A Model for Apologetic Preaching

            Most preachers I talk to about apologetics and preaching agree that the two can and should go together, but few have a workable model for developing apologetic sermons. Thus, I developed an approach to preparing apologetic messages that utilizes the acrostic STEPS. Before I share the details of the STEPS model, a word about two types of apologetics: negative and positive. Nash’s definition of the two is helpful:

In negative apologetics, the major objective is producing answers to challenges to religious faith. The proper task of negative apologetics is removing obstacles to belief…. In negative apologetics, the apologist is playing defense. In positive apologetics, the apologist begins to play offense. It is one thing to show (or attempt to show) that assorted arguments against religious faith are weak or unsound; it is a rather different task to offer people reasons why they should believe. The latter is the task of positive apologetics.

Given the difference between negative and positive apologetics, I adapted the STEPS model to address each approach. Here is how STEPS works for negative apologetics.

Specify the Apologetic Challenge

            Given the concern in negative apologetics to defend the faith against attacks, the starting point in developing an apologetic sermon outline for negative apologetics is to specify the apologetic challenge the sermon intends to address. The preacher’s goal at this point is to initiate a connection with the audience based on the topic under consideration. While there is not necessarily one “right” way to do this, it may prove useful to quote an opponent of the Christian faith, followed by a question.

Tell the Critic’s Best Argument

            Having identified the apologetic challenge, the negative apologetic sermon now includes the best example of an argument in favor of the position stated in the challenge. At this point the preacher must take the time to learn and accurately represent the views of those he is engaging. God is not honored nor are the saints helped when strawmen are built and attacked. Always present the opposing view’s best argument.

Present the Answer to the Apologetic Challenge

            At this point the preacher will present what the Bible and other sources say about the apologetic challenge. The focus of the preacher turns from answering the critic to offering reasons to believe the Christian faith despite the apologetic challenge being discussed. When sharing the answer to the apologetic challenge the preacher is helping the hearer understand that the Christian faith is both reasonable and based in divine revelation.

Summarize and Transition to a Related Invitation

            It is possible to present the first four parts of the STEPS model within a sermon that is broader than just the apologetics (e.g., a message about foolishness could include a discussion of the fool’s denial of God’s existence). However, if the message is wholly apologetic, then the preacher’s last responsibility is to summarize and offer a gospel invitation relevant to the audience (i.e., if evangelism, then the gospel portion is an invitation to believe and repent, but if discipleship, then the gospel portion is an invitation to trust God more deeply; if both, then both).

 

And here is how STEPS works for positive apologetics.

Specify the Apologetic Topic

            In a positive apologetic message, where the goal is to present a positive case for belief, the preacher begins by specifying the apologetic topic. This approach sets the expectation with the hearer that the sermon will provide reasons to believe. It will help the preacher connect with his audience if, when introducing the apologetic topic, he avoids the language of doubt (though such language may prove helpful with negative apologetics), focusing instead on inviting the hearer into a deeper consideration of the positive case for believing.

Tell the Topic’s Significance

            After specifying the topic, the preacher gives the hearers a few key reasons why the topic is important. It will help the preacher to think in terms of doctrine and practice at this point. Help the listener understand the doctrinal significance of the topic, how it relates to overall Christian theology. Likewise, discuss how the topic generally relates to living the Christian life, to the practice of faith.

Explain the Biblical and Rational Basis Concerning the Apologetic Topic

            The topic has been presented and its significance considered, so the preacher turns to a presentation of the biblical and rational basis for believing whatever is under consideration. This is the central apologetic content of the message, where the argument in favor of the belief is put forth in clear and compelling terms. While the preacher’s goal is not to harangue his hearers and browbeat them concerning the topic, he should make an impassioned case for “the hope that is in [him]” (1 Pet. 3:15).

Practically Apply the Apologetic Topic for the Hearers

            This is where the preacher transitions from apologetic case-making to practical application. How does the apologetic topic relate to the hearers? The emphasis at this point in making apologetic realities fit real life needs.

Summarize and Transition to a Related Invitation

            As with the STEPS model applied to negative apologetics, so it is possible for the positive model to be a part of a message dealing with something not exclusively apologetic. If so, there is not necessarily a transition to a related invitation. However, if the positive apologetic message is stand-alone, then the preacher will conclude by summarizing and making a transition appropriate to the topic and audience—unbeliever, believer, or both.

