of Paul's speeches at Athens, Rome, Jerusalem, Berea, Ephesus. They were different, based upon the knowledge of his audience.

So also, those approached by the Evangelist today have different degrees of information about God and salvation. And an understanding of where they are determines where the discourse begins. Their knowledge falls along a whole spectrum of belief, from one end to the other.

Sometimes this difference is based on their inherent Epistemology: that is, how they are used to assimilating information, and how they arrive at truth. Other time, they are merely basing their understanding on their up-bringing: clan tradition, schooling indoctrination, peer pressure, pop culture, etc.

NATURAL THEOLOGY---->HISTORICAL THEOL.---->SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY
Deism......................................Christian Theism.........................Mysticism

GENERAL REVELATION---->SPECIAL REVELATION---->PERSONAL REVELATION
Fingerprints of God....................Footprints of Jesus..................Imprints of H.S.

If dealing with an Atheist or honest Agnostic, it would be appropriate to begin with Natural Theology because the heavens declare the glory of God.

If a seeker believes in God or gods, then Historical Theology (Special Revelation) would be the starting place. Jesus and Christianity would be contrasted with the other religions of man.

If a person is a believer in the Christian God (Jesus), but is in a cult, or deviant sect, then sharing the Scriptures hermeneutically with accuracy would be the logical first step in discourse.

In each of these steps Evangelism and Apologetics are intertwined. The Gospel (along with cosmology) must be presented to the Agnostic, or he will just become a Deist. A believer in God (gods) must be presented with the Unique Jesus (and His proofs of deity), or he will just remain a polytheist, or idolator. And the straying cultist must return to the simplicity of the Gospel in Christ, or he will be cursed with believing another Gospel. (Galatians 1:8-9)

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