FOUNDATIONS OF APOLOGETIC SYSTEMS:
DON’T BUILD YOUR SYSTEM ON THE SANDY LAND
It does not take a deep interest in apologetics to discover early on that it is not a homogenous discipline. One can easily go to the nearest book store or online Christian books distributor and purchase four popular books in apologetics and find four starkly differing opinions on methodology, epistemology, or the value of theistic proofs. Some of these differences are so vast and important to various apologists that the systems different famous apologists adhere to may very well be non-compossible. That is to say if a few of the foundational principles of one apologist are in fact right then the entire system of another apologist can be demonstrated as wrong.
These differences are incredibly vast and there are differing opinions concerning the differences. Much literature has been produced on this topic and even more literature has been produced by apologists themselves critiquing the methodologies of other apologists. The issues are not trivial for many of the concerns and contentions of the apologists are rooted in foundational philosophical principles or dogmatic theological holdings. Large books have been written attempting to comprehensively compare the apologetic systems on every level. However, for the purpose of this paper, one aspect of four broad apologetic systems will be discussed.
The issue to be discussed concerning each of the four apologetic systems will be their foundation or what one might refer to as their “spring board.” This paper will follow this basic structure. Taking the four apologetic systems: Fideistic Apologetics, Presupposition Apologetics, Evidential Apologetics, and Classical apologetics, the paper will identify and critique the foundational starting point upon which practitioners of these methods build their apologies. The systems will be dealt with in the aforementioned order. Each system’s apologetic method will be briefly described followed by an analysis of the starting point from which each system originates. After that, the starting point will be critiqued for its efficacy or legitimacy as a foundation for apologetics. Ultimately this paper will conclude that the foundations of Classical Apologetics are the strongest leading to the most effective and comprehensive apologetic method.
Before the analysis is started it should be mentioned how these four methods were selected. These four methods are in no way universally recognized as the only apologetic methods. Indeed, the very nature of the subject apologetic systems finds that different scholars find some systems so abhorrent to disqualify them as apologetic systems. These systems were selected primarily for their general acceptance and recognition as systems considered to be apologetic systems. That is to say a presuppositionalist recognizes that an evidentialist considers his own system an apologetic system regardless of whether the presuppositionalist agrees with that system.
These categories or categories with synonymous titles are widely recognized within the literature as four broad yet distinct categories. This makes them advantageous for the goals of this paper. It should also be recognized that there are strata within the systems themselves. As a result all conclusions or descriptions of each system within this paper are researched generalities applicable to the majority of the system described, though acceptations undoubtedly exist. At this point the paper will begin with a description of the fideistic apologetic method.
A General Description
Religious fideism argues that matters of faith and religion are not supported or refuted by way of reason. Religion is simply a matter of faith. At the outset one recognizes how a religious philosophy of this nature is going to have difficulty providing a stable foundation for defending the faith in the traditional apologetic sense. Fideism holds that one must simply believe.
Generally speaking, fideists are coherentists with respect to theory of truth. Epistemology is not necessarily the central subject of this paper but it bears relevance when identifying a system’s apologetic foundation. We now turn to the apologetic system rooted in this religious tradition.
Fideism as an Apologetic System
Fideists approach apologetics from the position that the truths of faith cannot and should not be argued for or justified rationally. That is to say that the truths of the Christian faith are exclusively arrived at through faith alone. Indeed the word fideism is derived from the Latin word fide which means “faith.” There for fideistic apologetics assigns supreme priority to faith.
Fideists do not deny the existence of reason or even its value in other sciences and discaplines. However, with respect to the truths of Christianity, a fideist emphatically argues that human reason has no place. It is therefore essential to the fideistic apologetic system that some truths of Christianity are outside the prevue of reason and beyond our human capacity to understand rationally.
The Fideistic Spring Board
The Fideist’s foundation for apologetics, (that is to say on what basis a fideist apologist claims that Christianity is true) is the personal subjective experience. For the fideist apologist Christianity is not a body of fact which requires philosophical or factual support but it is a relationship with God in Christ. A relationship does not require rational defense and in fact it would be inappropriate to address a relationship in that way.
