Best Apologists of Our Time?

Philosopher and professional apologist (one who “defends the faith”) William Lane Craig writes here about what he sees as the recent revival of apologetics on campuses and elsewhere. He cites the work of a variety of professional philosophers, such as Richard Swinburne, William Alston, and Alvin Plantinga.

Another article in the same journal cites Bible scholars such as Ben Witherington and Darrell Bock as those willing to do public battle on behalf of orthodoxy.

All this is well, and also good. I am personally grateful to the aforementioned worthies for their excellent scholarship, sharp argumentation, and willingness to read and respond to the latest atheist bestseller.

Apologetics, however, is more than analytical philosophy of religion (the focus of Bill Craig’s article) or the history of the New Testament. It’s about anything that points to the plausibility and credibility of the gospel. And that means a very wide range indeed of Christian activity.

So whom would you nominate as the best apologists of our day? Whose life and work draw people’s attention positively to the church and its Lord? Here are a few candidates (that reflect my perch in the ivory tower, to be sure):

Mother Teresa–doubts and all–gotta be in the Top Ten

U2 and Arcade Fire: Christians can be cool, musical, and conscientious

Rodney Stark: All of Western history is not too big a canvas to make his case for the (generally positive) influence of Christianity

Tom Morris: Good philosophy (which is simply God’s truth, when done properly) can help your business . . . and your soul, and your family, and your nation . . .

Alister McGrath and John Polkinghorne: A theologian and a priest who pack serious scientific credentials

George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Harry Stout: Evangelicalism and Christianity in general deserve a serious (historical) look

Christopher Parkening: When he plays Bach, the angels listen

Billy Graham and John Paul II: Once you get to know them, they’re not nearly as bad as you thought, and actually pretty impressive . . .

International Justice Mission: Doing some of what needs to be done in some very dark places

World Vision and the Salvation Army: Work worth every dollar anyone gives them

A Rocha: See? Christians care about the environment, too!

The Wittenburg Door: See? Christians can be funny, too!

The floor is now open for further nominations . . .

0 Responses to “Best Apologists of Our Time?”

  1. John

    Mother Teresa would be tops on my list.

    Still, I think the best apology for Christianity is that person you really know whose life is somehow different, but better. At times, they may be some of the most difficult people to find.

  2. Billy Marsh

    Good and interesting list. Here’s some other suggestions:
    1) Dinesh D’Souza – a politician and apologist. He has been very successful in the debate circles with men like Hitchens who have been some of the loudest atheistic voices in the culture.
    2) C. S. Lewis – I know that this is obvious since he actively wrote books in defence of Christianity, but I think he should be here on the list just because of his fiction work, Narnia. They are endearing stories, and now, in the form of movies are more popular than ever.
    3) J. R. R. Tolkien – Tolkien’s belief that Christianity is the “true myth” not only informed his own work, but was also the hammerstroke that helped bring Lewis to the Christian faith. These two men together, using similar Christian worldviews, have made an incredible impact for Christianity simply by writing incomparable fiction works that are both gaining more and more status and influence in movie form.

  3. Lyn

    Hi, It is encouraging for us to read your nominations, here at IJM HQ. You also might be interested to read Just Courage (www.justcourage.com) and find out more about the strength to do “what needs to be done in some very dark places”, as you most aptly put it.-Lyn at IJM HQ

  4. nick

    i think dinesh d’souza’s partisan hackery actually does more to reinforce stereotypes and discredit the faith than anything else. even if he has good points against hitchens, those are drowned out by his shrill political rhetoric.

  5. Herbie MIller

    Cornel West.

    He takes Christian apologetics in a prophetic direction. While he wouldn’t call himself an apologist (I don’t even think he calls himself a theologian), his speaking and writing testify to the gospel’s prophetic social stance in modern societies.

    P.S. Thanks for the awesome blog, Dr. Stackhouse. I just discovered it!

  6. John Stackhouse

    Thanks, discokvn, for catching that slip! (I had put “Arcadia Fire” in an earlier edition.) I’d been touting the TV series “Joan of Arcadia” to friends this weekend, and clearly my brain has only one slot for “Words that start with Arcad*”!

