What is Apologetics?
Apologetics is a branch of Christian theology that helps give reasons for the truthfulness of the Christian faith/worldview. The word “Apologia” means “to give reasons, make a legal defense” (Acts 26:2; 2 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet 3:15). Throughout Acts, Luke uses words such as reason, (trying to) persuade, eyewitness, witness, defense. It is true that many other religions have their own apologists. But in this post, I will focus on what are called apologetics systems. In this post, we will discuss three types of Christian apologetic systems: classical, historical, and presuppositional.
Classical apologetics operates in a two-or three step process (philosophical, theistic, and evidential). Working from the vantage point of certain undeniable foundational principles, such as the laws of logic and self-existence, certain philosophical questions are addressed, such as truth, reality, meaning, and morality. Since a belief in God as creator is essential for an individual to become a Christian (Hebrews 11:6), the primary goal is to help the unbeliever understand reality untainted by false assumptions. The second step offers evidence for the existence of God, usually in the form of traditional theistic arguments and empirical data such as manuscript and archaeological evidence. Norman L. Geisler’s and Frank Turek’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist is an example of a classical method.
The outline of the book goes like this:
1.Truth about reality is knowable
2. Opposites cannot both be true
3. The theistic God exists
4. Miracles are possible
5. Miracles performed in connection with a truth claim are acts of God to confirm the truth of God through a messenger of God
6. The New Testament documents are reliable
7. As witnessed in the New Testament, Jesus is God incarnate
8. Jesus’ claim to divinity was proven by an unique convergence of miracles/his resurrection
9. Therefore, Jesus was God in human flesh.
10. Whatever Jesus (who is God) affirmed as true, is true
11. Jesus affirmed that the Bible is the Word of God
12. Therefore, it is true that the Bible is the Word of God
We notice in Point #1 that Geisler and Turek are aware that we are living in a somewhat post-modern culture. That is why they point to the issue that truth is knowable. As seen above, the classical apologist generally starts with the evidence for God outside the Bible and then works his way to demonstrating that such a God would want to reveal more of Himself to the human race through special revelation. Hence, classical apologetics relies heavily on natural theology. Of course, the classical apologist knows that many faiths try to use miracles to validate the truth of their religion. Therefore, the classical apologist demonstrates that many of the miracle claims outside the Christian faith are lacking in historical/evidential support.
While natural laws may be descriptive, they certainly are not prescriptive. Therefore, the classical apologist will demonstrate that there are good philosophical reasons to believe that miracles are both possible and actual.
Classical apologetics was practiced by Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas. Modern classical apologists include Winfried Corduan, William Lane Craig, Norman L. Geisler, John Gerstner, Stuart Hackett, Peter Kreeft, C. S. Lewis, J. P. Moreland, and R. C. Sproul,.
Historical Apologetics does have some things in common with classical apologetics in that they begin with evidence to demonstrate the truth of Christianity. Both the classical and historical apologist see historical evidence to be crucial to the defense of Christianity. However, the historical apologist doesn’t see the need for theistic apologetics (starting with evidence for God outside the Bible) as prior to historical apologetics. The classical apologist believes it begs the question to discuss the resurrection as an act of God unless one had first established that a God exists who can intervene into the world. The historical apologist argues that one can show that God exists by demonstrating from the historical evidence alone that an act of God occurred, as in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the supreme apologetic.
When looking at the New Testament, the approach of historical apologetics is to start with the historicity of the New Testament documents and then to use the miracles of Christ, particularly the resurrection, to point to the fact that Christ is the Son of God. This approach shows that there is a theistic God exists who can work miracles. Historical apologetics generally begins by attempting to show the historicity of the New Testament documents by using the following syllogism:
1. The New Testament documents are historically reliable evidence.
2. The historical evidence of the New Testament shows that Jesus is God incarnate. This claim to divinity was proven by a unique combination of His miracles/His speaking authority, His actions, and His resurrection.
3.Therefore, there is reliable historical evidence that Jesus is God incarnate.
So we see in this syllogism that another step would be to examine the New Testament claims of Christ to be the Son of the theistic God who offers miraculous proofs for his claims. The most important part of this type of evidence is that Christ was resurrected from the dead. Once the deity of Christ is established, it can be, and often is, argued that the Bible is the Word of God, since Jesus (who is God) affirmed it to be so. Two present day historical apologists are Gary Habermas and Mike Licona who specialize in the resurrection of Jesus.
