Methods of Apologetic Practice
Paul Derengowski, ThM
To those unfamiliar with Christian apologetics and the lingo that often goes with it, when the subject comes up it is not uncommon that the uninitiated get the proverbial deer in the headlights look over what is being discussed. Presuppositionalism? Evidentialism? Cumulative case? One could ask," I thought apologetics had to do with defending the faith?" Therefore, for the uninitiated, this article will deal with the various methods of apologetic practice by defining them first, and then by providing some exponents of each method. Three of the methods have already been given above, to which will be added Classical apologetics, as well as the Reformed variety.
The method termed Classical Apologetics really amounts to a two-stage defense which starts with the existence of the person of God, and then when that is successfully established, stage two proceeds to provide rational evidences for other subjects under consideration. The respected Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas is a prime example of one who espoused a classical approach to the defense of the Christian faith. He began his defense with the "five ways" to argue for God's existence starting with "argument from motion," and then (2) "the nature of efficient cause," (3) "possibility and necessity," (4) "the gradation to found in things," and (5) "the governance of the world." 1 Afterward he would spend the next five volumes of his magnum opus arguing about topics ranging from the substance of angels to the essence of law to the plurality of wives.
In the nineteenth century another classical apologist would emerge whose arguments for God's existence and special creation continue to be cited unto the present. The British philosopher William Paley argued that it was one thing to be walking along and stub one's foot upon a stone and ask why it was there, and to be walking along and stumble upon a watch and ask the same question. In the former instance no one necessarily question where the stone came from, given that there is nothing extraordinary about seeing a rock out in the open. Conversely, in the latter instance finding a watch where one would not otherwise suspect a watch to be would not only raise questions of why it was there, but where it came from, and who ultimately made it. When all things are considered, "the inference, we think, is inevitable; that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at sometime, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use." 2
Perhaps the most recognized and respected classical apologist in modern times is none other than theologian and philosopher William Lane Craig. 3 Craig's approach to classical apologetics is similar, and yet different, than previous apologists in the respect that his two-fold approach incorporates the role of the Holy Spirit in his "knowing" and "showing" defense of the faith. To Craig the Holy Spirit is the self-authenticating person who confirms to the believer that what he subscribes to by placing his faith in the Christian message is true. Then the roles of argument and evidence are used in subsidiary ways to reasonably help the adherent understand what it is that he believes. According to Craig, when a Christian is asked by a non-believer why it is that he believes what he does, the believer should respond by saying that he knows Christianity is true because of the abiding presence of the Spirit, and that he can show the non-believer that it is true by external argument and evidence. Nevertheless, the latter is non-effective without the former doing a work in the life of the non-believer first. Yet, it is up the non-believer to accept God's invitation to allow that work to take place, and then solidify the decision by the evidence. 4
The classical approach to Christian apologetics has much in common with other apologetic methods, including Evidential and Cumulative Case Apologetics. Its strengths are its reliance's upon both the Holy Spirit's work to confirm internal truth to the believer, as well logical argumentation (e.g., the Kalam Cosmological, Design, Moral, and Teleological) to develop understanding. Several respected Christian apologists have been and are Classical apologists, and their work should be considered when developing one's own personal apologetic.
Evidential Apologetics amounts to what the title implies: real, tangible, historical, archaeological evidence are the prerequisites necessary for establishing the truth claims of Christianity. One difference it has with the Classical method of apologetics is assertion that it is a one-step approach to defending the faith, rather than the two-step approach. Rather than arguing for God's existence first, and then proceeding to other apologetic issues, the Evidentialist merely allows the evidence to speak for itself, given the situation. Moreover, the Evidentialist relies heavily on probability, "since absolute certainty lies only in the realms of pure logic and mathematics, where, by definition, one encounters no matters of fact at all." 5
Gary Habermas, a proponent of Evidential Apologetics sums up the position by giving seven tenets which the Evidentialist generally follows. 6 First and foremost, the evidentialist's "chief interest" is "the postulating and developing of historical evidences (one species of propositional data) for the Christian faith." 7 In Habermas' case, he abides by a "minimal facts strategy," whereby he attempts to assert the veracity of the Christian faith by finding minimal areas of agreement with the unbeliever that is accepted as true, and then expanding upon those facts. Second, the evidentialist differentiates between history and brute facts, and allows the latter to interpret themselves according to the context. Third, the evidentialist has not problem in engaging in "negative" apologetics, which seeks to counter the claims of those making false or misleading statements about Christianity. Fourth, the evidentialist, like the classicist, admits the fundamental role of the Holy Spirit to change the mind of the non-believer. If the Spirit is not present, then no amount of evidence presented will make a difference. Fifth, evidentialists assume that there is common epistemological ground between believers and unbelievers, which is why an unbeliever can be challenged to change his mind based on the evidence. Sixth, the role of the Holy Spirit not affects the unbeliever, but the believer as well in strengthening his understanding of the faith. Seventh, most evidentialist are flexible, if not "eclectic," in their approach to dealing with unbelief.
