Reasonable Theology: Apologetics

What is apologetics?

Apologetics derives from the Greek term apologia. It simply means defense. If I offer an apologetic for my faith, I am offering a defense for what I believe.

Is apologetics theology?

Apologetics is not itself theology. It’s a defense of theology and must take into account theological truths. Thus, apologetics, while distinct from the science of theology, cannot exist apart from it.

How is apologetics performed?

This is a question of method. How do we do apologetics? This issue has been long debated but it has especially been a popular topic for the last 200 years. As I understand it, the three main branches, or methods, of apologetics are the evidentialist school, the classicist school, and the presuppositional school. Of course, there are more subsets under these three methodological headings. There are evidentialists who differ with one another in method. The same can be said of clissicists and presuppositionalists.

What is evidentialism?

Evidential apologetics, broadly speaking, focuses on the empirical evidence for Christianity. The findings of archeology, geology, biology, etc., are important for the evidentialist. The evidentialist uses different sciences to support particular areas of the biblical account. Biology, for example, may be argued in order to show naturalistic evolution is false and how it’s possible for there to have been a literal Adam. Archeology is used by the evidentialist to support biblical dates and claims, such as the Exodus or the reign of King David.

What is classical apologetics?

The classicist offers a type of evidence as well, but the evidence offered by the classical apologist is evidence from reason, not empiricism. The classicist may argue for the existence of God from the law of causality, the argument from contingency, the ontological argument, the teleological argument, or the cosmological argument. Many of these arguments overlap and there are different variations of each.

For example, if every effect must have a cause, there must be an uncaused cause that created all things. The classical apologist also makes use of the syllogism. A syllogism is simply an ordered argument moving from a major premise to a minor premise only to draw a conclusion from both. For example:

(P1) If something exists, God exists.
(P2) Something exists.
Therefore,
(C) God exists.

This is a highly logical way of demonstrating the existence of God to the unbeliever. If both major and minor premises are true, then the conclusion necessarily follows. If someone wants to prove the argument false, they must demonstrate the falsity of one of the premises. They may say, “(P1) is false,” and then give their reasons as to why they think such. The classicist must then rebut their objection and fortify their defense of (P1).

What is presuppositional apologetics?

There are various forms of presuppositionalism, but perhaps the most popular is that which derives from the thought of Dr. Cornelius Van Til. “Van Tillian” apologetics holds the conviction that one’s ultimate epistemological starting point must be the God of the Bible. The apologist, at the outset of the argument, must presuppose the God of the Bible, not only in principle but also in the argument itself. Thus, the argument is stated: The triune God of Scripture exists by virtue of the impossibility of the contrary. This is the transcendental argument used by Van Til and his disciples, like Dr. Greg Bahnsen.

What is an epistemological starting point?

Epistemology is the study of human knowledge. Thus, the presuppositionalist makes the bold claim that the apologist must begin epistemologically with the God of the Scriptures. This means that, before any reasoning occurs, the Christian God is said to be assumed. There are questions as to the possibility of this. How does one epistemologically start with God before they start with themselves? Don’t I have to assume my own existence before I begin reasoning about that which is not myself?

Does presuppositionalism present evidence?

Presuppositionalism entails a presentation of evidence like the other preceding methods. However, it does so negatively. This is to say that the method guides the apologist to deconstruct unbelieving systems which supposedly leaves them with no other rational option beside the Christian God. For instance, the apologist may point out the incoherence of atheism or Islam in order to show that those systems are self-refuting or irrational. The task of the presuppositionalist, therefore, is a process of elimination.

Which method is to be preferred?

The broader historical consensus within the church has utilized the classical method of theistic evidences. This means that throughout church history, apologists have argued from causality, contingency, design of the universe, etc., to point the unbelieving opponent of Christianity toward God. They would then argue from things like the internal coherency of the Scriptures, the historicity of the resurrection, etc., to demonstrate the Christian position.

There is a biblical reason for this type of argumentation. In Acts 17, during Paul’s Areopagus discourse, the apostle makes a distinction between the true God and the pagan gods. He actually gives a type of ontological argument. He argues that God is not like gold or silver or stone (v. 29). Those are all things the pagans made idols out of. Rather, God does not dwell in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands (vv. 24, 25). This was already something the pagans knew (Rom. 1:18-20), and mistakenly called this God the “unknown god (v. 23).”

