A Few Critical Thoughts on Apologetic Methodologies (and their often misguided conflicts...)
Among Christian apologists (those who engage in 'apologetics', the rational defense of the Christian faith), there exists a strong disagreement as to how apologetics should be exercised. There are, among apologists, proponents of various apologetic 'methodologies'. These methodologies are not always easy to classify or differentiate, but they differ in various ways. I propose in this article to survey the three main families of so-called 'apologetic methodologies', to briefly explain their teachings, and assess the nature of their conflicts. The main thesis I wish to establish consists in the following two propositions: 1. All these methodologies offer some valid and robust arguments in favor of Christianity, and 2. The arguments offered by either camp to criticize the others are all invalid.
The first point can hardly be developed in great detail, since it would call for the all-too-lengthy defense of all the essential arguments in favor of Christianity, no less. These could, and clearly have, filled up hundreds of books. I can only refer the reader to the voluminous literature surrounding each argument. Their defense is not a domain on which I can add many original thoughts. On the other hand, that second thesis, the controversial affirmation that their differences and conflicts are unjustified, is both original and important; hence the motivation behind this article.
The three main apologetic methodologies under focus are: 1-evidentialist apologetics, 2-classical apologetics, and 3-presuppositional apologetics.
Let us begin our survey with evidential apologetics. As its name indicates, evidential apologetics concerns itself with providing 'evidence', more particularly historical evidence, for one of the most central truths of the Christian faith, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. On the contemporary scene, Gary Habermas, Michael Licona, or Josh McDowell could be identified as such. An 'evidential' apologist puts forth historical data that strongly supports the hypothesis of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Essentially, they argue as follows: they start from a 'minimalist' set of data that can be established with a high level of historical confidence about the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, drawing from the best historical sources about him and defending their reliability according to the standard criteria of historical analysis, applicable to any other figure of history. These criteria include: early attestation (that is, the sources are dated soon after the historical events they describe), multiple attestation (several independent sources offer the same information), criterion of embarrassment (if the historical source affirms a fact that is embarrassing to its author, it is more likely to be true), etc..
In this context, the documents of the New Testament, especially the four gospels, are often at the center of this discussion, but they are not treated by the evidential apologist as being divine, or inspired, or infallible a priori. They are taken minimally as what they are: ancient historical documents, offering an account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Their reliability is thus scrutinized and their claims are assessed by the aforementioned criteria, just like any other historic document, and the evidential apologist builds a case in favor of the historical facts surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus: the crucifixion of Jesus under Roman authority, his burial in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea (a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin), the discovery of his empty tomb on the following Sunday by a group of his women followers, and the origin of his disciples' belief in his bodily resurrection (an unusually un-Jewish belief, that led the disciples to be persecuted for preaching it against all oppositions). These historical facts are reliable and pass successfully through the filter of the criteria of authenticity. Once these historical facts are established, the evidential apologist asks "what is the best explanation of these historical facts?" A set of competing explanations is considered: "Jesus wasn't really dead when they took him down from the cross", or "the disciples stole away the body once he was put in the tomb", or "the disciples hallucinated their post-mortem visions of the risen Jesus", etc. Each of these hypotheses is then assessed in light of the standard criteria of evaluation for historical hypotheses. These include: explanatory scope (it is preferable to have one hypothesis that explains a maximum of the facts to be explained), explanatory power (the historian favors a hypothesis which, if true, makes the facts very probable: it explains the facts well), plausibility, not being ad-hoc, etc.
It is then concluded that the best explanation for these historical facts is that which Jesus' disciples gave from the start, namely "God raised Jesus from the dead". This concludes our survey of evidential apologetics.
