A Summary of Apologetic Methods

This post is mainly for my own benefit. You are welcome to read it, or copy it and have it as a resource, but since it is an extremely lengthy piece (almost 4000 words), I don’t expect anyone to read all of it… The following is an overview of apologetic methods, based on an apologetics handbook by Boa and Bowman. I put it on here so that I have it as something I can reference easily. It may be useful to you for the same.

Faith Has Its Reasons: An Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity by Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr. is a comprehensive guide to apologetics. Faith Has Its Reasons systematically defines apologetics, outlines a concise history of apologetics, and then goes through an in-depth survey of five categories of apologetic methodology. Following is a summary of the process of the authors in laying out the definition, history, and methodology of apologetics.

Before the book delves into the subject matter itself, the authors lay out several well-articulated definitions. An “apology” is any particular defense of the faith, such as a speech (formal or informal), film, written document, etc. An “apologist” is anyone who presents an apology, or, more technically, someone who makes a practice of presenting apologies – that is, someone who regularly defends the faith. An “apologetic” is a specific method, or “particular approach to the defense of the faith” (pg. 4). However, “apologetic” can also be used as an adjective, such as in the sentence, “Faith Has Its Reasons is a book dealing with apologetic issues.” The term “apologetics” refers to any of three areas – 1: a technical discipline “concerned with the defense of the faith” (pg. 4), 2: A group of specific approaches to defending the faith (such as classical apologetics), or 3: “the practice of defending the faith,” that is, the activity itself of presenting an apology. Finally, “metapologetics,” though only recently coined and still rarely used, “refers to the study of the nature and methods of apologetics” (pg. 4). An example of metapologetics is the book, Faith Has Its Reason, because the purpose of the book is to inquire into the different methods and concepts of particular apologetic systems.

Now, with these definitions in place, a very brief survey of the history of apologetics may also be useful. First, we see that the composition of Luke and Acts was primarily for apologetic reasons. Luke was written in order to communicate an accurate historical account of the life and work of Christ. Acts was composed as an apology (at least partially) for Paul. Within the narrative of Acts we also see Paul delivering apologies as well, especially his famous apology on Mars Hill in Acts 17. In Paul’s own writings, there is a great deal of apologetic reasoning and argumentation such as in the book of Colossians, or the well-known defense of the centrality of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. No discussion of apologetics would be complete without noting Peter’s famous apologetic mandate in 1 Peter 3:15, wherein he instructs Christians to be always prepared to “make a defense to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that is in you.”

In the fledgling years of the church, Christians were faced with opposition from every side, including “Rabbinic Judaism, fully developed Gnosticism, persecuting paganism, and Hellenistic culture and philosophy” (pg. 14). Thus, Christian apologists arose to the challenge of defending the Christian faith as a superior worldview, and arguing against false accusations and unjust political intolerance. Included in these early apologists were such men as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, who made use of the cosmological argument, Anselm, who developed the ontological argument, and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, best known for his “five ways” to show the existence of God.

In the Reformation era, theological giants such as Martin Luther and John Calvin defended the Christian faith, though they held differing views concerning the rationality of faith (Luther being a fiedeist, Calvin being reformed). In the post-reformation era, apologists such as Blaise Pascal and Joseph Butler led the way in arguing for the superiority of Christianity to other worldviews. At the time of the enlightenment, however, a new wave of objections to Christianity arose, and “Christian apologetics was forced to reinvent itself” (pg. 23). William Paley was one of the first apologists to respond to the attacks of Scottish skeptic David Hume. Paley is responsible for systematizing what we know now as the evidential arguments. Another early responder to modern skepticism was Thomas Reid, who developed Scottish Common-Sense Realism (the idea that our knowledge of such things as cause and effect, and objective right and wrong, are completely matters of common sense. Other modern apologists arising since of the enlightenment era include Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Soren Kierkegaard, James Orr, Cornelius Van Til, and C.S. Lewis. Modern apologists include such great names as William Lane Craig, John Frame, J.P. Moreland, Clark Pinnock, Norman Geisler, and Francis Schaeffer.

