Five Views on Apologetics

I have a little patience – but just a little – for a Christian who is not interested in apologetics.  He simply must not understand what it is.  Apologetics is about why we believe what we believe.  It’s about how to articulate Biblical truth so that our children can come into agreement with God and be saved.  It’s about how best to share truth with the lost so they might open hearts and minds to see their need for the Savior.  It’s the content and strategy for reaching the mind of the lost fellow, the pathway to assure his heart and soul that the Gospel message is in touch with reality and has personal consequences.  Furthermore, apologetics is the intellectual and rational foundation for a faith that stands on solid ground.  It’s the fortress of reason for defending our children and newly converted brothers and sisters from the phony philosophies of Satan’s world . . . if it’s done properly.

William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig

It turns out there are several ‘camps’ in the field of apologetics, camps somewhat in competition.  In the book Five Views on Apologetics, edited by Steven Cowan, five such views are represented by essays, critiques of each other’s essays, and rebuttals of the critiques!  I found the written debate educational and entertaining and a bit disappointing, disappointing because they often seemed to deliberately misunderstand their “competitors’” arguments, creating strawmen to pummel rather than simply addressing contentious points in a straightforward manner.

The five and their camps . . .

William Lane Craig – Classical Apologetics

Gary R. Habermas – Evidential Apologetics

Paul D. Feinberg – Cumulative Case Apologetics

John M. Frame – Presuppositional Apologetics

Kelly James Clark – Reformed Epistemology Apologetics

Going into this study I expected to be largely in sync with John Frame, since I am very much in the presup camp; that is, with the caveat ‘Frame without the Calvinism’.  I wish that Francis Schaeffer had still been alive when this book was written (2000) and had been one of the contributors.  Schaeffer was a non-Calvinist presuppositionalist, which I believe is the perfectly Biblical position to take.  (I hope to write about one of Schaeffer’s books soon.)  Despite my incoming empathy with Frame, I determined to review the competitors with my best attempt at an open mind, to see who might make the best case and do so fairly.  (It’s good exercise to work at suspending bias.  Try it sometime!)  As with my other essays, I won’t be exhaustive in this review, but will extract some nuggets that I find interesting.  I do recommend the book for those who want to go deeper into what you might call the theory of apologetics as opposed to the practice of apologetics.  Of course, practice depends on theory.

The editor (Cowan) sees an apologetic method as an argumentative strategy for defending the faith.  Differentiating among camps, for example classical vs. evidential vs. cumulative case, is not particularly easy.  The boundaries are fuzzy at times and so a taxonomy may vary with the eye of the beholder.  But here goes with Cowan’s attempt at a taxonomy (my paraphrase):

The Classical Method . . . Use natural theology (observations of the creation) to establish theism, then move to historical evidences for the deity of Christ and the veracity of Scripture.  The classical method was used by several notable apologists of previous centuries.

The Evidential Method . . . Having much in common with the classical method, this “one-step” approach focuses on the Biblical record of miracles, especially the resurrection of Christ, and both Biblical and other historical accounts to establish the truth of the Bible.

The Cumulative Case Method . . . Here’s what it’s not:  It’s not a formal argument like a proof, nor an argument from probability, nor does it conform to typical deductive or inductive reasoning.  It’s more like a lawyer’s brief or an appeal to a jury.  It’s an informal argument that puts several types of data into a hypothesis that beats any competing hypothesis, thus leaving the Christian worldview as the only competitor left standing.

John Frame

John Frame

The Presuppositional Method . . . The apologist makes it clear that he presupposes the truth of Biblical Christianity as the starting point for understanding everything important about the universe, man, morality, history, etc., indeed every fact about our existence.  To the presuppositionalist, only the Biblical God makes sense about anything and everything.  Anyone in unbelief has a worldview that suffers contradictions and elements that cannot be lived with.  The presup apologist shows the unbeliever how his worldview makes no sense.

The Reformed Epistemology Method . . . If Calvin’s theology is right, then every man is born with a sense of the divine, and can come to a belief in God immediately without the help of evidence.  The focus then is on negative or defensive apologetics to help believers under challenge from the world’s philosophies.  On the positive, or evangelistic side, the apologist looks to be a part of God awakening the unbeliever.

