QUESTION 1 – Discuss the various approaches to apologetics, with their strengths and weaknesses as well as representatives of each approach.
Steven Cowan, in Five Views of Apologetics, classifies apologetic approaches into five schools – classical, evidential, cumulative case, presuppositional, and Reformed epistemological. In their more comprehensive text, Faith Has Its Reasons, Boa and Bowman identify four basic schools – classical, evidential, presuppositional, and fideist – and supplement those four schools by describing an ‘integrative’ approach to apologetics. Boa and Bowman’s presuppositional apologetics incorporates Cowan’s presuppositionalism and Reformed epistemology; while Cowan’s cumulative case approach is arguably absorbed within Boa and Bowman’s classical school, or else is a species of the integrative approach. In this essay, I will use Boa and Bowman’s classification of four primary apologetic schools. For each apologetic approach, I will discuss the distinctive approach to apologetics, identify representative figures and their contributions, and outline the major strengths and weaknesses of the approach.
I. Classical Apologetics
A. Distinctives & Representatives of the Classical Approach
Classical apologetics stresses the place of reason in arguing for the truth of the Christian faith. Man is a rational animal, endowed by his Creator with logic, intellect, and rationality. The belief of classical apologists is that we are able to argue for the truth of Christianity with a non-believer, and establish the rational probability of our faith.
Historically, classical apologists argue for the truth of Christianity in a ‘two-step’ apologetic. First, they seek to establish the necessity of a theistic worldview by using the traditional theistic proofs. The cosmological argument (the favorite of classical apologist William Lane Craig), the moral argument (brilliantly worked out by classical apologist C. S. Lewis), the teleological argument (as explicated variously by Paley, Craig, Ross, etc.), and even the ontological argument in various forms are used to demonstrate that materialism (naturalism) is not a coherent or explanatorily-satisfactory worldview.
Having established to their satisfaction (and mine) the truth of theism, classical apologists move on to argue for the truth of Christian theism specifically. Here, the arguments involve a demonstration of the historical reliability of Scripture (Old and New Testaments) [see answer to question #3], a defense of fulfilled prophecy, an examination of the claims of Christ (his professed divinity – claims to be God in the flesh), and a defense of the resurrection (very thoroughly worked out by W. L. Craig). Quite frequently, classical apologists will also point to the possibility of miracles (in either step one or step two, but more frequently the former).
The classical approach to apologetics is evident as far back as the New Testament, where Luke consistently describes the Apostle Paul as “arguing” with the Jews, “demonstrating” to them that Jesus was the Christ. Paul is frequently seen engaging the reason and intellect of his audience, pleading with them to acknowledge the rational truth of his Christian faith. The Areopagus address of Acts 17 engages the Athenian populace on common ground, seeking to begin where they are at in order to demonstrate the reasons for the Christian faith. The notion of common ground becomes important when classical apologetics is compared with other approaches – particularly the presuppositional approach. Other classical apologetics (most of whom I’ve already mentioned) who stress the use of reason in the defense and explanation of the Christian faith are Thomas Aquinas (illustrated in his famous Five Ways [or five theological proofs]), William Lane Craig, and C. S. Lewis. I consider myself a classical apologist at heart, although I embrace the integrative approach of beginning with the classical approach and then incorporating insights and methods from the other schools.
B. Strengths and Weaknesses of the Classical Approach
The classical school of apologetics emphasizes the inevitable use of reason in establishing the truth of the Christian faith. Human beings cannot avoid being rational creatures; and whatever apologetic approach one takes, the use of reason will be necessary. The laws of logic govern all human thought, whether people like it or not (and admit it or not); classical apologists begin with that insight and move on from there.
A potential weakness of classical apologetics stems from this fundamental strength. It is possible to overemphasize the power of human reason, and to allow reason to become autonomous and majesterial. Hence, Craig warns against that possibility, and insists that reason must play a ministerial role, and that faith, particularly the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit, must play the majesterial (authoritative) role. In other words, while reason can be overemphasized in classical apologetics, it need not be.
A second strength of classical apologetics is that it begins with where people are at. It seeks and finds common ground between the apologist and the seeker/skeptic whom they are engaging. This gives a basis for conversation, and allows a true dialogue to emerge.