  7. dangoldfinch

    I am particularly fond of NT Wright and his work on the Resurrection. It is inspiring and eye-opening.

    jerry

  8. Billy Marsh

    Nick,

    I’m not as familiar with D’Souza’s political reputation. I only discovered him about a year ago due to his response to the “new atheism”. After reading his book, I was impressed to see someone who was not the typical Christian writer successfully speaking out against this movement, espcially one who already had an influential voice among those like Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. If his political rhetoric is posing a negative threat to Christianity, then of course, I would be cautious. But I can say that his book was one of the first voices to reply to the New Atheism, helping to quiet their arguments and force in the mainstream, and shining a much more favourable light back on Christianity. I must add the disclaimer though, as of course we all would probably do with Stackhouse’s full list, I don’t agree with all his theology and views.

  9. Ethan Magness

    I will echo N.T. Wright. I wouldn’t have thought of him in that category until Surprised by Hope, but it is powerful in that regard.

  10. Jeff Loach

    I would add the name of Ravi Zacharias to the list. Ravi defends the faith well, I believe – having heard him in person and through various media.

  11. Michael Crook

    I’m afraid my nomination falls within the category of “analytic philosophy of religion”

    I wouldn’t really call him a popular apologist in any sense but Charles Taylor and his work on western secularization (i.e. A Secular Age) and the rise of modernity (i.e. Sources of the Self) is a pretty powerful antidote to our default cultural assumptions about religion and faith being unreasonable or irrational.

    Also, I think that for all Mel Gibson’s personal public foibles, “The Passion of the Christ” was a pretty powerful apologetic work.

  12. John W. Loftus

    I wonder who you might think the best atheists of our time are? Graham Oppy? Michael Martin? Quentin Smith? Keith Parsons?

  13. Doris Goheen

    I like Lee Strobel who wrote The Case For Christ and I agree that Ravi Zachariah and Billy Graham are right up there.

  14. Dean Pinter

    Hi John,

    I have been enjoying your Weblog for a few weeks now. As always, your reflections are thoughtful and winsome.

    Besides yourself, I will add my vote for our Bishop Tom Wright. I have observed him in a variety of settings the past few years in and around Durham – talking to a packed pub in Newcastle about The Da Vinci Code, lecturing in the NT Seminar and addressing a group of historians on ‘power’ – and I am impressed by his range, depth and wit. I can’t think of many people in the world who can articulate the Christian faith so well and in so many different contexts.

    Keep up the fine work John. Darlene and I still have fond memories of our evening with you many years ago eating delicious desserts at “True Confections”. A reprise is in order next summer when we are back in Canada.

  15. Billy Marsh

    I can’t believe I forgot about Ravi; I have to add a vote to him too.

  16. Glen Davis

    I echo many of the thoughts above.

    Francis Collins is especially good for graduate students and Ph.D. holders. He’s not as good when the conversation drifts to broader theological topics, but as long as the conversation is science and faith he’s the gold standard.

    Tim Keller is very good with thoughtful, well-educated people, as is Os Guinness.

    And since we’re talking about artists as well, I think Bono (of U2) deserves a mention.

  17. John Stackhouse

    Let’s get some more nominations, folks–what we’ve received so far is great–but NO MORE NOMINATIONS UNTIL YOU’VE ACTUALLY READ THE POSTING!

    People are now nominating their favourite professional apologist (Zacharias) or Bible scholar (Wright) or preacher (Keller), when I’m asking for people OTHER than such “usual suspects”!

    And Bono I presumed was covered when I nominated U2 already!

    Onward, friends…

  18. Duomai

    For those of us living in South and East Asia Vinoth Ramachandra, I am sure, will emerge as one of the best apologists of our time. A man of massive intellect yet extraordinarily simple. I would urge Christians in the West to read his books. The best thing about him is that he’s chosen to live in his native country Sri Lanka when he could have easily ministered in the West.

  19. John Stackhouse

    I’m glad you mentioned Vinoth. I would add Ken Gnanakan in Bangalore/Bengaluru and Ivan Satyavrata in Calcutta/Kolkata to this list because of their wholistic approach to “religious work”: preaching and teaching, yes, and also caring for the poor in a variety of practical ways (job training, housing, working with governments, and so on).

  20. Duane

    I would nominate Dallas Willard who has quietly and gently nudged the church (esp.leadership) to become more Christ-like. His influence has been like leaven–somewhat invisibly influencing the whole loaf.

  21. Rob Lantz

    “It’s about anything that points to the plausibility and credibility of the gospel. And that means a very wide range indeed of Christian activity.”