Conclusion

            I realize it is probably easier to understand STEPS in an actual sermon. At this point, however, what is most important is the basic structure. In the next two weekly installments I will present actual sermon manuscripts, one for negative apologetics and one for positive apologetics.


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.

A Twilight Musing: The Education of Jonah

 

                  Jonah is well known for running away to Tarshish to keep from having to preach to the people of Nineveh.  We tend to assume that Jonah’s flight from God’s command is a spontaneous reaction.  But actually, the author reveals at the end of the book that Jonah’s refusal to go where God sent him was based on deep reservations about God’s mercy: “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2, ESV).  Essentially Jonah is saying to God, “I knew you were setting me up to look ridiculous: I go in there full of fire and brimstone, and then you go soft and don’t zap them after all.”  So it’s obvious that Jonah needs an education, and God sends him to school through the journey to Nineveh.

          Jonah’s conscience is quite bothersome as he boards the ship to Tarshish, for he is fleeing “the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3).  God responds by saying, in effect, “You want to hide?  I can do you one better than the hold of a ship.  How about the belly of a big fish?”  From that place Jonah cries out to be restored to the Lord’s presence, and he is cast up on shore by the fish, ready to hear again the Lord tell him to go preach to Nineveh.  He’s now turned around to do God’s bidding, and he dutifully walks the three days’ journey through the town warning the citizens of their impending doom.  But he evidently does not have the heart of his merciful God in delivering his message, and, perversely, he is even chagrined at his success in turning the Ninevites from their wickedness!

          We then see the last unit of Jonah’s course acted out in the last chapter of the book.  First, we see the compassion of God contrasted with the vindictiveness of Jonah as God “relented of the disaster he had said he would do to them” (Jonah 3:10), and Jonah was angry at God’s mercy.  God asks him, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4), and Jonah’s lack of an answer is an implicit “Yes.”

          The next step is for God to show Jonah how sinful is his sense of values.  When Jonah builds a little arbor for shade as he self-righteously waits to see “what would become of the city” (Jonah 4:5), apparently without much charity in his heart for the inhabitants of Nineveh, God makes His final point with Jonah by supplementing the prophet’s shade with a vine, for which Jonah is glad.  But as quickly as it came, God caused it to wither, once again making Jonah angry enough to want to die.  God asks a second time, “Do you do well to be angry” over the loss of such an insignificant thing?  God drives home the absurdity of Jonah’s feeling more for the loss of a trivial comfort than for “a great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11).

          We are not told whether Jonah took God’s lessons to heart and changed his attitude toward those he preached to, but we would do well to heed God’s lesson to His prophet: don’t be more wrathful toward sinful people than God is.


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 Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

 

         

         

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Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Making the Case: Apologetic Preaching and Abductive Argumentation

            Doing apologetics requires some level of logical argumentation. Groothuis explains that “apologetics means philosophical engagement, and philosophy trades in logic.” Though logic and argumentation may be difficult for some Christians, apologetics without arguments quickly reduces to assertions and becomes a denial of Peter’s command to “be ready to give a defense” (1 Pet. 3:15). Is there, though, a preferred style of argumentation for apologetics, especially apologetic preaching? While I think that all forms of valid argumentation could have a place in apologetics at some point, it is in abductive argumentation that apologetic preaching may find its greatest ally.

What is Abductive Argumentation?

            Simply stated, abductive argumentation hopes to arrive at an inference to the best explanation without claiming a standard of certainty usually associated with other types of logical arguments (e.g., deduction or induction). This is not to deny any Christian’s testimony and the certainty they possess based on the coming together of reason and faith in their minds and heart. Rather, abduction seeks to point toward certainty without “demanding it” based on the outcome of a particular logical construct. Admittedly, discussions of argumentation can quickly get to a pretty heady level, and that is certainly not the goal of using abduction in apologetic preaching. However, preachers will make some type of argument, so the matter is really how they will argue, not if they will. Here’s an example of how abduction might be stated in the form of premises and conclusion related to a moral argument for God’s existence.