This strength can also turn into a weakness, however. Presuppositional apologists point out that reason and evidences do not exist in a vacuum, but are interpreted within the context of our existing worldview. Hence, when classicists seek to argue for the truth of Christianity, the worldview of the apologee may simply consider the arguments to be a ‘dead option,’ and not even consider it. Furthermore, classical apologetics is accused of downplaying (or simply neglecting) the noetic effects of sin – that is, the impact that the fall of mankind has upon our reasoning process.
II. Evidential Apologetics
A. Distinctives and Representatives of the Evidential Approach
The evidential approach to apologetics stresses the place of evidences, particularly historical evidences, in defending the truth of the Christian faith. While classical apologetics is a two-step approach, evidentialism is characterized by a one-step argument for Christianity. The argument is that historical (and/or scientific) facts/evidences in and of themselves demonstrate that Christianity is true.
Thus, for example, Paul’s address in 1 Corinthians 15 can be seen as an evidential apologetic. While Paul is not addressing non-believers, his defense of the resurrection of Christ is based on historical evidences – particularly the appearances of the risen Christ to a number of witnesses, including himself. In Acts 2 (and other passages), the apostle Peter leans heavily on the historical fact of the resurrection to plead with his fellow Jews to embrace Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah. David died and was buried, and remains buried to this day, but Jesus, whom the Jews crucified, is no longer in the grave, but has risen, “and we are all witnesses of the fact.” Paul uses the evidences to argue for the truth of his faith.
Natural theology (theistic proofs) is prominent in evidential apologetics (just as it is prominent in classical apologetics). Demonstrating the necessary truth of Christianity from “what is” and “what has been”. William Paley, with his famous ‘watch-maker’ example (which is still powerful enough to prompt a countering book by Richard Dawkins), points to the evidences from design as proof of theistic Christianity. Gary Habermas (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Resurrection and the Future Hope, etc.), Josh McDowell (Evidence that Demands a Verdict), and Richard Swinburne (The Coherence of Theism) are contemporary examples of evidential apologists.
B. Strengths and Weaknesses of the Evidential Approach
The evidential approach acknowledges that historical facts and evidences are unavoidable and necessary in arguing for the truth of the Christian faith. This is a good thing. However, it can also be a danger. Presuppositionalists point out that there is no such thing as a ‘brute fact,’ but that even historical facts are interpreted through the grid of worldview.
A further strength of evidential apologetics is that it acknowledges common ground with skeptics. The non-believer can see history, can examine the scientific record, in order to assess the truth-claims of Christianity. There is a common basis for discussion.
However, the critic can argue that evidentialism results in compromise of the Christian faith. It is argued that our beginning point should be Scripture, and Scripture alone.
III. Presuppositional Apologetics
A. Distinctives and Representatives of the Presuppositional Approach
Presuppositional apologetics insist that the beginning point of apologetics is the self-authenticating, authoritative Word of God – God’s self-revelation in Scripture. We must begin our apologetics with Scripture. Thus, presuppositionalists reject the classical approach of treating Scripture as the conclusion of apologetic argumentation (as if Scripture has to be defended); and similarly reject the evidential approach of treating Scriptures as one set of historical data for apologetic use. Rather, Scripture is the foundation of apologetics.
Presuppositionalism emphasizes the role of worldview presuppositions in human argumentation. Human beings are not white boards; there is no tabula rosa upon which brute facts and arguments can make an impact. Rather, everything is perceived and interpreted through our worldview lenses. Thus, famously, Abrahama Kuyper argues that there is nothing in common between sanctified science and secular science (my words, not his); in a similar vein, Cornelius Van Til speaks for most presuppers when he insists that there is no common ground between Christians and non-Christians. We see things differently; there is no possibility of starting in the same place.
Arguably, the Apostle Paul uses presuppositional apologetics at some points of his ministry to appeal to his audience. Romans 1 speaks strongly of the tendency of human beings to suppress the truth of God, and to worship the creation rather than the Creator – Paul is speaking of two things: (1) the noetic effects of sin and the resulting utter depravity of mankind; and (2) the power of worldview. Non-believers suppress and reject the truth of God, and embrace a lie, simply because the power of their worldview precludes them accepting the truth of Christianity. Presuppositional apologetics is very tightly connected to a Calvinistic Christianity, which emphasizes the total depravity of mankind, and the inability to consider anything rightly without the efficacious (and special, not common) grace of God through the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Representatives of presuppositional apologetics include John Calvin, Kuyper, and Van Til. Van Til’s Christian Apologetics, and his other copious writings have inspired a new generation of apologists who continue in the presuppositional strain.
