The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly…of Apologetics Updates

Change is the only constant

Wisdom from Heraclitus, speaking of Apologetics topics

Heraclitus was absolutely right to say that “Change is the only constant.” As long as competitive Apologetics exists, the leagues will update things and throw us all for a loop. But as the Chinese Proverb says, “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.” I want to help you build windmills and profit from these changes. My role? Explain the changes so you can respond well.

This article is a more in-depth look at the changes to Apologetics made by the NCFCA and Stoa since last season. Stoa updated its topics, and the NCFCA updated its rules. Many of these critiques are the result of what I saw while conducting an in-depth analysis of Stoa’s topics in order to update Thoroughly Equipped for the new Stoa list.

So without further ago, let’s get into The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The Good

I said a ton about the good of Stoa’s topic updates in a previous post. So if this section is a bit small, go read that post.

The NCFCA has updated one of the core rules of Apologetics. Here’s what the updated official rules document says:
Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 10.08.22 AM

Previously, speakers would draw three separate topic slips containing one topic apiece. The NCFCA has made the draw process a bit more similar to Extemp (although there is no regulated speaker order), placing multiple topics onto one slip.

The most significant aspect of this update is the number of topics drawn: it decreases from 3 to 2.

This is a BIG DEAL, especially as it relates to Apologetics preparation. Consider the math for a moment. Let’s assume you are well-prepared for 1/2 of the topics in each category. (You might have some material on the other topics, or you might have none.)

If you get to draw 3 topic slips, the chances of you drawing 0 topics for which you are well-prepared is a mere 12.5%. (For you math people, the formula is the probability of drawing a topic you’re not prepared for, three times in a row: 0.5*0.5*0.5=0.125.)

But if you only get to draw 2 topic slips, the chances of you drawing 0 well-prepared topics doubles to 25%—one round out of every four!

The impact of this update on Apologetics preparation is substantial. It was never a good idea to compete while under-prepared, but it’s a horrible idea now. Expect more frantic competitors using limited prep time to conjure a speech out of thin air.

Competitors should strongly consider using resources that help them to use their before-competition preparation time to maximum effect. Perhaps a curriculum like Thoroughly Equipped (hint, hint).

But I did put this in the “good” section and not the “bad.” That’s because I believe it will increase the quality of Apologetics overall. Students will be forced to prepare more thoroughly—and that’s a good thing.

The Bad

Since the only update the NCFCA made was to rules, and since I think it was a good update, it’s all Stoa from here on out. But don’t think I’m ragging on Stoa or anything—again, I wrote an entire post a few weeks back on how great I think their topic updates are. These critiques are a result of the in-depth analysis I conducted while updating Thoroughly Equipped for the new Stoa list.

#1. Stoa rephrased some questions poorly.

Now, I think that rephrasing the topics to all be in question format was a great decision. The topic, “What does it mean that God is omniscient? Why does this matter?” is much better than the topic, “Define and defend the significance of the omniscience of God.” This is closer to how a skeptic or curious onlooker would actually ask the question.

However, I think Stoa sometimes rephrased poorly. Here are 4 categories of improvements that made the topics worse.

A. Changing Open-Ended Questions to Closed-Ended

This critique applies to lots of topics. Many were changed from open-ended to closed-ended, which I believe is a net loss to the event. Download the topic lists and check it out for yourself, looking for where the questions changed into yes-or-no-answer topics.

Official Stoa Apologetics Topics 2013-2014

Apologetics Questions 2015-16

Here’s an example. In Category 1, “Why is the unchanging nature of God essential to who He is?” was updated to “Is the unchanging nature of God essential to who He is?”

The update changes this open-ended question to a closed-ended question. Open-ended questions are better for encouraging conversation: Beginning with the open-ended “why” promotes elaboration and explanation. Closed-ended questions can be answered with a yes or no, and aren’t as well suited to a 6-minute speech.

Plus, the topic was already in question format! No update necessary.

And this “improvement” made the topic worse. It actually opened up the possibility of heresy! God’s unchanging nature is critical to his being (contrary to what adherents of Open Theology claim). Before, the student was instructed to give reasons supporting the true view. Now, the student must decide between truth and error, then move on to reasons.

B. Altered Meanings

Sometimes when Stoa “updated” a topic they actually changed the meaning. Here’s one particularly egregious example. In Category 4, “How can a man know God?” became “Can a person know God?”.

That’s not even close! The entire meaning of the question has changed! Now, instead of explaining the way of salvation, students have to give an epistemological justification for how we can have knowledge of God (divine incomprehensibility, divine revelation, etc.). Stoa should have taken more care in rephrasing. Someone moved a bit too fast here.

Another example is the topic “Is Christianity a religion of intolerance?” being changed to “Are Christians intolerant?” I’m sure you can tell the difference. One asks about Christianity being intolerant, the other about Christians being intolerant.

In fact, the answers to the questions should be totally different! Is Christianity itself intolerant? No. (Defining tolerance the old-fashioned way, not the new politically correct way.) But are Christians intolerant? Well, yes, lots of them are. (Although they shouldn’t be.) The entire meaning of this topic has been altered.

Here’s another example. “How is Christian stewardship distinct from the environmentalist movement?” was changed to “Is the environmental movement in conflict with Christianity?” 

This is really a sad loss. The question in its previous incarnation was really fabulous. Two alternatives, “Christian stewardship” and the “environmentalist movement,” were contrasted. Stewardship is a great Biblical theme, going back to the Garden of Eden where man was given the charge to care for the garden. The update removes this tension of ideas, falling back on a general “Christianity vs. bad secular idea” format.

C. General Awkwardness

Take this one from Category 4. The topic is, How would you respond to John 14:6: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”?

It’s kind of strange to “respond” to something Jesus said. I can understand responding to Richard Dawkins, or Voltaire, or Rob Bell. But responding to Jesus? Peter tried that once, and it didn’t go so well (Matthew 16:23).

In Stoa’s defense, this isn’t a problem with the new updates. It carried over from the old version: Analyze and respond to the following statement, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” John 14:6

Here’s another awkward topic. What is your response to the statement from Linus (Peanuts, comic strip): “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere”?

It’s kind of weird to respond to a comic strip character. I get that the original quote came from Linus, but why not change it slightly and make it anonymous? Not many skeptics quote Peanuts to Christians, but a lot say “If I sincerely believe something that’s all God expects of me.”

As an aside, Linus was talking about his belief in The Great Pumpkin. I just spent 15 minutes trawling through Peanuts comics to find the original, since Stoa’s link is broken. You’re welcome. 🙂

Here’s the link: And here’s the original comic strip, for your enjoyment.Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 11.15.13 AM

D. Gender-Neutral Language 

Stoa has in some places moved toward gender-neutral language, replacing “man” with “person.” Take an example I cited above: “How can a man know God” vs. “Can a person know God.”

I’m not inherently opposed to using “person” when both genders are clearly in view. I’m wary of political correctness, but sometimes this change can be appropriate.

The weird thing is that Stoa isn’t even consistent in this update. Take Category 3: “Explain the meaning and significance of the depravity of man.” was updated to “What does it mean that man is totally depraved? Why does this matter?”. If Stoa was updating the language to be more inclusive, they certainly haven’t finished the job.

The Ugly

Okay, this post is altogether too long. Part 2 will be next time. I’ll add a bit more to The Bad, and conclude with The Ugly. (And boy is there a doozy!)