            P1: Most of us recognize that some things are morally good, and some are bad.

            P2: We applaud the child on the playground who stands up to the bully. We boo the bully    for picking on others.

            P3: If the bully changes his ways, we praise him for becoming a better boy. If the bully         reverts to his bullying, we consider him to have started acting badly again.

            P4: Why do we conclude that standing up to the bully is good, or that bullying another is       bad? We do so because we have a standard of what is good and bad by which to assess what    we and others do.

            P5: The Christian claims that this standard is based on who God is, and that our sense of good and evil relates to our being made in God’s image.

            C: Thus, Christianity provides a reasonable explanation—possibly the best explanation—for     the human experience of good and evil.

The goal of making an abductive case like this is to let it build in a cumulative manner that moves intentionally toward the goal of offering—not necessarily demanding—that the Christian conclusion is reasonable and may be the best answer. In preaching particularly this type of abductive approach provides a couple of important benefits.

A Couple of Reasons Abduction Helps in Apologetic Preaching

            First, because it claims to come to an inference to the best explanation, abduction offers a manner of apologetic reasoning in preaching that avoids being overly dogmatic. As Baggett and Baggett explain, “the procedure of abduction goes like this: we come across something that needs to be explained, then we identify a range of possible explanations, and then we narrow the list down to the best one.” Some apologists might chafe at this approach, claiming that the apologetic enterprise should insist on certainty, and that apologetic preaching, especially, should prefer more than an inference to the best explanation as an outcome. However, there is a sense in which claims to absolute certainty may lack explanatory power when it comes to how faith forms around what is “hoped for...[and] unseen” (Heb. 11:1-2). Is the Christian worldview compelling? Absolutely. Is there evidence worthy of consideration? Of course. However, the ideas of certainty associated with argumentation are not something found in the pages of the Bible, but in the later developments of modern thought, which has a decided bias against the idea of biblical faith. Abduction is a way to keep the apologist in check against the temptation to overconfidence in the power of his arguments, and to help him remember that there is more involved in coming to faith than syllogisms and rationality.

            Second, abduction can help preachers avoid oversimplification. This is an error that apologists fall into when they think a simple syllogism is all that is needed to make the case for some aspect of Christian truth. Rather than accepting that one cannot with absolute epistemic certainty prove the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, apologists may assume that their personal convictions are equivalent to philosophical standards of truth and certainty. They assume that belief is simply a matter of following the premises to the logical conclusion and expect that their hearers only need to follow the logic of an argument to come to belief in God or some other Christian claim. Yet, conversion is ordinarily a process that takes time and possibly numerous conversations, and it is only the exception that finds a person coming to Christ after hearing only one argument. Like Paul in Athens sharing the gospel on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-34), the abductive argument in the hands of the apologetic preacher offers a reasonable explanation of the audience’s circumstances while presenting the Christian worldview. Some may scoff, some may decide to hear more, and some may believe—whatever the outcome may be, the cumulative abductive case for faith has been made.

Conclusion

There is certainly much more that could be said about abduction in apologetic preaching, but I trust its conduciveness to humility and avoiding oversimplification are somewhat clear. In the next installment I will present a model for developing apologetic messages.


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.

Equipping the Saints: Apologetic Preaching as Discipleship

              I’ve been preaching for over thirty years. I’ve preached a lot of sermons in that time, and most were directed to believers. I consider preaching to be my primary means of equipping disciples. It’s not that I don’t engage in other activities to aid the flock—I also counsel and mentor and provide general pastoral care. However, preaching is my main disciple-making practice. Apologetics has a role in this, but I confess that I have not always appreciated its importance nor have I (until recently) carefully considered why apologetic preaching as discipleship is fundamental to my calling as a preacher. Yet, in God’s kindness He has broadened my vision for preaching, and here are few of the things I am learning about the rationale for apologetic preaching as discipleship.

Apologetic Preaching as Discipleship Helps Remove Obstacles to Christian Growth

              Growing, active Christians will inevitably experience doubts about the content of their faith or the surety of their relationship with the Lord as they grow and are tested. To paraphrase Luther, the Christian cannot keep all doubts away any more than a man can control the birds that fly around the trees in his yard. Also, if Christians are engaging their culture and sharing their faith, they will eventually encounter someone who is hostile to the faith and armed with one or more substantive arguments.