Let’s start with William Lane Craig.  He represents many classical apologists who compromise on Genesis, allowing for a Big Bang cosmology and billions of years of history, along with disease, death, and corruption before Adam shows up.  Craig seems unaware of the huge destructive impact of evolutionary dogma.  One of his favorite arguments is called the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which is, briefly, ‘Anything that begins to exist must have a cause.’  The ultimate cause must be God, implicitly the God of the Bible, but then you must go to history and other arguments to make the point that it’s not just any other god.  The problem is that a committed evolutionist will simply not be impressed with this argument, despite its logical power.  To the evolutionist there is always a multiverse or a weird quantum fluctuation that, in his heart, he can use to deny God.

Interesting (to me) is that Craig has more common ground with Frame than either would likely admit.  Craig decries the magisterial use of reason, which stands like a judge over the Gospel and weighs evidence from the perspective of the atheist.  He rather supports ministerial reason which submits to and serves the Gospel, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Craig:  “Surely faith is available to everyone who, in response to the Spirit’s drawing, calls upon the name of the Lord.  (If) faith is subjected to the vagaries of reason and the shifting sands of evidence, (then) Christian faith (is) rational in one generation and irrational in the next.  But the witness of the Spirit makes every generation contemporaneous with Christ and thus secures a firm basis for faith.”

This is certainly the perspective of a presup apologist, however.  In Craig’s signature book, Reasonable Faith, he takes the classical approach, starting with arguments from natural theology.  These arguments can be useful, but in my view must be framed (no pun intended) in the context of a presup strategy.  You can check out my essays on presup apologetics for details.  See the section entitled “Practical Apologetics ‘On the Street’” in my essay The Missing Heart of Apologetics and the short essay, How to Witness to an Atheist.  Here is an oversimplified example, not the way it’s really done, but it illustrates the distinction:

Classicist:  “Look at the complexity of the stars and the galaxies and the solar system.  Isn’t it highly probable that there must have been a god behind all this?  Now let me tell you about how probable it is that the New Testament record is actual history.”  (It’s a small ‘g’ god until it’s the God as described in the Bible.)

Presuppositionalist:  “God is real and personal.  We know Him through His revealed word, the Bible.  He created the galaxies and stars and planets in their orbits with brilliant order and design.  Creation only makes sense if you start with a Creator.  Now, let’s look at Biblical history.  The world only makes sense in light of it.”

Lots of the details that follow in either argument may be the same, but the framework is entirely different and the attitude is, too:  “Thus saith the Lord . . .” is the Biblical pattern, not “Would you condescend to consider the probability . . .”

Who's the Judge?

Who’s the Judge?

Craig argues as a classicist regarding the Resurrection.  “In my estimation the hypothesis ‘God raised Jesus from the dead’ furnishes the best explanation of the historical data.”  He cites the empty tomb, the post-Resurrection appearances, and the conversion of early disciples because of the Resurrection.  Craig stands on the consensus of scholars to affirm the basic historical facts.  But this goes against an earlier statement of Craig that deplores the idea of an “intellectual elite, a priesthood of philosophers and historians, who will dictate to the masses of humanity whether or not it is rational for them to believe in the gospel.”

I believe that Craig’s classical philosophy contributes to his compromise on creation, buying into a Big Bang cosmology and denying the straightforward historicity of Genesis.  Thomas Aquinas, an early classicist (and a Roman Catholic), believed that with the Fall of Adam, man’s will was corrupted but not his intellect.  The idea of an autonomous mind is at the core of all secular philosophy, that man, starting with his mind and reason and observing the creation around him, can properly judge the origin, history, and operation of the universe.  As classicists like Craig buy into this idea, they are easily swayed by atheists in cosmology, geology, and biology who also affirm autonomy apart from God.  Craig follows their atheistic lead in presuming an origin story that keeps God (mostly) out of the picture.  The Biblicist, however, tightly affixes his reason to the Bible and immediately recognizes the truth of fiat creation, the historicity of Adam and his descendants, the geological record given by Noah’s flood, and so on.  Your starting point matters.

