December 05, 2013

Review: How to Talk to a Skeptic by Donald J. Johnson

Johnson, Donald J. How to Talk to a Skeptic: An Easy-to-Follow Guide for Natural Conversations and Effective Apologetics (Bethany House, 2013), 268 pp.

In How to Talk to a Skeptic, author Donald Johnson attempts to help his readers "share [their] faith effectively in a cynical and skeptical age." In order to do so, he advocates "a natural, relational approach to evangelism."
After a brief introduction, Johnson moves on to part one (chs. 1-3) where he establishes "a framework for fruitful conversations." In chapter 1, he puts his apologetic efforts in context by addressing the rising secularism of Western culture. Johnson criticizes the consumeristic mindset of many in the West (secular and Christian alike) and says that, in order to make any headway in this context, the apologist/evangelist must present the Christian faith as a worldview rather than a consumer product (pp. 19-30). In chapter 2, Johnson details his apologetic method. He takes a cumulative-case approach (pp. 37-39) reminiscent of the late Francis Schaeffer albeit with a greater reliance on historical evidences (pp. 35-37). In chapter 3, Johnson exhorts his readers to "humbly and gently listen and ask questions in an attempt to learn as much as we can about what the skeptic believes and where he is coming from" (p. 46).

In part 2 (chs. 4-8), Johnson focuses on correcting common misunderstandings about the Christian faith. While he addresses some topics commonly covered in similar works (like Hell and Christian ethics), Johnson also helpfully addresses other issues not usually included in works on apologetics (like biblical hermeneutics and the doctrine of conversion).

In part 3 (chs. 9-14), Johnson moves from correcting misunderstandings to answering objections. Chapter 9 puts forth a method for evaluating worldviews. Johnson puts this method to work in the following chapters as he evaluates various claims leveled against Christianity. In each case, Johnson evaluates and critiques the claims of skeptics before offering a Christian explanation of the data. In doing so, he shows that one's worldview largely determines how one interprets the data (whether that data is the supposed similarity between Christianity and pagan mythology or the existential despair felt by those who attempt to live life without God), and makes the case that the Christian worldview offers superior explanatory power.

The strength of How to talk to a Skeptic is its common-sense approach to apologetics. Throughout, Johnson focuses on listening carefully and asking thoughtful questions. This is essential no matter what apologetic method one subscribes to because, no matter how strong the apologist/evangelist's content, he cannot expect to gain a hearing unless he is also gentle in manner.

Also, though I don't agree with every aspect of Johnson's approach, overall, I find his Schaefferian, cumulative-case approach to apologetics a helpful one. Christianity offers the best explanation of reality, and it is helpful to point this out while critiquing the shortcomings of other worldviews.

I also applaud Johnson for not drawing too sharp a line between evangelism and apologetics. In fact, I wish he'd more consistently combined the two. I feel that the book would have benefited from a greater focus on Scripture. Many of the common objections answered here don't need a philosophical answer so much as a biblical one. It would have been helpful, then, to ground the answers in Scripture and demonstrate how a conversation about Hell (or sex, or the meaning of life, or the nature of morality, etc.) could lead to the gospel and a call to faith and repentance.

Following apologists like John Frame and K. Scott Oliphint, I understand apologetics as basically systematic theology for unbelievers. This means that the apologist's job is simply to give a biblically faithful answer to the questions of unbelievers. One's apologetic, then, will only be as strong as one's theology. One simply cannot give a biblically sound answer to a skeptic if one does not hold to a biblically sound theology. It's here that I have a few reservations.

The obvious example is Johnson's treatment of Hell (pp. 107-108). Following C. S. Lewis, Johnson understands Hell as a self-imposed separation from God. Unfortunately, this simply does not do justice to the biblical doctrine of Hell. In Hell, God is not absent but present in judgment (cf. Psalm 139:7-10; Amos 9:1-4). Sinners don't go to Hell voluntarily, rather, they are condemned to an eternity in Hell by a righteous and holy Judge (Romans 2:5-7).

There were a few other places where I felt Johnson's apologetic betrayed an unbiblical theology lurking underneath (pp. 49, 60, 111, 112; see also the Cessationist strawman on p. 223 and the language reminiscent of Neo-Orthodoxy on p. 135). I'm not accusing Johnson of heresy. Rather, he seems to be a typical Evangelical Arminian, so, of course, Arminianism is assumed throughout the book. There's nothing wrong with that unless one happens to believe (as I do) that Arminianism is wrong.

How to Talk to a Skeptic is not a bad book. It is, however, too uneven to merit a recommendation. I'd recommend Tim Keller's similar but far-superior Reason for God (which also, unfortunately, seems to advocate Lewis' doctrine of Hell) or Greg Koukl's Tactics instead. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

How to Talk to a Skeptic is available here:


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