I am often asked by up-and-coming apologists for advice about defending the Faith. Sometimes they ask me to review their work and make suggestions on how to improve it. Many of the things I suggest reflect lessons I’ve learned the hard way. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, and I regularly cringe when I go back and review things I wrote in years past.
Over time, I’ve developed a number of principles to strengthen my work—to make my case in the best way I can and to avoid shooting myself in the foot. They’ve now become habits, and I mentally tick through the list as I’m crafting an argument. By using them, I try to “bulletproof” my case as much as possible. Here are the principles I find most helpful.
The first and most important rule is to be charitable. Love is the thing God wants most from us, which is why the love of God and neighbor are the two greatest commandments (Matt. 22:36-40; cf. Rom. 13:8-10).
Love also makes for good apologetics. People are more likely to listen to you if you are kind to them, which is why when the subject of discussing doctrine comes up, St. Paul emphasizes that we must be “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). Similarly, discussing doing apologetics with outsiders, St. Peter says that we should “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15).
These two great saints add the qualifiers “in love” and “with gentleness and reverence” because that’s not the human tendency. Under the influence of original sin, the natural tendency when speaking with someone who disagrees with us is to get defensive and hostile, but that’s not what will win them over.
The Christian ethic of love requires that we follow Jesus’ Golden Rule: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them” (Matt. 7:12). Many of the principles that follow are simply applications of this one overall rule.
Don’t be triumphalistic
For example, sometimes apologists are accused of being “triumphalistic,” meaning that they unreasonably glorify their own position and run down the views of others. At times, apologetics itself is criticized as an exercise in triumphalism—a claim apologists are quick to reject.
Merely thinking that your position is correct isn’t unreasonable. Even the people who accuse apologetics of being triumphalistic think they’re right! In fact, everyone, in every field, believes his position is true and argues in favor of it. That’s how the marketplace of ideas works and how fields of study advance.
But apologists can be—and sometimes are—triumphalistic. They can advocate their own position in a way that unjustly runs down others’, causing themselves to come off as arrogant.
There can be a particular temptation to justify this as a form of “tough love,” and I’ve done that myself. To my shame, I remember writing and saying things, especially in my early years as an apologist, that I knew would come off as arrogant toward positions I was critiquing. I told myself that this was justified as a way of confronting people with the “hard truth” about their position, but that was a rationalization.
There are times when we need to speak frankly about errors people are making, but those are precisely the times we need to bend over backward to be loving and make it clear that we genuinely care about them. That’s the way we are most likely to win them over and thus the way we are most likely to actually help them.
It may feel good to trash a position we don’t agree with, but if we want to provide a genuine service to souls, we must resist the temptation to justify arrogant behavior in the name of “tough love.”
Another application of the Golden Rule is making your case in a concise way. We don’t like it when people are verbose, when they make more claims than we can respond to, or when they don’t let us get a word in edgewise. Therefore, we shouldn’t do those things, either.
This is especially important when we are speaking to people one on one. Basic courtesy requires that we make our points succinctly, one at a time, and that we let people have a chance to respond. Turn-taking is an essential conversational skill, and people will become frustrated and give us a less favorable hearing if they think we’re monopolizing the conversation or trying to overwhelm them and not let them respond.
Something similar applies when writing. Even if the same emotional dynamics that are in play in a conversation aren’t present, people still have limited patience, and they don’t want their time wasted. The longer you go on about a subject, the closer you are to exhausting your reader’s patience. It’s critical that you don’t let that happen. All of your efforts will be wasted if your reader stops reading what you’ve written because of how long it is.
This is especially important to remember when writing on the inter-net, where attention spans are short. If a reader can see that your social media comment, email, or blog post is excessively long, he’s likely to skip it altogether. While there are times for a thorough discussion, the general rule is that the longer you write, the fewer people will read what you say.
Set aside lesser points
A special application of the “be brief” principle is setting aside lesser points and going only with your stronger arguments. This is especially important because apologists can be tempted to do a “core-info dump,” where we list every argument we can think of on a subject.
