Tactics (Book Review)

tacticsMy church is doing a Christian Apologetics adult class right now, so recently I’ve been on an apologetics and evangelism kick.  Takes me back to my college days when I cut my theological chops of finding answers to the questions I and my peers were asking about the Christian faith.  Reading typical “answers” books reminds me that most are quite similar.  Problem-Question-Answer.  Followed by a call to be confident that God’s Word is good and true.  This format is helpful as far as it goes.  I find that Christians are the primary audience for books like this.  They are published by Christian imprints and marketing to Christians as resources for our typical questions and doubts, and for answering the questions of our unbelieving family, friends, and neighbors.  But the nagging problem with these kinds of books is they end up being ironically unhelpful in actually navigating conversations with unbelievers.  They are more like one-sided diatribe than dialogue.  And that is OK because that is what they are designed to be.  The difficulty begins when Christians seek to use what they learn in ordinary apologetics books in actual conversation.  Books like these simply aren’t designed to offer help navigating the unpredictable tricks and turns of discussing something with an actual thinking person.

This is where apologist and author Greg Koukl steps into the gap.  As the founder of Stand to Reason and its call-in radio show host for over 20 years, he has honed an approach for everyday Christians to avoid getting stuck when they engage friends and neighbors in conversational apologetics and evangelism.  His tested and proven tips and tricks are finally collated in one place for easy access.  The book, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, is a gold mine of practical, easy, and useable advice for Christians wondering how to close the gap between their specific apologetic knowledge and unbounded real life conversations.

Koukl distinguishes between strategy and tactics.  While strategy is an overarching, big picture plan for where a Christian would like a conversation to go, tactics are the detailed verbal maneuvers of achieving the goal.  Rather than a D-Day militaristic model, an peace-time ambassador model is offered.  Koukl has built his apologetic approach on the three ambassador virtues of knowledge, wisdom, and character—all necessary for the tactical approach of apologetics to succeed.  Employing a baseball analogy, he defines success not as hitting a home run (leading a person to Christ in one conversation), nor even getting on base (getting a person to acknowledge certain truths that are necessary components of the gospel), but just getting to the plate (getting an opportunity).  His modest goal in conversational apologetics is to “put a stone in someone’s shoe.”  In other words, to leave a person with something spiritually important to think about, something that will gnaw at their mind and heart that the Holy Spirit can use to draw them to Christ later on.

Detective Columbo

Detective Columbo

The author calls his tactical approach “Columbo” after the famous TV detective that appeared a bumbling simpleton but had a knack for asking disarming questions that often led the conversation to the truth.  Koukl gives each tactic a quirky name to make it memorable, and then explains how to use it in real conversations to do apologetics and evangelism.

The Columbo approach entails using three basic questions to stay in the driver’s seat of the conversation and to get someone thinking rather than knee-jerk responding.  Here are the Columbo Questions:

  1. “What do you mean by that?” (Gain information)
  2. “How did you come to that conclusion?” (Reverse the burden of proof)
  3. Does the conclusion follow from the evidence? Or “Have you considered <my alternative idea>? (Customize and personalize your leading questions)

Explaining and describing these tactical questions, along with addressing common reservations some Christians raise regarding the appropriateness of apologetics, make up Part One of the book.  This is the Game Plan for discussing your Christian convictions.  In this part Koukl delivers on his promises to the reader for specific tactics one can use to steer conversations away from rhetoric, red herrings, and conversation stoppers.  By using Columbo, even the most novice Christian apologist-evangelist is enabled to have meaningful, thoughtful, spiritual conversations that actually get out of the rut and go somewhere.

In Part Two of the book (Finding the Flaws), Koukl helps the reader think in particular tactical ways to explore and uncover the flaws in other people’s belief statements.  Each has a pity name: Formal Suicide, Practical Suicide, Sibling Rivalry, Infanticide, Taking the Roof Off, Steamroller, Rhodes Scholar, and Just the Facts Ma’am.