              When Christians experience these challenges, apologetic preaching for discipleship can help address the doubts and provide answers to challenges to the faith. Sometimes, as Habermas explains, doubt is intellectual, sometimes it is emotional, and sometimes is it a matter of refusing to believe out of rebellion. Regardless of its source, apologetics through preaching can help the Christian move past doubt to faith and obedience. Apologetics is like a coin with two-sides: one side focuses on those who are not yet Christians, and the other side focuses on those who already believe. Both are legitimate roles for apologetics, and when a pastor knows this and takes seriously his responsibility to preach sermons that include apologetics, he helps his congregation grow in spiritual maturity.

Apologetic Preaching as Discipleship Aids in Teaching the “How” of Apologetics

              Like it or not, a preacher’s congregation will learn how to do certain things by the way the preacher does them. For instance, how a preacher regularly explains the gospel at the time of invitation will have a pedagogical effect on the congregation over time, and they will likely explain the gospel in terms similar to their preacher. This is not necessarily a problem if the preacher is careful of his method and cognizant that he is teaching by doing, especially in the pulpit. The upside to this phenomenon is that when it comes to apologetic preaching as discipleship, a preacher can both equip the saints with apologetic content and with apologetic presentation skills.

              While the congregation may not acquire the precision and polish of their pastor, they can learn the basics from his delivery method. This is, in part, how Augustine taught his mentees to preach and teach during his years of ministry as pastor and bishop in North Africa. Smither explains that, “the daily disciplines of prayer, scriptural study, and reading, as well as regular interaction with Augustine’s teaching, prepared many monks for a possible future in church ministry.” Smither also reports that much of Augustine’s apologetic material (e.g., against the Donatists, against Pelagius, against the Manicheans) was developed and presented in the context of training his mentees. Thus, Augustine provides an excellent example of how what is said in a sermon or teaching conveys both content and method to the hearers. Apologetic preaching for discipleship is one of the means to convey such content and methods to the people of God.

Apologetic Preaching as Discipleship Serves as a Means to Guarding the Flock

              When pastors commit to apologetic preaching as discipleship, whether for a specific series of messages or as an ongoing practice in all messages, they are helping maintain the right and left limits of orthodoxy within the congregation. This aspect of apologetic preaching is sometimes easily overlooked, yet faithful and regular apologetics in the pulpit sets a certain tone in the congregation, making clear that false teaching and attacks on the faith will be addressed, and biblical orthodoxy will be maintained in the spirit of speaking the truth in love for the sake of edifying and protecting the body. Though this practice cannot guarantee false teaching will never find a place among the brethren, it is true that through regular preaching that explains and defends the Christian message, a congregation can and will gravitate toward consistent orthodoxy. Taylor offers historical support for this in his exploration of the role of apologetics in the first three centuries of the church, explaining that through the use of apologetics the early church stood firm against encroaching heresy by offering “justification for belief in and commendation of Christianity.” When faced with attempts by heretics to alter “one or more aspects of the deity, death, and resurrection reports as they related to Jesus,” these early apologists helped “establish the credibility of Christianity.”  Likewise, when pastors commit to apologetic preaching today they help believers live within a hostile culture without sacrificing their distinctive beliefs. Perhaps one of the greatest though underutilized weapons in the preacher’s arsenal when it comes to doctrinal purity is the practice of regular apologetic preaching for discipleship.

Conclusion

              Apologetic preaching as discipleship has much to commend itself to preachers, as does apologetic preaching as evangelism. What about the type of arguments used in apologetic preaching? In the next installment in this series we will consider why abductive argumentation is well-suited to apologetic preaching.


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.

Why Write an Autobiography

A Twilight Musing  

Recently I felt moved to write an autobiography.  You may ask why I think an account of my life is worth recording and who I think would (or should) read it.  Those are questions worth asking and answering, so I will proceed to do so.  (Perhaps we could call it my apologia autobiographica.)  My basic reasons for undertaking this task are three: (1) Everyone has a story, and the best time of life to tell it is from the vantage point of advanced years, and my four-score and one qualifies.  (2) An account of my life, if written from a Christian perspective, should be a testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness, so it has the potential of being an encouragement to others.  (3) Recording the events of my life will provide some documentation for our children and grandchildren to understand better their relationship to the past.  And in a more personal way, I want to leave some information about myself that enables them to know me after I’m gone.

