Faith Without Apologetics


The defense of the faith (apologetics) along evidentiary or rational lines is not entirely without merit. It can serve a certain negative role, as in the way historical Jesus research can rule-out patently false postulates. To use Sarah Coakley’s examples,

Thus, for instance, if a self-proclaimed Christian believer avers that Jesus was not a Jew (a denial on which so much hung in the twentieth century), or if she insists that Jesus tells her that being obedient to him should rightly result in worldly influence and financial success (a supposition not absent from certain forms of twenty-first-century spirituality), we may appropriately object, not only on intra-Christian biblical ground, but also on historical grounds that this cannot be the same Jesus who lived and taught and walked about and was crucified in Palestine at a known period in the first century C.E.” (Seeking the Identity of Jesus, eds. Gaventa and Hays, p. 312)

Coakley is speaking to the broader usage and legitimacy of historical argumentation, not apologetics directly, but I believe the principle applies there as well. The purpose of her essay, which is brilliant, is to move past the exegetical impasse represented by the Bultmann/Käsemann debates of the 1950’s. But that is not the purpose of this post.

As with any basically competent student of Barth, I have spent considerable time negotiating the value of apologetics and the legitimacy of historical “foundations,” to the extent that is even allowed. Not happy with the metaphysical collapse into existentialism, the presumed last safeguard for Christian faith within much of twentieth-century theology (culminating at the popular level with the “death of God” controversy of the 1960’s — watch this documentary — and continuing today among self-styled radical/apocalyptic types), I am nonetheless convinced that theology is much better without apologetics on the front end. This pertains to the whole “freedom” and “joy” of theology, which are sure watchwords for an approaching Barthian!

Apologetics frequently belies an anxiety at the subjective level and a profound diminishment of God at the objective level. I have touched upon these matters in the past, in a piecemeal fashion, but I won’t argue the point at present, for the simple reason that I do not have the time. Let me just offer these reflections from Henry Sloane Coffin:

To us likewise the prophet [Isaiah] would say that a burdensome religion is a false religion; that a god whom we conceive in doctrines which we force ourselves to believe and which we struggle to safeguard, with whom we have fellowship in forms we must spur themselves to keep up, and whom we serve in duties our consciences strap on their reluctant backs, is a man-made idol, not the living and true Lord, of heaven and earth. Religion that is a load is not comradeship with the Most High God. Religion which you must take care of is not the faith you need, but religion which takes care of you. The test by which one may discover whether he is dealing with an idol or with the living God is this: Do you feel yourself carrying your religion, or is it carrying you? Is it a weight or wings?

A Christian’s beliefs are not ideas which he compels his intellect to accept; they are convictions — ideas which grip and hold him. They seem to come with hands and arms and to grasp his reason; he is aware of being lifted and carried along by them. The Truth takes him off his feet, and he is conscious of resting on it, rather than on ground of his own choosing.

[Joy in Believing, ed. Walter Russell Bowie, pp. 8-9]

Beautiful. “Religion which you must take care of is not the faith you need, but religion which takes care of you.”


Image: “Feeling Cheeky” by Olivia Bell. I wanted an image to capture the joy of theology, so I went with this! Do check-out her other work. It’s great.



  1. The very last paragraph of the Bowie quote says it all. I think that as ‘Barthians’ we can approach a topic in ‘freedom’ & ‘joy’ probably a little easier than others – really hearing that ”fear-not”, means trust God to guide the process.

    From an applied theology aspect, I’m still learning about this, but Barth was right about apologetics up to a point.

    E.g.: I’ve spent the past two weeks knee-deep & bogged down, in material from the 18th-21st Century on Darwinian theory.

    During this time, I found my Barthian training helpful. This is because it allowed me to engage with these texts (some quite confronting – and some deliberately written to be that way) without an overbearing false anxiety that needed resolving.

    Something that would otherwise have hindered my conclusions, including where to start and what to read.

    My goal was to learn about the topic in order to understand it and teach it. Because I was able to steer clear of apologetic arguments (both for and against for the most part) I think that the journey was very fruitful.