  1. Formal Suicide.  Some views are internally inconsistent.  They self-destruct because if the view is true, then it’s false!  The job of the apologist is to point out the inconsistency so the person who hold the view sees he can do so no longer if he wants to be consistent.  The view that “there are no absolutes” commits formal suicide because if the belief is absolutely true, then it is false.  If it is not absolutely true, then it is false.
  2. Practical Suicide.  Some views are internally consistent, but they can’t be lived in the real world.  These views fail the pragmatic test and thus commit practical suicide and self-destruct.  While the view can be believed, it cannot be acted on or promoted without hypocrisy.  Moral relativists are especially prone to views that commit practical suicide.
  3. Sibling Rivalry.  Sometimes people provide multiple objections to the Christian faith.  If two of the objections are logically inconsistent with each other, then they cannot both be valid objections.  At least one of them may be immediately eliminated from consideration because they cannot both be legitimate at the same time.  The objection of evil as proof that a good God cannot exist is in sibling rivalry with the view that objective good and evil do not exist.  Sometimes moral relativists hold both views.  But evil objective existence and nonexistence cannot both be proof that God doesn’t exist.  One sibling objection necessarily kills the other objection.
  4. Infanticide.  Occasionally an objection is offered that is dependent on something prior to it.  In this case the objection is a “child” of the parent truth claim.  But when the parent truth claim is incompatible with the child, the parent kills the child and the objection falls apart.  Infanticide applies to the problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God.  For evil to truly and objectively exist, then good must exist.  And if good exists, then God must exist because their must be a standard of good outside the world to judge good and evil.  Only God meets this requirement.  So the objection of evil existing as an argument against God’s existence is dependent on a parent truth (God exists).  Thus the parent kills the child.
  5. Taking the Roof Off.  This is a technique used to show that an argument proves too much.  It is the classic tactic of reduction ad absurdum.  The idea is to demonstrate that the claim leads to absurd results if taken seriously and given a test drive.  Taking the roof off removes the person’s shelter from the logical and uncomfortable results of one’s views as they work out in the real world.
  6. Steamroller.  This tactic is helpful when talking with someone who is not attempting to be logical or rational.  When the other person is trying to bowl you over with objections based on emotional reasons, prejudice, or simple rebellion, argument is not the order of the moment.  In such situations, Steamroller may help to restore civility and order to a conversation.  If the tactic doesn’t work after two attempts, then just give the person the last word and walk away.
  7. Rhodes Scholar.  When a person commits the fallacy of trumping you with an expert witness, this tactic enables you to get past the opinion of the scholar to his reasons.  If you are trumped with an expert opinion, point out this only provides information (there is an expert who disagrees), but what you need is education (reasons why the expert disagrees).  Ask Columbo questions about the expert to avoid the trap of being trumped by the mere existence of a scholarly dismissal.
  8. Just the Facts, Ma’am.  This is a tactical maneuver that seeks to uncover the precise claim being used as an objection.  Then you can ask whether the claim is implausible on its face, or whether you need to research the factual accuracy of the claim.  Finding the truth, and responding with precise factual information is a powerful tactic to disarm, discredit, and refute baseless objections.

Tactics ends with a chapter that offers a few final pointers for discussion your Christian convictions.  Koukl reminds the reader to be ready, keep it simple, avoid religious language and spiritual pretense, focus on the truth of Christianity and not merely its personal benefits, give reasons, stay calm, let them leave if they want to go, and if they leave then don’t leave them empty-handed.  He closes with a charge to not retreat from challenges to the Christian faith, but act the part of God’s ambassador to defend, not your own reputation and faith, but the glory and name of God.  And how is an ambassador to carry him/herself in such situations?  According to Koukl’s “Ambassador’s Creed.”

I so appreciate this book.  If practiced by amateur and professional apologists, it has the potential to revolutionize the quality and outcome of conversations about God, Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity in general.  I only have one complaint about the book, and that is not with its content but rather in the way it is marketed.  There are ten book endorsements included in the first pages and on the back cover.  All of them but one (Justin Taylor) traffic in the broadly evangelical world of apologetics that tends to lean heavily against Reformed theology and apologetics.  In my view this is a terrible shame and an even worse marketing blunder.  Koukl is Calvinistic in his theology but he doesn’t write apologetics for the academy.  He doesn’t just study apologetics, he practices the defense of the Christian faith as a conviction and a lifestyle in the marketplaces of our culture.  His Tactics approach coupled with the Ambassador Model is informed by and quite compatible with Reformed apologetics.  But I’m afraid his tactics for discussion Christian convictions will not make significant inroads in my Reformed tradition.  So here’s to promoting it in my theological neighborhood.


