Apologetics in Africa: An Introduction

Listen to an audio version of this article read by Blaque Nubon of South Africa

In an age of religious tolerance and political correctness, Christians are pressured to apologise for what they believe in. Talk of God, faith, repentance, holiness, salvation and eternity in an age of many choices, is cushioned in politeness, hushed tones, diluted convictions and platitudinous confessions. Winsomeness has its place, but half-hearted witness is ineffective for our time. Social media timelines are filled with videos and images that are a reflection of how much we have elevated the self, to the point of obscuring any confrontation of ideas, except those ideas that are non-Christian.

On the other hand, African Christianity is growing. Missiologists have noted the shifting of the Christian centre to the global South, to the effect that more churches are to be found in Africa, Asia and Latin America than Europe and North America. This shift has resulted in the concept of “reverse missions” where currently people from the “Majority World” are now taking the gospel back to lands that birthed exemplary missionaries such as Hudson Taylor, William Carrey and David Livingstone.

Winsomeness has its place, but half-hearted witness is ineffective for our time.

Yet for all the increase in African Christianity, what can be termed “biblical Christianity” likely comprises a small portion of this demographic. In fact, the prosperity gospel is largely the type of Christianity that is common across the continent and the global world. It is a type of Christianity that disfigures the doctrine of God, and worse still, dilutes the whole gospel that is the pinnacle of the Christian faith.

The Two Major Challenges

1. Postmodernism

Thus, the African Christian faces a unique challenge. On one hand, she must be able to engage the skepticism of the contemporary culture that wishes Christ was another option among many other religious teachers. Our technological age has only increased the options available, and with increased globalisation, young Africans who have been educated in the West have imbibed the best of postmodern thought and secular humanism. This was made very apparent during a public debate organised by Apologetics Kenya between Christian apologists and members of the Atheist in Kenya society, which has in the past, pushed for the removal of Christian foundations from the public education system (similar reforms have been pushed in the area of sexuality and gender, most recently, in the 2019 petition on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer identification in Kenya).

Present in the debate, was a group of Kenyan students who had studied at an Ivy League University and had raised several counterarguments at the end of the debate. One of them said something to the effect that “I think Christianity has messed us [Africans] up and we need to go back to our traditional religion”. I happened to be sitting next to one (a lady who identifies as a “progressive Muslim”) who claimed that the arguments from both sides were logical, but she could not come to a coherent conclusion. Additionally, the phenomenon of churched youth leaving the Church has gained popular opinion. At the heart of the solution is the need to offer solid biblical teaching in light of popular culture. 

2. The prosperity gospel

The second challenge is one from within. In an insightful article for the Banner of Truth in 2015, Conrad Mbewe noted the correlation between excessive Charismatic Christianity – meaning here the excessive type that focuses on health, wealth, healing and gifts, without biblical discernment – and African traditional religion. For instance, he noted that many of such Christian adherents have merely baptised secular ideas with Christian verses. The prosperity preacher, who is elevated by his followers, is merely a replacement of the witchdoctors of the old religious superstructure, who attracted an unrealistic sense of reverence. Thus, we could summarise this problem as one of clarifying what the Christian faith is for Christians. In other words, the second challenge is one of discerning the cultural or popular Christianity and weighing it with the timeless Scripture, God’s revelation to humanity.

The second challenge is one of discerning the cultural or popular Christianity and weighing it with the timeless Scripture, God’s revelation to humanity

Demystifying Apologetics

These two challenges fall squarely within the purview of apologetics. As a Christian discipline, it is far from apologising, but has the following elements which can be distilled from those who have studied and practiced Apologetics:

  1. Understanding why we believe what we believe (Voddie Baucham)
  2. Defending what we believe in (R. C. Sproul)
  3. Confronting unbelief with the Truth (John Frame)
  4. Communicating the truth with gentleness and respect (Dallas Willard)

If you lock several apologists in a room and ask them their favourite verse, 1 Peter 3:15 would probably come up. The four understandings above can be interpreted from this exhortation by Peter to the scattered saints, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” This passage tells us three things about apologetics: what, who and how?

