Thoughts on an Email Question about Apologetics

Apologetics is not about apologizing, it comes from the Greek word which means “defense” and refers to someone’s offering a defense of something. In Christian thought, Apologetics is the discipline that seeks to provide reasonable answers to questions about and objections to the Christian faith. An apologist is anyone who seeks to give a defense of or an explanation for the truth claims of the Christian faith.

Apologetics enables the believer to carry out Peter’s exhortation to be “always ready to give a reason for the hope that lies within you with meekness and fear” (1 Pet. 3:15) and to “earnestly contend for the faith once given to the saints” (Jude 3). While Jude’s exhortation is given in the context of defending the faith against apostasy, it is relevant in that apologetics also enables Christians to see that the Christian faith is a reasonable faith and to guard against slippage toward either blind faith or weak liberalism.

Apologetics is not evangelism and should not be confused with evangelism. Some people are saved without any apologetic endeavor; others are brought to the gospel by having their objections removed through the apologetic endeavor. God can work with or without apologetics because he works as he chooses when he chooses. Apologetics is important because it encourages the believer because he sees that his faith is a reasonable faith and it enables the believer to give the appropriate response in defense of his faith. If you know apologetics, you don’t have to worry about what your unbelieving family members are going to ask you at the next cook-out or run from the guy at work who keeps telling you your faith is a crutch for weak-minded people.

Now on to the question. One reader wrote the following question:

Are you familiar with Van Til and Presuppositional Apologetics? If so, do you champion Evidential Apologetics, as RC Sproul does, or Presupp in the Van Tillian/Greg Bahsen tradition?

I answered this briefly in personal correspondence, but here I will expand on this for the benefit of all my readers.

First of all, this question is a good example of what is known as the Fallacy of the False Dilemma, also called the “Either-Or Fallacy,” in which only two alternatives are presented when in reality there are more alternatives to consider. There are five different views of apologetics, and while they often overlap, they are distinct enough to have been labeled and to have certain people associated with them as proponents.

Two are mentioned above, Presuppositional Apologetics, which is usually associated with more conservative reformed groups such as the OPC (it was developed in reformed circles), but is also held by some in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) circles. Presuppositional Apologetics begins with the assumption of Christian truth claims between the apologist and his audience. The term “presuppositional” points out the presumption of the existence of God and the truth of the Christian Scriptures as the “common ground” from which any further apologetic argument is made. Presuppositionalism further emphasizes the exposing of flaws in competing worldviews.

The second, held by R. C. Sproul of the PCA and Ligonier Ministries (which Sproul founded) is actually labeled Classical Apologetics (evidentialist apologetics, as mentioned in the email, is another form of apologetics, but the two are very similar) and emphasizes reason and rational argument in the apologetic endeavor.

A third view, Evidential Apologetics stresses things such as miracles, the resurrection, and historical and archeological evidences to demonstrate the coherence and trustworthiness of the Christians Scriptures. Josh MacDowell is probably the most well-known of evidentialist apologists. As one can see, these two are very similar; their difference lies mainly in their emphasis.

A fourth view is closer to the first one and is known as the Reformed Epistemological view. It is called “Reformed” because it developed in Reformed circles and reflects the Reformed worldview. It is called “Epistemological” because it emphasizes the Reformed view of the knowledge of God. Epistemology is the area of philosophy that deals with how knowledge is acquired and understood. It answers questions such as “How can we know anything?” and “How can we know that what we know is true?” Reformed Epistemology functions much like Presuppositional Apologetics but begins with the stance that belief in God is a foundational and basic belief and therefore does not need to be argued or defended.

The final view is usually called the Cumulative Case approach and is laid out in books such as Faith Has Its Reasons: An Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity (An Apologetics Handbook) by Kenneth D. Boa and Robert Bowman, Jr. and in Introducing Apologetics: Cultivating Christian Commitment by James E. Taylor. This view also happens to be the one to which I am partial.

A good introductory level book that provides an overview of each of these views is in the Counterpoints series published by Zondervan and is called Five Views on Apologetics. If you’re interested in this, that is a good place to start.

Now, in answer to the question, I reject it because it limits me by forcing me to choose between one of these two. Both of these views, indeed, each of the five presented, has strong points in its favor. Many of them also have some weaknesses, though. Without going into detail (in this already longer than usual post), let me just say that I have a Reformed Epistemological view of humanity and the knowledge of God and I am very sympathetic to Presuppositional Apologetics. Apologetics should look for the common ground and use that common ground as a beginning for affirming the Christian worldview and demonstrating the weakness and falsity of competing worldviews. Nevertheless, in this endeavor sometimes a good argument or the appropriate evidence may go a long way in removing objections to the faith.

Though I used to reject any notion of “Defending the Faith” in terms of philosophical argument or presentation of evidence, I see more and more the power of presenting cogent arguments in defense of our faith and presenting evidence to back up those arguments. When I have used such reasoning and evidence in personal conversation or even when teaching or preaching, I find that not only are objections removed from unbelievers, I find that the faith of believers is strengthened, as well.

Why, then, would you not want to take the best that each of these views has to offer and then be willing to employ whichever will provide you, the apologetic moment, with the ability to give a reason for your hope and to contend for the faith?

This does require work and study and much thought and it also demands a reliance upon the Holy Spirit to guide you in the task of defending the faith and abundant prayer to empower you by the Spirit’s power not only to defend the faith but also to bring that person into confrontation with the Gospel, which alone has the power, by the Spirit, to save.

That’s all for now. Perhaps I’ll write more on this later.

By the way, I’m sure my Apologetics professor would cringe at this greatly (over-)simplified explanation, but please don’t hold him responsible.

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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