Written by Jason L. Petersen
The word ‘apologetics’ comes from the Greek word, ἀπολογία (Apologia), and it means ‘speaking in defense of a position.’ You may have heard of different types of apologetics such as evidential, classical, or presuppositional apologetics. Some have preferences for how they approach apologetics, but unfortunately, some have wrongly assumed that they must pick a camp and stick with it while not utilizing any of the others. In this article, I am going to explain why we should not only huddle in one camp, but rather, have an appreciation for the saints that God has risen up to edify the body of believers. Instead of looking at apologetics as different sects, we ought to look at it as a branches of a whole discipline.
This article is based on a broad topic, and it will likely be updated over time with more information as other issues come up.
Squelching the Spirit?
When we talk to people about our faith, we should always move in the Spirit. This means that we should look to God for guidance at all times when we share the Gospel and the truth of our faith with others. If it is just us speaking, our words can return void, but if we operate in the Spirit of God and allow Him to guide us, the words He gives us will not return void (Isaiah 54:17).
If we already go into a conversation with dogmatic and preconceived notions of how we are going to approach a discussion and only restrict the discussion to those boundaries, we run the risk of taking control over the conversation instead of God guiding us in the conversation. Who do you think would be more effective at making a case for the Bible? You or God?
God has been preparing the way for the return of our Lord, Yeshua the Messiah. Through the times since his death, burial, and resurrection, God has raised up great men and women of God to edify the saints. God has been preparing for His second coming, and part of that preparation is raising up teachers, evangelists, apostles, pastors, and prophets to edify the saints and prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead for the body of believers. If we do not consider what God has prepared to assist us in the ministry he has for us today, we run the risk of undermining what God has done throughout history for preparation for a salvific harvest.
Functions of Different Methods
Because of the diverse views of how truth is obtained (if it can be obtained at all), what constitutes as knowledge (if it can be obtained at all), and what constitutes as showing a belief to be true, it is not possible for one apologetic methodology to cover all of the questions and counter arguments that those who are not believers may have. This is why we need to be flexible because for every person who is not a believer, you will find that there are variances in the reasons people give for not accepting the truth of God’s Word. If you look closely, you will find that many objections that unbelievers bring up will contradict with other objections and actually undermine their own arguments that they give for their own positions.
We will first look at the different apologetic methodologies and assess the strengths they have and the weaknesses they have. Keep in mind that the weaknesses does not mean that the methodologies are bad. The strengths and weaknesses are looked at in light of the relevancy for what the unbeliever is looking for in a conversation.
Evidential Apologetics seeks to give information to the unbeliever to show them that we have good reasons to believe that what we are preaching is true. In evidential apologetics, much of this comes from appealing to science, history, and other things such as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.
Many people do not deeply reflect on why they believe what they profess is true. This is not to say that they are not intelligent, but for some, this is not an area of interest. These people may be able to give reasons for what they believe, but the reasons they give may be disjointed (meaning the reasons they are giving are not derived from a consistent and coherent philosophical system). Many of these people are very concrete thinkers who are looking for ‘facts.’ They are often practically minded. Evidential apologetics tend to appeal to these types of people, and because I think this description describes most people, I believe that this method of apologetics has the most broad appeal to both Christians and those who do not yet believe.
This methodology does have weaknesses. If you are dealing with someone who likes philosophy, you may find that they object to the way in which the conclusions you have were reached. For example, if you give an argument based on science concerning a fine-tuned universe, some unbelievers may claim that the reasons you gave are not sufficient because they believe there are other explanations for the evidence that was given for a finely tuned universe.
This objection concerning more than one possible explanation for data is not exclusive to the fine-tuning argument. If you look at science, you will find that it has changed repeatedly over time. There are also many philosophical problems with arriving at conclusions based on science. Does this stop people from believing scientific hypotheses? No. This is why evidential apologetics can still be fruitful in many circumstances.