    Dr. Stackhouse,
    While I very much appreciate your list, and I’m a huge fan of this blog, I feel compelled to disagree. Perhaps it’s semantic… oh well.

    C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity spends a little time writing about the word gentleman, and how it has changed. He argued that the word has been robbed of its meaning (I’m sure you’re familiar with what I’m talking about). I think you’re in danger of doing to same thing to the word “apologist” here. Actively displaying a relationship with Christ in a public forum is not apologetics. That doesn’t mean that it’s any less valuable or important as a means to represent the light of Christ in a dark world. We have different words for the people on your list. Again, the names that I’m familiar with are people that I admire, respect and appreciate, but I don’t think that they are all apologists.

    By way of nominating someone who I feel does a great job of “living it” in public…

    Dr. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project. I don’t agree with his views on the possiblity of evolution (he sees it as a certainty, I see it as so improbable as to be impossible), but he does a great job of demonstrating that science points to God rather than excluding Him.

    Hopefully I haven’t come across disrespectfully. I really enjoy your postings. Thanks.

    In Him

    RWL

  22. John Stackhouse

    Brother Rob,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. You’re quite right that “apologist” traditionally has denoted one who contends for the faith according to the intellectual demands of the day. The early Apologists in Christian history (Justin Martyr et al.) were exactly of this sort. And that continues to be the usual meaning today: Bill Craig is an apologist, while another Christian philosopher who deals with, say, number theory isn’t.

    But I have contended at some length (in my book Humble Apologetics) for a second definition of what we might call the broader apologetical agenda of the church in which everyone can and should participate, as all we say and do can help those who are not (yet) Christian take Christianity and the gospel more seriously than they previously did.

    This is not to say that apologetics is simply the same thing as the Christian life, for then apologetics has no distinct meaning at all. But it does mean, paradoxically, that everything in the Christian life potentially has an apologetic value–at least, everything that is done that is noticeable by others and thus helpful to them in coming to further grips with Christianity.

    Thus those who engage in relief and development work are not “apologists” in the strict sense, but they are in the sense I’m suggesting here: their work draws some people toward the faith.

    So in that sense, whom else would we nominate?

  23. Dean Pinter

    Three women writers who point, in differing ways for different audiences, to the ‘plausibility and credibility’ of the Gospel:

    1) Margaret Visser
    2) Anne Lamott
    3) Jan Karon

  24. Rob Lantz

    Dr. Stackhouse,
    Thanks for addressing my post. I see your point. As long as we’re able to maintain a defintion that describes people like C.S. Lewis correctly, then I can’t argue at all. I also can’t claim to have read “Humble Apologetics” but it’s going on the list! I couldn’t agree more that we must all be ready to be apologists when the correct opportunity presents itself (as per 1 Peter 3).

    I’m a mathematician by training, so I don’t fit the rigorous definition, but I do strive to meet the requirements of your broader definition. Many times I fail miserably, which is why I read this blog 🙂

    Thanks again.

    In Him,

    Rob

  25. dan

    George W. Bush — he has forced all sincere Christians to be far more apologetic (yes, that is a double entendre).

  26. The Ancient Mariner

    Since you mentioned Christopher Parkening, I’d like to mention a friend of his (and mine) who is probably the leading apologist in the classical music world: Dr. Patrick Kavanaugh, the founder of the Christian Performing Artists’ Fellowship and the MasterWorks Music Festival.

  27. The Apostate

    John, my search for God since leaving evangelical Christianity and my love for apologetics has continue to lead me to search for anything that might lead me back to faith. I have to wonder whether you are as disappointed as I am with Craig’s article. He slams the “New Atheists” for using tired arguments from the sixties, then he proceeds to co-opt postmodern philosophy for himself, and then brags that the “New Atheists” have not kept up with the cutting edge new apologetics.

    At this point I am salivating at the mouth awaiting some profound argumentation from Craig. And then it happens… five arguments that go back at least five hundred years, five arguments that have been found wanting even by many astute Christian theologians and philosophers (not to mention secular philosophers).

    Craig, however stating that the “New Atheists” lack intellectual strength, furthermore, is surely the pot calling the kettle black. Craig himself rarely debates other philosophers in his discipline. Rather, he choses to debate philosophy with historians, ignoring the historical aspects, he debates biologists, ignoring biology, and so on. He mentions only popular works by scientists, ignoring the actual academic work. He suggests his own collection of Philosophy of Religion works while ignoring the even-handed standard by Gary Kessler used in Universities around North America.