One of the stereotypical characteristics of older people is their being inveterate story tellers who patch together episodes in a kind of stream-of-consciousness manner.  I want to tap into this inclination to look back and recall events, but give it structure and thematic unity.  My theme would be to recognize, acknowledge, and give thanks for the many people whose lives contributed to the formation of my character and the development of my skills.  Some of these may be obvious and stand out, while others rendered their services so unobtrusively as to be easily forgotten.  A carefully written record will assure that even my quiet benefactors are recognized.  I remember, for example, the loving attention given to me and others by “Miss Addie,” my first Sunday School teacher.  She never drew attention to herself, but she introduced scores of little children to Bible stories and the love of Jesus over the years.  In contrast, my mentor and sponsor in college days was a larger-than-life professor named James Culp.  Dr. Culp took me under his wing and held out the vision of pursuing an academic career.  I worked as his student assistant in my senior year, and he nominated me for a graduate fellowship that paid my way for the first year of a doctoral program.  After I completed my Ph.D. and was employed as a college teacher myself, he continued to be interested in what was happening to me and rejoiced in my successes.  Miss Addie and Dr. Culp differed greatly in their visibility and the sophistication of their help to me, but I owe them both a significant debt of gratitude.

It has taken a full lifetime for me to come to the state of confidence I now have in the absolute reliability of God.  He has, so to speak, rolled up an overwhelming “track record” of meeting my needs and giving me the strength and resources to do the tasks to which He has called me.  Some account of these experiences is appropriate to share with others—not to brag about, but to give praise to God.  Some of my examples were epiphanies of God’s goodness and dependability, but others were more diffused blessings, like having godly parents who taught me the Word of God and moral responsibility, and having educational opportunities that fostered my intellectual development.  Prominent among the notable instances of God’s provision was His identifying an adult foster care home for our daughter, Cynthia, whose Huntington’s Disease-generated behavior had exhausted our mental and spiritual resources.  Thanks to our being unexpectedly connected by a politician with some influential people, Cynthia was placed in a foster care home within a week of the initiation of procedures.  I hope that more examples of both kinds of God’s good gifts will be of benefit to others and bring Him praise.

Nobody has requested that I write this treatise, so there is no guaranteed audience for it, but I hope that my children and grandchildren, in particular, will see its value once it’s done (a point in time that seems to recede farther the more I write!).  My efforts will have been rewarded if their eventual personal interest in this record morphs into a broader appreciation for the larger history that concerns us all.  Valuing the records of the past is a much-needed perspective in the present Western culture of chronological snobbery.  Our society places so much value on the present and on the supposed advancements of the future that the past seems irrelevant.  Whereas the truth is that we don’t even know who we are without some serious attention to understanding the past.  Even more important for Christians is the fact that their faith is founded in the history of God’s work with His people, and that history is the substance of the Gospel message.

In writing about oneself, it’s difficult to strike a balance between egoistic projection and transparent honesty.  I hope there is something to be gained in reading about both my supposed successes and my failures.  I will do my best neither to exaggerate the one nor to gloss over the other.  Beyond the mere relation of events, I want to present to potential readers some sense of how I see my life experiences and how my understanding has changed over the years.  Of one thing I’m sure: For my having reached this point in my long journey with mind and body pretty much intact, God is greatly to be praised.  I hope that my account of that journey will supply more evidence of His goodness.


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Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Love ~ A Five Letter Word

Love is a five letter word.  Did you think four letters enough?  Five letters are needful for this particular love, agape.  Five-letter agape is the love encompassing the other loves.  Agape makes best sense in reference to God in Jesus Christ.  Put aside for now agape as the love of God with his own.  This piece focuses on agape as God’s love shared between his own. Since the apostle Paul urges us to ‘let all that you do be done in agape’, celebrate with me three of agape’s winning features:  agape love comprehends (1) mutual subjection, (2) mercy/kindness, and (3) loyal commitment to death.