As for the so-called 'classical' apologist, he adopts this entire line of 'evidentialist' argumentation, and reaffirms it entirely! But additionally, he offers more generic arguments, seeking to establish the existence of God as the creator of the universe, and the foundation of objective moral values. On the contemporary scene, classical apologists would be William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, or R.C. Sproul. Their main arguments for the existence of God are as follows:
1-The Leibnizian cosmological argument
This argument consists in saying that the universe, being contingent, requires an explanation for its existence, and that by the nature of the case, this explanation can only be God:
Premise 1 - Everything that exists must have an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own being, or in an external cause
Premise 2 - If the universe has an explanation of its existence, then this explanation is God
Premise 3 - The universe exists
Conclusion: The explanation of the universe is God, who therefore exists.
I leave the defense of each premise to classical apologists in the literature.
2-The Kalaam cosmological argument
This argument, similarly argues that the universe must have an external cause, in virtue of having had a beginning, and not being eternal in the past.
Premise 1 - Everything that begins to exist must have a cause
Premise 2 - The universe began to exist
Conclusion: Therefore the universe must have a cause
And by a conceptual analysis of what it means to be the cause of the universe, the classical apologist concludes that there exists a timeless, spaceless, immutable, immaterial, incredibly powerful, and personal cause of the universe. This argument establishes the existence of a personal creator of the universe.
3-The teleological argument
This argument presses the existence of an intelligent designer behind the fine tuning of the initial conditions of the universe to permit the existence of intelligent life. Leaving aside entirely the question of evolution and whether Darwinism is sufficient to explain the totality of biological diversity and its appearance of design, this argument focuses on the initial conditions of the universe, noticing that certain constants (gravity, nuclear forces, the cosmological constant), as well as certain initial quantities (the initial level of entropy, the ratio between matter and anti-matter) are incredibly finely tuned to fall within the microscopically narrow range of values which would permit the existence of life, anywhere in the universe. This remarkable fact calls for an explanation, and produces the following argument:
Premise 1 - The fine tuning of the initial conditions of the universe is due to either physical necessity, or chance, or intelligent design.
Premise 2 - the find tuning of the initial conditions of the universe is neither due to physical necessity nor chance
Conclusion: Therefore the fine tuning of the initial conditions of the universe is due to intelligent design, by an intelligent designer of the universe.
4-The moral argument
This argument contends that the existence of objective moral values points to the existence of God.
Premise 1 - If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist
Premise 2 - But in fact, at least some objective moral values do exist (that is moral values which are true independently of individuals or cultures)
Conclusion: Therefore God exists.
Here again, I leave the defense of the various premisses to classical apologists in the voluminous literature. There also exist other classical arguments that are of interest, such as the ontological argument (defended by Alvin Plantinga), but the main arguments are listed above. From these arguments in favor of theism, the classical apologist then employs the historical arguments for the reliability of the biblical documents and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, in order to affirm not merely theism, but indeed Christian theism.
Finally, the so-called 'presuppositional' apologist takes an approach which he contends is very different. On the (relatively) contemporary scene, presuppositional apologists would be Cornelius VanTil, Greg Bahnsen, K.Scott Oliphint, Douglas Wilson, or James R. White. The presuppositional apologist affirms that the classical arguments are based upon an erroneous presupposition, namely that the non-believer and the believer share a neutral platform from which they can reason without examining their presuppositions. The presuppositional apologist is usually 'reformed' theologically, affirms a strong view of original sin and of the 'total depravity' of man before his conversion, and contends that the debate cannot take place in neutral ground, but rather that each contestant should put their 'presuppositions' on the table. The presuppositional apologist 'presupposes' that the Bible is true and that it is the word of God, and he affirms that, without this presupposition, it becomes incoherent for the un-believer to affirm even the existence of any meaning, or any communication, so that the unbeliever, by merely engaging in the debate, proves that God exists. Indeed, if it is necessary to believe in the Christian God in order to affirm coherently that sentences have meaning or that the laws of logic obtain (sometimes moral values are also employed here), the sheer fact of employing them to refute the existence of God demonstrates that the un-believer espouses (against his will) the existence of God: he 'borrows' ammunition from the Christian worldview in order to demolish it. These contentions are often called the 'transcendental argument' for the existence of God, and reside at the center of the presuppositional apologist's arsenal.
