Apologetics is the discipline of giving an answer in defense of a position – in this case, it refers to defending the faith (see 1 Pet. 3:15 or Phil.1:16). Although all Christians are commanded to be able to give an answer in defense of what they believe (as any thinking person, Christian or non-Christian should), how one “does apologetics” is not specified. The Bible demonstrates a few different approaches depending on the situation, but does not present a worked-out system. Since the very beginning of the Church, attacks against the faith have been ably answered by its greatest defenders – and out of these encounters, systems have developed and flourished. Here I will discuss how I approach the subject.
Of the major apologetic systems, I default to the “Classical” method which begins with the premise that God made all people able to know certain things about him just from interacting with the reality around them (see Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:19). With this starting point, 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. This “apologetic two-step” is called classical because it best represents the historical method of the Church beginning with the apostles and early apologists like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, was gradually systematized by the likes of Augustine and Anselm, then met its most robust expression in Thomas Aquinas (the Church’s greatest theologian and apologist). Although challenged by some 20th century Reformed Protestants, the classical system continued unabated due to the influence of modern 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, Michael Licona, and John Warwick Montgomery. This system was effective when the everyday person believed in the knowability of truth and often had a basic belief in God, but it is found wanting in a culture where not only the existence of God but objective 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.
A Modern Classical Apologetic Model
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: (1) prove Theism and (2) prove Christianity. 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 became necessary to include answers to radical forms of skepticism and relativism as a preliminary step (N.B.: One can enter into the classical method at any “step” – its importance lies in the comprehensive nature of the system as a whole.). By being able to establish 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. This is the move away from any belief system that calls reality into question is removed from consideration (e.g., many Eastern or New Age religions). (This step is where Presuppositional apologetics can be helpful.)
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 admissible to prove God’s existence. This is the move away from Atheism, Agnosticism, Pluralism (e.g., Polytheism, Henotheism), or Monism (e.g., Pantheism, Process). At this step, any belief system that holds to the non-existence of a creator God is taken off the table. (This step is Classical apologetics’ specialty.)
Third, demonstrate the historical evidence that Christianity is God’s revealed religion. This is the move away from bare Theism, Deism, or any other theistic religion (e.g., Islam or Judaism). (This step is where Evidential apologetics can be helpful.)
Beyond this step one can proceed to discriminating between orthodox and heretical opinions within Christianity, but apologetics proper has reached its completion.
A Modern Classical Apologetics Method
When I teach apologetics, it is this method and not just the particular arguments and evidences that I emphasize. In this Three-Step method 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 evidences for Christianity itself. Other factors come into play of course, and there are overlapping data sets between these three steps, but that’s the basic outline.
One of the best features of this method is that whatever else one learns about apologetics in the future, it can be easily fit into this scheme. As noted above, it can actually incorporate the best of Presuppositional and Evidential apologetics without limiting itself to them.
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 respectively. The third step is historical in nature but also involves topics 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 faith is always, ultimately, personal).
Apologetics technically ends at the discovery of the divine revealer – from there it is our job is to learn – not prove.
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 marketable title for conference presentations, I find The 12 Points to be overly complicated and confusing (having graded hundreds of final exams based on them, I know this to be true).
First, 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 points so much as conclusions following from other points (e.g., points 9 and 12). Such asymmetry is abrasive to my OCD mind. 🙂
Second, the conclusion (point 12) simply does not follow from points 1-11. Jesus never taught that “The Bible is the word of God.” Indeed, the New Testament (the subject of points 6-7) did not even exist in Jesus’ time. At best it could be argued that Jesus affirmed the Old Testament (in general – not every particular book). Further, even if Jesus had said that “The Bible” is the word of God, it wouldn’t matter because The 12 Points do not yield the biblical canon. At best, points 6-8 only establish that some of the biblical writings are inspired.
Third, even if the argument of the The 12 Points was sound, it does 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.
Apologetics Pyramids and Prisms
I might have originally stolen the three-level pyramid illustration from professor 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 made mine into a prism to show how these three steps can “filter out” thousands of options – so it’s mine mine mine!
I later discovered that Chad Meister used an apologetics pyramid in his book Building Belief. 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.
As my apologetic position developed, I changed the wording as well as the subject of the top step from Scripture to Christianity (the goal of apologetics is to prove the faith, not a book about the faith). Here is how the above methods compare graphically:
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.
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 the Bible), nor the gospel alone. 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 orthodoxy.
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.)
As you can see, my approach to apologetics is mostly just a particular way of visualizing modern classical apologetics. I hope you find it helpful.