Apologists of other systems regard Fideism as diametrically opposed to apologetics and any fideists would agree. The issue for the fideist is that Christianity’s truth is verified by the individual in the sphere of personal subjective experience. As a result experiencing God transcends philosophical arguments for God’s existence. Experiencing His revelation transcends the historicity of Scripture. Experiencing the relationship with God who is spirit transcends the boundaries of physical sciences. With subjective experience as the bedrock foundation of fideism, philosophy, history, science and any other discipline subordinate to reason can neither affirm nor countermand the truth of Christianity. Now this foundation of subjective experience will be critiqued as a foundation for an apologetic system.
Critique of Fideism’s Foundation
From the outset, fideism is in opposition to scripture. For, God calls humanity to use its reason with respect to the Christian faith, (Isa. 1:18; Matt. 22:36-37; 1 Pet. 3:15). God is a rational being and created humanity with rational faculties. Reason is not incapable of addressing issues of faith. In point of fact, it is impossible to avoid reason whether considering the facts of faith or peanut butter and jelly. Rational beings cannot escape their rationality, least of which with respect to issues of such paramount importance as faith.
What about subjective experience as a foundation for apologetics? It is utterly indefensible as a foundation for defending the faith. Primarily subjective experience is unique to the individual. No amount of assurance or testimony about the truth of one’s religious experience should be compelling to another who finds such an experience totally foreign.
Subjective experience independent of reason is a self defeating position. The informed fideist who considers apologetics and evangelism as more than repeatedly saying “Just believe,” must at some point give reason for why reason should not be used in matters of faith. To say that they take it on faith that faith is primary and exclusive is both circular and begs the question against apologists of every other shade. However, to turn and give reason for the inadequacy or inappropriateness of reason in Christian apologetics is self contradictory. The fideist must offer some criteria for when reason is permitted to be used and why it is not permitted to be used concerning facts of the Christian faith. However, such criteria would be built on reason. At this point it is clear that fideism is either viciously circular by validating subjective experience from subjective experience, or it is self contradictory in that it employs reason concerning an issue of faith to demonstrate reason’s inadequacy in the realm of faith.
Subjective experience is indefensible as a foundation for apologetics; fideism is indefensible as an apologetic method; and fideism is indefensible as a religious tradition. There are good reasons to believe God exists, (cosmological, teleological, moral) and that other pillars of Christianity are true, (miracles can and have occurred, Christ died to save us). There are also propositional Christian truths that experience alone cannot adjudicate. For example, the Trinity, the Incarnation, God’s timelessness, and others are beyond the grasp of experience.
Subjective experience as a foundation for apologetics illegitimately pits personal knowledge against propositional knowledge. It lauds revelation as Gods spoken word for humanity (apparently attested to by personal experience), but fails to account for the propositional truths therein. Various apologists do well to recognize that there are boundaries to human reason, but fideism banishes reason from the realm of faith ironically in opposition to observed public experience (that people do indeed come to faith with the aid of reason) and common sense. Next the foundations for presuppositional apologetics will be stated and critiqued. First there is a brief overview of presuppositionalism as an apologetic system.
A General Description
Presuppositionalism attempts to defend the truth of the Christian faith from the assumed facticity of the Christian worldview at its start. Presuppositionalism holds that non-Christians also have presuppositions that color their perception of God and the world. There is nothing uniquely presuppositional about this characteristic.
Presuppositional apologetics is rooted in reformed theology. There are actually multiple shades of presuppositionalism within the reformed tradition, as well as other methods not necessarily presuppositional that will not be addressed in this paper. Being rooted in reformed theology, presuppositional apologetics places a high emphasis on the noetic effects of sin. This is rooted in the doctrine of total depravity. It is indeed true that human reason has been negatively affected by sin just as the human will or body. However, the extents of those effects are not necessarily as extreme as some presuppositionalists may argue.