The Columbo Tactic, by Greg Koukl

Tactics on Google Books

Tactics Study Guide (6 sessions)

STR’s “Tactics” Newsletter

STR Blog

STR Podcasts

STR Videos

Video Lecture on Tactics for Discussing Christian Convictions

Video Seminars on the Columbo Tactic



Apologetics 315



Denver Seminary (A.G. Holdier)




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8 Responses to Tactics (Book Review)

  1. Dave Wagner says:

    My worlds are colliding!

  2. Steven Hoyt says:

    there are no absolutes! and, that’s not a suicidal statement.

    the problem with all christian apologetics today is that it is completely a matter of epistemology and previous few apologists have have ever even cracked open a book of philosophy.

    if your apologetics relies on tricks of communication, such as a “roadrunner” or “columbo” (rolls eyes), then clearly the idea one is making an apologetic for has no merit in itself to be rationally discussed, or rationally accepted, by a rational person.

    my example here is with this very foolish quip that denying absolutes is self-refuting. “reason to assert” is what justifies beliefs, be they purely rational, evidential, or whatever. all absolute we do have are axioms, tautology, and truism and each are fully trivial; true by definition, true by form, true by appearance.

    a fool starts by saying “there are absolutes” and continues by not seeing that “saying there are no absolutes relies on absolutes” and finishes being a fool by concluding that since there must be absolutes, there are absolutes, and this is why absolutes cannot be denied.

    having mentioned that all absolute we do have are puerile, the apologist must agree with the idea that there are no other absolutes because all other asserting are through deliberation, “reason to assert”. what, after all, is the point of apologetics?

    the best tactic a hopeful apologist is to study epistemology and simply learn how to state a case.

    “thank you for arguing” has nothing to do with apologetics but certainly is more with a person’s time than any book i have ever read on apologetics.

    as for apologetics itself out god-debates, of you understand theories of human knowledge, then you understand that one cannot choose to believe anything; one is determined, being rational, to believe whatever seems to be the case … which means with the gods, one either has the impression there are deity or one does not. parties to this debate then are doing no more than asserting “my impression is better than yours” because there can be no evidence for a transcendent god (only abduction about the world), and logic doesn’t entail truth but instead is predicated on reasonableness. sounds arguments for and against deity are far too easy to make and why a person would think one way about either is beyond his own control. whatever makes sense of what experiences one is having and has had its what one will believe.

    apologetics is a waste of time, as to calling of christ is doing, not taking, and beliefs (again, according to theories of knowledge) entail action; not talk, nor even deliberate, cognitive contemplation. the best apologetics then is (go figure) being like christ and nothing more.

    • Steven,
      Thanks for commenting. I can’t quite tell where you are coming from. Based on your last paragraph, I wonder if you are a Christian who disagrees with the need for apologetics? Do you believe there are certain things that are absolutely true?

      • Steven Hoyt says:

        axioms, tautology, and truisms are absolutely true…and are all trivial because we define them as true, we string axioms together is a particular way and the arrangements is then true, or we take something apparently true as a brute fact. these kinds of absolutes are all we have and are inconsequential.

        all other things going by the title of “true” are deliberated; which ironically and by definition means there assertions are dubious, not absolute, and are tautology of “reasons to assert”.

        with me?

  3. Steven Hoyt says:

    sorry for the typos and gesturing errors … if i could edit, i would.

  4. Steven,
    I think I understand where you are coming from. I visited your blog at Rambling Thoughts and read a few of your recent theological & philosophical musings. From your comments here is appears you believe that language is merely a game in which we agree to the rules. Keeping the rules (language conventions) makes axioms, tautologies, and truisms statements “absolutely true”. But this limited range of “language truths” does not touch the world apart from our description of it. Is it fair to say that’s what you mean?

  5. Josh says:

    I found the book quite good as well.

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