The Role of Text Criticism in Apologetics


As this world has become more and more postmodern, apologetics have become a major focus of Christian interaction with the world and even each other. This has resulted in a hyper-focus on giving a defense of the Christian religion to anybody with a critique and debates between Christians regarding the best method of doing so. Often times, Christians provoke “apologetic” scenarios by antagonizing others or inviting them to challenge God. Christians spend hours upon hours learning different apologetic strategies, and even more time squabbling over which one is “best.” This culture of apologetics has gotten out of hand especially in Calvinistic circles. Not only are there countless forums dedicated to debate between Christians and non-Christians, there are countless more dedicated to debate within the Christian camp. There are even YouTube channels dedicated to hosting live stream debates, often times broadcasting interactions between men that are novices in the faith. The whole “debate culture” that has developed within Christianity is a major victory for the devil, as it often distracts men and women of God from doing what they are commissioned to do – .”preach the gospel to every creature.” 

Apologetics Gone Wrong

In order to address the role of text criticism in apologetics, it is first helpful to discuss the role of apologetics in general. There is one key verse that Christians use as didactic license for such a practice, 1 Peter 3:15-16. 

“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear. Having a good conscience; that whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, that may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.” 

There are three points from this text that are important to examine ourselves by: 

  1. The situation in which we are licensed to give a defense is when we are asked why we believe in Jesus Christ, our hope
    1. Do we engage in “apologetics” for the reason given in this text, or are we being combative? Do we invite attack by asking for it?
  2. The content of that questioning is that which questions the genuineness of our conversion and confession
    1. Do we give apologetic responses when we should be preaching the Gospel?
  3. The purpose for answering is to demonstrate that we are not ashamed of our conversion, and thus of the God that converted us
    1. Do we proclaim Christ in our apologetics, or engage in the folly of the fool? 

Calvin comments:

It would have been, therefore, the highest perfidy against God, if, when asked, they had neglected to give a testimony in favour of their religion. And this, as I think, is the meaning of the word apology, which Peter uses, that is, that the Christians were to make it evident to the world that they were far off from every impiety, and did not corrupt true religion, on which account they were suspected by the ignorant.

John Calvin and John Owen, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 109.

The purpose of apologetics is not to make faith more reasonable to the unbeliever, but rather to defend the genuineness of the conversion wrought in a believer by Jesus Christ. The context is persecution. This passage does not give license to go out of our way to be persecuted so that we can give a defense of our faith, and the defense that we give should be the gospel, not a defense of facts or philosophy. The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18), and nothing we say can make it any less so unless it be by the power of God. When Christians take a shield and wield it as a sword, they abandon the ordained means that God has promised to work in for salvation. What is commonly ignored about the principle apologetic passage in 1 Peter is that the answer as to how we respond is given further down in the text. 

“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit”  

(1 Peter 3:18).

The reason we have hope, dear Christian, is not because of extant manuscript evidence, or proof of a global flood, or that evolution can be debunked mathematically. While those things are helpful to us, they are not the reason for our hope. The work of Christian apologists has helped many Christians, but any hope given by various interpretations of data is not real hope. The reason that we have hope is because “Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh” (1 Peter 4:1) and “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15) and “not that we loved God, but that he loves us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10). The goal of providing a defense is not to make the fool look foolish or ourselves smart, but rather to make Christ look great in our unashamed profession of His salvation. 

The Use of Text-Criticism in Apologetics 

Our method of apologetics says more about our hearts than anything else. Christians must ask themselves if they are truly giving a “reason for the hope” or simply trying to defend a Christian interpretation of data. The Scriptures do not say, “For I am not ashamed of 5,600 extant manuscripts which give me confidence the Bible is inspired,” the Scriptures say, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ” (Romans 1:16). The plain reality is, there is no way to convince an unregenerate person that a text is God’s Word, preserved to this day, by way of the extant data. If it were the case that the manuscript evidence was in any way compelling, Bart Ehrman would be a champion of the Christian faith. Claiming that these manuscripts are the preserved Word of God is just as absurd to an unbeliever as the second person in the trinity taking on flesh, being born of a virgin, living a sinless life, dying, and then resurrecting three days later. It is just as foolish to them as a six day creation, or a literal global flood. In the same way that unbelievers attack the validity of these claims, they attack the validity of the claims made about the Holy Scriptures. Unless the Holy Spirit has worked in the Word in the heart of a man, he simply will not believe. 

