This is the third in a series of excerpts from the new MBC resource, “The Last Apologist: A Commentary on Jude for Defenders of the Christian Faith,” available at mobaptist.org/apologetics.
With an estimated 2.2 billion Christians in the world, worshiping in more than 41,000 denominations, one may legitimately wonder how we can possibly fulfill the prayer of Jesus that we all be as one (John 17:22).
But diversity does not necessarily mean division. The differences among the world’s Christian denominations generally have more to do with location, culture, worship styles, missionary efforts, and forms of church government than they do with major doctrinal differences.
Even so, it’s good to ask: What are the non-negotiable doctrines of the Christian faith?
Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, refers to the process of discerning biblical truth as “theological triage.” On the battlefield and elsewhere, triage is the process by which medical personnel evaluate and prioritize the urgency of patient needs. A scraped knee can wait; a severed artery cannot.
Mohler suggests that a similar method be used in our churches to determine a scale of theological urgency – what some theologians call primary, secondary, and tertiary issues.
One day last December, Wheaton College political science professor Larycia Hawkins donned a hajib (Muslim head covering) and posted the following statement on Facebook: “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
That gesture, by a professor at an evangelical college, ignited a firestorm of controversy that continues to blaze. Wheaton administrators took exception to Hawkins’ statement. The media largely took exception to Wheaton. Social media took the story viral. And Christianity Today magazine editor Mark Galli opined, “We at CT are not sure we can unambiguously take a side at this point.”
Hawkins’ social media post revived important discussions about academic freedom, the theological integrity of Christian institutions, racial diversity, and other issues. But more important, it shed fresh light on a centuries-old debate: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
It’s an important question for which influential people across the religious spectrum offer a variety of answers.
A recent survey by LifeWay Research, as reported in Facts & Trends magazine, reveals that 59 percent of American evangelicals believe the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being, and another 10 percent are not sure.
This lack of understanding of the divine and personal nature of the Spirit is more at home in counterfeit forms of Christianity like the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, whose adherents are known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Our JW friends promote a “holy spirit” that is neither personal nor divine. A teaching guide called Aid to Bible Understanding explains, “The Scriptures themselves unite to show that God’s holy spirit is not a person but is God’s active force by which he accomplishes his purpose and executes his will.”
Some JWs liken the “holy spirit” to electricity – a powerful, unseen force under the sovereign control of Jehovah.
But is that truly the Holy Spirit of the Scriptures? Or does the Bible present a Holy Spirit who is personal, divine, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Son?
Let’s explore two simple truths from Scripture.
The Roman Catholic Church traces its beginning to the apostle Peter, claiming he is the rock upon whom Jesus built His church (Matt. 16:18). As the first pope, Peter is followed by an unbroken line of successors stretching to Pope Francis today. Non-Catholics establish the beginning of the Roman Catholic Church at A.D. 590 with Gregory I, who consolidated the power of the bishopric in Rome.
In any case, the Catholic Church is the world’s largest Christian church, with 1.2 billion members. The Catholic hierarchy includes cardinals and bishops and is led by the bishop of Rome, also known as the pope.
The Catholic Church teaches that it is the one true church divinely founded by Jesus Christ. In addition, it teaches that its bishops are the successors of Jesus’ apostles, and that the pope, as the successor to the head of the apostles (Peter), has supreme authority over the church.
Categories of Catholics
While the Catholic Church claims to be the one true church, Catholics worldwide hold to a diversity of beliefs. Researcher Ken Samples has concluded that there are six primary categories of Roman Catholics:
Ultratraditional Catholics defend historical Catholicism and are critical of recent changes such as those coming out of Vatican II in the 1960s.
Traditional Catholics resist liberalism and modernism within the church, yet they generally accept the reforms of Vatican II.
Liberal Catholics celebrate human reason over the authority of the church; they also question the infallibility of the pope, church councils, and the Bible
Charismatic/evangelical Catholics emphasize the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the importance of being baptized in the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit-filled life.
Cultural Catholics are “womb-to-tomb” Catholics – born, baptized, married, and buried in the church. However, they essentially go through the motions of their faith without much regard for its meaning.
Popular folk Catholics predominate Central and South America. They combine elements of animistic or nature-culture religion with traditional medieval Catholicism (Christian Research Journal, Winter 1993).
Apologetics simply is a reasonable defense of the Christian faith. The word is derived from the Greek noun apologia and means “a defense.” Apologia and its verb form apologeomai are used nearly 20 times in the New Testament, often in the classic legal sense, but more importantly to describe the call of God to all believers to defend the Christian faith with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15-16).
But how is sound doctrine applied practically? Put another way, what good is Christian apologetics?
Apologetics has at least four practical applications. We may use apologetics to:
Build. There is a positive case to be made for Christianity, and apologetics helps us get there.
The Bible, history, archaeology, and other sources help establish that a real person named Jesus burst onto the scene 2,000 years ago. He claimed deity, performed miracles, spoke the truth, modeled compassion, died on a Roman cross, was buried and rose physically on the third day. His coming to earth was the most important event in human history.
Further, apologetics helps us know who God is; who we are; why there is purpose in life; how we can be restored to a right relationship with our Creator; why we can face death without fear; and what God is doing about evil in the world.