The Presuppositional Springboard
As the name implies presuppositional apologetics finds its foundation in the presupposed facticity of the Christian faith. That includes the existence of a Triune God, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the inerrancy of Scripture. It claims that apart from Christian presuppositions, one can simply not make sense of any human experience, knowledge, and there can be no set of neutral assumptions from which to reason with a non-Christian. In other words, presuppositionalists claim that a Christian cannot consistently declare his belief in the necessary existence of the God of the Bible and simultaneously argue in such a way that validates the relevance of a different set of assumptions.
Presuppositions are indeed present in any system of thought. Geometry presupposes the facticity of arithmetic, and similarly optics presupposes geometry. However, presuppositionalists argue that no knowledge can exist outside the presuppositions of Christianity. The Christian faith being presupposed as the foundation for an apologetic method will now be critiqued.
Critique of Presuppositionalism’s Foundation
The foundation of presuppositions as grounds for defending the faith is beset with weakness. Primarily presuppositionalism is one giant begged question. No matter how glorified the system may seem in that it manifestly accepts revelation as true it is reducible to a petitio principii fallacy. When the haze of rhetoric is cleared presuppositionalism advocates an apologetic method that runs as follows: 1) Presupposition: God exists 2) Conclusion: God exists (applause). Such reasoning is inexcusably circular. Once again, it must be remembered that this is at the heart of presuppositional apologetics. It is not a system that as its crowning characteristic identifies presuppositions and refutes them. It is a system that advocates the necessity of assuming Christianity’s truth to defend Christianity’s truth.
Additionally, presuppositionalism employs a false analogy to validate the use of Scripture as a presupposition. The presuppositionalist argues that the rationalist presupposes reason, while the empiricist presupposes sense perception; therefore there is no great crime in presupposing the validity of Scripture. However, reason and sense perception are tools for developing a system while presuppositional apologetics’ assumption of the Christian worldview presupposes the tool of revelation with the system of Christian theism.
The entirety of the Christian worldview is an inappropriate point of departure in an apologetic system when it is clearly the destination. Any apologetic based on worldview presuppositions can be employed by adherents of any religion. The Christian presuppositionalist encounters a Muslim and says, “You need to presuppose the Christian Triune God and all that is associated with Christianity in order to have knowledge at all. In fact you already are presupposing Christianity in order to understand the world as a Muslim.” The Muslim turns and says, “No my friend, it is you who are presupposing the fact that Allah is God and all that the Quran teaches in order for you to make sense of knowledge.” Then an eavesdropping atheist interjects, “You theists are both missing the fact that each of you are in fact presupposing the reality of materialism in order to be standing here arguing in the first place.”
Any worldview can require that their presuppositions need to be held in order for the world to make sense. Even violently self-contradictory worldviews can maintain that critiques of their presuppositions only seem to refute their worldview because the opponents refuse to presuppose their worldview.
Presuppositionalism manifestly fails as an apologetic system. Presuppositions exist in various religions, sciences, and philosophical systems. However, disciplines like apologetics involved in defending conclusions cannot simply posit said conclusions as presuppositions. Next, the apologetic system of evidentialism will be described and discussed.
A General Description
Evidential apologetics is often referred to as historical apologetics. This means it seeks to defend the facts of the Christian faith based on the evidence from history. Not all apologetic methods that employ the use of evidence are properly described as evidential apologetics, as will be seen in the next section. Evidential Apologetics is a unique system in that it seeks to answer all manner of apologetic questions in a general way. That is to say, evidentialist apologists do not address the question of God’s existence as a single question and then proceed to the possibility of miracles, or the support for orthodox bibliology. Evidentialists argue for the entirety of the Christian faith as one question, predominantly with the tools of historical evidence.
Evidence from the Physical sciences is infrequently used in what is properly described as evidential apologetics. For, evidence from the physical sciences is predominantly used by apologists to establish God’s existence before the resurrection and divinity of Christ. Some evidence from the physical sciences is employed in evidentialism, but they are usually used to interpret historical data. For example, medical science may be employed in evidential apologetics to refute apposing theories about the reality of Christ’s death by crucifixion. However, even that scientific evidence is an interpretive historical tool, not independent evidence itself.