First, five-letter agape love entails mutual subjection. ‘To be subject’ to another person is to render oneself dependent on; to place oneself under or in a lower position to someone; or to put oneself at the service of another.  The thought of being ‘subject’ to another carries a negative connotation in our society.  It smacks of being deprived of freedom or in bondage to another.  Early Americans were ‘subjects’ of Great Britain’s King George.  As his ‘subjects’ we rebelled against King George’s goal of ‘absolute tyranny over these states.’

There is a much talked-about tussle of dominance and subjection between men and women. G. K. Chesterton was skeptical of Women’s Rights talk that ‘men are the rulers and masters and women the menials.’  Jokes abound parodying the opposite, ‘When she wants his opinion, she gives it to him.’  Subjection carries a negative connotation.

What if husbands in the above relational equation decide to be subject to their wives?  What if, further, wives determine to place themselves under their husbands?  This is exactly what five-letter love agape envisions: mutual subjection!  ‘Be subject to one another in reverence of Christ’ says the apostle Paul (Ephesians 5: 21).

Eighteenth century writer and pastor Jonathon Swift thought this an extraordinary oxymoron.  How can two equal persons both be subject to one another?  Being subject to another is only due from inferiors to those above them:  a subject to a prince.  Nevertheless, there it is!  For the believing Christian community, mutual subjection is the rule.  Be subject to one another!  Regardless of gender, rank, power, or prominence, put yourself in the service and at the disposal of others: husbands to wives and wives to husbands!  Let Jesus Christ be your model.  Jesus said to his disciples, ‘You call me Lord and Master…for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Master, wash your feet, how much more ought you to wash one another’s feet?’  Living at the disposal of others in mutual submission is a win-win aspect of five-letter love.

Consider a second aspect of five-letter agape love.  ‘Agape is kind.’  The word ‘kind’ in the original New Testament language is ‘chrestos.’  ‘Chrestos’ is bearing good will to someone undeserving. It is being suffused with a gracious, generous spirit toward the unworthy.  Jesus Christ is kindness.  He was dining at a Jewish leader’s table.  A woman crashed the party.  She positioned herself at Jesus’ feet.  Bursting out in tears she anointed his feet with ointment from her alabaster jar.  The Pharisee leader was horrorstruck.  ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him,’ he said under his breath.  Jesus answered the Pharisee, ‘I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven.’  Turning to the woman he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven…your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ (Luke 7: 37ff).  Jesus treated this public sinner with ‘chrestos’ – a spirit of generous mercy.  The Pharisee rightly reckoned her behavior wrong.  Though Jesus agreed, he met her repentant heart with sweet benevolence.  Jesus became so identified with ‘chrestos’, heathens called him ‘Chrest’ rather than Christ and Christians ‘Chrestians.’  Imagine persons, even yourself, at every level and in every walk of life – politicians, citizens, teachers, students, doctors, patients, executives, merchants, husbands, and wives - carrying on with chrestos!

Jane Austen’s heroine in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Bennett, is pretty, smart, and self-possessed.    She dared turn down the marriage proposal of the area’s most eligible bachelor, the noble, handsome, and wealthy Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.  In the meantime, Lizzie’s sister Lydia had an affair with a ne’er-do-well rake, Wickham.  Lydia and Wickham’s improper relationship disgraced Lizzie and her family.  Lizzie felt her and her sisters’ eligibility for marriage was gone.

Unbeknownst to Lizzie, Mr. Darcy secretly intervenes.  Looking past Lizzie’s snub and Lydia’s scandalous behavior, Mr. Darcy has compassionate mercy on the Bennett family.  He uses his influence and wealth to insure Wickham marries Lydia.  The disgrace hanging over the Bennett family is removed.  Later, when he has the opportunity to reaffirm his love for Lizzie, she wholeheartedly accepts his renewed offer of marriage.  Would marital relationships be less fragile and brittle if ‘chrestos’ prevailed in spouses’ hearts?

