Why Stoa’s Question Updates Are Great

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Last week I addressed the changes to Apologetics noted in Stoa’s Executive Summary. This week we get to the actual question list!

The Phrasing

Why not begin at the beginning? Stoa’s new question list (which you can download here) starts off with 1 Peter 3:15, an excellent verse focusing on the heart of competitive Apologetics, as well as real-life apologetics.

Stoa 2015-2016 #1

The beginning of Stoa’s new topic list, aptly decorated by 1 Peter

Stoa then identifies the verse’s components in order to draw out key principles.

Stoa 2015-2016 #2

1 Peter 3:15, analyzed

These principles are drawn directly from the verse, a great example of exegesis (getting meaning from the text, as opposed to pushing our own meaning into the text).

  • 1. The primary objective of Apologetics is to honor Jesus Christ as holy. We want our observers to behold the splendor of Jesus’ holiness and be moved to worshipful enjoyment of him.
  • 2. We must be ready to reply—not unprepared.
  • 3. Giving reasons for our hope is necessary. Stating that we have hope is insufficient unless we can provide a reason for it.
  • 4. This principle is formulated a bit awkwardly, in my opinion. It seems the drafters of this document wanted a parallel to #3, so they made the phrasing identical up to “reason(s).” But this somewhat obscures the meaning of the principle, namely that our manner of speaking matters. A better expression of the same concept would be simply, “Answer the person with gentleness and respect.”

Discussing this verse reminds me of a conversation I had with Zack Seals, the 2012-2013 Stoa NITOC Mars Hill Champion and 4th place Apologetics Champion. Here’s what he said about 1 Peter 3:15.

“The way we show Christ as Lord of both our hearts and minds is described in the very next part of the verse, ‘Always be ready to give a reason for the hope that you have.’ So Apologetics is how we show that we are fulfilling that command to set apart Christ as Lord.”
Zack Seals (entire discussion here)

Next, Stoa transitions from interpretation to application.

Stoa 2015-2016 #3

Stoa’s explanation of why the questions have been rephrased

Because of what 1 Peter 3:15 says about apologetics, the topic committee has rephrased every question to be in question format—as opposed to the statement format many topics used to employ. (For example, “Define and defend” or “Analyze and respond” are both statement formats. No question marks used there.)

This is a justified change with an excellent motivation. Since competitive Apologetics intends to prepare us for real-life apologetics, the event should reflect the reality as much as possible. No one will ever ask you to “define and defend” the meaning of the grace of God (the old wording). But they may very well ask you, “What does the grace of God mean?” (the new wording).

The Number

And now, a very exciting change:

Stoa 2015-2016 #4

Formatted like an afterthought, but an earthquake regarding content

Stoa has reduced the number of topics by nearly 33 percent!

Last time Stoa updated their topics, they added so many that the list swelled to almost 150 questions. That burden was not light for many competitors. I was somehow able to absorb the additional topics in only 3 new Concepts within my organizational system, but still—the increase was excessive.

Without fanfare, show, or ostentation, Stoa quietly trimmed the list down to size. And Apologetics competitors everywhere shouted for joy!

I think that 100 topics is about the perfect number. It’s a lot, to be sure—but most of the topics can be addressed under 25 Concepts. Restricting the list to 50 or 75 topics would eliminate necessary aspects of defending the faith. On the other hand, 150 is just too many. Apologetics competitors have other speech events too! (And sometimes debate. I know how you ironmen feel….)

Stoa has chopped the list down to size, and I expect this decrease in number to produce an increase in card quality. After all, you can now spend 1.5x as much preparation on each topic!

The Questions

Well, I’m over 600 words and I haven’t even gotten to the questions themselves yet. So let’s do a quick overview of the new questions (noted by an asterisk in the official question list).

