“Gentle and reverent” Apologetics

How to Maintain a Friendly Dialogue Atmosphere

1 Peter 3:15 -- always be prepared to give a reasoned defense for the hope that is within you, yet with gentleness and reverence.

Skilled dialogue partners naturally expect their exchanges to be both fruitful and a delight. One reason for this is that they are selective about who they talk to—they are also selective about what they talk about. Yet another reason, which is the topic of this article, is that they have simply mastered their ability to monitor and tend to the atmosphere of their discussions.1 dialogueThe common inability among Christians to protect the atmosphere when discussing controversial topics drives a leading misconception about apologetics, namely that “It's just arguing, and leads nowhere!” That is to say, believe it or not, experiencing or even seeing a skilled cordial apologetics discussion is truly a novelty for some Christians!

Regarding demeanor, the best (if predictable) nutshell advice to give newcomers to apologetics is this: strive to win your interlocutor's love and respect.2 This means treating him/her as a responsible fellow investigator, like yourself. (One recalls Jesus's command to treat others the way we want to be treated.) There is a lot of common sense involved in the implementation of this,3 but in the heat of the moment what is otherwise obvious can easily be forgotten, or at least can be extremely hard to implement. In addition to good ol' fashioned training and experience, the following three tips can help. Notice that they center around building and maintaining a cordial atmosphere.

Tip #1: Do not act self-assured

It is praiseworthy to be bold/fearless in preaching Christ,4 but in private apologetics discussions, acting self-assured about your controversial points is a turn-off.5 Apologists have different personality types, and so while some might be able to make it work, it will normally paint you as close-minded, which both discredits you and inspires in your partner a corresponding competitiveness.

Competitiveness leads to three problems:

First, it makes mistakes personal; your otherwise friendly errors suddenly become rivalrous and humiliating embarrassments.

Second, it sabotages your ability to fairly see/admit both the weaknesses in your reasoning and the strengths in your interlocutor's.

Third, it will tend to sabotage your interlocutor's ability to be fair as well, which debilitates the conversation further. It sours any fruit that might have come from the exchange.

As for how to not act self-assured, the more tense a conversation becomes, the more you should be employing these three principles:

Speak slowly. Milk the fact that you are thinking carefully about your words before and as you say them.6 This makes it hard, awkward even, for your interlocutor to snap back and/or speak quickly to you.

Disinvest in your position. For example, rather than simply asserting your conclusion or potentially controversial premises leading to it:
a) Learn to use hesitancy qualifiers, like, “It seems to me that xzy,” or, “I tend to think xyz,” or, “I want to say xyz.”7
b) Another wise way to make your assertions tentative is, when appropriate, to preface them with qualifiers like “ostensibly” and “prima facie.”
c) Finally, consider sometimes distancing yourself from your claims by prefacing them with, “See if you think this is a good argument/objection.”

Avoid sledgehammer apologetics.8 Resist urges to overstate your case or preface your controversial claims with “obviously” and similar comments. You can give your partner a good argument and nevertheless, because of what philosophers call his background beliefs, it can actually be irrational for him/her to accept all your premises. sledgehammer Why? Perhaps because he cannot rationally accept your conclusion—for one reason or another it seems too absurd to him. In these cases, the individual is not necessarily being dishonest or unfair. He/she just can't help it. Simply ask him/her to concede that your argument provides "some evidence, even if not sufficient evidence" and then move on.

Admittedly, doing this can be hard, especially when you strongly feel your interlocutor is being obtuse or overtly unfair and resistant to a point you have made. In these moments, it will be tempting to declare in the most annoyed voice you can muster, “you're being ridiculous!” Here is a preferable alternative which allows you to express yourself without being too condescending: “I feel you are not granting me as much as you should on this point.” If you absolutely feel the need to communicate this even more strongly, you can say something like, “I think that if we polled one hundred rational people on this, that virtually all would agree with me. But I'm sure you disagree, so I'm not sure what else to say. Let's move on.”

Tip #2: Keep dignifying your partner

No one likes to feel inferior. Especially as things tense up, as much as possible help your partner preserve his/her dignity. As you converse, give compliments, points, concessions, apologies, anything that helps him/her to feel permitted to give concessions back. Here are three good habits:

Agree often: As he/she develops her arguments, nod your head to the agreeable points, sometimes slipping in a quick “yup,” “mhmm,” “right,” or “sure.”

Concede often: As he/she substantiates even a minor point in his/her case, don't let the opportunity pass to say “That's fair” or “I see what you mean.”

Apologize often: Find things to apologize for (put the apologize in apologist). For example, if you asked “Do you mean x” and are given even the slightest correction, apologize (“Oh, sorry, right” or “Ah, my bad” or “Oops! ok, thanks for the correction.”)