Both Habermas and Licona appeal to what is called the “minimal facts approach” to the resurrection.
Habermas lists “at least twelve separate facts that are agreed to be knowable history” by “practically all critical scholars” (The Historical Jesus, pg 158). Taking into account that even four of these facts that are accepted by virtually critical scholars (1, 5, 6, and 12) the case can still be made that the literal resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for these four facts (The Historical Jesus, pgs 162-164).
The 12 facts include:
1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.
2. He was buried, most likely in a private tomb.
3. Soon afterwards the disciples were discouraged, bereaved and despondent, having lost hope.
4. Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his interment.
5. The disciples had experiences that they believed were the actual appearances of the risen Christ.
6. Due to these experiences, the disciples lives were thoroughly transformed. They were even willing to die for their belief.
7. The proclamation of the Resurrection took place very early, from the beginning of church history.
8.The disciple’s public testimony and preaching of the Resurrection took place in the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified and buried shortly before.
9. The gospel message centered on the preaching of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
10. Sunday was the primary day of worshiping and gathering.
11.James, the brother of Jesus and a skeptic before this time, became a follower of Jesus when he believed he also saw the risen Jesus.
12. Just a few years later, Paul became a believer, due to an experience that he also believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus.
Both the classical and historical apologist knows that examining a claim such as the resurrection of Jesus will involve a metaphysical commitment. Without metaphysics, a person would be incapable of constructing a worldview. A worldview must explain all of the pieces of the puzzle we call reality. Therefore, an apologist can give all the evidence for a historical claim such as the resurrection of Jesus, etc. However, if one has a commitment to philosophical or metaphysical naturalism, the resurrection of Jesus will be interpreted in a naturalistic way.
This can be seen in the work of the well known New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. Ehrman says the following: “We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.” (Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium:New York: Oxford University,1999), 230.
Even though Ehrman agrees with the the facts that are laid out by Habermas and Licona, his metaphysical presuppositions (which impact his historical method) won’t allow him to say the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the appearances to the disciples. These issues demonstrate that in investigating the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection can’t be done apart from an historical method/philosophy of history.
Another approach to apologetic methodology is called the presuppositional approach. This approach starts by assuming Christian truth about God and Jesus as revealed in Scripture and reasons from Christianity. The presuppositional apologetic to the unbeliever begins with reasoning “from” Christianity through special revelation (Bible). The presuppositionalist assumes the content revealed in Scripture to be true and encourages the unbeliever to do the same since these assumed biblical truths offer only possible foundation and explanation for life and godliness- a framework on which to make of the world and God the way they actually exist. Due to the noetic effects of sin (sin on the mind), the unbelievers presuppositions are deemed irrational and inadequate to understand or explain the basis for religion, morals, communication and beauty. In some instances presuppositionalists test consistency by using the laws of logic. The goal is to demonstrate in any of several ways, that only biblical presuppositions provide the tools for one to make sense of reality and show that Christianity offers the only foundation and framework on which on which to make sense of the world and God.
The apostle Paul says that God’s existence and attributes can be “clearly seen” (Romans 1:18-20) since they have been “shown” to the unbelieving world through “the things that are made” (nature). Therefore, the unbelievers problem is not one of not understanding the truth of God, but of suppression, which leads to not receiving the truth.
As former atheist J. Budziszewski says:
” I am not at present concerned to explore Paul’s general claim that those who deny the Creator are wicked but only his more particular claim that they are intellectually dishonest. Notice that he does not criticize nonbelievers because they do not know about God but ought to. Rather, he criticizes them because they do know about God but pretend to themselves that they don’t. According to his account, we are not ignorant of God’s reality at all. Rather, we “suppress” it; to translate differently, we “hold it down.” With all our strength we try not to know it, even though we can’t help knowing it; with one part of our minds we do know it, while with another we say, “I know no such thing.” From the biblical point of view, then, the reason it is so difficult to argue with an atheist—as I once was—is that he is not being honest with himself. He knows there is a God, but he tells himself that he doesn’t. How can a person explain how he reached new first principles? By what route could he have arrived at them? To what deeper considerations could he have appealed? If the biblical account is true, then it would seem that no one really arrives at new first principles; a person only seems to arrive at them. The atheist does not lack true first principles; they are in his knowledge already, though suppressed. The convert from atheism did not acquire them; rather, things he knew all along were unearthed.”