    To clarify, I have no problem with the standard arguments for God. I do have a problem with dishonesty and tactless rhetoric playing to evangelical ignorance in a magazine like Christian Today. Craig knows that 95%+ of the readers will never touch one of the authors he mentioned. If only Craig would heed the advice of Thomas Aquinas and recognize that his musing are ultimately futile and will end in either unreasonable faith, as Aquinas and Kierkegaard relished in, or disbelief.

  28. Beth

    I certainly agree with U2, not only in the wider culture in general but also head-on in interviews when asked — especially with Bono defending the deity of Christ and illustrating points from the Bible. Arcade Fire raise important theological and cultural issues and have a very high view of sin, and I really admire their work, but I’m surprised to hear them called “Christians” (would be pleased to learn this is so, however).

    Tim Keller and NT Wright top my list.

  29. Winsome Apologetics « Expensive Coffee

    […] know how to act or what to do with his hands. Earlier this week John Stackhouse posted on the best apologists of our time, including Arcade Fire, International Justice Mission, and Mark Noll. “Apologetics,” he […]

  30. john mark inman

    I agree with Beth above..Arcade Fire Christians? Maybe…I thought they were more post-Christians. Raised religious, but left it behind. I could be wrong, I don’t know there bios that well.

  31. dopderbeck

    Rob Bell, particularly his Nooma videos. Not really traditional apologetics, but the depth of spirituality the videos present, along with the video format, ooze authenticity.

  32. dopderbeck

    Oh, and Scot McKnight, particularly his Jesus Creed books and blog. Again, not really “apologetics,” but I think Scot models the ability to listen well and to represent the heart of the Gospel — receiving and living the love of Christ.

    And, Leslie Newbiggin, esp. work such as “Proper Confidence.”

    And, underlying and philosophically deeper than Newbiggin, Michael Polanyi. Not an apologist, but a critique of positivism and an embodied epistemology that lays the groundwork for introducing “faith” to modern / postmodern people.

  33. tim

    hmm..mother theresa…was it not her that said, i am not out to convert anyone. i only want to help a muslim become a better muslim, a christian a better christian, a hindu a better hindu?

  34. Tony Springer

    Let us hear about a few missiologist: Timothy Tennent of Gordon-Conwell; Read his Theology in the Context of World Christianity. Also Lamin Sennah of Yale and his Whose Religion is Christianity? Do not forget Leslie Newbigin.

  35. Mark

    Despite the typo, your coolness level went up 10 points by including Arcade Fire on this list. Thanks for the post!

  36. mac

    I think I will nominate Anthony Flew since orthodoxy is not the standard. Some people may see his softening as evidence for God.

  37. Bill

    I would nominate Ravi Zacharias. He’s one of the best cultural apologists around.

  38. ericdarylmeyer

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer: because sincere faith and careful theology go hand in hand with action.

    Ghandi: because, even as he is on the margins of Christianity (as a personal allegiance) he proves that hope and faith shine in smothering darkness–a parable of the Kingdom.

    Saint Francis: well, it’s hard not to like a fellow who runs off naked into the woods to talk to birds.

  39. Jon Coutts

    Maybe he is too obvious, but I found Philip Yancey’s Rumours of Another World and Sole Survivor to be phenomenal, and accessible, stuff.

    Also, perhaps too obvious, but I don’t think anyone has mentioned G.K. Chesterton. 100 years ago but ahead of his time.

    While I’d hesitate to give Arcade Fire or U2 the “apologist” title, I’d put Sufjan Stevens up there for being a great Christian artist whose fan base is not Christians.

  40. Jeremiah Duomai

    By any stretch of the definition of the term Antony Flew is not a Christian… yet!

  41. Wil

    http://www.makotofujimura.com/

    “The idea of forging a new kind of art, about hope, healing, redemption, refuge, while maintaining viusal sophistication and intellectual integrity is a growing movement, one which finds Fujimura’s work at the vanguard.”