This is a mistake, and not just because we risk wearing out the patience of our audience. Not all of our arguments will have equal weight, and the audience may be distracted by some of the weaker ones. The successful strategy in most situations is to present only a few arguments and to make sure that they are the strongest ones available.
Suppose that an apologist is trying to prove some point of Catholic doctrine from the Bible. Which will be more convincing? A list of eighty verses, many of which are only tangentially related to the doctrine? Or only three verses that are really clear? As before, there are situations where a thorough discussion is called for, but in the majority of cases the “less is more” principle applies, and three really clear verses will provide the more compelling case.
In fact, three is a special number that seems wired into human consciousness. We tend to think in patterns of three, which is why stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s also why jokes often have three parts (“a priest walks into a bar . . . a minister walks into the bar . . . a rabbi walks into the bar . . . ”).
Three is a good number in apologetics, too. Making three points on a given subject is enough to show the robustness of your case without taxing the audience. It thus can be good to apply a “rule of three”: if you’re tempted to make more than three arguments on a point, start thinking about whether some of them are lesser ones that could be dropped.
Whatever the optimal number of points may be in a given case, it will be a small one. People may have the patience for an occasional top ten list, but ten arguments for the same point is really pushing it.
Do your research
Another application of the Golden Rule is to do your research and make sure you understand the position of those you’re interacting with.
We don’t like it when someone misunderstands and mischaracterizes our position, so we shouldn’t do that to others. In conversation, this will mean asking questions of the person you’re talking to. These need to be sincere requests for information, and you need to take the answers you get seriously.
Don’t assume that you know all about a person’s position just because you’ve heard it described by others. Those reports may not be accurate. This is especially important when dealing with a movement as diverse as Protestantism. If you find yourself thinking “The Protestant position on this is . . . ” then you are almost certainly wrong. There isn’t a single, united Protestant position on almost any subject.
Some views may be common in Protestant circles, but even core principles like sola scriptura and sola fide are understood and applied in different ways in different communities.
In fact, Catholic apologists would be well advised to avoid altogether the phrase “the Protestant position.” It’s okay to talk about what some Protestants think or about views that are common in the Protestant community, but there is almost never a single, universally held position.
That’s why you need to ask questions, to ensure that you are engaging the actual position of the person you are speaking with rather than wasting your time attacking a straw man. If you do the latter, you will lose credibility, frustrate your dialogue partner, and demonstrate that you don’t really understand what you’re talking about. By contrast, asking sincere questions will reveal that you care about the person you are speaking with, and it will keep your arguments on point.
Something similar applies when writing. In this case, doing your research means reading the writings of those whose views you will be critiquing—and reading them for purposes of understanding, because you can’t responsibly critique a position unless you understand it.
I’ve encountered a number of Protestant apologists who clearly have read Catholic writings only for purposes of “gathering ammo,” without any real attempt to understand the Catholic viewpoint. Don’t make their mistake. When you read the writings of a group you disagree with, do so making a sincere effort to understand their position. Also, don’t limit yourself to just reading: contact people who are members of the group and ask questions to make sure you understand.
Know the nature of the disagreement
Part of doing your research is clearly identifying exactly where a viewpoint is going wrong. To do that, you must understand and appreciate the elements of truth it contains as well as the mistaken bits.
There will always be elements of truth in a viewpoint. People don’t believe things that have nothing to recommend them. That’s why successful con men—who’ve set out with a conscious intent to deceive—embed the false elements of their story in a matrix of things that are true, so as to make the whole package believable.
Part of your job as an apologist is to identify the elements of truth in other people’s positions. If you don’t have a clear handle on that, you won’t know which bits to critique.
Avoid word fights
Understanding a group’s position includes learning to translate between the language that it uses and the language that you use.
It often turns out that two groups express the same thoughts using different words, and if we don’t recognize this, we won’t correctly understand the other position. That leaves you open to a number of dangers, one of which is the embarrassment of having it pointed out to you that you and your opponents are actually in agreement but that you’re just using language differently.
At that point, you lose credibility and are revealed as someone who doesn’t really understand what he’s been critiquing. To overcome this embarrassment and regain credibility, it can be tempting to assert that one’s own way of using language is the correct one, but this tends to generate more heat than light.
