NOTE: This is the final one of my comprehensive exam responses. Like the rest, it is unedited, was written in 80 minutes with no resources at hand. I placed this one last because, along with the first one, it serves as a framework for my own understanding of apologetics and my personal apologetic strategy. I hope you enjoy it, and as always, comments are welcome.
Question #3. Discuss and defend against major objections your view of the role of using evidences and presuppositions in apologetics.
My fundamental approach to apologetics, what I will ‘discuss and defend,’ is an “integrative classical apologetic” approach, illustrated most powerfully in the ministry of William Lane Craig (reasonablefaith.org). I will defend an approach that begins with rational argumentation and demonstration of the probable truth of Christianity.
Apologetics rightfully begins as a personal encounter with another person. There are, of course, impersonal apologetic encounters – over the internet, through written works, etc. – but each of them presume a personal encounter at least on the intellectual sphere. More frequently, our apologetic encounters are truly personal – engagement with another person, a skeptic, seeker, or doubter on a personal, one-to-one (or small group) level.
As such, apologetics must recognize certain truths about the person we are engaging. First, they, like us, are created in the image of God. They are endowed with reason and intellect. They contain within themselves an inherent desire to know and worship God. They are endowed with the freedom to choose, the ability to make real, meaningful choices between good and evil.
Second, they are, like us, radically fallen. The fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden has consequences for all their offspring, which includes every human being. The fall has affected not only their relationship with God (which is irreparably broken), but also their religious and intellectual capacities. Thus, whereas pre-Fall our religious desire was oriented toward God, post-Fall our religious desire is opposed to God.
However, third, the results of the Fall do not result in a total and complete lack of common ground between believer and unbeliever. Christians and non-Christians share a great deal in common, and the common ground establishes the possibility of dialogue and discussion. In personal encounters, however, we will often have to identify the common ground that exists between us and our friend. It will not always be the same!
A. Awakening Religious Desire
A next step in apologetic encounters is awakening religious desire within our partner. Why ought they even to listen to appeals to consider Christianity? I am convinced that within our culture, people are spiritually hungry, but often do not even realize it. Thus, I begin with an account of my own religious experience of growing up a convinced, but empty atheist. The worldview without Christ, particularly the naturalistic modern worldview, is an empty, hopeless, meaningless, purposeless existence. I experienced it, and I felt its powerful nihilism.
However, most contemporary functional atheists do not consistently think through the consequences of their worldview. They see life without God, but seek to retain meaning and purpose within it. Like Loyal Rue, they embrace (or proclaim) a “Noble Lie,” something to retain a semblance of purpose even though it’s a myth. Or, like Richard Dawkins, they seek to proclaim that, despite the fundamental meaningless of life, we can construct something meaningful out of it. Or, like Camus and Sartre, they insist that we must simply act and existentially make life meaningful. But thinking it through, the naturalist must end in a Nietzschean nihilism. If there is no God, there is no eternal life, there is no ultimate purpose in life, there is no meaning in life. There is no hope. There is only bleak, hopeless, infinite darkness in the universe of man. What is man, in the absence of God? An insignificant and doomed member of an insignificant and doomed race on an insignificant and doomed planet within the immense scope of a boundless universe (which itself may then be but an insignificant and doomed member of an infinite multiverse).
But God has created us such that we are existentially incapable of living within that framework. Man matters, and we all know it. We all live that way, even if our worldview denies it. Thus, the Christian apologist will seek to uncover the presuppositions of the one he is engaging, demonstrating the logical end of their worldview. If they embrace a thorough materialistic naturalism, they end up with no purpose, no meaning, no life after death. Nothing of substance or hope. But they cannot live that way. Schaeffer calls this taking the roof off – removing the hedge of protection that people seek to erect to insulate them from the logical extensions of their worldview. Alternatively, he calls it identifying the point of tension within their worldview. Van Til calls it showing the irrationalism and unliveability of the non-Christian worldview. Each way of putting it is correct. Essentially, the apologist must uncover and explain the full nature and scope and consequence of the worldview presuppositions that our friends have and hold. While on its own, this seems (according to Schaeffer) a cruel and cold act, it is actually an act of self-giving love – bringing the other person to the point where they recognize the emptiness of their own worldview, and may consequently be open to considering the truth of the Christian worldview.
B. The Place of Evidences and Proofs
Having (hopefully) brought our apologetic referent to a place where they are willing to consider the faith that is within us, we can turn to demonstrating the truth of the Christian faith on the basis of theistic proofs and evidences.
For the modern naturalist, mere consideration of the existence of God may be a difficult intellectual step. Thus, utilizing the theistic proofs is helpful in showing the rationality of belief in basic theism. That is, before considering Christianity per se, it is often necessary to help people see the probability of the existence of God. Of these, the cosmological, moral, and experiential are the ones that I consider to be the most powerful and persuasive.