    There was no anxiety that I felt needed resolving with ”proofs”. As a result I believe that I ended up encountering scientific reasons, in a scientific way, without feeling a need to surrender my Christian faith in order to reach a balanced conclusion.

    I certainly sensed being taken care of, instead of me feeling like I needed to somehow take care of the ‘religion’ – lest it fall.. 🙂

    • Yes, I think your experience is a good anecdote for what Coffin is describing in broader terms. (It is Henry Sloane Coffin, by the way. Bowie is the editor.) This is from an anthology of excerpts from his various writings, talks, sermons, and prayers. I am interested to see where Coffin may apply these insights. He does an excellent job maintaining the personal dimension of God’s existence, which is the basis for genuine childlike trust. However, he can veer toward Tillichian expressions, which is not surprising since he brought Tillich to Union in New York. Coffin was president of Union during its heyday.

  2. I recall reading Dorien’s book on theology and philosophy through the currents of Kant and Hegel (by you recommendation!), and realizing much of that anxiety was riddled by scientific conclusions/inventions that were never mentioned. None of these exist today in their current form!

    Since Rod mentioned Darwin, I think some of the best and most serene interactions with Darwin would’ve come through Warfield and Asa Gray. They didn’t feel threatened, and anxious ridden, nor would they leave the theory in its place. Darwin may have had his doubts about any good or personal god, but these Christian interactions didn’t let that stand as is.

    I think apologetics needs a certain amount of levity in its conflict. The supposed intellects of liberal theology were actually just craven servants of the modern currents of the day. Reminds me of a comment you made about the former pastor who wished, in light of Tillich, that he had done psychiatry than being a minister. They needed an excuse to still exist. Hegel did them the best service by creating a pagan Trinity for the new religion of the modern, industrialized age.

    Instead there’s a level of disinterested engagement, a passionate wrestling with little care for whether there’s worldly respect. A need to be able to “steal gold from Egypt” in our pursuit of giving glory to God with our minds.

    • Yes, James Livingston noted in his excellent textbook, Modern Christian Thought, that Hegelianism was considered by its adherents as the savior of the Christian faith for modern man. If I remember correctly, one of his examples was the resurgence of Hegelianism among the students at Yale and Harvard in the late 19th century.

      During this time period, I have great respect for Old Princeton. They may not have had the right prescription, but their diagnosis of the problem(s) was largely on target, precisely because their Reformed scholasticism retained a healthy enough dialectic between Creator and creature.

      I love your last line: A need to be able to “steal gold from Egypt” in our pursuit of giving glory to God with our minds.

  3. Hm. A rational defense no doubt has a place in Christianity – I don’t need to point out the significance of Paul’s interactions with the philosophers on Mars Hill. But it depends on what exactly ‘rational defense’ means. Does it mean ‘rational defense’ in the sense of trying to make Christianity ‘make sense’ or fit in to whatever field (science, history, archaelogy, etc)? Lots of modern apologetics/pop-apologetics takes this route – establish a link between the head/heart via evidence/arguments, give lists of proofs, arguments, etc. Lee Strobel kind of stuff, you know? A lot of these apologetics do really seem to, once you really get down to it, be based on anxiety. Barth noted this in his commentary on Romans.

    ‘The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths. The Gospel is not the door but the hinge. The man who apprehends its meaning is removed from all strife, because he is engaged in a strife with the whole, even with existence itself. Anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel–that is, Christian Apologetics–is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome. … It [the Gospel] does not require representatives with a sense of responsibility, for it is as responsible for those who proclaim it as it is for those to whom it is proclaimed. It is the advocate of both. … God does not need us. Indeed, if He were not God, He would be ashamed of us. We, at any rate, cannot be ashamed of Him.’

    A bit extreme (hey, it was early Barth) in my mind, but his basic point is pretty solid. Apologetics of this nature really do seem to miss the point.

    The other end is not too far from David Bentley Hart’s latest book – which is a ‘rational defense’ but in the very deep, classical sense of rational – that Christianity, on the very deepest level, fits in with and makes sense with and explains the most common aspects of human experience. Rational in the sense that to reject it is just crazy – it is the deepest of all truths.