The Evidential Spring Board
Evidential apologetics is based in empiricisms, that is to say sense data. However, empiricism as such is not necessarily the proper foundation of the apologetic method. Rather the foundation is slightly more focused. The bedrock of evidential apologetics is the value of empirical historical facts. These apologists stress the value of observable historical evidence as the platform for demonstrating the truth of Christianity. Generally the evidential apologist sees the resurrection of Christ as the linchpin for Christian apologetics.
The evidentialist is so confident in the objectivity and discernability of observable historical facts, that through them they believe they can defend the entirety of the Christian faith. This includes the existence of God, and the possibility and existence of miracles without first appealing to theistic arguments. Once again, all the tools and techniques used by evidential apologist can be congruent with the methods and approaches of apologists from other systems. The differentiating factor is that evidential apologists find that observable historical facts are so firm an apologetic foundation that apologetics can be a one step process, usually aimed at defending the resurrection of Jesus.
As it has been alluded to, the general approach is to start with the historicity of the Bible (specifically the New Testament), and use the miracles of Jesus (especially the resurrection) to make a case for his divinity as the Son of God. In a way the authenticity of the New Testament documents is the evidentialist’s first step, much like theistic arguments may be the first step in other systems. Second, an evidentialist apologist would examine and defend the claims of Christ’s divinity as the Son of the one true theistic God. Finally a defense of miracles is given culminating with the defense of the resurrection. Each stage of the evidentialist’s argument is grounded on historical fact. The Bible is defended as historically factual but each stage may also employ extra biblical historical evidence to build the apologetic case.
Critique of Evidentialism’s Foundation
It is clear that historical facts are a sound foundation for apologetic arguments of a certain shade at least. For, challenges to the historicity of the Bible and the facticity of historical event therein, necessitate historical evidence for defense. Some apologists from other systems argue that historical facts are not objective and cannot speak for themselves. This may be a legitimate claim but does not necessarily refute the use of historical facts as the foundation for evidential apologetics. The evidential apologist may appeal to prolegomena that history is indeed a possible and advantageous medium for truth and revelation. This reveals that even historical facts are supported by a deeper foundation. Historical facts are still the foundation of evidential apologetics just as geometry is the foundation for optics. However, one can see that the legitimacy of historical facts as factual in the first place may be necessary for the evidential apologist to advance his arguments.
The responsibility for defending history and historical facticity as useful is shared by the apologist and the systematic theologian alike. The fact that historical facts need a philosophical underpinning does not invalidate them as a foundation for evidential apologetics. For if indeed historical facts are vindicated as discernible and a means of reasoning to valid conclusions, then evidential apologetics is appropriately founded on observable historical facts, which finds its legitimacy in another source.
The real objection that threatens evidential apologetics is not a criticism of its foundation but a potential weakness in its subsequent methodology. The evidential apologist may indeed construct a compelling defense rooted firmly on empirical historical data and still fail to persuade the nonbeliever for another reason. That reason is the order of arguments. In the next section classical apologetics will be described and discussed.
A General Description
Classical apologetics is methodologically distinct from the other apologetic methods in that it employs a two step approach to defending the faith. First, a classical apologist endeavors to defend the existence of a theistic God. This is done on principle not for moral reasons the way a presuppositionalist might defend their methodology. The classical apologists recognizes that the defense of miracles, the Incarnation, and a justification of the existence of evil is greatly simplified if the existence of a powerful, personal, theistic God can be demonstrated. The classical apologist does not expect the nonbeliever to interpret historical facts in such a way that reveals Christ’s divinity if a nonbeliever does not first recognize divinity as a real category. Similarly, a miracle is only possible if a God exists to instantiate one.
Classical apologists do not fault the evidentialist as immoral for begging with arguments for the resurrection as a historical miracle indicating the divinity of Jesus and God’s Son. The classical apologist simply advises the evidentialist to try arguing for God’s existence as a initial step to defending the more specific doctrines of Christianity.