That is it, for our survey of these three apologetic methodologies. For our present evaluation, let us not complicate the matter unnecessarily by discussing evidential apologetics; since all its claims are contained within those of classical apologetics, let us restrict our discussion to classical and presuppositional apologetics. What then are the strengths, and what are the criticisms offered by apologists of this or that methodology?
First, their strengths: it's quite simple, I am of the opinion that every single argument mentioned above is valid, and can be used to establish that Christianity is rational and true. None of these arguments contradicts another, and for this reason, they can all be found in my personal apologetic arsenal. So if these arguments are coherent and can, as I claim, coexist in peace within a same army, why is there such a division and even an intense controversy between classical and presuppositional apologists? Here are the argument that the former offer against the latter.
First, the case offered by the classical apologists against presuppositional apologetics. The objection is simple: classical apologists accuse presuppositional apologists of circular reasoning. A circular argument is invalid, as is well known, and hence if we presuppose the biblical truths in order to establish the biblical truths (such as the existence of God), then the un-believer is logically in a position to refute the argument for being circular, committing the fallacy of 'begging the question', or 'petitio principii'.
The problem with this argument, is that it exhibits a misunderstanding of presuppositional apologetics. At no point does the transcendental argument commit this fault of reasoning in a circle. The misunderstanding comes from the fact that the word 'presupposition' is used equivocally. The presuppositional apologist uses the term 'presupposition' as a synonym for 'belief' or 'commitment', but not for 'premise' understood as the unexamined premise of an argument. On the contrary, presuppositional apologists strongly insist on the need to "examine one's presuppositions", often affirming that the un-believer himself fails in the task of examining the presuppositions of atheism, and hence reasons circularly in his rejection of Christianity.
The charge of fallaciously reasoning in a circle is therefore invalid, and there is no reason to reject the transcendental argument, which, I believe, demonstrates validly that the laws of logic, the existence of meaning, and the existence of objective moral values all require the existence of God. It should thus push the unbeliever to reject his worldview and consider Christianity, wherein a rational God is the source of logic, meaning and moral values. This should also invite the unbeliever to consider the fact that this same God revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, presuppositional apologists also offer several arguments opposing classical apologetics, but as I will now show, these arguments also are invalid.
First of all, some press the objection that the classical arguments only establish a generic theism, but not Christian theism. And since eternal salvation is only received by faith in Jesus and not in a generic concept of God, these arguments do not serve to make Christians. But this argument is hardly convincing. Yes, the gospel is at the center of evangelism and it is absolutely necessary to have faith in Jesus; but that in no way makes the arguments for God's existence useless: they refute atheism! In a culture as secular as ours, it is particularly useful to show that atheism is false. Once this thesis is established, it will be high time to compare monotheistic religions and offer an apologetic for Christian theism. As a matter of fact, the classical arguments do go farther than generic theism, as soon as they establish the reliability of the resurrection of Jesus: it constitutes a reason to believe the God of Jesus, and leaves the door open to the belief that the Bible is also inspired and authoritative, even if it is not initially used as such in our argumentation.
At times, the argument is even worse, it is affirmed that the God of classical arguments (cosmological, moral, etc...) is incompatible with the God of Christianity. This affirmation is without merit. Absolutely none of the properties of the creator established by these arguments contradicts the Christian worldview.
Finally, and more devastatingly, this argument is self-refuting, because the fault at hand (if indeed it is a fault) is also committed by the transcendental argument! As expressed above, the transcendental argument establishes the existence of a transcendent soul who anchors the rationality of the world and the laws of logic as well as moral values, but from this it does not at all follow (at least not without additional arguments) that this transcendent soul, this 'God', has also revealed himself in Jesus or inspired the Bible. For this, additional arguments (of classical apologetics!) are necessary. If the presuppositional apologist adds to his conclusions that the Bible is true and inspired, then and only then does he commit the fallacy of circular reasoning, since these conclusions are not supported by the transcendental argument.