One of Frame’s critiques of Craig’s approach:  “Human knowledge of God is not autonomous knowledge, in which we set the rules and determine the criteria for believing in God.  We should not tell God what he must do to satisfy the demands of our rationality.  Rather, if we are to believe in him, we must come to him on his terms, bowing before his Word.”  Paul, in Romans 1 leaves no room for probability, “so that they are without excuse.”  The Psalmist (Ps. 19) informs us that “the heavens declare the glory of God.”  No uncertainty there.  God designed the human conscience to recognize truth when declared boldly, not equivocally.  When you start Biblically and then examine physical evidence, it all works.

Apologetics must be integrated with evangelism or . . . what’s the point?  The Biblical approach is to transition to the personal at the right point, using the law to convict the unbeliever’s conscience, warning him that the crucified and risen Lord is his only hope.  Yes, the historical scholarship is worth knowing – especially for Christians as a matter of education – but for evangelism such a probabilistic case would then require a blind leap of repentance and faith in the midst of what the lost fellow still sees as probabilistic uncertainty.  Craig admits, “I think that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is such that a well-informed investigator ought to agree that it is more likely than not to have occurred.”  This may be classical apologetics, but it’s useless for Biblical evangelism.

Kelly James Clark critiques Craig by observing that “our believings are inextricably entwined with our passions, emotions, and will . . . Sometimes our commitments and values help us to see the truth; sometimes they obscure the truth . . . No method exists for rising above our conditions and seeing the world (or the evidence) without the filters of our beliefs and values.”  But this is exactly why the presup approach, challenging the unbelieving worldview with the reality of creation and the moral conscience, is so powerful.  Our common ground with the unsaved fellow is the God-designed and created universe we all live in, and the God-given conscience of man.  Only God’s system makes sense of it all, and the argument must be levied personally, not merely with cold logic and the competing views of scholars.  Clark again, on probabilities:  “The probabilities involved are either inscrutable (we simply can’t tell what they are) or nonexistent (there just aren’t any relevant probabilities).  The best we can do is make a considered judgment of the evidence.”  But that’s not the goal!  The Christian’s objective is to convert the mind, heart, will, and soul of the lost and to build an assured faith for himself and other believers.

Gary Habermas

Gary Habermas

Gary Habermas, in his chapter on Evidential Apologetics, explains that his approach is “one-step”, focusing on historical evidences to prove both God’s existence and his identity as that revealed in the New Testament.  He sees classical apologetics as “two-step”, proving God’s existence first and then moving to the Christian view of God.

Habermas outlines an evidentialist case, citing what we can learn about Jesus in the Gospel accounts, including and especially what He taught about Himself; for example, calling Himself ‘the Son of Man’, how He referred to God as His father in such a personal way, and His acceptance of the title ‘Son of God’.  The case that Jesus makes for Himself, along with the record of His interactions and miracles, plus the accounts of the cross and the Resurrection, go a long way toward convincing a reasonable man that this was no simple Jewish rabbi, no mere nice guy.

Here’s where he falls short in apologetics and evangelism.  Habermas proposes a Minimal Facts argument:  “In my opinion, the strongest case for the resurrection appearances of Jesus involves the use of those data that are both well grounded and that receive the support of the critical community.”  These minimal facts widely held – by unbelieving critics – include Jesus’ death by crucifixion, the disciples’ despair, the appearances of Jesus post-resurrection, the disciples’ transformation, and the rapid growth of the Christian churches.  Habermas argues:  “It meets critics on their own (common) grounds, using their presuppositions and their methodology.”

Well then, Gary, you ought to be able to convince the unbelieving critical scholars!  His fallacy, of course, is that he thinks that by meeting unbelieving scholars on their turf that this is somehow helpful.  No, their turf — their worldview — includes the presuppositions that the God of the Bible does not exist, that miracles are not possible, that man has no soul but rather is a collection of molecules in motion.  There is no historical probabilistic argument that is compelling to someone with unbelieving presups.  You’ve got to dismantle his presups, explain how Biblical presups make sense of the history, and make it personal.  It’s not a game.  It’s life or death.  Additionally, in this modern era, postmodern influence generates much distrust for all historical records.  Alternative historical accounts are simply narratives in the postmodern view, not relevant to truth and besides, truth is not relevant to life . . . so they say.