  • How would you respond to someone who told you, “If I’m created in God’s image, why aren’t I perfect”?
    • Good addition. Some people appeal to the goodness of the original creation to support the argument that “all men are inherently good, and just do bad things occasionally.” A Biblical response to this question should take care of that argument.
  • How would you respond to someone who asked, “If God is real, why is there evil?”
    • Excellent formulation of the Problem of Evil. Perhaps the most common objection to Christianity, the Problem of Evil is a topic all Christians need to have an answer for. (Side note: the most helpfully Biblical explanation I have ever found for the Problem of Evil’s emotional aspect is the author-story model, detailed here. Not easy reading, but good.)
  • What is your response to this statement: “I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, The Golden Calf, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further”? Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.
    • Ooh. I have absolutely no idea how I would respond to this. That’s the fun of research!
  • What is your response to the following Richard Dawkins quote: “The Bible should be taught, but emphatically not as reality. It is fiction, myth, poetry, anything but reality. As such it needs to be taught because it underlies so much of our literature and our culture”? Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 200
    • A sentiment we can half agree with. It’s not often we can agree with Dawkins partially—now we just have to explain why we say “teach the Bible yes, but definitely as reality.”
  • Why am I here?
    • Perhaps the most fundamental of all questions. I think the Westminster Catechism might have something to say about this…. But remember to address this question as though a troubled friend asked it to you over coffee—not as a theological abstraction.
  • What is your response to someone who asks you: “Is there life after death”?
    • Go to the Bible! Please don’t answer this question by appealing to near-death experiences, etc. Humans are easily deceived, even self-deceived. You can mention near-death experiences, but please don’t base your case upon them.
      • I’m going to take a somewhat unpopular stance here, but I side with Jesus on this: “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13 ESV). Tales of “trips to heaven” are fabrications.
      • And I side with John MacArthur too, who’s not quite as important as Jesus (note the understatement) but is a great Biblical teacher. Article here.
      • (I know you guys don’t read these articles to get preached at, so I try to keep my theological commentary to a minimum. However, there are a few things I feel strongly about, and alleged “trips to heaven” are one of those things. Occasionally, you will read me trying to raise the quality of Apologetics by encouraging solid content.)
  • What is your response to the following Sam Harris quote: “Nearly half of the American population is eagerly anticipating the end of the world. This dewy eyed nihilism provides absolutely no incentives to build a sustainable civilization”? Harris, Sam. Letter to a Christian Nation. New York: Random House Inc., 2006
    • Hmm. Interesting argument with room for some insightful critiques. I’m pretty sure “dewy eyed” should have a hyphen between the words, but maybe they’re quoting verbatim from Harris’s book.
  • How would you respond to someone who states: “Death has never made sense to me. How can a person be there and then just vanish, just not be here”?
    • Death often provides an opportunity to put this ephemeral world into perspective. Use this topic to counsel, console, and point to the hope of the gospel.
  • Are all persons children of God?
    • Good question. I’m going to indulge in theological commentary again and give you a hint: No. See John 11:52, John 1:11-13, and any Bible verse on adoption (which inherently assume that pre-adoption, the individual was not a child of God).
  • How many ways are there to heaven?
    • Huge topic and common question. Good addition.
  • Is Jesus Christ the Jehovah of the Old Testament?
    • Good question, although “Yahweh” is recognized by scholars to be a better translatation of the tetragrammaton (YHWH, generally translated by all-caps LORD in English Bibles) than Jehovah. After all, Hebrew doesn’t have a “J” sound.
    • Philippians 2:9-11 is a pertinent passage. One commentary on that passage and how it proves that Jesus is Yahweh can be found here.
  • If Jesus came so that we may have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10), why does it often seem like those who don’t follow Jesus have more fun and enjoyment in this life? 
    • This is a very insightful question. The first passage that comes to mind is Psalm 73:12-20, because Asaph struggled with this very issue.
    • I recently listened to a sermon that brought up how “fun” is a very flippant word and probably not a good description of Christian joy. The transcript is beneath the sermon video, so you can find the relevant section by searching for “fun.”
    • While we’re on the topic of enjoyment, just go read this article. I firmly believe that Christians should have way more enjoyment and joy and delight and exhilaration than unbelievers, even in this life. After all, Jesus is more pleasurable than any worldly pleasure! So go read the article and be a Christian Hedonist.
  • Are Mormons Christians?
    • Good addition. Hint: no.
  • What are unique features of Christianity that set it apart from all other religions of the world?
    • Recommended resource: Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves. I recently read this, and it was one of the most happifying books I have ever read. (Happifying is a shorter way of saying “it made me joyful in God”—it’s a very useful word for Christian Hedonists like me.) Reeves makes an excellent case  that fundamentally, the Trinity is what distinguishes Christianity. All other faiths have a single-person God who is lonely for all eternity before creating us, and thus creates us to be his servants. Instead, we have a God who is happy for all eternity (GOD WAS NOT ETERNALLY LONELY!!!) in the fellowship of the Trinity, and is so inherently self-giving that he “overflows” in love and creates the universe to share his love with unworthy beings. Great read, highly recommended.
  • Respond to the following Richard Dawkins statement, “Religious fanatics want people to switch off their own minds, ignore the evidence, and blindly follow a holy book based upon private revelation.” Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006
    • Is Christianity fideistic? (Bonus points if you use that word in-round.) See 1 Peter 3:15.
  • Respond to this statement by Buddha: “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” Translation of Dhammapada. No. 165. Karma: A Story of Buddhist Ethics. Chicago: Carus Publishing Co. 1984

The End

After almost 2000 words, I think my thoughts on Stoa’s updates are finished. I’ll be coming out with an updated Conceptual Organizational System for Stoa soon, so Stoa competitors can continue to cover most of the questions in just 25 concepts. Be on the lookout!