The cosmological argument for the existence of God stems from a basic argument: (P1) Everything that begins to exist has an external cause; (P2) The universe began to exist; (Conclusion) Therefore the universe has an external cause. The first premise has been historically unquestioned. It is self-evident that things which begin to exist have a cause outside of themselves. Some insist that contemporary quantum mechanics call this premise into question; however, the products of quantum vacuums are not the result of something coming from nothing. Rather, quantum vacuums themselves contain a rich structural environment which permits the production of quantum particles. The self-evident truth is that nothing comes from nothing, and nothing ever has or will.
The second premise has historically been rejected. Greeks and modernists alike posited the eternality of the universe in a steady state. If the universe had always existed, it did not have a beginning point as such; therefore, there is no need to posit and external cause (creator) for it. On logical grounds, medieval Islamic and Christian theologians argued that there could not be a literal infinite past to the universe – that it was logically incoherent. Examples like Hilbert’s Hotel help to illustrate the difficulties inherent within an actual infinite series.
However, it was not until the rise of Big Bang cosmology in the 20th century that Christian apologists came to take hold of the cosmological argument as a primary proof for the existence of God. Big Bang theory (derisively named by Hoyle) points to a singularity in the past, a point at which the density of the universe was infinitely high, and the space it occupied infinitesimally small, such that all known laws of physics break down at that point. The evidence provided by red shift, cosmic background radiation demonstrate that there is a beginning to the universe – a point at which the space-time continuum begins, exploding into existence out of, literally, nothing. The point is, the scientific evidence demonstrates that there is a beginning to the universe, or that, according to the second premise, “the universe began to exist.”
Granted, some physicists and astronomers seek to avoid the implications of Big Bang theory by positing an oscillating universe, or a Hawking-type imaginary time/no boundary condition; but these are attempts to avoid the obvious implications of what seems self-evident in Big Bang theory – the universe had a beginning, and therefore requires an external cause to bring it into existence.
The moral argument for God’s existence works from the innate moral consciousness of mankind, combined with our acknowledgment of our own failure to live up to our own moral standards, and argues that there must be an external law-maker who gives the moral law. C. S. Lewis nicely summarize the moral argument in his Mere Christianity; Timothy Keller explains it succinctly for a 21st-century audience in his Reasons for God. Man cannot live amorally. We all acknowledge the existence of a moral code. Yet the moral code cannot originate within ourselves (individually) or our society (as a collective), because in either case, the source of the moral code would be insufficient to ground a truly objective morality.
However, we all acknowledge not a particularistic morality, but rather a transcendent morality that applies to all people at all times, whether they like it or not and whether they admit it or not. Hence, Lewis famously argues that morality must be transcendent, otherwise there would be no point in having fought the Nazis. If Nazi morality was simply different than British, then why send all those Brits to France or Holland to die trying to eradicate Nazi morality? If the Holocaust was simply the expression of a different social contract, why react so viscerally and violently against it? Again, our inherent and innate crying out against the injustice and horrors of events like the Holocaust are evidence of a transcendent moral code which we expect all human beings in all times at all places to live up to.
Such a moral code cannot find a suitable foundation in either sociobiology or social contract theory – the two major alternatives to theistic ethics. If morality depends upon us, then it may change tomorrow. The Holocaust might be right tomorrow. Rape might be right tomorrow. Self-sacrificial love could be wrong tomorrow. Or, when we achieve our next “evolutionary step,” morality could change. Thus, perhaps the Nazis were more highly evolved than the rest of us, and we all wiped out the next manifestation of human evolution in World War II. Yet this approach is simply implausible and unliveable. That is not the way we approach ethics. The only sufficient grounding for objective morality is a transcendent moral source – something outside of human morality which grounds our ethics; namely, God.
The argument from religious experience is twofold. First, it points to the religious experience of billions of people throughout the ages, stating that the vast majority of human beings have been incurably religious. All those billions of spiritual human beings could not be wrong; but a naturalistic worldview requires them all to be wrong if there is no God. Second, it points to the unquenchable religious desires that exist within all of us – the drive to know and worship the divine, and the yearning for eternal life. Both these desires are evident from the dawn of human civilization; all human societies have had religious expression and the desire for eternal life. Again, if all there is is stuff, this is incomprehensible.
Critics of such classical / evidential apologetics will argue two things: (1) the cosmological (and moral and experiential) argument is not conclusive or certain; and (2) the cosmological argument does not establish Christianity itself, only a bare theism, or even deism. On both counts, they are right. However, their criticism is simply irrelevant, for the argument is not intended to be or do either. Theistic arguments and proofs are used when someone is open to the possibility of theism. Alternatively, they are useful when someone insists that it is irrational, stupid, or otherwise irresponsible to believe in the existence of God. In the first case, theistic proofs give people strong, persuasive (though admittedly not iron-clad) reasons that they ought to believe God exists. In the second case, theistic proofs show skeptics that there are rational demonstrations of our faith, that we are well within our epistemic rights in assenting to such proofs as the cosmological argument as rational support for our Christian faith.