    – Robert Kushner

  42. Dave Swartz

    I want to throw out a name that is quietly slipping under the radar. Don Everts. He’s an IVCF staffer in Colorado and has writen some very provocative titles for IVP. He has cut his apologetics teeth at Univ of Colorado in Boulder. He has a way of engaging skeptics in a way that keeps them around formore conversation. One of his strongest points is the way he frames question – like a needle going in swift and deep. All of his stuff provides a gereat resource if you’re looking for something that both engages those with questions and will change and invigorate your own thinking at the same time.

  43. Peter Fehr

    Amy Carmichael and Hudson Taylor. Amy might not be as well known as Mother Teresa but should certainly be on any list that she is on.
    When asked about missionary life Amy replied, “Missionary life is simply a chance to die.”
    Substitute apologist for missionary and it make a great definition for this post.

  44. Adam L.

    Ok, I’m about halfway through “Does God Exist?: an answer for today”, and I think I must place Hans Kung on my “tops” list.

  45. Stan

    Wow – it’s great to see such an interest in making the Gospel winsome. I appreciate your desire to increase the extension of the term “apologist,” but I am confused on one point.

    How, Dr. Stackhouse, would you distinguish the way you use “apologist” from the term “evangelist” (especially in the sense of one who preaches the gospel everywhere, using words only when necessary)?

    Thank you for evoking such great discussion.

  46. John Stackhouse

    Brother Stan,

    Apologetics has to do with the plausibility and credibility of the Christian faith and of the gospel in particular. (Credibility is where most apologetics spend their time: the question of “Is it true?” Plausibility is the prior question of “Might it be true? Should I even consider it as an option?” I set this out in detail in my book, “Humble Apologetics.” )

    Evangelism is the declaration of that gospel. It is the sharing of the good news.

    So apologetics can serve both before and after evangelism: to draw people in toward the gospel and to strengthen and clarify their faith once they have accepted the gospel.

  47. iAMrj

    I wish to add the likes of 1) Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for his civic and civil embodiment of gospel truths which set the oppressed free, 2) John A. Buehrens for his powerful suggestions on how skeptics, seekers, and religious liberals might cherish the Bible as their own without refusing to think about God or to search for transcendence, and 3) the writer of the hymn “Yes, God Is Real” — Kenneth Morris, I believe — for teaching me as child that the ultimate alopogia is God acting on the stages of human history.

    Wishing you great joy and good success,

    richard jones (rj)
    Co-founder, Alopecia World
    http://www.AlopeciaWorld.com
    http://www.iAMrj.com

  48. Dan Poxon

    Walker Percy. G.K. Chesterton, Rob Bell (the God’s Aren’t Angry was the best gospel presentation I’ve ever heard, embracing historical, theological, and sociological perspectives).

  49. Ben

    Professor Stackhouse,

    Do you have any comments on The Apostate’s post about William Lane Craig?

  50. John J

    Ravi Zacharias (some say is the greatest apologist for our time), Alister McGrath, G.K Chesterson ect,,,
    the list is long, there are many, so I believe we have a lot to glean from.

  51. Eyob

    to Apostate:
    i have a different perspective from yours. Craig admits that most of the arguments for christianity are old but are revitalized with new perspectives and discoveries, like the KCA making use of the currently agreed upon ‘a universe with a beginning’. though it might be okay for the atheists to use the old arguments of the sixities, these old arguments are not revitalized with new facts/discoveries. take for example ‘the problem of evil’, this argument is seen by contemporary astute theologians/christian philosophers to be an argument for the existence of God not against the existence of God. the new atheist has not provided any new and relevant arguments to show its fallacy. and of course there are also new arguments for theism like the knowledge of God being properly basic.
    regarding the kind of professionals Craig argues i also have a different data or perspective. i don’t exactly remember a biologist other than Ayala. historians are however relevant for one of the major issues Craig argues – ‘the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection’. and i don’t remember Craig ignoring history or biology. i think it was Ayala who ignored biology and sought for theological arguments. the rest, at least the once i’ve come to know, are theologians and philosophers like crossan, Carrier, Ludemann, Hitchens,Antony, Spong, Bradley…..
    The point is i think you are making every effort not to find good reason to return to Christ but Craig made you unreasonable at every spot and you are angry with him.

  52. Eyob

    Craig never refused to argue with anyone who is willing to do so. It is people such as Dawkins that refuse to debate in order to avoid strong arguments. actually what surprises me is not Craig debating biologists but biologists using biology to speak for atheism.

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