Indeed, science is not a truth-finding method so any conclusion that is reached using the scientific method, regardless of whether it is that God is real, naturalism is true, or that the earth is some sort of oblate spheroid, can always be questioned because there is not a way to verify when a scientific hypothesis is correct. Thus, the reasons given for God are not the problem. The problem is that the scientific method is not sufficient to establish the truth of any proposition. Ironically, any atheist that gives this sort of objection often does not realize that he is undermining all of the conclusions that have been reached through the scientific method. If the Christian feels so inclined, he can point out the unbeliever’s inconsistency by pointing out that arguing for a naturalistic view of evolution through universal-common descent relies on the very same sort of structure of argument that the Christian who is highlighting the fine-tuning of the universe is using. Thus, when the unbeliever rejects the fine-tuning argument in this way, he is often unknowingly defeating his own position.
Another thing anyone who invokes this methodology must be careful of is the definition of ‘evidence’ that is used in the discussion. Throughout the past 2,000 years of the history of philosophy, ‘evidence’ has been defined in a multitude of ways. It would, in some cases, be a truism if we said that ‘evidence,’ at least as it is commonly used, has become a word that has such a wide semantic range that it is rendered meaningless. If I were to define ‘evidence,’ in an apologetic context, I would define it as data that we would expect to see if the Bible were true.
Classical apologetics and evidential apologetics does indeed have some overlap. For example, both types of apologetics employ similar arguments, but classical apologists tend to want to focus more on putting evidences into perspective through philosophical argumentation whereas the evidentialist presents evidence more as what some theologians such as Cornelius Van Til might disparagingly call, ‘brute facts (a fact without an explanation).’ To be fair, many people don’t care about the explanation of facts, but some do, and where those who do not care about the explanation for facts may be confused by an effort to put those facts into perspective, there are some who actually are looking for a perspective on facts are and what the facts mean. For the latter issue in particular, this is where classical apologetics shines.
Classicalists typically focus on substantiating the notion that God is the best explanation for many aspects of human experience (this includes the implications of facts). Like evidential apologetics, classical apologetics has enjoyed broad appeal.
Unlike evidentialists, classicalists typically take a progressive approach to apologetics. Instead of just presenting evidence, they first typically establish that the universe is a product of a theistic God; they then move to showing that Christianity provides the best explanation for what we experience in this universe. There is some commonality in the arguments evidentialists and classicalists employ, but the presentation of the argument may look different. An evidentialist may list 33 constants that show that the universe is fined tuned and then immediately infer that the designer of the universe is the Christian God, whereas a classicalist would prefer to say that the fine tuning of the universe is a product of a general theistic God and then appeal to other evidences to establish that the creator of the universe is the Christian God.
Classical apologetics does have some limitations. Again, if you are dealing with someone who likes philosophy, the unbeliever may argue that there are alternative explanations for the data that informs the arguments that the Christian gives. The same thing that I said concerning the unbeliever’s intellectual hypocrisy in the evidentialist section of this article is applicable here as well.
Like evidentalist apologetics, classical apologetics does not seek to demonstrate God or the truth of the Bible, but rather, they seek to establish that we have better reasons to believe in the Christian God than we have to not believe in Him.
Presuppositional apologetics is primarily advocated by those who hold to reformed theology (although there are some who are not reformed that like this methodology). This way of doing apologetics is very nuanced, and it is complicated by there being multiple schools of presuppositional apologetics: Clarkian apologetics, Van Tillian apologetics, Ronald Nash’s inductive presuppositionalism, and some also consider Francis Shaeffer as having his own school of presuppositional apologetics. This article will focus on presuppositional apologetics in general. Thus, the explanation will not be very detailed.
Presuppositional apologetics has an emphasis on epistemology (the study of knowledge). Depending on the school of presuppositionalism a Christian is utilizing, he will argue that Christianity answers philosophical questions (such as “How can I know anything at all?”) better than the unbeliever can. The emphasis on philosophical questions will vary in each school of presuppositionalism. The strength of this apologetic methodology is that it encourages the believer to understand how to discern what beliefs are true and what beliefs are not true. While this is the case for any school of apologetics to an extent, it is emphasized more in the presuppostional school of apologetics.