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul offers a rational argument from the resurrection. “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain (vv. 12-15).” He then says, “We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised (v. 16).”

Early Christians were pointing to evidence in the resurrection in hopes God would use that fact to draw people unto Himself. Paul construed this evidence in terms of rational argumentation in 1 Corinthians 15. The early church fathers, like Irenaeus, did the same as we will see shortly.

What are some objections to the classical method?

Some may object to my above use of the above passages. The presuppositionalist may say that, “Paul started his argumentation with the true God of the Scriptures in both of those examples! It’s not as if Paul started with no God only to argue to a general God.” While it is true that Paul started with theism in his argumentation, he did not start with the fullest expression of the Christian God.

Paul contextualized his argument in accordance with his own teaching (1 Cor. 9:22). The pagans made a temple to the unknown god, which is a marred recognition of the one true God, and Paul used this temple inscription as a springboard to discuss the reality about Yahweh. In fact, in his argumentation, Paul started with what the pagans knew about God and moved to a more accurate expression of that God. It was a progressive argument from point A to point B.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul uses an Aristotelian method of argumentation. If X, he says, then Z. If Christ has not been raised, then our faith is in vain. For the sake of a rational argument, Paul entertains the possibility that Christ never rose from the dead in order to show how foolish our faith would be without the resurrection. The presuppositionalist, for example, may say, “Of course! Just like we would say, ‘If God does not exist, the unbeliever wouldn’t be able to make sense of morality, logic, or human experience.'” But while Paul is making a rational argument here, he’s making it to believers. Doubting believers can look back on this argument and be reassured.

However, if we were to apply the method, not the content, to our apologetic toward the unbeliever, we should be able to argue from certain aspects of creation, immaterial or material, to show unbelievers how it makes no sense to deny the one true God of Scripture. Why couldn’t the classical apologist lodge an argument from contingency (à la Leibniz) at the unbeliever and follow it up with an argument for biblical accuracy (à la Warfield), all the while proclaiming the gospel in hopes that God would save them?

This seems to be what some of the earliest church fathers did. Irenaeus, in his Against Heresies, book II, makes an argument from necessity, if not simplicity. He does this to demonstrate that there is only one God, not a plethora of different gods. He writes:

For how can there be any other Fulness, or Principle, or Power, or God, above Him, since it is matter of necessity that God, the Pleroma (Fulness) of all these, should contain all things in His immensity, and should be contained by no one? But if there is anything beyond Him, He is not then the Pleroma of all, nor does He contain all (St. Irenaeus. Against Heresies, p. 92).

He, like Paul and Aristotle, uses conditional if/then statements to draw conclusions. Paul and Irenaeus used syllogistic reasoning to make their points (if A, then B, and so on). Did they do this because Aristotle did it? Are they adopting a worldly method, or an ungodly way of arguing? One would have to make a large assumption to get that conclusion.

One would have to assume that Aristotle did not derive his method of reasoning from God’s natural revelation. As Christians, we believe God has revealed Himself, primarily through His Word, but also through His creation. This includes the tools of reason like the laws of logic. We could ask, then, Why is the classical method automatically ungodly according to some apologists? Why is it unbiblical to make use of the created order in our defense of the faith? Nature absolutely condemns the unbeliever and we should be able to demonstrate that as Christians.

The presuppositionalist may respond by saying, “Because by using classical reasoning, you assume, in your arguments, that God does not exist. Even if you assume that God does exist in your argumentation, you’re only assuming a general god, not the one true God.” But this is all wrong. First, the classical apologist should, and does, presuppose the true God of Scripture. Otherwise, why would they be arguing for such? Second, just because the God argued for by the classicist is not an exhaustive picture of the Christian God, it doesn’t follow that they argue for a different god. There can only be one God who is incomprehensible, divinely simple, omnipotent, omniscient, self-existent, etc. That God is the Christian God.

The presuppositionalist may ask, “how would one know it’s the one true God?” I would reply: they know it is the one true God just like the Areopagites knew it was the one true God, albeit in a distorted fashion. The task of the apologist is to correct this distortion in hopes God would use that correction as a means to draw unbelievers to Himself. Moreover, there are additional arguments for the specifically Christian system which may be employed after arguments for the true God have been made. Another objection may come: “How is it that one couldn’t get Allah, a false god, from the argument of causality, or design, etc.?”