B. Strengths and Weaknesses of the Presuppositional Approach
Classical and evidential apologetics both share the weakness of potentially downplaying the role of worldview in the apologetic process. They can treat the non-believer as if he is able, in and of himself, to see the evidence for Christianity as it is, to consider the classical arguments for the truth of the faith, and to rationally accept those proofs and evidences. Presuppositional apologetics has rightfully pushed apologetics towards accepting that this picture is a false picture. Arguments and evidences are never going to bring someone to Christ. Rather, the worldview held by the person, which denies God and places self at the autonomous apex, must be overturned before a person can become a Christian.
In all fairness, many classical and evidential apologists (e.g. Craig and Habermas) acknowledge and embrace this truth now, but there was a time when they conducted their apologetics as if this were not the case (e.g. Lewis, Swinburne). Thus, presuppositionalism rightly emphasizes the power of worldview within a person.
However, in its categorical denial of common ground between believer and non-believer, presuppositional apologetics goes too far. The example that we see in Scripture is of Peter and Paul (and others) appealing to their audiences on the basis of perceived common ground. Again, the Areopagus address assumes common ground between Paul and the Greek philosophers – Jerusalem and Athens do have something in common.
Nonetheless, presuppositional apologists helpfully emphasize the need to challenge the existing worldview of non-believers. Classical and evidential apologetics often begin arguing and laying out evidences without considering how those facts and arguments will be perceived within the existing worldview. Presuppositionalists rightfully insist that the prevailing worldview must itself be challenged and overturned. Any non-Christian worldview is ultimately insufficient, incoherent, and unliveable, and the Christian must demonstrate that (i.e., establish a point of tension, in Schaeffer’s terminology, or ‘take the roof off’) to drive them to a point of being open to the grace of God.
A second, and major, weakness of presuppositional apologetics is its tight connection with Calvinism. While non-Calvinists can appreciate the insights of presuppositional apologetics, presuppositionalism is very prone to a narrow, exclusivist, and condemning perspective. Hence, Van Til disowns all but one (Bahnsen) of his own disciples, feeling that they are not ‘presuppositional enough’. Hence also Van Til’s constant (and contemptuous) derision of ‘Arminian and Catholic’ apologetics – as if there is nothing redeeming or helpful within them.
IV. Fideist Apologetics
A. Distinctives and Representatives of the Fideist Approach
“Without faith, it is impossible to please God.” Classical apologetics stresses reason; evidential apologetics stresses facts/evidences; presuppositional apologetics stresses worldview presuppositions; fideist apologetics stresses paradoxical faith.
Fideism insists that you cannot argue or convince someone of the truth of Christianity – in this way it resembles presuppositional apologetics. Fideism goes on to stress that this is a good thing. Indeed, faith must be embraced contrary to, or in the absence of, argumentation and evidence – in this it departs entirely from presuppositional apologetics.
The positive distinctive of fideist apologetics is its emphasis on our existential situation, our deep personal need for the truth of the Christian faith. Blaise Pascal, a pre-eminent representative of the fideist approach (though I don’t think it’s entirely fair), thus states that “the heart has reasons that reason doesn’t understand.” Similarly, Soren Kierkegaard encourages us to take a leap of faith, and embrace the Christ that is presented in Scripture.
Fideist apologetics became popular at a lay level as Darwinism spread amongst Western society and culture. As people began to sense that there were increasing reasons against Christianity, embracing a reason-less Christianity was a way of defending or insulating oneself against external attack.
However, fideism need not be entirely contrary to (or absent of) apologetic arguments and proofs. Pascal, for example, posits his famous Wager not as the beginning point of an apologetic approach, but rather as the culmination. He insists that there are persuasive and strong rational demonstrations for Christianity – but he acknowledges (along with classicists and evidentialists) that they are not conclusive, but only probable. Therefore, Pascal insists that the Christian can only bring the non-Christian so far: to the place where he acknowledges Christianity as possibly true. In fact, Pascal believes that you can show that Christianity is just as probable as the materialistic worldview that the non-believer (in his contemporary France, and our contemporary America) embraces – but that reason cannot decide between the two. It is at this point, and not earlier, that the non-believer is encouraged to gamble on God. Pascal’s Wager is the culmination of his entire apologetic – “I’ve demonstrated the probable truth of Christianity; I’ve shown you your existential need for the redemption and purpose of the Gospel; but I know that this is not demonstratively conclusive. Therefore, you need to make a choice – I urge you to make the choice that will pay eternal and infinite dividends.”