Five-letter agape love is mutual subjection, kindness, and, lastly, loyal, committed love.  I call it to-the-death love.  I felt badly for actress Bo Derek.  Bo, having starred in the iconic movie ‘Ten’, was with her husband John Derek when he was asked by an interviewer the following question, ‘If Bo was in an automobile accident and her face was horribly scarred, would you still love her?’  I felt for Bo because John did not answer with a resounding ‘Yes’!  Five- letter love is loyal, committed love that goes to the death for your lover.  Agape is ‘for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health...till death do us part’ love.  Agape love does not jump ship…does not bail….does not walk away.  It says, ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; where you die, I will die.’  Period.  Psychiatrist F. Scott Peck said, ‘Commitment is the bedrock of any genuinely loving relationship.’  His long psychiatric practice taught him that where commitment is absent, psychiatric disorders are present.  Look around.  Would you not like to be loved with loyal love?

To-the-death love is best revealed in Jesus Christ.  The God of the universe ‘proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’  Five-letter love is defined by Jesus’ willingness to remain steadfast and go to the death for those loved.  One can hardly find a better contemporary example of to-the-death love than Robertson McQuilken’s.  He was a university president.  In his fifties, he had finally attained his life-long dream of running a university.  His wife Muriel was skilled in tutoring college students and graciously hosting the president’s social events. Then Muriel developed Alzheimer’s disease.  Robertson faced a dilemma: care for the university, or care for Muriel.  Foregoing his presidency, he tendered his resignation to the university to take care of Muriel.  He cared for her until her death.  McQuilken knew his Master Jesus Christ loved the church by sacrificing his life for her.  McQuilken felt it his privilege to love his wife Muriel ‘till death do us part.’ Five-letter love is to-the-death love, kindness, and mutual subjection.  Love is more than a four letter word.  Are you ready for it?


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Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

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Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Finding God in the Darkness: What I Learned in the Hospital

A Twilight Musing

          I recently went through nine days in the hospital being treated for severe pneumonia. It was the longest hospital stay of my life, and it was extremely stressful, both physically and spiritually. But it was revealing as well. I learned that Satan will take advantage of us when we are most vulnerable, and that God can and will cause us to grow spiritually when we are subjected to unavoidable interruptions to our comfort.

          The onset of my crisis was quite sudden. Although I had already had a visit with my primary care physician and received an antibiotic to combat my infection, a return visit quickly turned into a fast trip to the emergency ward and immediate application of measures to keep me from lapsing into a life-threatening condition. I was subjected to an intense regimen determined by the medical professionals, and I was merely carried along on its tide. Needles were inserted, and IVs attached. I was pumped with fluids and antibiotics, subjected to prescheduled vital sign checks, and perpetually tethered to a bunch of tubes that had to be hauled along whenever I got out of bed. Had I been knocked out, I would have not known what was going on, but I was awake most of the time and had to grab naps when I wasn’t being waked or poked or prodded by nurses and their aides.

          The first two nights after being admitted were the most trying. Because of the medications being administered, I was hypersensitive to physical and psychological stimuli, so that during those two nights I felt a palpable presence of Evil, and I had to battle fear by calling out to God to deliver me from it. During the initial nights I had a frightening sense that I was being subjected to the equivalent of an endless loop of bizarre dreams, like clips from a horror movie. Something was messing with my mind. But God answered my prayers and gave me the strength to regain some spiritual equilibrium after a couple of days. During that first part of my stay, I felt myself enveloped in a kind of heart of darkness (a la Joseph Conrad). I didn’t feel God’s Presence, but I kept hanging on to my intellectual conviction, reinforced by long experience, that God was present and that His Love was working on my behalf. In that situation, I could exercise choice only in how I reacted to the medical regimen I was being subjected to.

          Strategically, I had to be content with short naps, rather than extended periods of sleep. Once I accepted that process, I found peace in not expecting more. One of the nurses talked to me in the middle of the night, after I had complained about being unable to sleep because of all the sounds and activities around me. She explained how my (and other patients’) expectations in a hospital stay need to be brought into line with hospital objectives and practices. “Most people come to a stay in the hospital expecting to rest, whereas the purpose of a hospital stay is to be cured of your illness. Once that is accomplished, we send you home to rest.” That would seem to be analogous spiritually to the instruction of Jesus (see Matt. 6:25-34) not to worry, to trust God for sufficiency in all that we need, and to experience the peace that that trust brings.