The What, Who and How of Apologetics

What is the content of our apologetics? 

It is the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. Peter makes this claim profoundly in 1 Peter 1:3-12. Because of the atoning death of Christ on the cross and his resurrection, we are to “make a defence”, that is, to give an “apologia”, a response to accusations levelled against us as believers. It is common for some to think that Christian apologetics is a reserve for ivory tower scholars, but here, the passage answers the second question.

Who should engage in apologetics? 

Peter is clear that the believer is expected to do apologetics. “Honouring Christ the Lord as holy” is presented in other translations as “in your hearts sanctify the Lord as Christ” or similarly. Either phrase describes the Christian believer, the one who because she is set-apart by God, lives in light of the Lordship of Christ. This verse is written in light of suffering, that is those Christians living in the “already but not yet”. As we look at our cultural context, as we consider the political upheaval in many areas of our continent and as we consider the economic pressures that threaten the lives of many Africans, it is clear that most African Christians live under various threats and suffering. Peter’s epistle is instructive to us, when it reminds us of the coming day of the Lord. It is this eschatological hope that canvases the confession of our faith (2 Peter 3). 

And lastly, how should we engage in apologetics?

Peter gives us a practical way of doing apologetics when he answers this last question. The quick answer is with fear and gentleness. Fear of God (which is the root of having a clear conscience as in 1 Peter 3:17), as the one who governs the world’s history and events, and gentleness towards our neighbours – as those who have been made in the image of God, even those who have not come to that realisation and still live in rebellion towards God. This is certainly helpful for our social media engagement and the vitriol that falsely characterises Christian engagement on social media.

Apologetics is ultimately about the gospel. It helps to break down the barriers that people have raised towards the gospel

Apologetics is about the Gospel

I understand the bile that apologetics gets because it has been taken away from the ordinary Christian and relegated to university halls and the academy. There is a place for that, and there is much that we can learn from professional apologists. In fact, part of growing in our apologetics is learning from others who have thought about, and hopefully practiced, these things at length. But apologetics is ultimately about the gospel. It helps to break down the barriers that people have raised towards the gospel based on their ignorance. R. C. Sproul commenting on Romans 1:19 says that atheists don’t really exist (Similarly, Norman Geisler, recently [2019] promoted to glory, wrote an accessible Apologetics book called “I don’t have enough Faith to be an Atheist”).

The place of logic though indispensable to the apologetic task must be subservient to the Scriptures and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ contained therein

The Canon of Scripture assumes the existence of God and his claim on our lives (Genesis 1:1; Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:18-32). A robust biblical worldview takes at its core foundation, the reliability, authority and sufficiency of Scripture, even in the task of apologetics. Thus, we must always begin with biblical presuppositions if we are to do apologetics for the sake of the gospel. The place of logic, philosophy, cosmology, rhetoric, intercultural studies, western and African thought, fields that are indispensable to the apologetic task, must be subservient to the Scriptures and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ contained therein. 

Holistic Apologetics is for the Head, Heart and Hands

Further, apologetics is not merely intellectual boxing to get our enemies on the floor. Belief and unbelief, are realities that influence the whole human person – head, heart and hands. For the Christian, loving God with our heart, mind and soul, is oftentimes interconnected. For the unbeliever, the same is true – “They [Gentiles] are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (Ephesians 4:18-19).

Apologetics is not merely intellectual boxing to get our enemies on the floor. Belief and unbelief, are realities that influence the whole human person

Paul traces the same argument that the head, heart and hands are connected. This is why the gospel, and theology at large, is helpful in forming us as disciples of Christ. We live out of the convictions we hold about particular things. As we engage in apologetics, we need to understand the relationship between the intellect, the emotions and the will. Thus, the call for a more holistic apologetic in this TGC article, which is a review of the new book (2019) by Paul Gould Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World. And this means that ultimately, we need the power of the Holy Spirit to do apologetics.

