What factors go into making a powerful and persuasive apologetic witness to the truth of Christianity?
Biblically speaking, the ultimate reason that a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ is the efficacious work of God’s Spirit in that individual’s mind and soul (Ephesians 2:4-5; Titus 3:5). God uses the Gospel message (the “good news” concerning Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection) to call and enable a person to repent of their sin and to accept Christ as Lord and Savior (Romans 10:17; Ephesians 2:8-9).
Historic Christianity affirms grace (the unmerited favor and love of God) as the basis of salvation, whereas, faith (confident trust in Christ) is the instrument by which a person receives it. The Protestant Reformers proclaimed that salvation comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Yet God uses the limited and imperfect apologetic and evangelistic efforts of his church to bring people to this glorious new life of salvation. Apologetics is an important enterprise that helps both believer and non-believer to see the basic reasonableness and truthfulness of Christianity.
In this article I will discuss three factors that apologetically impact people in terms of persuasion concerning the truth of historic Christianity.
Christian Apologetic Logos, Ethos, and Pathos
The great Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) wrote about the enterprise known as rhetoric, the art of persuasion. He introduced the modes of persuasion as including logos, ethos, and pathos. Let’s examine these dynamics of persuasion in light of Christian apologetics.
1. Logos: This Greek term, meaning word, is used in the New Testament itself (John 1:1) and has come to refer to the appeal to the rational and intellectual sphere of life. In fact, the English word logic is derived from this word. When Christian apologists appeal to reason, logic, and rationality to support the truth-claims of their faith, they are engaged in the persuasive use of logos (persuading through the use of reason). The New Testament word (apologia) from which we get the word apologetics refers to “a reasoned defense of the faith” (1 Peter 3:15). The logos aspect of persuasion focuses on the clarity, consistency, and cogency of the message being delivered up for consideration.
In applying directly to an individual’s reason, the Christian apologist shows respect for a person’s inherent rational abilities. While some contemporary Christian groups seem to devalue the place of reason in the Christian life, the clear apologetic consensus throughout church history is that the faith involves knowledge and is compatible with reason. Non-believers need to know that the Christian worldview holds together logically and makes sense of the world and life. And apologists need to be skilled in their use of reason and logic.
2. Ethos: This Greek term appeals to the sphere of moral credibility. The English word ethics is derived from ethos. People tend to believe and thus become persuaded by those whom they respect and trust, those who possess moral credibility.
The Christian apologist can sincerely convey the impression of trustworthiness when his life matches his words. A person’s character and reputation go along way in impacting believability. Peter exhorts apologists within the early church to carry on the defense of the faith with “gentleness and respect” and “keeping a clear conscience” (1 Peter 3:15-16). In terms of persuasion, the demeanor and attitude of apologists may carry as much weight as their arguments.
3. Pathos: This Greek term gave rise to the English words sympathy and empathy. This mode of persuasion appeals to emotion. When people are “touched,” or have their emotions “evoked,” they tend to relate to an issue in a personal way. When people can identify with a cause, their commitment level often runs deep.
The Gospel message of God’s love for sinners and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross tends to grip people at the core of their being. It is critical for apologists to tie the defense of the faith closely to Christian theology. People tend to love a good story and the Gospel is the greatest story ever told.
Christian apologists are in the business of persuasion, and Aristotle’s rhetorical modes of persuasion can be used as effective tools in the trade.
For more on building the skills of persuasion in the area of apologetics, see my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.