Another criticism consists in saying that classical apologetics is based on an erroneous view of the fallen man, and too optimistic a judgment of his ability to reason about God. The logical arguments (with premisses and conclusions) employed by the classical apologist are said to be inefficient, as long as the unbeliever is not confronted to his sinful nature, his need for salvation and the necessity of the God of the Bible (from whom the unbeliever borrows a belief in the laws of logic, etc.).
The presuppositional apologist, on the contrary, affirms a 'reformed' (understand 'Calvinist') view of fallen man, and affirms that any conversion is only the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit who calls the unbeliever irresistibly into the kingdom of God, revives his intellectual capacities, and makes a believer out of him. These contentions are sometimes put forward with the slogan "one's theology determines one's apologetic methodology". Yet all these theological affirmation are perfectly available to a classical apologist if he affirms that conversion is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit, who uses the classical arguments just as He would use the transcendental argument. I am myself a fiery defender of the classical arguments, and passionate advocate of reformed theology. I am a card-carrying member of the Calvinist party who joyfully affirms with Doug Wilson every time I wake up in the morning "Ah, another day of Calvinism!" My anthropology is entirely reformed, and it excludes the validity of none of the above arguments.
Finally, presuppositional apologists complain that the classical arguments do not establish 'knowledge' of the existence of God, but only its 'high probability'. The arguments listed above are 'deductive', with premisses and a conclusion. When contemplating such deductive arguments, the conclusion follows necessarily from the premisses, but the certainty of the conclusion is only as high as that of the premisses. And therefore, a deductive argument of this sort doesn't really establish the certainty that presuppositional apologists say should be involved in the knowledge of the truth of Christianity.
But, the presuppositional apologist continues, the Bible does not tell us to believe in the high plausibility of the existence of God, but on the contrary, affirms that we all have the 'knowledge' that God exists, and it is this 'knowledge' that the apologist affirms as an integral part of his 'presuppositions', or theological commitments.
The problem with this argument, is that it fails to grasp the function of a logical argument, and furthermore presupposes a mistaken conception of what knowledge is. As many philosopher have now well-established in the discipline of 'epistemology' (the science of how we know what we know), absolute certainty is not at all necessary to possess 'knowledge'. There are many pieces of knowledge which we have, justifiably, without having absolute certainty. As a matter of fact, there is even precious little that we truly know absolutely indubitably. The role of the above arguments is to show that given the truth of certain very plausible premisses, the existence of God follows very plausibly, and therefore can very well justify the 'knowledge' of God's existence.
And here again, the argument in view happens to be self-refuting. Why so? Because the transcendental argument also has a logical structure, that can be expressed in exactly the same rigorous format as the classical argument presented above. It would go as follows:
Premise 1 - If God does not exist, then there is no objective meaning, law of logic or objective moral value.
Premise 2 - But there exist laws of logic (as presupposed by this argument!), and objective moral values.
Conclusion: Therefore God exists.
As I affirmed above, I am convinced that this argument is valid, efficacious, and convincing. But its structure is not conceptually different from that of the classical arguments! Let us not use a double standard: there is nothing wrong in employing a deductive argument, using premisses that are plausible albeit not indubitable. Warranted knowledge does not require absolute certainty.
All these criticisms are therefore invalid on both sides. Classical apologists who criticize presuppositional apologetics misunderstand the way the terms are defined by presuppositional apologists (particularly the word 'presupposition'), and the presuppositional apologists who criticize classical apologetics misunderstand the logical place that arguments play in warranting knowledge.
From our analysis, what conclusions follow? It is a good news bad news situation. The good news is that all the above criticisms are invalid, so the totality of the above arguments and apologetic methodologies are valid. That means that all the classical arguments as well as the transcendental argument should belong in the arsenal of the eclectic Christian apologist.
The bad news is that these invalid criticisms are still defended today in the world of apologetics, ironically by scholars whose job it is to recognize a bad argument when they see one. If my present critique is found convincing, I invite apologists (professionals or beginners) who are interested in the question of apologetic methodologies, to abandon the above criticisms, and to join forces (and arguments), to establish together the rationality of the Christian worldview, "always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect". (1 Peter 3:15)