    Me personally, I like to think I have a via media – I’m rather apt and ready to defend Christianity against various attacks, criticisms, etc – though as you point out this does tend to serve a more negative role than a positive one. I don’t believe in God because of argument XYZ, though XYZ may indeed be a proper rebuttal to whatever argument against, say, belief in God or Jesus’ historicity or whatever. But if someone asks me for the reason for my hope within, my answer is the crucified and risen Messiah, not a great argument I once read.

    But there is a bit of tension – the Gospel does somehow have to make some kind of sense, unless we’re fideists, which is self-defeating. Why do you believe in Jesus? How can someone rise from the dead? How can you know God exists? Are the Gospels historically reliable? There are good, solid answers to these questions, and the problem I tend to see with the Barthian way of thinking is that it tends to eschew *any* kind of answers to these questions and simply beckon to the charmed circle of faith wherein it will all make sense, often a pretty polemical way. ‘The Gospel isn’t a truth among other truths for us to have mastery over!’ Well, okay, that’s true – but what about those questions? Now I know things aren’t so simple (I know my way around Barth too well to leave it at that) but that is the basic feeling I tend to get from ‘Barthians’.

    • I loved it when I stumbled across it on deviant art, which is increasingly cluttered with junk, unfortunately.

  4. I am intrigued by Hart’s “deepest of all truths” approach. Simone Weil is similar, not surprisingly, though I still have not found time to read Hart’s latest in order to make adequate comparisons with her. They obviously share a common Platonist orientation.

    Weil’s theology is purely philosophy, which would ostensibly make her the opposite of Barth, but they oddly converge in remarkable ways — because both are convinced that God in Christ is the deepest reality of our existence. Is there a more deeply philosophical tome than CD II.1 or IV.1, the masterpieces of Barth’s whole project? This ability to explore the rich canvass of reality within dogmatics is what attracted Balthasar to Barth, and there was scarcely a more philosophical mind in the 20th century than Balthasar.

    As for the negative role of apologetics, it is indeed valuable. When I teach Sunday school classes, I will sometimes resort to traditional apologetics, with due caution, for the sake of removing unnecessary mental obstacles — as with someone who thinks that the gospels are worthless pieces of propaganda, masking the failures of an apocalyptic charlatan.

    The question about the gospel needing “to make some kind of sense” is at the heart of my theological explorations for the past ten years — basically since I began as an undergrad. My interest in 19th century German dogmatics is precisely because that is where this question was pressed in the most profound and excruciatingly meticulous ways. Barth belongs to this quest, which continues, as he recognized and encouraged toward the end of his career. Whether his answer is sufficient should be an open question, even for the most “Barthian” among us. He obviously exposed, with enormous breadth, the endlessly creative ways in which man manipulates God for the sake of “making some kind of sense,” by way of anthropic validation. Thus, at the very least, we owe Barth an enormous debt for that, regardless of whether his own alternative is wholly satisfying.

  5. ‘This ability to explore the rich canvass of reality within dogmatics is what attracted Balthasar to Barth, and there was scarcely a more philosophical mind in the 20th century than Balthasar.’

    That pretty much captures why I find this area of theology so…rich, I guess. You really get these sustained inquiries and explorations into the very deepest parts of reality within Barth’s dogmatics (and others as well obviously) that you just don’t find elsewhere. I’ll have to reflect on that more.

    ‘He obviously exposed, with enormous breadth, the endlessly creative ways in which man manipulates God for the sake of “making some kind of sense,” by way of anthropic validation. Thus, at the very least, we owe Barth an enormous debt for that, regardless of whether his own alternative is wholly satisfying.’

    Absolutely – I couldn’t agree more. His attack on anthropology-disguised-as-theology is as valid today as it was when his commentary on Romans came out. I don’t think too many Christians, if they give it a bit of thought, would disagree with his basic point.

    • that you just don’t find elsewhere.

      Indeed. My natural orientation is toward philosophy and philosophical questions, but once I discovered this theology I was far more satisfied…and excited.

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