One of the most distressing aspects of Habermas’ common ground approach on historical and textual issues is that it denies the inspiration of Scripture.  So you start the argument after insulting the Holy Spirit by agreeing with the heretical scholar that the Biblical texts are merely manmade historical artifacts.  I won’t expand on this, but it should be clear to any Christian that deliberately excluding the Holy Spirit in an evangelistic endeavor is trouble.

In a multi-hour / multi-day series of discussions with an unbeliever, you may by all means include such analyses of the historical record.  But most encounters with unbelievers are fairly compact.  You’ve got to use your big guns up front.

Antony Flew

Antony Flew

Habermas argues that (before he died), “Prominent atheist Antony Flew even agrees that if the resurrection actually occurred, naturalists would have to be open to Jesus’ teachings concerning Christian theism, including Jesus’ own deity, even if it meant changing one’s naturalistic worldview.”  Interestingly and tragically, Antony Flew became a theist after much consideration of the design characteristics of DNA.  In short, a bit of natural theology converted him to theism.  But he died lost, never personally confronting his sin and guilt before a personal God.  It is clear that Flew, both when an atheist and then as lost theist, saw himself as autonomous judge and not as convicted criminal.  The Biblical evangelist must put the lost man in the dock, under accusation.  Habermas’ “one-step” method is a very long step indeed, but not in the right direction.

Paul D. Feinberg is “in substantial agreement” with Habermas.  The cumulative case approach can “be seen as an extension or modification of what is called the evidentialist approach.”  Feinberg sees the historical arguments as one useful type of evidence, and so adds other types to the basket.  These include the features of creation, the Christian’s experience of a relationship with God, the moral law, the self-attesting claims of Biblical revelation, and fulfilled prophecies.  I might call Feinberg’s approach, ‘Throw the kitchen sink at him’ apologetics.

Hey, I’m for it . . . but multiple arguments, if you and your hearer have the time and the patience, must be framed boldly within the presup mindset.  Feinberg equates the cumulative case approach to the method of inference to the best explanation, a technique more common to law, history, and literature, than to logic or philosophy.  (It’s also quite fundamental to basic scientific research.)  He argues that, properly done, the apologist can establish the Christian worldview, not just a vague theism.

Blog 99 - image throw the kitchen sink apologeticsFeinberg invokes several tests for determining the ‘best explanation,’ including the test of consistency (no internal contradictions), the test of correspondence (with reality), the test of comprehensiveness (covering all the big issues at stake), the test of simplicity (Occam’s razor), the test of livability (can you live with this system), the test of fruitfulness (does it produce good), and the test of conservation (is it sturdy in the face of apparent anomalies).

Feinberg shows some naivete when he argues that “the atheist is free to suggest alternative explanations or to deny that it is possible to explain the universe at all . . . The atheist must show that the alternative explanation or theory advanced is more plausible than the one defended by the theist.”  Or, if the atheist claims the universe is not comprehensible, then he “must explain why it is that people claim to have experienced God, why there is a moral law,” etc.  But this simply is not true.  Atheists feel no compulsion to argue that they have a more plausible explanation than the Biblical one.  Atheists avoid debate.  When in power, they suppress Christian speech.  They censor creation and intelligent design ideas out of the children’s textbooks and fire public school teachers who dare to question evolutionary dogma.