The Classical Springboard
The Classical method does not necessarily reveal the classical foundation at first glance. For, theistic proofs are not the foundation of classical apologetics. In fact, they are indeed an apologetic themselves indicating a deeper foundation. Subjective experience plays nearly no role in the classical apologists methodology. The classical apologist does presuppose the first principles of logic and the validity of sense data and reason, but this is not like the presuppositional method which requires that one presuppose one’s conclusion to arrive at one’s conclusion. Furthermore, the first principles are actually founded on a deeper platform. That is not to say they are argued for by a deeper argument, for then they would not be first principles. The bedrock foundation of classical apologetics is in fact reality.
Indeed all manner of arguments in classical apologetics are built on logic, reason, empirical evidence from the physical sciences and history, but these are not the foundation of the system. Those tools are recognized as valid and used within the system because they are first observed to be valid in reality. The classical apologist employs the first principles because they are shown to be metaphysical realities of this world (and indeed all possible worlds). Reason is accepted as a legitimate tool for discerning truth and our senses are reliable avenues through which we acquire data, all of these are metaphysical positions.
Unlike the evidentialist who grounds his argument in facts the classical apologists accepts facts as tools because he grounds his apologetic on the reality of being. The apologist arrives at these metaphysical conditions through empirical sense data but recognizes that it is reality that precedes fact. Stated differently it is reality that determines truth. Unlike the fideist who is a coherence truth theorist, the classical apologist is a correspondence truth theorist. God’s existence is described as true not because it coheres to a system of subjective experiences, but because the statement “God exists” corresponds to reality. The first principles are recognized (not to be confused with argued) to be true because they correspond to what is observed in reality.
Critique of the Classical Foundation
Reality is indeed the basis for all truth. Therefore, apologetics which defends the truth of Christianity should make its ultimate appeal to reality. Indeed the truth of God’s existence rests in whether or not God exists in reality. The inerrancy of the Bible rests on whether the Bible really does not make any false claims. No subjective experience, presupposed worldview, or even observed empirical fact can substantiate reality. It is reality that substantiates truth. Reality is the ultimate apologetic foundation.
Evidentialism’s dependence on historical facts actually presupposes reality. For this reason the method is legitimate. However, it does not directly appeal to reality. For this reason it does not see the benefit to identifying a theistic God as reality before the truth of Christianity. As a result it is inferior to Classical apologetics in method.
Classical apologetics’ two step methodology is a byproduct of its metaphysical foundation. Correspondence to reality is the test for truth, as a result developing a true understanding of reality is the task of the apologist. Demonstrating reality sometimes includes contingency. For example God’s existence and the existence of miracles are both true to reality. However God’s existence is demonstrable through the nature of reality itself, while miracles are ontologically subsequent to the demonstration of God’s existence, His attributes, and the historical evidence that a miracle has indeed occurred. We then conclude miracles are true to reality.
Apologetic systems differ in numerous ways. They differ in methodology, epistemology, focus, and other ways. Ultimately these differences are rooted in their apologetic foundations. Fideist apologetics is founded on subjective experiences. Presuppositionalism is founded on the presupposed Christian world view. Evidentialism is founded on the primacy of observable historical facts. Each of these foundations have weaknesses to varying degrees. Fideism’s subjective experience in rejection of reason is as indefensible an apologetic foundation and fideism is a religious tradition. Presuppositionalism’s presupposed Christian worldview is invalid as a foundation for apologetics. The Christian worldview is valid, but that validity is arrived at through reason and evidence. Therefore, presuppositionalism is an invalid system. Evidentialism has a valid foundation in observable historical facts, but the validity of history as a vehicle for truth is dependent on a deeper philosophical foundation. Evidentialism produces valuable apologies, but could be more effective based on different principles. Ultimately, classical apologetics grounds its arguments in metaphysical reality. There is no deeper foundation than reality. One could argue that our knowledge of reality is limited. That is indeed true, but the classical apologist holds that anything defended as true is indeed true if and only if it corresponds to reality. For this reason, Classical apologetics has the most valid and sturdy foundation from which the system is built.
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Greg L. Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended, ed. Joel McDurmon (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2008), 4.
William Lane Craig, et al., Five Views of Apologetics, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and Steven B. Cowen (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 242.
Geisler, B.E.C.A., 318.
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