Presuppositional apologetics differs from classical apologetics in that presuppositional apologetics rejects the validity of traditional proofs for the existence of God. Also, the presuppositional apologist differs with both classical and historical apologetics in its use of historical evidence. The presuppositionalist insists that one must begin with presuppositions or worldviews. The historical apologist believes that the historical facts “speak for themselves.” They are “self-interpreting” in their historical context. The pure presuppositionalist, on the other hand, insists that no facts are self-interpreting, that all facts are interpreted and can be properly understood only within the context of an overall worldview.
One well known presuppositionalist was the late Cornelius Van Till. Van Till answered the objection that the presuppositionalist method is circular by claiming that every system of though is circular. For example, a rationalist can defend the authority of reason only by using reason. Also, the Christian worldview is the only one that renders reality intelligible in its own terms. To read more about Van Till, click here.
Depending on how one is defined, there are three or four basic kinds of presuppositionalism: (1) revelational presuppositionalism (2) rational presuppositionalism and (3) systematic consistency. Some view Francis Schaeffer’s apologetic as an example of a fourth variation that might be called practical presuppositionalism. Each approach differs in the way in which a worldview is judged for truth.
Cumulative Case Apologetics
1. Paul Feinberg
2. C.S. Lewis
3. C. Stephen Evans
4. Basil Mitchell
5. Richard Swinburne
Advocates of the “cumulative case” method say the nature of the case for Christianity is not in any strict sense a formal argument from probability. In the words of Basil Mitchell, the cumulative case method does “not conform to the ordinary pattern of deductive or inductive reasoning.” The case is more like the brief that a lawyer makes in a court of law or that a literary critic makes for a particular interpretation of a book. The cumulative case method is an informal argument that pieces together several lines or types of data into a sort of hypothesis or theory that comprehensively explains that data and does so better that any alternative hypothesis. Paul Feinberg says that “Christian theists are urging that [Christianity] makes better sense of all the evidence available than does any other alternative worldview, whether that alternative is some other theistic view or atheism.” The data that the cumulative case seeks to explain include the existence and nature of the cosmos, the reality of religious experience, the objectivity of morality, and other certain historical facts, such as the resurrection of Jesus.
One More Thing: The Issue of Evidence
Lionel Ruby in his text, Logic: An Introduction says: “Every person who is interested in logical thinking accepts what we shall call the “law of rationality,” which may be stated as follows: We ought to justify our conclusions by adequate evidence…. By “adequate evidence” we mean evidence which is good and sufficient in terms of the kind of proof which is required. There are occasions when we require conclusive proof, as in mathematics, and there are occasions when it is sufficient to establish the probability of a given conclusion, as in weather prediction. But in all cases the evidence must be adequate to its purpose.” (1960, p. 131, emp. added).
I have been told by some atheists that they just want sufficient evidence. But they just can’t get there. But in reality, this really translates as what Ruby just stated as “conclusive proof” as in mathematics and logic. While the atheist waits for the “conclusive proof,” they are allowed to live a life in complete autonomy from God.
Also, remember the advice of the late Ronald Nash about the issue of proofs. As Nash said:
“What tends to be forgotten is the subjective nature of proof. First, proofs are person-relative. In other words, proofs are relative, which is simply to admit the obvious, namely, that the same argument may function as a proof for one person and result in little more than contempt for someone else. Second, proofs are relative to individual persons. A person’s response to an argument will always reflect varying features such as their past and present personal history. Proofs also may be relative to persons in particular circumstances. Therefore, proofs must pass tests that are not only logical but also psychological. No argument can become a proof for some person until it persuades a person.”
Atheists may say they left the faith for intellectual or evidential reasons, but my experience shows me there are always emotional or volitional issues involved in the process. In approaching the God question, is it true that all of us are completely objective? Not a chance.
1. House, H.W, and J. Holden, Charts of Apologetics and Christian Evidences. Baker Publishing Group. Grand Rapids, 2007.
2. Geisler, N.L. BECA. Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, 2007, pgs, 41, 154, 316, 607.
3. Cowan,S. editor, Five Views of Apologetics, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 1999.