In person, on the street, the challenge is to engage an atheist in a friendly dialogue.  Your typical atheist doesn’t want to engage a Christian.  When you do get an open door, you had better have something to say.  The atheist needs to hear something.  He won’t be able to tell you what provoked the Big Bang or how stars and galaxies and planets in their orbits formed naturally.  He won’t have a clue about the first DNA or protein molecules or the first cell.  He won’t be able to explain how the unique information content of a reptile genome got transformed into the unique information content of a mammal’s genome.  Yes, you can talk to an atheist about these things and teach him that the Biblical worldview explains creation and design and everything else, but don’t imagine that the unbeliever feels a moral obligation to come up with a better argument to convince you!  We would all love to have them work hard to convince us, so that we can be in the Judge’s seat for a change.  But the job of the evangelist is to help, to plead, to teach, to warn.  The Bible calls it preaching, not debating, in part because the lost sinner tends to avoid debate, avoids putting his esteem on the line.  In the unusual case where someone will (politely) debate you, that’s great!  But it’s rare.

Are stars' orbits organized by luck?

Are stars’ orbits organized by luck?

I won’t detail Frame’s defense of presuppositionalism.  I’ve already written much on this site and in this essay on point.  Frame does say that presuppositionalism is similar to the cumulative case approach, but is built on a worldview comparison, “that the issue between theists and nontheists is not merely about certain facts or arguments, but also about the way they look at all facts and arguments.”  More deeply, all the facts and arguments are only rational within the Biblical worldview and the apologist’s job is to help the lost fellow see that what he knows about living in God’s universe is at variance with what he claims to believe.  And, in my view which I believe is the Biblical approach – make the argument personal with the stakes (judgment, Hell, Heaven) starkly in view.

Kelly James Clark (Reformed Epistemology Apologetics) offers three reasons why a person does not need an argument to believe in God:

  1. Most people wouldn’t be able to access or follow the clever philosophical proofs for God’s existence.
  2. God has given everyone an awareness of Himself that is not dependent on theistic arguments.
  3. Belief in God is belief in a person, not like belief in a scientific theory.

I’m not impressed by these points.  For example (briefly), point 1:  Clark is referring to the more arcane arguments, the Kalam cosmological or Anselm’s ontological or Aquinas’ First Mover.  But a child can understand that a painting means a painter was there, and a building means a builder.

Anyway, just what does Clark recommend?  He admits:  “I do not have a well worked out strategy for defending Christian belief . . . (yet) I am dubious of any evidentialist approach.”  So Clark “encourages unbelievers to put themselves in situations where people are typically taken with belief in God:  on a mountain, for example, or at the sea, where we see God’s majesty and creative power.”  He hopes that “her judgment that God is creator more than likely wells up within her, ineluctably, perhaps surprisingly.”  In other situations, too, like the birth of one’s child, the beauty of a flower, or a walk in the woods, “the scales fall from our eyes as we see that we are standing on holy ground.”

This is all mysticism . . . to put it charitably.  I’ll note that unbelievers do these things a lot and still despise the Gospel.

Regarding the attacks of atheism, evolution in particular, Clark suggests three options:  resist evolutionary ‘theory’, remain agnostic about it, or embrace it.  He admits that conservative Christians may find the latter option difficult.  (You think?)  I’m so disgusted with Clark’s attitudes on apologetics and the fidelity of Scripture that I won’t go further with him.  This is supposed to be a book about Christian apologetics, right?

I won’t get into the back and forth debate within the book, which includes some mischaracterization and even cheap shots.  It’s actually somewhat embarrassing to see them ‘cheat’ by misrepresenting their ‘opponents.’  I’ll give Frame a pass in that area.  He struck me as the most careful and professional of the five.

The editor and the authors recognize that classifying various apologetics approaches is not an exact science.  There is much overlap and, obviously, much misunderstanding of each other’s positions.  Fortunately, I don’t have to care about such pain.  The Biblical pattern is clear to me after studying it for many years, and testing it experientially after many years ‘on the street.’

If all this discussion overwhelms you a bit, let me just encourage you to do apologetics even if you don’t want to study it.  Use Ray Comfort’s methodology or what you can glean from the essays in the Evangelism section of this site.  Use good tracts – see my Tracts essay for recommendations.  Just walk up to someone this week and give her a tract.  Just ask someone if she’s ever thought about the big issues of life . . . life and death, Heaven and Hell . . . mention that you’ve got something in common, you’re both sinners and need the Savior, and share the Gospel.  It’s not hard to do.  Just do it.


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