A lot of people in the reformed community really like the presuppositional approach to apologetics, but in the unbelieving world, it enjoys relatively narrow appeal. Though some of the most one-sided discussions (in favor of the Christian) had a believer that was a presuppositionalist making the case for God or the truth of the Bible, most people do not understand presuppositional apologetics, and they are not interested in learning about the philosophical framework that is behind it. This is certainly a weakness for presuppositionalism. The average person on the street does not care about why they can or cannot know things to be true.
On the other hand, if you are dealing with an unbeliever who has an interest in epistemology, or if you are dealing with someone who often contemplates why true propositions are connected and their implications, any form of presuppositionalism can be effective for speaking in defense of the Christian faith insofar as giving a logically airtight defense of the faith is concerned; however, there are often more intellectual barriers and spiritual strongholds that need to be cast down in order to guide an unbeliever to Christianity when using this method.
It should also be noted that though the arguments that presuppositionalism uses are not necessarily polemic nor are polemics exclusive to presuppositionalism, much of the methodology invokes polemics, and this is something that many presuppositionalists due remarkably well. This is likely because presuppositionalism encourages a study of epistemology and emphasizes establishing the truth of God in fullness.
Polemics is something that is common for all apologetic methods. In apologetics, polemics is the discipline of undermining opposing views. Not only must we make a case for our faith while being subservient to God (1 Peter 3:15), we at times must also cast down strongholds that are the result of deception (2 Corinthians 10:4).
When we engage in polemics, we must be careful to not come against people, but rather, we need to come against the lies of the Enemy that have deceived those who do not believe (Ephesians 6:12). Too often, people are focused on winning the argument rather than cooperating with the Holy Spirit. God’s goal isn’t to win arguments because God already won the war. Our job is to communicate to the unbeliever that they are deceived and share the Gospel with them. We are here to testify what God has done for us, and tell them what God has done for us is also available to them. The world is concerned with winning arguments, but though we are in the world, we are not of it, and our redeemer has already overcome the world (John 16:33).
So, what might polemics look like? As expected, when someone has a position that is not true, there will be problems with attempting to maintain that position. For example, there is a form of relativism that teaches that all beliefs are true relative to the person that has beliefs, but in order for relativism to be true, there must be at least one absolute truth. In order for something to be relative, there must first be an absolute reference, otherwise, relativism is meaningless. Of what profit is professing relativism if the notion that all truths are relative to the person is itself a relative truth? This is clearly nonsense.
Another example is skepticism, specifically, skepticism is defined in this article as the position that nothing can be known to be true. For skepticism to hold, it would have to be true that nothing can be known, but if it is true nothing can be known, skepticism is false, for that would be one thing the skeptic knows. In essence, if skepticism is true, it is false. If skepticism is false, it is false.
When dealing with attempts by unbelievers to refute your beliefs, it is very important that you understand that we are all representatives of Jesus. Therefore, our behavior matters. At times, a rebuking may be in order, but it should be for the effort to show the believer their need to repent rather than to try to put them down as a person. We are not here to tear people down; we are here to bring the message of salvation to them.
Many times, polemics that unbelievers attempt to use to debunk our faith are self destructive. Since the Enemy’s lies lead to destruction, this makes sense. For example, when atheists show that an argument we give based on science has more than one explanation, we can show that this is true for all arguments that are informed by science, and this is why science changes over time. Thus, any scientific argument an atheist tries to give for their position is undermined by their own objection to our arguments. In other words, if they are going to fault our arguments while ignoring that their arguments fail for the same reason, we will show them their inconsistency.
One type of unbelieving polemic is the accusation of dogmatism. An unbeliever will attempt to say they are open minded whereas the believer is closed minded. In reality, as the Presbyterian philosopher and theologian Gordon H. Clark has pointed out, “Objections to dogmatism are always dogmatic, and relativism is always asserted absolutely.” On the same vein, Greg L. Bahnsen, a student of Cornelius Van Til has famously said, “There are two things you need to know about neutrality. They aren’t, and you shouldn’t be.” We must always start somewhere in our philosophical system. If we have any conclusions at all, those conclusions must have come from somewhere. If all conclusions were simply asserted without reason, then all beliefs are true, but since there are beliefs that contradict one another, it would also mean that all beliefs are false. For every belief, there is another belief that negates it, and if both the affirmative and the negative beliefs are true, they are also both false. In essence, a denial that we have to start from somewhere in our thinking results in the conclusion that nothing can be known at all (and I have already shown why that position doesn’t work).