The danger of that is so great that St. Paul warns us more than once against it. He tells Timothy to command others “before the Lord to avoid disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (2 Tim. 2:14). Yet some people seem to get a charge out of such disputes, and so Paul also warns him against those who have “a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions” (1 Tim. 6:4).
The message is clear: Don’t quarrel about terminology. Set such disputes aside and focus on the substance of a position, not the words used to express it.
Point out common ground
Of course, just because you’ve learned to translate between the language of your group and another’s doesn’t mean that your dialogue partner has. That’s why, when you identify a language difference, you need to point it out, so both you and he understand that you don’t need to fight about something. Even beyond language issues, it’s helpful to point out common ground whenever you can. This has several benefits.
One is that it helps focus attention on where the actual disagreement lies, so that you and your dialogue partner don’t waste time on issues on which you actually agree.
Another is that it shows you and he are not as far apart as it might initially appear, and you’re more likely to win a favorable hearing from someone who understands that the things separating you are smaller rather than larger. Nobody is likely to be convinced by a person he perceives to be coming from an alien viewpoint.
By pointing out common ground, you also show sympathy and understanding for your dialogue partner’s position, making you sound reasonable, credible, and friendly—all things that will help you be more convincing.
When the discussion involves a text—whether from the Bible, a Church document, or anything else—it is important to make sure you understand the text in its original context.
This means doing exegesis on the text before you do anything else. You must set aside the present apologetic discussion and stop reading the text through the lens the discussion provides. Instead, focus on the text itself and what its author was trying to say. Read it in its own context and see what it meant there. Only then will you be in a position to extract from it the relevant principles, if any, for your apologetic discussion.
A classic pitfall of proof-texting is taking a statement out of its original context just because it has a superficial similarity to another one. For example, some people have argued against having Christmas trees on the basis of Jeremiah 10:3-4, which states, “The customs of the peoples are false. A tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. Men deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.”
Out of context, that sounds like it could be talking about a Christmas tree, but this rips the text out of its historical context, for there were no Christmas trees in Jeremiah’s day, long before the birth of Christ. It also strips it of its literary context, which makes it clear what Jeremiah is talking about: pagan idols. He goes on to write that these gilded wooden objects “are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Be not afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good. There is none like thee, O Lord; thou art great, and thy name is great in might” (Jer. 10:5-6).
Not only should your first instinct be to figure out the original meaning of a text for yourself, you should also explain it to your audience before proceeding to engage the apologetic issue related to it.
Suppose someone has just presented you with an argument against Christ-mas trees based on Jeremiah 10:3-4. What should your first move be? To start arguing about whether Christmas trees are good or bad? Or to go straight to what Jeremiah was actually saying?
If you do the former, the conversation will get off on the wrong track, you may not be able to get back to the point that really needs to be made. And even if you do, its significance will be muddied by all the preceding discussion. But if you go straight to the meaning of the passage in its original context, you undercut the entire basis of the argument, allowing for a more sober and objective consideration of the merits of Christmas trees.
Discussing the exegesis of a text first is important because both you and your audience need to understand the meaning of a text in its original context before applying it to a particular apologetic issue.
Cut every distraction
A final step is to review what you’ve written and cut everything that could be a distraction. This goes hand in hand with the practice of being brief, but it involves more than that. The goal isn’t just to avoid wearing out your audience’s patience, it’s to avoid things that could distract your audience and get it off track.
Every time you eliminate an unnecessary word, phrase, or statement, you remove something that your reader could snag on. Every time you eliminate an off-topic remark, you eliminate the chance of alienating members of your audience who happen to disagree with you on whatever side issue you were inclined to mention. (This is especially important when using humor in front of people who disagree with you.)
Most importantly, every time you eliminate a weaker argument, you focus more attention on your stronger ones. That makes your case more effective by reducing the number of things to which a critic could take exception. Even if you have multiple strong arguments, including a weaker one creates a vulnerability, for a person disinclined to agree with you can spend his time thinking about and responding to the weak one rather than the ones you really need him to focus on.
By cutting out the distractions, you make your case all the more powerful, and you take the single most important step toward making it bulletproof.