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How to Get Started in Apologetics

No matter where we are along the royal road of Catholic apologetics, we have never fully arrived; we’re always en route, ever making progress toward that “stature of the whole measure of fullness in Christ” (Eph. 4:13). There’s always more to learn. St. Nicolas of Cusa’s phrase docta ignorantia (“learned ignorance”) sums it up well: The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

Back in the ancient, pre-Internet days of yore, Catholic Answers introduced me to the whole arsenal of intellectual ammo available to us Catholics. Before then, during my days and nights in Canadian professional theater, I worked as a hotel waiter to supplement my income.

That’s when I met Reverend Fred, fellow waiter and a part-time Baptist minister. Fred used to delight in putting me—a practicing but lazy Catholic—on the griddle. Whether it was purgatory, justification, or why I “worshipped” Mary, Reverend Fred cheerily slung zingers at me during coffee breaks, often in front of the other waiters. It was the verbal equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy, featuring me as the dope.

It embarrassed me, made me angry, and pricked my pride. Why don’t I know this stuff? Are there even answers to these questions? If not, why am I Catholic?

The key is Tradition

The good news that I discovered since then is that the whole project of Catholic apologetics comes down to understanding one Greek word: paradosis, a rich feminine noun that is the fusion of pará (“close beside”) and dídōmi (“give over”). It appears thirteen times in the Bible. Thanks to St. Jerome’s Vulgate translation, paradosis filters down to us in modern English through its Latin cognates traditio and tradere as—you guessed it—tradition.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that when many Protestants hear the word tradition, they identify it with the “traditions of men” rightly condemned by Jesus (cf. Mark 7:8, 13; Matthew 15:3, 6-9). Anyone holding to the sola scriptura theory must conclude that any addition to God’s written word is superfluous at best, dangerous at worst.

But are all traditions necessarily “additions”? Not at all. When the Catholic Church speaks of tradition in the capital “T” sense, it means something entirely different. Since the time of the apostles, Christians have understood that God revealed himself through two distinct modes of transmission: the oral transmission of the gospel by the apostles and their successors—which came first—and the written account of that same gospel, which came second.

In other words, Scripture is part of the greater Tradition. Scripture is Tradition, its written part. If we turn to Scripture, particularly in the writings of St. Paul, we find that it means nothing more and nothing less than the “handing on” of the content of the gospel message, the “ordinance or teachings as delivered.” So here are ten scriptural pointers to Tradition:

  1. 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “Stand firm and hold to the traditions [paradosis] which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” For the apostle Paul, the spoken and written traditions are equally authoritative.


  1. 2 Timothy 2:2: “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” No mention here of reliance upon on anything written, since the writing of the New Testament was barely under way.


  1. 1 Corinthians 11:2: “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions [paradosis] even as I have delivered them to you.” Paul is not commending the Corinthians for maintaining his written epistles only, but because they remember him in “everything,” including the traditions he delivered to them by spoken word.


  1. 1 Corinthians 15:3, 11:“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. . . . Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.” Again, Paul emphasizes the evangelical power of his preaching, his oral “deliverance” of the message of salvation.


  1. 1 Peter 1:25: “But the word of the Lord abides forever. That word is the good news which was preached to you.” St. Peter points to the word of the Lord as preached, and not merely written.


  1. Luke 10:16: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me and the one who sent me.” Jesus could not be plainer in identifying his preaching with that of the apostles.


  1. Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Jesus is not commissioning a writing project but a grand enterprise of preaching, teaching, and baptizing. If Jesus had intended the Bible alone to be the sole rule of faith and chose to use these words as his final announcement before he ascended to his Father, he failed as a good teacher.


  1. Romans 10:17: “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” Not only is Paul describing how faith in Christ is received (i.e., not necessarily by reading anything) he is also employing a double meaning here. The “preaching of Christ” means preaching about Christ, but Paul is also aware that his preaching is identifiable with the preaching of Christ.


  1. Acts 2:42: The first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” long before there was a New Testament. The fullness of Christian teaching was to be found not in a book but in a teaching of the Body of Christ, the living earthly extension of the Head of the Church.


  1. 1 Timothy 3:15: The New Testament itself declares not the Bible but the Church to be “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Imagine how many millions of bumper stickers would adorn Protestant cars if St. Paul taught that the Bible is the pillar and foundation of truth.

If you become reasonably acquainted with these ten verses, along with the context in which they were written, you will gain a level of confidence (con fide is Latin for “with faith”) that will help you stay relaxed in the face of hardball questions about the Faith. Only the historic Christian understanding of the unity of Scripture and Tradition sufficiently explains the means by which God has communicated his truth and love to us.

The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, puts it this way:

For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence. Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church (9-10).