My encounter with Darkness during these nine days in the hospital was unique in my experience, and I want never to repeat it. Nevertheless, it gave me a new perspective on the Christian’s struggle with Evil. Darkness can be a very effective teacher, but its lessons require a radical sacrifice of our comfort.


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 Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

 

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Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Lighten Our Darkness

Lighten Our Darkness

Mother Teresa described her mission as lighting ‘the light of those in darkness.’  ‘Darkness’ is ancient, Scriptural prophecy’s description of the state of wayward Israel.  They are ‘those who lived in a land of deep darkness.’  This biblical assessment of ‘the land of deep darkness’ corresponds well with a broader characterization of the dark state of human existence.

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Three Ways that Apologetics Helps Preaching

Photo by  Andrew Seaman  on  Unsplash

              In the first article I made a plea for pastors to include apologetics in their preaching ministry. In this article I share three ways that apologetics helps preaching. As a lead in, remember that there are two general types of preaching that pastor do—preaching for evangelism and preaching for discipleship. As the three ways I present will discuss, apologetics can help with both types.

1.       Apologetics Helps Overcome Obstacles to Faith in Evangelistic Preaching

In evangelistic preaching, obstacles to belief can be based on rational and passional barriers formed when a person is ignorant of the coherence and defensibility of the Christian message. Apologetic content in evangelistic preaching can help overcome such barriers to belief by addressing common objections to the Christian faith. For example, the central doctrine of the Christian faith is arguably the resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:12-19). However, since the first reports of the resurrection were made to Jewish and Roman authorities there have been attempts to disprove the claim (Matt. 28:11-15). Each generation of Christians since Christ resurrected has also encountered detractors from the resurrection, and this generation of believers is no different. A recent survey in Great Britain concerning beliefs about the resurrection reveals that, of the 2,010 adults surveyed, 50 percent do not believe the resurrection happened, and of the respondents identified as active Christians, 43 percent do not accept the biblical account of the resurrection as accurate. Thus, when preaching a gospel message that is dependent upon the doctrine of the resurrection, the evangelistic preacher should anticipate that many in his audience likely reject the doctrine, and proactively defend is as part of a cumulative case supporting the Christian gospel.

2.       Apologetics Helps Overcome Doubt and Equips Believers in Discipleship Preaching

              In discipleship preaching, besetting doubts and answers to attacks on the faith of Christians by an unbelieving world can be addressed by including apologetic content in sermons. Through apologetic preaching for discipleship, believers are able to better overcome their own doubts (cf. Heb. 11:1-2), and to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). For example, as the barrage of writing from the New Atheists demonstrate—including the frequently vitriolic and one-sided attacks upon Christianity by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett—Christians are often susceptible to challenges based on a lack of preparation to answer apologetically-oriented questions. Believers might be harangued by opponents of the faith with questions such as: How could a loving God command the genocide of the Canaanites? or How could anyone believe a Bible that was assembled in the early third century by misogynistic, power-hungry men in league with Constantine and bent on controlling people? The researcher knows from personal experience with his own congregation that an accessible series of apologetic-infused messages targeting believers and addressing such concerns can provide great strength and resources to a struggling congregation. Such messages can also buoy the pastor’s spirit amid the persistent concerns and doubts raised by those he shepherds.

3.       Apologetics Adds Overall Depth to the Pastor’s Ministry Abilities

              In both apologetic preaching for evangelism and discipleship, the preacher will spend considerable time learning apologetic content and preparing it in such a way to make it accessible through his preaching. As this happens, the preacher’s apologetic knowledge and abilities increase and will usually overflow into his broader pastoral ministry. For example, learning apologetics concerning which theodicies are most helpful in addressing the problem of evil provides a pastor with greater ability to offer pastoral counsel when someone is looking for answers to personal or societal tragedies. Likewise, when a pastor becomes better equipped with apologetics in his preaching, he is likely to show an increase in confidence related to evangelism, and, in turn, become more intentional about evangelizing and encouraging his congregation to do the same. As he does so, it is reasonable to think that the same apologetics that helped his confidence rise will also become a focal point in teaching others to evangelize.

Conclusion

              Other reasons attain regarding why preaching benefits from apologetics, but these three get the conversation started. In next week’s article I will present three ways that preaching specifically relates to moral apologetics. Until then, keep defending the faith in the pulpit.