B. Strengths and Weaknesses of the Fideist Approach
Fideist apologetics appeals to the heart of man. In our day and age, like Pascal’s, like Kierkegaard’s, people are crying out for meaning and purpose. Trapped in a materialistic, naturalistic, purposeless, meaningless worldview, man withers; his unquenchable religious spirit groans against the imposition of an empty philosophical system which seeks to denigrate the deepest desires and cries of his heart. Fideism acknowledges the truth of the human religious desires, and seeks to reach people at that point.
However, fideism easily resorts to an unassailable, but similarly meaningless and contentless, Christianity. While fideists are right to emphasize Christ as an event and a person to be embraced, they are wrong to shy away from defending biblical inerrancy and authority – for then there is no Christ-event to be embraced existentially. There is content to our faith; Christ is the object of our faith as well as the subjective experience of our faith.
V. Integrative Apologetics
While the four approaches to apologetics (classical, evidential, presuppositional, and fideist) exhaust the methodological starting points for apologists, Boa and Bowman promote an integrative approach to apologetics which begins with one school, but goes on to incorporate wisdom and methodological insight from the other schools of thought.
Boa and Bowman cite Carnell, Frame, and Schaeffer as representatives of integrative apologetics. It is certainly evident in each of them! Frame’s tri-perspectivalism emphasizes presuppositional apologetics (the normative approach – beginning with the authority of Scripture), but also embraces classical/evidential apologetics (the situational approach – acknowledging the facticity and power of arguments and evidences) and fideist apologetics (the existential approach – acknowledging that we are embedded human beings needing a living relationship with Christ).
Schaeffer masterfully elucidates the need to engage people where they are at existentially (fideist); but goes on to insist that we must deconstruct their existing worldview in a loving, gentle, but insistent way (presuppositional – taking the roof off, identifying the point of tension in their existing worldview; demonstrating the incoherence of their current way of thinking), and puts great stock in arguments for the truth of the Christian faith (classical/evidential apologetics).
However, I would argue that William Lane Craig, often the poster-boy for classical apologetics, similarly demonstrates an integrative approach. I suspect the reason that Boa and Bowman do not identify Craig as an integrative apologist is that they are locked into a certain perspective themselves. Carnell, Frame, and Schaeffer all begin as presuppositional apologists, and then incorporate the insights of other methodologies. Perhaps this is seen as necessary by Boa and Bowman? At any rate, Craig does not fit that particular integrative model. He does not begin from a presuppositional perspective; he unashamedly and obviously begins with a classical framework. The theistic proofs occupy a large portion of his Reasonable Faith (3rd edition, 2008). His work on the cosmological argument is exemplary. He moves on from the theistic proofs to consider the personal claims of Jesus, and finally the proofs of the resurrection of Christ. Content-wise, Craig emphasizes and exemplifies a classical approach to apologetics. Nonetheless, Craig has also incorporated the wisdom of the presuppositional and fideist approaches to apologetics. Craig does not begin his apologetic treatise with a discussion of theistic proofs. Rather, he begins with a lengthy (and excellent) essay on the existential need of man for the meaning, purpose, and fulfillment that can only come from the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In a chapter worthy of Kierkegaard of Pascal, Craig talks about the meaninglessness of life without God, the deep and unquenchable human desire for immortality and relationship with the divine. Indeed, Craig references Kierkegaard and Pascal repeatedly, and delves also into the novels of Dostoyevski. From that chapter he moves on, not to the theistic proofs, but rather to a discussion of the role of presuppositions and an emphasis upon the role of the Holy Spirit in conversion. In words that could have been spoken by Van Til, Craig insists that human reason is not autonomous, but rather is fallen (i.e., he acknowledges and emphasizes the noetic effects of sin), and that reason must play a subsidiary role (the ministerial, as opposed to majesterial) compared to faith. Faith is primary, and comes through the self-authentication of the Holy Spirit. Reason confirms and buttresses our faith. Craig goes on to acknowledge (later, in his chapters on theistic proofs) that the Holy Spirit can and often does use reasons, arguments, and evidences, to bring the non-Christian to the point of faith – but emphasizes that it is the Holy Spirit, not the reasons and arguments, that convert.
My own approach to apologetics would mirror that of Craig. I begin from a classical approach, but willingly and gratefully pilfer the rich insights of the presuppositional and fideist schools of apologetics to augment my own apologetic repertoire.