Review of Dialogical Apologetics

I have a couple of shelves full of books on apologetics in my library. Some are very philosophical and technical – the kind you need a dictionary handy in order to understand. Some are like cookbooks that give recipes for every question you might encounter in defending Christian faith. A good friend recommended David K. Clark’s book, Dialogical Apologetics: A Person-Centered Approach to Christian Defense, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993. It has been around a while but I was not aware of it.

Clark’s book emphasizes dialogue, a common topic in missiology, especially when interacting with adherents of other religions. Dialogue is often seen as antithetical to proclamation and defense of Christianity. The author makes a case that dialogue does not require neutrality or a commitment to pluralism. He writes:

Dialogue as I use it means something like this: apologists and dialogue partners, whether individuals or groups, come together as equals. They honestly admit their differences in world view and culture. But they display a serious desire to sharpen and broaden their understandings. They agree, at least tacitly, to listen carefully and sympathetically to each other, to explore the ground, structure, and rationale of various views, to sift what is culturally relative from what is universally applicable, and to look for what deserves the acceptance of all. – Dialogical Apologetics, 117.

The book is divided into two parts: “Foundations for Dialogical Apologetics” (theory) and “Strategies for Dialogical Apologetics” (practice). Two paragraphs in the introduction set the trajectory of the book:

…here is what each chapter argues: Faith as personal trust is an act of the whole person. Since this includes the mind, faith is consistent with reason (chap. 1). Significant developments in philosophy are reaffirming the rational viability of Christian thinking (chap. 2). Important results from philosophy of science are breaking down the barriers between science and other kinds of thought. Science does not preclude theology (chap. 3). Apologists can use a flexible yet rational epistemology that claims neither too much nor too little (chap. 4). Other religions do not rule out a Christian defense, for genuine dialogue with other persons is possible and rewarding (chap. 5).

If these intellectual movements clear the path for apologetics, then how should dialogical apologetics proceed? Apologists must assess dialogues as to their conceptual structure. Logic, although it will challenge many readers, is profitable (chap. 6). Attitudes play a key role in apologetics. An apologist’s attitude toward the dialogue partner as well as the partner’s attitude toward both Christianity and the apologist all powerfully affect dialogue (chap. 7). All conversations are saturated with racial, social, and cultural dimensions. These must not be ignored (chap. 8). Persuasion is not mere salesmanship, but a strategy for presenting legitimate reasons for faith when they are most likely to be heard (chap. 9). -Dialogical Apologetics, ix,x

Each chapter concludes with a helpful summary of the key concepts covered. The chapters in Part 2 also include a sample dialogue illustrating the strategy presented. The theoretical section may stretch some, but is within reach of anyone with at least some college education. Logic is often disparaged by cross-cultural workers but Clark points out that one cannot use any language without using logic.

Chapter 5, “Apologetics as Dialogue,” is the heart of the book. Clark makes a case for “dialogical apologetics” as distinct from common approaches to apologetics (Existential, Presuppositional, Evidential, and Classical) which are more content-centered. “Dialogical apologetics makes a person-oriented stance central to the definition and theory of apologetics.” (110). The goal of dialogical apologetics is:

… to present the best case I can for the truth as I see it for the benefit of others. I should not evaluate the success of dialogue only by whether my partner agrees in the end. From my viewpoint, success in dialogue is presenting the case for Christianity, by the Spirit’s power, with rational force, cultural appropriateness, and personal sensitivity in the context of relationship. Of course, I hope the other is convinced of Christian truth. But if, in addition to making the case, I understand his views better, develop a relationship with him, or grow intellectually or personally, then I have succeeded. – 122,3.

Cross-cultural workers will benefit especially from chapter 8, “Communication at the Cultural Crossroad.” Clark carefully distinguishes stereotyping from cultural sensitivity based on the function of the generalizations; “the former builds fences, the latter builds bridges.” (198). This distinction is important to keep in mind when we do ethnographic study. Cultural sensitivity does involve generalization, but not to the exclusion of getting to know the individual. Clark explains:

While he [the apologist] must categorize people in groups, he must also search out the features that distinguish individuals from the category. The rule is: first classify, then particularize or “decategorize.” Knowing someone well means understanding how he differs from others in his group. … My knowledge of the other need not depend solely on group-based generalizations. I gain knowledge by asking honest questions, signaling openness and safety (verbally and nonverbally), and listening carefully. I must also assume that any question the other asks is a request for information, not an implicit criticism. An apologist should make asking questions acceptable, not taboo. -199.

The book’s conclusion, “Who You Are Counts Most,” is a fitting end for apologetics centered in relationship. Clark writes:

… every apologist will seek not only a clearer conceptual grasp of Christian ideas and arguments, but also a richer personal experience of the Savior those ideas point to. He will seek to grow in grace, to develop godly character that consistently expresses itself in the details of life. He will continue to grow as a person who is consistent, sacrificial, mature, completely honest, and genuinely caring. For in the last analysis, the apologist himself is the best evidence for the truth of the Christian world view. – 235 (italics original)

Though Dialogical Apologetics was published 24 years ago, it remains a helpful resource and guide for the defense of Christianity that keeps relationship central. It provides a model for authentic dialogue that is compatible with the defense and proclamation of the gospel. If you have not read anything on apologetics lately, I highly recommend it.

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One thought on “Review of Dialogical Apologetics

  1. Pingback: Talking with Muslims about faith – SEND U Blog

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