There are four main categories of apologetic approaches: Classical apologetics, Evidentialist apologetics, Reformed apologetics, and Fideism.

Classical apologetics emphasizes reason and logical argumentation as the basis for defending the faith. Classical apologetics is today distinguished by its “two-step” approach of first arguing for the existence of a supreme being that is Creator, and then secondly arguing that this Creator God has revealed Himself to humanity in the Bible and in the person of Jesus Christ.

Evidentialism is often referred to under the umbrella of classical apologetics. However, for the purposes of this study, the authors of Faith Has Its Reasons have defined evidentialism in its narrower sense – that is, the method of using verifiable historical and scientific evidence to defend the existence of the Christian God. Joseph Butler and John Warwick Montgomery are key proponents of the evidentialist method.

Reformed apologetics considers empirical or rational approaches utterly insufficient, because of the moral impairment of the human will. Those who hold to reformed apologetics would argue that classical and evidentialist methods give far too much credit to ability of the human intellect and will, when in reality, no amount of reasoning or evidence can convince a fallen will set in opposition to God. Thus, the reformed apologist would emphasize the need for God to immediately work in the human spirit in order to produce faith, though he would also recognize that reason and evidence would certainly affirm the Christian worldview.

Fideism rejects the use of any reasoning or evidence to attempt to convince someone to believe Christianity. Rather, the fideist argues that faith in God is purely a matter of the heart, or will, and that because one’s personal experience with God cannot be explained with rational or evidential arguments, one must simply choose to believe, apart from any need for evidence or reason. With those basic summaries in place, a more in-depth exploration of the pros and cons of each method will be helpful.

Classical apologetics seeks to show that the Christian faith, or more broadly, belief in God, is a rationally justified position – that is, that it is reasonable. This is not to be misunderstood to mean that classical apologists are rationalists. Rationalism views man’s reason as the ultimate or sole test of truth, whereas classical apologetics recognizes that man’s reasoning ability is not so supreme as to be able to arrive at a substantive knowledge of God of its own power. Rather, the classical approach simply argues that it is possible to show that Christianity is reasonable, (but without attempting to reason someone into the Kingdom).

Classical apologists argue that science and Christianity are consistent with each other, but that because scientific theories are constantly changing, one must be careful about aligning oneself too readily with theories. Classical apologists such as J.P. Moreland continue to reject the view that scientific methodology alone is the test for truth, but that instead, a Christian can function in the scientific realm while still legitimately holding to his Christian beliefs.

This attempt to reconcile science and faith can still be one of the dangers of classical apologetics if one is not discerning about what it scientific theory and what is fact. For example, Christians have for decades accepted the theory of Darwinian evolution, on the basis of reconciling science and the Bible, when in reality, Darwinian evolution is in no way an established fact of science. Another area this could become a weakness is in seeking to explain all phenomena by scientific means. For example, seeking to find a bush that can burn with being consumed in order to validate the account of the burning bush in Exodus, instead of granting that there is no natural scientific explanation, because this was a supernatural event. J.P. Moreland has argued that biblical creationism is a legitimate scientific theory, meaning Christians do not need to submit and subscribe to a theory that contradicts the clear teaching of the Bible.

Classical apologetists hold that God has revealed Himself in history, specifically in Scripture. Classical apologists such as Norman Geisler make it clear that objective historical facts exist only within the framework of a theistic worldview. Thus, logically, the argument for theism must come prior to any argument regarding historical fact, since these facts can only be known by assuming a theistic worldview. Classical apologists do not build arguments upon personal religious experience. However, if God exists and reveals Himself to us through revelation, then it is reasonable and logical to accept that He may reveal Himself personally to an individual in such an experience; so the personal experience of the individual can play an important role in classical apologetics, though not one of the main tenants.

One of the strengths of classical apologetics is its emphasis on the universal, objective reality of reason and logic. The classical apologist uses logic to inspect his own arguments for fallacies, and can use logic to show the fallacies of the unbeliever’s worldview. Classical apologetics also emphasize the inescapability of worldviews. In other words, one can not think about experiences, concepts, facts, or the world at large, apart from their worldview. This emphasis can be helpful for two reasons. Many non-Christians are not aware that they inherently have a worldview. Showing them that they do can be valuable in helping the unbeliever re-evaluate his own particular beliefs. It is also valuable in making people, Christians and non-Christians alike, aware that Christian beliefs can seem very strange to unbelievers, simply because such views do not fit logically with their worldview.

