My Apologetic Method

apoprismThe Apologetics Prism®

Introduction

A friend who was planning on teaching a High School apologetics class recently asked me what books I used when I taught. We were both familiar with the system taught at the seminary we had both attended, as well as many of the books that reflected it. As I gave my thoughts on each one, I realized that my apologetic method had developed since my seminary days, and that I did not actually have it written down anywhere besides my class notes. So I thought I’d share it here.

Apologetic Positions

Of the major apologetic systems, I definitely take the Classical position which begins with the idea that God made people able to know certain things about him just from interacting with the reality around them (e.g., Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:19). Because of this, the classical approach attempts to demonstrate the existence of God and the truthfulness of Christianity by means of philosophical arguments and evidence from various fields. It is called classical because it began with early apologists like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, was gradually systematized by the likes of Anselm, and met its most robust expression in Thomas Aquinas (the Church’s greatest theologian and apologist). Although challenged later by some Protestant thinkers, the classical system was revived due to the influence of apologists such as C. S. Lewis, Norman Geisler, R. C. Sproul, and Peter Kreeft.

Competing apologetic systems include Presuppositionalism and Evidentialism:

Presuppositionalism denies that knowledge is the issue, rather unbelief is a problem of the will. That system simply tries to poke holes in other worldviews and contrast their incoherency with Christianity. This position is represented by Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, Greg Bahnsen, and John Frame (some would include Francis Schaeffer). While Presuppositionalism makes many good points, I think it fails as an overall apologetic system. It often does well at the philosophical level, but fails to deliver the totality of Christianity at the end of its project.

Evidentialism begins with evidence for Christianity without first arguing for the existence of God or dealing with issues of truth. It is found in the writings of Josh McDowell, Gary Habermas, John Warwick Montgomery.This system might have been effective when the man on the street believed in the knowability of objective truth and often had a basic belief in God, but it is found seriously wanting in a culture where not only the existence of God but reality itself is called into question.

The classical approach covers all of the above bases, and does so in a systematic manner that allows one to start at whichever level is relevant for a given encounter.

Apologetic Prism

ApoPrismExplanation

While the classical two-step method was fine for thousands of years, it assumed that we can know reality – something that seems obvious to a two-year old, but which is called into question today. (I realize that reality skeptics have existed for millennia – I am not talking about sophisticated philosophers, I’m talking about people who take the premise behind The Matrix seriously, or who think the fable of The Blind Men and the Elephant actually makes knowledge claims questionable). Thus, it is necessary to include answers to radical forms of skepticism and relativism.

Now, I like to keep things simple. Any method that requires more than a few steps is going to get into memorization territory, and who wants to deal with that? The classical apologetics system historically consisted of only two steps: prove (1) Theism and (2) Christianity. By establishing a realistic view of the world before moving on to arguments for theism, the system can meet the apologetic needs of today. Thus the apologist must be ready to:

First establish that reality exists and is knowable. This is the move from Skepticism or Relativism to Realism, which here refers to the view that the world exists apart from our thoughts about it, and that truth values are grounded in thoughts that correspond to reality. Most of the argumentation springs from the fact that the denial of Realism seems self-defeating. At this step, any belief system that calls reality into question is removed from consideration.

Second, use various arguments and evidence from reality to show that God exists. Since reality is knowable (step 1), evidence based on reality is therefore useful to consider God’s existence. This is the move from Atheism, Agnosticism, Pluralism (e.g., Polytheism, Henotheism), or Monism (e.g., Pantheism, Process)  to Theism. At this step, any belief system that holds to the non-existence of a single creator God is taken off the table.

Third, demonstrate the historical evidence that Christianity is God’s revealed religion. This is the move from bare Theism or any other theistic Religion (e.g., Islam or Judaism) to Christianity. Beyond this step one can proceed to discriminating between orthodox and heretical opinions within Christianity, but apologetics proper has reached its completion.

When I teach apologetics, it is this method and not just the particular arguments and evidences that I emphasize. In this 3 Step method, then, one begins with philosophical investigation of common experience, proceeds to theological, scientific and other evidence for God’s existence, and finishes with historical and other evidence for Christianity. Other factors come into play of course, and there are overlapping data sets between these three steps, but that’s the basic outline. Whatever else one learns about apologetics in the future, can be easily fit into this scheme.

Another thing I like about this organization is that it distinguishes between truths of natural and special revelation. Whatever can be known rationally or empirically goes in the first or second steps. The third step should really be reserved for special revelation – the supernatural truths of Christianity. For it is here that faith becomes relevant. It does not (necessarily) take faith to hold to truths of math or science (although that is exactly why most are held), but revealed truths always require trust in the revealer (which is why it is also personal). Apologetics ends where the discovery of the divine revealer begins. Once we determine our spiritual authority, our job is to learn – not prove.

Apologetic Points and Pyramids

I think I stole the three-level pyramid idea from Richard Howe who pointed out that proving “Truth, God, and Scripture” required Philosophy, Theology, and Evidence (or maybe he stole it from me – correlation does not prove causation, after all). I also made mine into a prism to show how these three steps can filter out thousands of options. As my apologetic position developed, I changed the wording as well as the subject of the top step.

