Dialogical Apologetics: A Person-Centered Approach to Christian Defense by David K. Clark is a unique and helpful book dealing with the practical application of apologetics. The book’s two parts offer a theoretical foundation balanced by a strong practical application. The goal: developing an approach to apologetics that focuses on dialogue, sensitivity, and personal persuasion. This review will outline the book’s content while highlighting some of the author’s key ideas.
What is dialogical apologetics? The author spends a good deal of time defining and unpacking the concept. In part, it is an attempt to fill the areas that are lacking in the practical use of apologetic arguments. Clark explains: “The context provided by the conceptual, attitudinal, cultural, and psychological aspects of real people in discussion are generally ignored. Apologetics has traditionally centered on the philosophical to the exclusion of the personal.” (viii) This emphasis on the personal notes that, “every assessment of the case for Christianity is made by real people who have unique agendas firmly in place.” (viii) With this in mind, “dialogical apologetics is audience-sensitive or personal-centered apologetics.” (ix)
The great thing about this book is that it communicates well to the reader. Clark’s writing is clear and his points are unambiguous. Every chapter ends with concise summary points for emphasizing the main ideas. Part One is Foundations for Dialogical Apologetics. Part Two is Strategies for Dialogical Apologetics. First theory, then practice. Clark packs a large amount of content into every page.
Chapter one deals with the issue of faith and reason. Clark defines the terms, provides brief historical sketches of how the two have traditionally been related, and then provides a model for how the two should best be related. Chapter two deals with the foundations of epistemology. Clark provides outlines of various epistemological options, comparing evidentialism, rationalism, reformed epistemology, and others. He settles on soft rationalism for his own view, which “lies between classical foundationalism and Reformed epistemology on the continuum between rationalism and fideism.” (49)
Chapter three, The Challenge of Science, explores the philosophy of science. Clark looks at a number of approaches to science: inductivism, confirmationism, falsificationism, among others. He shows three main views of the relationship between faith and science: the conflict view, the compartmental view, and the complementary view.
In chapter four, The Question of Questions, Clark seeks to “sketch a middle-of-the-road view on how humans can choose world views.” He settles on soft rationalism, as “it insists that humans can use rational procedures in choosing world views.” (100-101) So in this chapter the author explores how world views can be evaluated, how rational principles can be used, and the use of a cumulative case to arrive at the best explanation. Clark also looks at various sources of knowledge. The result of his assessment is a dialogical approach to apologetics:
Apologists cannot present a single set of arguments and expect all persons to find them convincing. Practically, this does not happen, and I have tried to suggest theoretically why it does not. Apologetics, then, should be reconceived. It should not be understood as an attempt to develop a perfect system of assertion and argument that will prove the faith once and for all. Rather, it is a strategy for presenting, in the course of a unique discussion with a particular audience, the sort of case that makes sense to those persons. In other words, apologetics is the reasoned defense of the Christian faith in the context of personal dialogue. (99)
In chapter five, Apologetics as Dialogue, Clark elaborates on the idea of dialogical apologetics, expanding on his earlier descriptions to gain more clarity. He first outlines four major approaches to apologetics (presuppositional, evidential, existential, classical) then points out that dialogical apologetics is not a “fifth view.” Instead, he proposes that,
dialogical apologetics is person-oriented both in practice and in theory. Much apologetic practice does follow varied strategies for different persons. But most apologists do this in spite of their theories. Dialogical apologetics makes a person-oriented stance central to the definition and theory of apologetics. The unique qualities of individuals, not an abstract theory about how all human beings know, guides apologetic practice. (110)
Clark unpacks the idea further:
It uses the word dialogical because it stresses what happens in one-of-a-kind interactions between those who wish to share their Christian faith and those who need Christ. Dialogical here means, not just conversation with individuals, but audience sensitivity, a trait that can characterize writing and public speaking as well. It is person-centered because it stresses the critical personal dynamic of these encounters. Apologetics happens in dialogue, meetings of real people who approach each other with loads of baggage. This luggage – intellectual, attitudinal, cultural, and emotional – is complex and cannot be ignored. An apologist defends the Christian world view before a jury of real live persons who come to court carrying heavily laden bags. (112)
After describing the use of dialogue and interaction, the author outlines what he sees as the apologist’s goal:
What then is my goal as an apologist in dialogue? It is this: to present the best case I can for the truth as I see it for the benefit of others. I should not evaluate the success of dialogue only by whether my partners agree in the end. From my viewpoint, success in dialogue is presenting the case for Christianity, by the Spirit’s power, with rational force, cultural appropriateness, and personal sensitivity in the context of relationship. (122)
Part Two, Strategies for Dialogical Apologetics, focuses on the practical use of dialogical apologetics, with each of the four chapters covering a different key element. Chapter six, The Word on Words, examines the use of logical argument, fallacies, the meaning of words, and the importance of understanding presuppositions. Chapter seven, The Man’s Got an Attitude, looks at the crucial element of the one’s attitude in being receptive (or resistant) to change. In essence, the author explores three types of persuasion: “attitude formation, reinforcement, and change.” (159) This chapter holds some helpful insights, such as the idea that arguments a person generates from within are the most persuasive. (161)
Chapter eight, Conversation at the Cultural Crossroad, unpacks the issue of culture as it relates to person encounters and persuasion dialogue. Here the author looks at stereotypes and prejudice, cultural relativism, and cross-cultural communication. Clark ends by spelling out a few strategies for communication across cultures. Chapter nine, Tipping the Scale, brings together all the strands of Clark’s book and weaves them together into a general outline for apologetic conversion. This includes developing a proper set of attitudes, listening carefully, being emotionally sensitive, using evidence, being patient, and inviting a response. Clark concludes the book with a short chapter entitled Who You Are Counts Most, in which he notes that the character of the apologist speaks volumes; often more than his/her arguments for Christianity.
In sum, Dialogical Apologetics, is an important book that goes beyond method and focuses on practice. While the ideas are not necessarily new, their application in apologetics is often neglected, and today’s Christian ambassador would do well to learn from Clark’s insights. This book is highly recommended for those studying or active in apologetics and evangelism.
David K. Clark, Dialogical Apologetics: A Person-Centered Approach to Christian Defense (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993).