Tip #3: Ensure your partner feels understood

This is an essential part of connecting and sympathizing. More importantly, it encourages your dialogue partner to reciprocate—this means they will try harder to understand you. Here are three tips:

Diagnose well. You should be deeply inquisitive, regularly asking clarifying questions. Show a desire to master comprehension of their point of view. This means tentatively repeating back their points, signaling for approval (“So you mean xyz?”), as well as using all the non-verbal cues possible that denote you are listening intently and carefully.

 Be overly charitable. Unskilled dialoguers habitually restate and/or critique their partner's arguments in a weaker form. This is pointless. The “uncharitability” (making his/her argument appear less rational, and by extension him/her) will cost both of you time, and you will have only purchased annoyance. Instead, prove you can step in their shoes; flaunt the fact that you are struggling to see things their way. If you really want to win their love/respect, restate their own argument rhetorically and/or logically better than they did, eliciting a “yeah, yeah, exactly!” The goal is to foster a spirit of teamwork and discovery. Regardless, there should be no intense competitiveness or awkwardness, just a mutually welcoming curiosity and hard questions.

 Avoid Psychoanalyzing. Skilled questioning can expose any overt “emotional problems" underlying an interlocutor's resistance to Christianity. If emotional problems are not overt, then do not assume they exist at all. At least for the discussion, assume they are not lying about their disbelief or reasons for disbelief.


Here is something healthy to keep in mind: if it would be awkward at any point for either party to invite the other for a meal, then something has gone wrong in your conversation. Either the dialogue needs to cease (it is not necessarily your fault) or you both need to prioritize the recovery of a cordial atmosphere. If you employ these principles, however, you should find that the conversation goes awry far less often.

  1. Trained philosophers tend to be especially adept at this. For example, listen to the discussion between F. C. Copleston and Bertrand Russell, which is so skillful it resembles a dance. It's worth noting here that there will always be conversations which it is imprudent to pursue (through no fault of your own).
  2. Col 4:5-6 -- Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person. Titus 2:7-8 -- In all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified, sound in speech which is beyond reproach, so that the opponent will be put to shame, having nothing bad to say about us.  Prov 16:21 -- The wise in heart will be called understanding, And sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness. See also Rom 12:18, Eph 4:15.
    There is of course a lot to be said about responding to criticism; consider words of wisdom from Ignatius of Antioch: “Meet their animosity with mildness, their high words with humility, and their abuse with your prayers. But stand firm against their errors, and if they grow violent, be gentle instead of wanting to pay them back in their own coin. Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers, and try to imitate the Lord by seeing which of us can put up with the most ill-usage or privation or contempt — so that in this way none of the devil’s noxious weeds may take root in you.” [Epistle to the Ephesians 10] Recall too Jesus's behavior—“When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:23) On the other hand,one should be quick to back out of discussions with certain kinds of so-called "fools": Proverbs 9:7 — He who corrects a scoffer gets dishonor for himself, And he who reproves a wicked man gets insults for himself; Proverbs 29:9 —  When a wise man has a controversy with a foolish man, The foolish man either rages or laughs, and there is no rest.)
  3. Heed the predictable advice to love your interlocutor (Mk 12:31, 1 Cor 13:2). If you were the non-believer, how carefully would you want someone evangelizing to you, or your non-believing son/daughter? Clearly, Jesus's “Golden Rule” wisdom applies here. Alternatively, remember that your interlocutor is someone's son/daughter/friend/mother... there's often a good chance that he/she has friends and/or family have been seriously praying over this person, hoping for them to come to Christ. That is who you are talking to. Treat them the way you would want an apologist treating your non-believing friend(s) who you are seriously praying for. They are not dispensable; they are not there for your entertainment.
  4. For example, see 2 Tim. 1:7, Acts 4:31; Acts 9:27-28; Eph. 6:19-20; 1 Thes. 2:2.
  5. As an exception, if you are already regarded as mentor (usually having earned it by impressing them), you can take a confident educational tone in many statements, especially when elucidating that a particular position is an overwhelming majority or minority position in a field.
  6. To respectfully regulate the pace of the conversation, one method is to strategically preface some of your responses with “fillers” and “vocal pauses” (e.g. a soft “Wellll” or “Yeahhh... but”).
  7. To see dense usage of this distancing strategy in action, skip to 6:15 of the above debate and listen for 15 seconds.
  8. Michael Murray: "The sledgehammer apologist thinks that apologetic arguments deliver the intellectual equivalent of knockout punches by making it impossible for unbelievers to rationally continue in their unbelief.” [Reason for the Hope Within ed. Murray (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 10-11.]
  9. Rarely will logical arguments rationally compel belief. You might give someone a good argument for God's existence, but if he/she has reasons to think God does not exist, then he will just take the conclusion to be evidence that one of the premises is wrong (this is called a Moorean shift (wiki); i.e. man's modus ponens (wiki) will just be another man's modus tollens (wiki)).
  10. James 1:19 -- everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak.