Seminary holds annual Symposium

This year almost 400 people attended the seminary’s annual fall symposium from Sept 21-22. Pastors from across the U.S. and Canada heard three papers presented on apologetics—responding to arguments hostile to the claims of Christianity and presenting positive arguments that vindicate the claims of Christianity.

The timely topic was chosen because the worldview of North Americans has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Christian beliefs and morals are becoming increasingly foreign and unfamiliar to the majority of people. Outreach approaches developed in the 20th century often don’t result in engaging 21st-century prospects in conversation when a pastor is reaching out with the gospel. Three pastors who have ministered exclusively in the 21st century prepared this year’s essays and three seasoned seminary professors served as their sounding boards.

Pastor Michael J. Berg, class of 2005, began the symposium with his paper, An Introduction to and Defense of Apologetics. “Apologetics at its best shows that Christians care. We care about the skeptic’s questions. We care about the doubts of believers. We care about the future doubts of young believers,” he reminded participants. “Lutheran pastors should never say or even imply ‘Just believe! It’s in the Bible!’ but rather take the time to listen to questions and patiently find the best answers. This gentle attitude will pay dividends when it comes time to say, ‘I don’t have the answer to that but I do know this, Christ died and rose for you.’”

Dr. Berg, a theology professor at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, shared,“Paul declares that the claims of the church are verifiable. These events were not done in a corner. These claims can be investigated. Either Jesus rose from the dead or he didn’t. Christianity is not a religion of mere morality, enlightenment, or a story that provides a lens through which we make sense of the world. It is a claim on reality.”

Prof. John Brenner wrote the reaction paper. “Dr. Berg emphasizes the proper motivation for apologetics and the spirit in which we are to carry it out. He calls the task, ‘Seelsorge Apologetics’ intended to help not only unbelievers with the goal of presenting the gospel but also to help believers whose Old Adam presents them with doubts. It calls for careful listening and gentle questioning.

Pastor Luke Thompson, who serves at St. Paul, Ottawa, Ontario, wrote the second paper, Disclosing the Hidden God: Confessional Lutheran Doctrine and Christian Apologetics. He shared, “No matter how developed one’s acquired natural knowledge of God may become, no matter how persuasive the speech of the heavens, the unbeliever remains hostile to God; the human being, totally depraved. There are limits to what the natural knowledge of God can accomplish compared to the supernatural certainty to which the Holy Spirit leads Christians through the supernatural knowledge of God.”

Thompson, a 2013 seminary graduate, “The goal of the Lutheran engaged in apologetics is never to show how reasonable our faith is, but rather to point out that the unreasonable did, in fact, take place. There is nothing reasonable about Jesus dying and rising for my sins (the unempirical truths of justification and reconciliation), but that does not change the fact that it happened and was documented for my benefit (the empirical facts of the execution of Jesus of Nazareth and his bodily appearances).”

Professor Kenneth Cherney reacted positively to the paper: “Thompson is careful to circumscribe the role of apologetics in evangelism, for the reason that it is only the message of sin and grace, not empirical evidence or reasonable arguments, that ever converted anybody. . . . Although Christians are sometimes slow to realize this, skeptics tend not to be impressed with arguments that boil down to, ‘But that’s what the Bible says!’ For this reason, apologists appeal often to extrabiblical evidence and arguments, whether from philosophy, science, history, or archaeology. Herein lies the difficulty, another thing some Christians seem slow to realize: a believer and a skeptic invariably evaluate the same evidence differently.”

For the final presentation, Pastor Justin Cloute, class of 2002, spoke on Apologetics in a Postmodern World. “Just 30 years ago, many Americans rarely encountered someone with a different worldview. Now, daily, with a couple of clicks on their computers or a swipe of their phones, they are brought into contact with people from a plurality of cultures, religions, and belief systems (narratives). Most children have been exposed to objections to their faith before the 4th Grade. A Christian kid in Kansas might be playing a video game and chatting with a Muslim boy in Indonesia. Even the kid looking for Christian videos or resources will come across vitriolic comments left by atheists. YouTube and other video services are replete with vloggers who have made it their life’s ambition to expose the ‘ridiculousness’ of the Christian faith. We can be sure that if parents, pastors, and teachers are not addressing the questions, others will be,” he said.

Cloute, pastor at St. Luke, Watertown, shared some of his personal experiences, “I learned that it was important to listen carefully before talking and that if you want to understand and engage with someone, you should be able to present their position back to them in such a way that they would agree with you. It is easy to caricaturize, oversimplify, and distort the views of others. Sadly, this can even happen to Christians as they discuss doctrinal matters with each other. Christian love compels us to truly listen and understand others, as we want others to understand us.”

Professor Paul O. Wendland provided the reaction to this paper. “If our zeal against the false philosophies and ‘unthoughts’ of this world does not lead us to an equal zeal to rescue, nurture, welcome and help individuals who are confused and struggling in their grip, the we are the hypocrites our critics claim,” he wrote. “’See how they love!’ was a powerful apologetic in the first four centuries of the Christian era. It remains so today.”

The video archive of the Symposium is available as well as the written essays for those who are interested.