Evidential Apologetics, like Classical Apologetics, offers many valuable tools to help the believer break down the barriers of those who have erected empirical walls as the standard necessary to convince the unbeliever of Christian claims. Habermas' The Historical Jesus and Robert Van Voorst's Jesus Outside the New Testament ought to be in every Christian's personal libraries to assist them when attacks are made against Jesus' existence. In fact, when it comes to historical evidence, the Evidential Apologist would be the person to consult to garner information to counter the critical claims of those who oppose Christian theism and the historicity of Jesus.
Cumulative Case Apologetics
The cumulative case method for doing apologetic work amounts to multi-pronged approach to presenting one valid argument. In other words, depending on the question or criticism, which does not necessarily have to begin with God's existence, will also depend on which approaches to take to provide an answer. The end result of combining, in cumulative sense, all the propositions is thought to provide one solid answer or rebuttal. In short, Cumulative Case Apologetics is as eclectic, if not more so, than the Evidentialist approach to apologetics.
Four elements seem to characterize the cumulative position beginning with the idea that "the argument for theism and Christianity is an informal one, not a formal one." 8 Put otherwise, one is not likely to find a logical syllogism being offered to defend any particular belief. Instead, one will find the cumulative apologist presenting a broad range of information addressing the subject, with the express hope that combination of all information will provide a sufficient response. Second, and commensurate with the previous point, cumulative case apologetics "is a broadly based argument that is drawn from a number of elements in our experience, which in turn either require explanation or point beyond themselves." 9 Third—which also demonstrates what appears to be the disorganization inherent in the approach—"none of the elements that constitute this case has any priority over any other." 10 Again, depending on the question or criticism will also depending on where the defense begins to make its case. Fourth, the cumulative case "is not simply a defense of God's existence or theism, it is an apologetic for Christianity." 11 Again, depending on the argument will depend on where the apologetic argument begins.
Although several well-known individuals have embraced a Cumulative approach to Christian apologetics, 12 of the five most common methods, it seems to present the most difficulties at actually making a defense, if for no other reason than its lack of coherency. On the other hand, there is something to commend this approach, and that stems from the fact that despite the seeming disjointed prongs in the method, each prong is intended to work to strengthen any potential weaknesses than any given contributor to the argument might have. There is no doubt that truth is its ultimate object, but arriving at that destination may be more difficult than other apologetic approaches where there is a definitive starting point and fewer indirectly related contributors that could sidetrack the journey.
Presuppositional apologetics is distinctly different from the previous methods already discussed. Whereas the former allude to Scripture and then argue from various philosophical or evidential points of view in an effort to persuade the non-believer of the validity of the Christian worldview, the Presuppositionalist explicitly starts his argument by presupposing the truthfulness of the Bible and then proceeds to make his case. Any knowledge, evidence, or wisdom ultimately must have biblical sanction, otherwise it is considered something that does not glorify God, much less is absolutely true to reality. Cornelius Van Til is the one credited with the development of this method.
A later exponent of the Presuppositional method was Greg Bahnsen. Just prior to his death in 1995 summed up Presuppositionalism in his book Always Ready. His words are worth quoting in their entirety to further explain just what this kind of apologetic represents and strives to accomplish. He wrote:
- All knowledge is deposited in Christ; man's knowledge of the truth depends upon God's prior knowledge, begins with the fear of the Lord, and requires submission to God's word.
- Philosophy which does not presuppose God's word is a vain deception; by suppressing the truth, submitting to human traditions, and reasoning to the presuppositions of the world instead of Christ, such thinking leads to a darkened mind and futile conclusions. God makes foolish the vaunted wisdom of the world.
- Endeavoring to take a neutral stance between presupposing God's word and not presupposing it is an immoral attempt to serve two lords.
- Neutralist thinking would erase the Christian's distinctiveness, blur the antithesis between worldly and believing mind-sets, and ignore the gulf between the "old man" and the "new man." The Christian who strives for neutrality unwittingly endorses assumptions which are hostile to his faith.
- The Christian is a "new man," having a renewed mind, new commitments, a new direction and goal, a new Lord, and hence new presuppositions in the world of thought; the believer's thinking ought to be rooted in Christ (after the same manner in which he was converted): submitting to His epistemic Lordship rather than the thought patterns of apostate pseudo-wisdom. The Christian renounces the arrogance of human autonomy and seeks to love God with all his mind and to reason in such a manner that God receives the full glory.