Another common unbelieving polemic is an assertion that there is no ‘evidence’ for God or the Bible being true. Unfortunately for the believer, they often do not bother to define what ‘evidence’ means, and a statement that is void of definitions is meaningless. Furthermore, if you examine the way they discern what is true and what is not true, you will often find that their way of trying to discern truth is wrought with problems. If their way of discerning truth is wrought with problems, their demand for evidence becomes meaningless because even if we gave them evidence, they cannot successfully integrate that evidence into their philosophical system. Why? Because to maintain an inconsistent philosophical system denies logic, and if logic (the science of necessary inference) is denied, skepticism is the only thing left, and argumentation on the basis of evidence and inference becomes impossible.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Common questions of interest are “How can we know what is true?” and “Can we know that anything is true at all?” In apologetics, an awareness of this discipline is paramount. If you are going to give an answer for the hope within you, it is best that you know how you know the Truth. If you are informed about why you believe what you believe, people will often be more interested in hearing what you have to say (assuming they are interested in the Bible at all). If you do not know how truth can be known, your worldview collapses into skepticism.
Every argument an unbeliever gives for their position or against Christianity always rests on a faulty epistemology. If you are aware of the types of epistemology unbelievers typically believe, it will make your efforts to evangelize easier.
If the unbeliever questions how you know a conclusion is true, you can explain your position and then show that their position and arguments are based on faulty assumptions.
Though I disagree with Gordon Clark on some things, my epistemology is similar to his. This is a hubpages article I wrote on the axiom of revelation.
Christian vs. Unbelieving Polemics
Christians have a major advantage over unbelievers in these discussions. As Christians, we know what God has said to us because we have the Bible. Therefore, we, accepting God’s Word as true, also have some idea of what we can anticipate as we look out into the world. The unbeliever, on the other hand, must start with nothing. In a world where there is no god, what would it look like?
Any supposition of what it would look like is arbitrary because if we cannot take a world where the Christian God is real and compare it to a world where God is not real, how is the atheist supposed to know what a world without God would look like, much less, how would he know what a world where God exists would look like?
In contrast, the Christian has a book that explains what the world is like and why the world is the way it is. Because of that, we can infer some expectations for what we should see when we look out into the world. We do not need to know what a godless world looks like because we already know what a world with God looks like.
The advantage further extends to polemics. Since Christians have place to start when they build their philosophical system, and since the Christian knows that truth is interconnected (due to the world being created by a mind that exercises intentionality) , and thus, inferences about the world can be made, we have a foundation in which we can stand on not only when we make a case for Christianity, but also when we cast down the strongholds and lies of the Enemy that the unbeliever is ensnared by.
On the other hand, since unbelievers don’t even have a place to start, they have no place to stand even when they attempt to poke holes in our own worldview. Polemics is meaningless when your own philosophy necessarily leads to the conclusion that nothing can be known at all.
There are a multitude of ways to defend the faith, and all of them have pros and cons. As a believer, we are not limited to these disciplines either individually or collectively. It is important that when we talk to others, we seek God’s will for the conversation. If we do this, God will guide us in how we speak to the unbeliever, and approaching apologetics in this way is accomplished by faith.
Objection: If you use evidence, you are putting God on trial.
Response: God cannot be put on trial, God is the judge of all (Psalm 75:7, 1 Peter 4:5).
Objection: Apologetics is not important and it is unnecessary.
Response: The Bible tells us to give a defense for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15). Defending our hope (which faith is the substance of things hoped for) is apologetics, and it is commanded in the Bible.
Objection: Saying that we should be guided by God leads to arbitrariness.
Response: God has given us a Spirit of Truth to guide us (John 17:26). Are you going to believe God or your own wisdom? The Bible teaches us to trust God and lean not on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6). Nothing God says is arbitrary, for He is the maker of truth.