When I started teaching apologetics, I discovered that Chad Meister used an apologetics pyramid in his book Building Belief (see graphic below). I liked it because its organization was not too complex, and it did not bog down the reader with details. His pyramid had extra levels because he broke out various issues that I included under my three headings. His were (1) Truth, (2) Worldviews, (3) Theism, (4), Revelation, (5) resurrection, and (6) Gospel.

The system I was trained to use is the more detailed (and complicated) method of Norman Geisler and his protégé Frank Turek. They popularized the classical method by expanding it into the The Twelve Points that Show Christianity is True – a presentation that was itself expanded into the book I Don’t Have Enough faith to Be an Atheist. The 12 Steps are the following:

1. Truth about reality is knowable.
2. The opposite of true is false.
3. It is true that the theistic God exists.
4. If God exists, then miracles are possible.
5. Miracles can be used to confirm a message from God.
6. The New Testament is historically reliable.
7. The New Testament says Jesus claimed to be God.
8. Jesus’ claim to be God was miraculously confirmed.
9. Therefore, Jesus is God.
10. Whatever Jesus (who is God) teaches is true.
11. Jesus taught that the Bible is the Word of God.
12. Therefore, it is true that the Bible is the Word of God.

In truth, while I had my eyes opened to systematic apologetics by reading Geisler’s When Skeptics Ask, I never liked The 12 Points much. First, although it made for a cute title for conference presentations, The 12 Points is overly complicated and confusing (having graded hundreds of final exams based on them, I know this to be true). Some points require massive argumentation to support (e.g., points 3 or 6), while others are almost true by definition (e.g., points 2 and 4), and others are not even premises – they are conclusions following from other points (e.g., points 9 and 12). Second, the conclusion (point 12) simply does not follow from points 1-11. Jesus never taught that “The Bible is the word of God.” Further, the New Testament (the subject of points 6-7)  did not even exist yet.  At best it could be argued that Jesus affirmed the Old Testament (in general – not every particular book). Worse, even if Jesus had taught that “The Bible” is the word of God, The 12 Points do not yield the biblical canon that is assumed. At best, points 6-8 only establish some of the biblical writings as trustworthy. Third, I take issue with the fact that The 12 Points do not conclude with Christianity! Because Christianity is not reducible to the Bible, a 13th point would have to be added to bridge it to Christianity. Although The 12 Points make more sense in the book version, as a method they are unwieldy and somewhat misleading.

Here is how the above methods compare graphically:

ApoPyramidComparisonChart

In all of the various forms of the classical method, the basic idea is the same: the foundational issues are philosophical / theological and these are followed by evidential facts that (allegedly) get one to Christianity. Besides its elegant simplicity, where I think “my” method shines is in how its goal – the top step – relates to the apologetic enterprise overall.

The Apologetics Peak

The goal of apologetics should be the faith (2 Pet. 3:15 cf. Jude 1:3) – not the Bible (Christianity is not reducible to, nor does it even need, the Bible), nor (merely) the gospel. The Bible and the gospel are part of, but not equivalent to, the Christian faith. Paul defended the gospel (Phil. 1:16), but he did so as part of the entirety of the Christian faith because the gospel is more than just what fits on a tract. Both the Bible and the gospel must be understood in a true religious context to counter heresy and other falsehood – but that presupposes the presence of the orthodox faith.

Christianity as a religion precedes both its scriptures and its message. So what I “aim for” in my method is Christianity itself. By placing the Bible and the gospel within the category of Christianity, the apologetic task remains focused on the true goal and safeguards the project from getting derailed by particular problems. (For example, even if the Bible were thought to be errant, Christianity as a whole could remain unscathed. Or, if someone took issue with a particular doctrinal formulation, the overall faith can remain intact.)

Conclusion

As you can see, my approach to apologetics is mostly just a particular way of visualizing modern classical apologetics, but I have been told that it is helpful. Don’t take the graphics above too seriously, by the way – although I strove for accuracy, I opted for ease of explanation and comparison in some instances.

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2 thoughts on “My Apologetic Method

  1. I like it. Very simple and easy to remember, yet it completely evinces the proper order upon which to build one’s argument.

    As an atheist, I find that a great many of the discussions I’ve had suffer from going in the opposite direction of the one you suggest. A person will start with something which is of a distinctly Christian theological character, and I’ll have to basically keep asking “How do you know?” until we can back ourselves up to a point of philosophical agreement. With your method, we start at the bottom and only move on to the next argument when we agree with one another. You are essentially attempting to derive Christianity from first principles.

    Thanks for the article!

  2. Boxing – yes, I think that common ground is necessary to begin with (wherever that may be found). Also, just to be technical, I do not think Christianity (or any religion, science, history, etc. can be derived from first principles. What they can establish are the borders of what is possible, though – and that’s a good place to start. 🙂

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