- The alternatives are then quite clear: either ground all your thought in Christ's word and thereby gain the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, or follow the dictates of autonomous thought and be thereby deluded and robbed of a genuine knowledge of the truth.
- Therefore, God's word (in Scripture) has absolute authority for us and is the final criterion of truth. 13
One thing that ought to be remembered about Presuppositionalism is that it does not frown upon the use of evidence to defend the Christian faith. In fact, Presuppositionalists encourage it. It is that evidence, philosophy, and logical argumentation are to be placed beneath the authority of Scripture, which is deemed as a declaration of the mind of God, who ultimately gives meaning to evidence found to support the Christian discovery of the truth.
Believing in the existence of God by disregarding the demand by some to provide tangible evidence is perhaps the best way to describe Reformed Apologetics in its fundamental form. It's not that the Reformed Apologists frowns upon the use of evidence to support God's existence; it's that he does not find it necessary. His position is that one is perfectly rational for believing in God without having to actually prove it by resorting to external, empirical means to do so. This method postulates at least three reasons to support its rationality: (1) the impracticality of evidence for the majority of true believers; (2) intuitive awareness of God's presence in the believer's life; and (3) the quality of postivie belief in God versus the negative belief in doubt.
The impracticality of evidence for the majority of true believers simply means that very few believers have the ways or means to validate their belief, and yet they still believe. At all ages, from young to old, those who believe in God do so despite the fact that none of them have read the great philosophers of the past, nor have considered the latest arguments and "science," which according to some should be examined in order to make such a rational decision. Yet, many of those believers are normal, reasonable, productive citizens of society, who if someone was to charge them with being irrational, simply because they asserted their belief in God, would be thought to be irrational themselves.
To have an intuitive awareness of God's presence in one's life is something that cannot be measured by empirical means. It is something that is perfectly normal, given that God himself cannot be measured empirically, given that He is a metaphysical being. It is because of the intuition—which is at times greater in some people than others, simply because of the maturity of the person—or interaction of God with the human soul, as God regenerates and sanctifies the person unto Himself, that the person concludes that what is happening is beyond the physical realm. It is supernatural, and the supernatural is personal. Physical evidence merely affirms the experience, yet without it no harm is done.
Commensurate with intuitive awareness is the positive belief in a personal God rather than the negative belief in doubt. The idea here is to work in reverse from that which is commonly done in scientific laboratories, where skepticism and doubt rule the day, as they deal with inanimate objects rather than persona beings. Since personal qualities and attributes cannot be measured in a Petri dish, and since God is a personal, to the Reformed Apologist it only makes sense to deal with persons as persons rather than impersonal things. And since that requires the other person's involvement in the discovery, then to short-circuit the process through a one-way inquiry based on skepticism and doubt is certainly not the way the normal person would treat other relationships.
This article has attempted to explain the five major ways that Christian Apologists conduct their craft. Each one contributes something of value to the quest to not only provide an answer to the questions and attacks upon the Christian faith, as well as obey the divine mandate found in 1 Peter 3:15 to do so. As far as CAPRO is concerned it would lean in the direction of the Presuppositional method. But, that in no way discounts the validity of the other methods as well. It merely asserts what it believes is the proper starting place for apologetics, and then alludes to other more evidential means when necessary. Ultimately, though, it is up to the individual to decide for himself where he will begin. The key to remember, though, is that one must being somewhere. And by doing so not only will the Christian be in obedience to God's command to give an answer for what he believes, he will enjoy the blessing, satisfaction, and challenge of probing more deeply into that which so many Christians have neglected, namely their faith.
1 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 5 vols. (New York: Benzier Bros., 1948), 1:13-14.
2 William Paley, Natural Theology (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1860), 6.
3 Others of equal notability are R. C. Sproul, Alister McGrath, J. P. Moreland, and Ravi Zacharias.
4 William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994), 48.
5 John Warwick Montgomery, History, Law, and Christianity (Edmonton: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology, and Public Policy, Inc., 2002), 64.
6 I say generally because as Habermas notes, "Like the other methods, evidentialism can be rather eclectic in its use of various 'positive' evidences and 'negative' critiques and answers to detractors." Stanley N. Gundry and Steven B. Cowan, Five Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 92.
7 Ibid., 94.
8 Ibid., 151.
11 Ibid., 152.
12 F. R. Tennant, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and Richard Swinburne.
13 Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, edited by Robert R. Booth (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 1996), 23-24.