Obviously, you don’t need a degree in theology to understand this succinct passage. It bears emphasizing that the work of the apologist has nothing to do with being a biblical scholar or a debate champion and everything to do with being an ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20). In fact, if you sound too clever or erudite you stand a good chance or turning people off. Who likes a smarty-pants? As all spouses know, effective communication is not so much the what (the content) as the way (the manner of communicating the what).


Five steps to effective apologetics

To that practical end, here are some time-tested strategies for communicating the Faith in a way that is persuasive, nonthreatening, and, watered by God’s grace, radiant:


  1. Do nothing. That’s right. Do nothing. What is meant by this is: Wait for an open door. But waiting is not passivity. It’s the active waiting to which St. Peter alludes in his classic verse, “Always have a ready reason for those who ask you of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). By putting it this way, Peter presumes that someone will eventually ask you something. Launching into, say, a defense of the papacy out of the blue, when no one has asked you about it, is a recipe for failure. Peter lauds preparation, not preemptive strikes.


  1. Be nice. A sturdier word for nice is kind. Kindness is the balm of Gilead, as Proverbs 15:1 says: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” See, when people are annoyed with your pesky Catholicism, they are invariably unprepared for a kind reply. Let’s face it: Kindness is disarming—it invites us to put our arms, our weapons, down. St. Paul places patience and kindness at the head is his list of love’s attributes in that king of all wedding passages, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.


  1. Remember, “What is received is received according to the mode of the recipient.” This comes from St. Thomas Aquinas in the supplement to the third part of the Summa Theologica. It sounds complicated at first, but it’s simple. It means that a person’s background—his God-given personality, biases, family upbringing—condition him to see the world and interpret the data of his experience in a certain way. If you and your friend Tom are watching a documentary about war and Tom had actually fought in a combat zone, his heart rate will probably skyrocket while you calmly munch your popcorn. Your “mode” and his are quite different, even though what is being externally received is the same.

This applies in spades to apologetics. We must have listening hearts as we talk with people, ever attentive to the fact that that our words (more, our tone) may affect them in unpredictable ways. The cliché advice to “meet people where they are” happens to be wise and true. If you’re talking with an atheist, there’s no point in trying to argue for papal infallibility. If you’re talking with a Baptist, there’s no point debating the rubrics of the Mass. You get the point. If we listen carefully and ask the Holy Spirit for “timely help” (Heb. 4:16), we can start to detect what the real issue is and start there. If the person becomes agitated during a chat about the Real Presence, chances are good they’re upset about something else. As Venerable Fulton J. Sheen once said, “Listen not so much to what people say as to why they say it.”


  1. Remember that you are God’s coworker. The all holy, all mighty, uncreated God who made the universe out of nothing wills nonetheless to make us his coworkers. Incredible, impossible—but true. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:7-9).

    So rely on your divine coworker. Lean on him. Ask him for help. He has chosen to act in and through weak, stumbling coworkers like you and I. This is really good news because it gives us permission to be wrong. There is no shame in saying, “You know what? That’s a great question. Let me look into it and I’ll get back to you.” This attitude shows your “opponent” that you, too, are a humble truth seeker, not the undefeated Rocky Balboa of apologetics.

5. Pray regularly. The importance of cultivating a friendship with Jesus Christ can’t be overstated. The best way to do it is to commit part of your day to prayer. I know you’re busy. I’m busy. Only dead people aren’t busy. But prayer is to the soul what eating is to the body. You don’t make an effort to eat—you eat, right?

There are as many ways to pray as there are to spend time with someone you love. The ideal place to pray is to be physically close to the Lord in his eucharistic presence. If you can swing by the parish during the day, great. But any place is a good place to pray. The Church provides us with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to prayer methods that have track records of efficacy: the rosary, the Divine Mercy chaplet, contemplative prayer, lectio divina, litanies to the saints, praying in song, praying in tongues, the divine office (aka the breviary).

Regardless of the words we use, the best kind of prayer is from the heart, seeking the Lord’s wisdom, receiving his grace, learning from him how better to give our lives over to his care. Pretend for a moment that you’re God (who doesn’t like to do that once in a while?). If your child wanted to talk to you but all he did was look down and read out of a book, wouldn’t you want to say, “Hey, I’m right here; put the book down and just talk to me from your heart, speak in your own words”?

St. Alphonsus Liguori put it plainly: “He who prays is saved. He who prays not is damned.” Logic and reasoning have their proper place, and we should grow in our intellectual life. But holiness of life—now there’s an irrefutable argument. Someone might argue against Mother Teresa’s theology, but it’s pretty hard to argue against Mother Teresa.

Information is far less important in apologetics than are formation and transformation. To be good apologists and evangelists, we don’t need to be ready—just willing.


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