At this time it is useful to reflect on the effectiveness of debate in persuasion.
Politicians are involved in a form of apologetics: they make a case for their own policies and present objections to those of their rivals. The most memorable moments are not the quality of the arguments, but the rhetorical flourishes and stirring sound bites. They are risky. Sometimes they add to the arguments made, but other times they can detract.
David Cameron addressed a gathering with his shirtsleeves rolled up and the words ‘Taking a risk, having a punt, having a go, that pumps me up.’ Commentators variously described Cameron as having found his fire, or lost his rag. Ed Milliband generated a similar range of reactions to a set of policy announcements on a tall limestone monument with his claim that the pledges were ‘carved in stone’. For some it was a powerful image of reliability, for others a poor imitation of Moses. We could multiply the memorable moments from other party leaders.
What and how
The important lesson is that making a case involves both ‘what’ we say and ‘how’ we say it. The use of the visual, the catchphrase and the biblical allusion can all help, or hinder, our communication.
This has long been understood as the art of ‘rhetoric’. Rhetoric is the study of how we communicate effectively. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, composed a work on this subject called On Rhetoric. He identified three components of effective speech. There is Logos. This is the logic of the argument we present, making a clear and reliable claim based on good evidence. There is Pathos. This is the emotional connection between speaker and audience. There is also Ethos. This is the character of the speaker. To be an effective communicator we need to have integrity, credibility and honesty.
Applying Aristotle’s wisdom to apologetics we can certainly see that all three components should be present in order to be an effective communicator.
We must have Logos. Are our arguments sound? Is the evidence we use reliable?
We must also have Pathos. We should use language appropriate to our subject matter and to our hearers. Our words, anecdotes and stories should be chosen carefully to engage hearts and minds. We should use words that stir the imagination and move the emotions – so long as they are appropriate to our subject and not simply manipulative.
It is striking that Aristotle includes ethos. Do we really believe what we are saying? Are we gripped by our message? Do we speak out of experience? We should not rehearse the answers other people give and repeat them as if they were our own. Too often that will sound unconvincing and unpersuasive.
Aristotle’s wisdom is probably common sense, and it is found in Scripture. Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul declares: ‘our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake.’ (1 Thessalonians 1.5).
Paul’s message came with Logos (‘words’), pathos (‘deep conviction’) and ethos (‘you know how we lived among you’). Apologetics should not be reduced to a good argument. It is more than that. In fact, it is more than logos, ethos and pathos. Paul adds the fourth element, ‘with the Holy Spirit’.
Prayer and power
Effective apologetics must include prayer and trust in the power of God. Let’s not reduce apologetics to just a sales technique or artificial persuasion. Apologetics is making the case for Christ in keeping with a life of integrity, an enthusiasm for the gospel and a profound dependence on the power of God.