Apologetics in the Power of the Spirit 

The ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian apologist cannot be ignored. The task of engaging with unbelievers is an arduous task similar to a journey that one takes to a far-off and perilous land – one needs an engine that is well-oiled. Similarly, because ultimately the work of making a defence consists of various interrelated issues, we need the Holy Spirit:

  1. To convict those we engage with the truth of the Christian claims (Acts 2:37)
  2. To encourage the Christian apologist as he makes a defence to the culture and the religious and political classes of the day (Luke 12:11-12, 21;15; Acts 2:14, 4:8, 4:31, 13:9)
  3. To be led to those who need to hear our defence (Acts 13:4) – Barnabas and Saul sent by the Spirit to Cyprus.

The Early Church in Acts and Apologetics

Many have marvelled at and noticed the tremendous growth of the early Christian Church. Acts is a foundational book for the task of apologetics in Africa. Our audiences involve the political classes, the nominal Christians or other religious adherents, and lastly those who like new and novel ideas, much like the Greek philosophers in Acts 17. Like our African context, the task of apologetics requires a firm grounding in the biblical worldview and gospel, a Spirit empowered witness and a love for those who are trapped in the deceptions of the world.

This was certainly the pattern of the African Apologists who have gone ahead of us in the early church period, such as Athanasius and Augustine, and also the apologetics of the Reformation period as well as in the modern period that has born much fruit. We will also do well to pay attention to some of the findings from archeologists and other Christian scholars, for their findings have often confirmed what is already true – for example, the reliability of the Scriptures, the resurrection of Jesus Christ through minimal facts approach and the geographical places in the Bible.

The task of apologetics requires a firm grounding in the biblical worldview and gospel, a Spirit empowered witness and a love for those who are trapped in the deceptions of the world

Apologetics and the African Church

In Kenya, there is a growing ministry of apologetics. As part of other Centres for Apologetics Research globally, African Centre for Apologetics Research  (ACFAR.org) is equipping believers for the task of cult engagement. Apologetics Kenya equips believers and engages skeptics with the Christian worldview through monthly fora, public lectures and debates (with Atheists and Muslims). They are currently working on a contextualised apologetics curriculum to enhance their campus engagement. Notable apologists include John Njoroge, a Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) speaker  as well as Reuben Kigame, a renowned gospel artist.

In fact Kigame has published probably the first Apologetics book of its kind Christian Apologetics through African Eyes in 2018. Saturday PM is also a local church ministry that engages the big questions of life through expository sermons. In South Africa, Ratio Christi, the international apologetics ministry that is specifically aimed at campus students, has local chapters in five campuses namely North West University, Kwa Zulu-Natal, Rhodes, Stellenbosch and Pretoria. They have also been organising annual symposia, to equip and engage interested people. Daniel Maritz, University of Pretoria Chapter President at Ratio Christi summarises the situation:

The apologetics landscape is very diverse. Since universities tend to be a melting pot of ideas, we have secularism and some of its progressive ethics flowing in on the university campuses, especially in Cape Town. We are also confronted with some of the major cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons who are also doing their evangelism on and around some of the campuses. Prosperity Gospel theology also infiltrates some of the churches and it has devastating consequences. One last challenge that is worth mentioning is Islam. As an apologetics ministry, Ratio Christi comes beside the local church to equip young Christians to better be able to defend their faith against these challenges.

Apologetics is an important tool for Christian witness in Africa, that will hopefully help to turn people from idols to the true and living God

The way forward

We are beginning a series on The Gospel Coalition Africa to collect the research, writing, experiences and ministries of those who are labouring in the urban and rural African context and who have seen the value of apologetics, as a means of equipping the Church of Jesus Christ in Africa for winsome witness. Apologetics is an important tool for Christian witness in Africa, that will hopefully help to turn people from idols to the true and living God – may this commendation of the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 1:9) be also true for our African people. For the glory of God and for the joy of those that he has called out to be his own.

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