I would answer that, because there can only be one self-existent Lord of heaven and earth. The God argued for must either be Yahweh or Allah (or some other god claiming the throne). It can’t be Allah (or any other) upon further analysis because all other systems are internally inconsistent and thus should not be believed by a rational individual. For example, a god that will not, or cannot, condescend to his creation (i.e. Allah) cannot also have intentionality to create. Intentionality implies personality, not a cold deistic snobbery. Without the personable-ness of the Christian God there can be no intention to create and personally sustain a creation; not to mention a purpose to redeem a desperately fallen people.

Does the presuppositionalist begin with the full expression of the Christian God in their argumentation?

No.

The presuppositionalist, if their own standard is to be used, does not begin with the fullest expression of the Christian God in their argumentation. Their claim is this: The Christian God exists by virtue of the impossibility of the contrary. But how is one to know: (1) who the Christian God is; and (2) why it’s the Christian God and not others, like Allah. I contend that the presuppositionalist, constrained by the laws of logic, must follow the same steps the classical apologist does, even though they don’t want to admit it! The presuppositionalist has to start with the one true God as He is revealed in nature, by power of reason. They cannot start with the Trinity and they cannot start with the truth of the Scriptures.

They must work toward those things by process of reason.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. Paul and the earliest fathers did this. However, my concern is that there is a measure of inconsistency between the claim of the presuppositionalist and their actual practice. They claim that they start with the full expression of the Christian God, but really, they start with God as He is perceived through natural revelation, not Scripture. They may say the Christian God, but they have to demonstrate why it is the Christian God. Some presuppositionalists, at that point, incorporate evidential reasoning, arguing from the resurrection and other historical facts. Others argue analogically from the problem of the one and many to the triunity of the Godhead.

What are the dangers of arguing for the Trinity analogically from the one and many?

In his Introduction to Systematic Theology, Van Til claims that one can argue analogously from the philosophical problem of the one and the many to the Trinity. The problem of the one and the many involves the long-recognized tension between what we call universals and particulars and how those two things are held together in unity while also remaining distinct. Van Til finds here an analogy to the Trinity. The Trinity is what accounts for this unity and diversity in nature.

First, this unity and diversity in nature doesn’t necessarily point to a Triune God. Why can’t it point to a divine essence which susbsists in two, four, or five persons rather than three?

Second, the Reformers, such as Francis Turretin, have historically held that the Trinity need not be proven by reason of natural theology. Rather, the Trinity is a revealed truth that comes to us through the written Word of God. If we subject the Trinity to the powers of flawed reason, like the Socinians did, we are liable to reject it since those truths are incomprehensible. The sinful human mind is not content to apprehend, but desires to comprehend all things, to take the place of God in the area of knowledge. Thus, Turretin thought doctrines like the Trinity or the incarnation need not be proven by reason through a form of natural theology (Elenctic Institutes, 1.8-1.9). Ironically, Van Til appears to be doing the opposite. He wants to say one can perceive the Trinity through nature.

What are we to conclude?

We are to conclude that the classical method of argumentation is assumed in both human experience, church history, and the Scriptures. In human experience because we reason like this everyday. If I do X, then Z will happen, and so on. In church history because Irenaeus and other early fathers, used this method of argumentation. In the Scriptures because Paul uses this mode of reasoning in at least two passages (Acts 17, 1 Cor. 15).

Finally, we must conclude that the other methods, such as presuppositionalism and evidentialism, follow classical methodology to one extent or another, and this is telling. No matter the supposed diversity of method they each follow a process of reasoning which lead to certain conclusions. This is easy to see in evidentialism since it argues like this: Since evidence A, then conclusion B.

This process is more difficult to detect in presuppositionalism, mainly because it muddies the waters and throws a smokescreen over what’s really taking place. Despite their claims to be starting with the full expression of the Christian God, they actually begin where the classicist begins, with the one true God as He is apprehended by reason. Unbelief is irrational, says the presuppositionalist, since they deny the precondition for reasoning in the first place. This precondition is said to be the Christian God. But they must offer a reason as to why it’s the Christian God.

To be sure, classical apologists presuppose the existence of the Christian God. We too would affirm that reason and living in general would be impossible without the Triune God of the universe. But we can’t start with this truth because this is the very conclusion we are arguing for! How can one argue for a conclusion using that conclusion? That’s a vicious circle and it leaves the unbeliever an excuse to reject the Christian faith.

We do not want to leave the unbeliever with an excuse to reject truth.

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