In reply to the second criticism, I must again admit that they are absolutely correct. But the theistic proofs do not exist in a vacuum either. We use them as a tool in our toolbox; one part of a personal apologetic which is intended to also consider evidences related explicitly to the truth of the Christian faith. If we use the cosmological argument in isolation from everything else, then yes, the criticism is valid and telling. However, since we do not, but rather move on from such theistic proofs to consider the reliability of Scripture and the proofs of the resurrection of Jesus, the objection is muted.
The theistic arguments for theism can be helpfully supplemented by two things: (1) a response to the problem of evil (a defense or theodicy); and (2) a philosophical case for the possibility of miracles. Both are helpful, but are beyond the scope of this essay (and particularly the time I have remaining!).
Supplementing the theistic proofs and rational arguments, my apologetic approach moves on to consider specific evidences for the truth of Christianity. First, the defense of biblical reliability (outlined in answer to Question #2 above) is essential. Christianity is founded upon the inerrancy, inspiration, and authority of Scripture. Thus, we must be able to point to the reliability of Scripture as the source of our faith.
Of course, at this point, Van Til or some comparable presuppositional apologist will turn red in the face. “How can you argue FOR the reliability of Scripture?!?!?! You must begin with the authority of Scripture! It is not a conclusion of apologetic argument, but rather the beginning point.” However, a presuppositional apologist will need to make an argument for adopting Scripture as the starting point for apologetics himself. And on what basis do they do so? Often they insist (as does Van Til) that nothing makes sense unless we do accept Scripture as the starting point. That is, all other starting points for human thought and discourse end up providing insufficient basis for rationality. But why should this matter? Why is reason important? The presuppositionalist is simply acknowledging what the classical apologist uses as an essential starting point – we have to acknowledge the legitimacy of human reason in order to have an apologetic conversation at all! The presuppositionalist is concerned about elevating human reason to autonomous magisterial status – a legitimate concern, but not a flaw that the classical apologist is committed to falling into. I just think it is ironic that presuppositional apologetics object to the classicist’s use of reason, when their only method of establishing the sufficiency of Scripture as an apologetic starting point is, itself, reason.
Nonetheless, there is some merit in the presuppositionalist’s concern that we argue for, rather than from, the reliability (inerrancy, inspiration, and authority) of Scripture. However, their criticism misses some of the existential point of modern apologetics. The impact of higher biblical criticism over the past 300 years has been devastating, both within and without the church. The vast majority of non-Christians are avowedly convinced that the Bible is an unreliable, mythical, figment of early Christians’ imaginations. Many even within the church (Strauss, Reimarus, Schleiermacher, Crossan all think they are saving the church, not destroying the faith) have bought into the unreliability of Scripture. To approach the average nominal Christian or convinced non-Christian (e.g., the Muslim who thinks Scripture to be corrupted) and simply say they should believe this because the Bible says it is so, is insufficient to begin with. That is, we cannot legitimately use Scripture as our starting point, when the person we are conversing with disavows the reliability of Scripture. They simply will not listen to us. If that is our goal, then perhaps we can go ahead and speak to ears that are unhearing. But that is not the apologetic method we observe in the New Testament. Yes, Paul frequently gets frustrated with the Jews in the synagogue when they refuse to listen, refuse to repent, continue stridently in their opposition to the Gospel. But he continually begins with where people are at, and seeks to bring them to a rational acknowledgment of the truth of the Gospel. When evangelizing Jews (giving them the reason for the hope he has), he uses Scripture liberally and continually; when evangelizing Gentiles (giving them the reason for the hope he has), he does not refer to Scripture near so frequently, indeed often beginning with their own poets or religious expressions (e.g. Acts 17).
In short, before many of our contemporary skeptics and seekers will listen to what the Bible has to say, they need to be convinced of why they should listen to what the Bible has to say. Why is it trustworthy? How historically reliable is it? Once we have demonstrated that, we have removed rational obstacles to them considering the claims that the Gospel makes upon them.
From the argument for biblical reliability, it is essential to move on to two fundamental points: (1) the self-understanding of Jesus Christ; and (2) the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Again, both elements are crucial, but time prevents me from deep consideration of them herein.