As a believer, I find nothing foolish about a six day creation, a risen Christ, or a preserved Bible. The reason a believer finds nothing foolish about these claims is because their mind has been renewed.

“but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2). 

When we give a defense for the hope that is within us by defending something other than the miraculous work of Christ in us by the Holy Spirit, we do not give honor to God for our conversion, we give honor to our interpretation of facts and the strength of our rhetoric. We point to something other than the “reason for the hope that is within” us. No man has been saved by a presentation of facts, but only by hearing the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 10:17). This is the greatest weakness of a debate – the best rhetorician will win, regardless of what is true. Christians often point to Paul in Acts 17:16-30 as a justification for going and debating unbelievers and being combative. This passage is often used as a proof text for various apologetic methods. It is not a proof text for apologetics, even though Paul does use rhetoric. In the first place, he is compelled to engage because “ he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.” He is not defensive, he is offensive, and he leaves when mocked. 

“Some mocked; and others said, “We will hear thee again of this matter”. So Paul departed from among them. Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed” 

Note that Paul does not engage in defense here – he is being offensive, “convinc[ing] the gainsayers” (Titus 1:9). In fact, how does he respond when people mock? “Paul departed from among them” (Acts 17:33), and takes with him those that received the Gospel. He is not trying to have a “meaningful dialogue” or “engage in the marketplace of ideas” or give the philosophers of Athens a stage in his church. He points them to their idolatry, preaches the resurrection, and then leaves. Paul uses rhetoric in his presentation of the Gospel, not the Gospel as an add-in to his rhetorical presentation. We must have the discernment to recognize the difference between convincing and defending, and know when the time is appropriate for each. If apologetics are used in a Gospel presentation, they should be used to quickly get back to the actual Gospel. The very fact that the point of most of these debates is not the Gospel should say enough. 


Think about the last debate you watched on the topic of text criticism. In any of these debates have you heard an evangelical scholar identify the idolatry of his opponent? Have you heard the gospel being preached as a response to their idolatry? No. What you see is an hour of God’s Word being mocked, and perhaps, if the evangelical wants to save face, a five minute gospel presentation at the end which is completely detached from the presentation. The main takeaway of these debates is how many errors the Bible has, how we will never know what the Bible originally said, and that this is completely acceptable for a Christian to believe. The opponent may even present stronger rhetoric and shake the faith of those watching. The evangelical apologist may give an inadequate defense. The “apologist” may even present gifts to the antagonist, thanking him for his refutation of God’s Word. 

If you’re reading this, you, like me, may have benefited from watching a debate. I am not saying that there is no place for debates or that debates are always bad. What I am saying is that Christians have become enraptured by them, and are often entirely inconsistent in how they debate certain topics, like text criticism. The ordained means of teaching in Christianity is the preached word, not a “meaningful exchange in the marketplace of ideas”. Teaching is a function of the pastorate, not rogue apologists. It is necessary that Christians stop being so pragmatic when it comes to these events. We are not called to give enemies of the faith platforms in our congregations and seminaries to attack God’s Word. In every debate I have seen on the topic of New Testament text-criticism, the evangelical has lost, because the apologist is simply giving a defense of his interpretation of data. 1 Peter 3:15 in no way gives license for this. The opponent will give his interpretation of data, and is more likely to injure Christians who are swept up by his arguments against Holy Scripture. These debates create a mess that pastors then have to clean up. Unless we want to redefine apologetics as giving a defense for something other than the hope that is within us, it seems that Christians should forego supporting such events which put God and His Word on trial. 

Does God exist? The answer is yes.
Is the New Testament reliable? The answer is yes.
Did Christ resurrect? The answer is yes.

Rhetoric and presentations of data cannot convince a man of that. Calling men to repent of their rebellious heart and to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved should be our response. Winning debates is not our goal Christian. Glorifying God, enjoying Him forever, and winning souls is.

“He that winneth souls is wise”

Proverbs 11:30

1 thought on “The Role of Text Criticism in Apologetics”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s