The self-understanding of Christ is examined in order to demonstrate who Jesus thinks He is. The need is to show that Jesus cannot be considered just a prophet, just a teacher, or a wandering cynic (Crossan), or an eschatological prophet (Schweitzer), but rather that Jesus presents Himself as being God in the flesh. This is established on the basis of the titles used by Jesus to refer to Himself: (a) Son of Man (the divine figure of Daniel 7:13-14); (b) Messiah; and (c) Son of God (in unique intimate fellowship with God the Father in most un-Jewish fashion). It is further confirmed by Jesus’ actions, which assumed divine prerogatives: (a) forgiveness of the sins of others (e.g. Mark 2:1-12); (b) teaching with authority reserved for God (e.g. Matthew 5-7), even correcting rabbinic misunderstanding of Torah; (c) healing without regard for temple procedure or sacrifice; (d) claiming to determine men’s eternal destiny. The claims made through Jesus’ words and works is what ultimately gets Him crucified. The sissy Jesus of the Jesus Seminar and other liberal scholarship simply isn’t radical enough to bother with! Furthermore, the self-understanding of Jesus is confirmed through the understanding of the first generations of Christians, who immediately began to worship Jesus as equal to Yahweh (in most un-Jewish fashion). Why?
Because of the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after His crucifixion. The resurrection is unquestionably the pivotal historical event in the Christian faith, and (from a Christian perspective) in all of human history. Jesus Christ is crucified, but on the third day, so the Christian claims, was raised from the dead, and 40 days later ascended into heaven. The resurrection precipitates a radical change in the worldview of the 1st-century Jewish disciples of Jesus. They begin to worship Jesus as God; they begin worshiping not only on the Sabbath day (the seventh day of the week), but also on the Lord’s Day (the first day of the week); they no longer consider the temple the pre-eminent focal point of worship and faith.
The culmination of Christian apologetics, then, is pointing to the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, Craig concludes his Reasonable Faith with a lengthy chapter on the truth of the resurrection; thus, I conclude apologetic arguments and series with the resurrection as well. If Jesus is raised from the dead, this is the crowning confirmation of the truth of Christianity. However, the resurrection is also highly doubted today, again, even within the Christian Church. In our generation, the scholarship and public appearances of John Dominic Crossan have been powerful in persuading many that the resurrection is a ‘metaphor,’ speaking of the continuing empowering presence of Jesus with his disciples community, rather than a literal concrete historical fact in space and time. The metaphor of resurrection is, in my view, the dominant understanding of the resurrection in Canada today, including in most segments of the Christian Church.
Thus, pointing to a historical argument in support of the historicity of the resurrection is crucial. Certain historical facts are crucial in making this argument.
(1) The crucifixion and death of Jesus. Not really doubted by anyone outside of Muslim circles. Nonetheless, it is good to be able to point to Gospel and secular sources which confirm that Jesus died by crucifixion.
(2) The burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea. Crossan disputes the burial, arguing that Mark invents Joseph and the other gospel-writers extrapolate from Mark’s invention. However, there is literally no documentary evidence in support of Crossan’s thesis, and no good reason to dispute the burial story.
(3) The discovery of the empty tomb by women on Easter Sunday. This is most frequently doubted, sometimes through a surface reading of 1 Corinthians 15:4, which does not explicitly mention the discovery of an empty tomb. However, as that passage goes on to discuss the appearances of the risen, physical, Jesus to many witnesses, the empty tomb is clearly presumed.
(4) The appearance of Jesus to many, including the skeptic James and the opponent Paul and a large group of about 500 people. The appearances demonstrate that the resurrection was not a hallucination (hallucinations don’t happen to large groups at the same time). The conversion of James demonstrates that Jesus appeared not only to friends, but also to doubters. And Paul’s conversion is instrumental.
(5) The transformation of the disciples, from fearful cowards into bold proclaimers.
(6) The early preaching of the resurrection in Jerusalem, the very place where the crucifixion occurred. It is striking that there is absolutely no historical record of anyone denying the existence of the empty tomb, despite the early preaching of the resurrection in Jerusalem.
N. T. Wright concludes (rightly) that the birth and growth of the Christian Church in the first century is entirely inexplicable unless Jesus Christ truly was raised from the dead. He is correct. However, it is a fact that many people, despite knowing the arguments and acknowledging the evidence, deny the conclusion. Why?
This is where presuppositions come into play. After examining the theistic proofs and considering the evidences for the truth of the Christian faith, if our conversation partner does not acknowledge the truth of Christianity, it is necessary to consider the impact of their worldview presuppositions. Van Til and other presuppositionalists rightly emphasize the role of worldview in preventing people from being able to consider and embrace the truth of Christianity. Once we work through our apologetic, and demonstrate that Christianity is fully rational and embraceable, we can turn and show someone the reasons why they personally find it difficult or impossible to accept it. Here, the presuppositional insight into the noetic effects of sin, and man’s desire to be autonomous, is helpful and essential.
Thus, in a well-rounded, comprehensive apologetic strategy, it is essential to emphasize the use of reason and evidences. However, it will also become necessary to consider presuppositions, and expose the faulty presuppositions of people who will not accept the evidence for the faith.