Another potential strength of classical apologetics is that it views common ground with the unbeliever as the ability to reason, and in any truths the unbeliever already believes. That is, the classical apologist will affirm the unbeliever in whatever correct view they may hold about something. For example, the classical apologist may emphasize to a Muslim that they have common ground in their affirmation of monotheism, before getting into Trinitarian discussions in order to explain Jesus Christ. This can be a valuable tool in establishing mutual respect in the discussion.

One of the weaknesses of classical apologetics is that it is possible to overstate the adequacy of reason and logic in the knowledge of truth. Deductive logic cannot ultimately prove something to be true on the basis of rationality and logical coherence, it can only show a claim to be false. It is important to note, and many classical apologists do, that the inability to understand a concept does not mean that concept is illogical. For example, there is no way for the human mind to grasp the doctrine of the Trinity fully, yet technically it is not illogical.

Another weakness is the debated use of theistic arguments. Many apologists question the validity of traditional classical arguments for the existence of God, arguing that they do not lead exclusively to theism, but are open to deism or pantheism. Even if these arguments do lead to theism, they do not lead to Christian theism. However, many classical apologists acknowledge this and argue for the two-step approach of arguing to theism, and then once establish, arguing to the God of the Bible. Aside from these limitations, the classical arguments may also simply be too complicated, technical or philosophical for the untrained mind.

Another major weakness of classical apologetics is that it fails to address the non-rational/intellectual aspects of faith in God. That is to say that faith in God is not purely an intellectual exercise. It involves a change of the heart and a commitment to a proposition. This involves emotional and volitional aspects, which a logical explanation cannot produce. However, most classical apologists modify their approach to allow for other methodologies as well, in order to account for these limitations.

Evidentialist apologetics differs from classical apologetics in that while classical apologetics emphasizes logic or reason as the primary means of determining truth, evidentialism emphasizes facts. That is, evidentialist apologetics holds that “facts speak for themselves” (pg. 155), and that one must simply present enough evidence for someone to believe. Evidentialist apologetics would hold that the apologist cannot expect the unbeliever to believe what the apologist is arguing for, unless the apologist supplies ample evidence for such claims. The evidentialist argues that any apologetic “can and must consist primarily in an appeal to the facts” (pg. 157). Evidentialist apologetical arguments seek to show that the conclusion, while not certain, is a probable conclusion based upon the available evidence.

One interesting distinctive of evidentialist apologetics is its view of Scripture. Evidentialist apologetics views Scripture as a reliable source of evidence for Christianity. This fact in and of itself is not unique to evidentialism. However, the way the evidentialist arrives at this conclusion is interesting. The evidentialist apologist will argue that the Scriptures, specifically the New Testament, are historically reliable and credible eye-witness accounts, and that as such, are trustworthy in the claims they put forth. It is from this established position that the evidentialist then argues that one can trust what the Scriptures say about Christ, and thus what Christ said about Himself, God, and the Scriptures themselves.

One key strength of the evidentialist model is the recognition of the limitation of probability. The evidentialist recognizes that no matter how much evidence is presented and accepted, it cannot bring one to undeniable certainty. The most the evidence can provide is a probable conclusion. It is not possible to have exhaustive knowledge of all the facts, so it is not possible to have absolute, philosophical certainty. However, the evidentialist will argue that absolute certainty is not necessary. One only needs enough evidence to find the most probable conclusion.

Another obvious strength of the evidentialist model is the appeal to factual evidence. Christian apologetics is the task of defending the truth of Christian claims. If truth is that which corresponds with reality, then the apologetic method one uses should emphasize the factual reality of the Christian faith. This is why evidentialist apologetics emphasizes the abundance of factual evidence in its approach. God created the universe, communicated with men through revelation at points in time, and entered into history as a man. The Christian faith centers around historical and scientific claims. Thus, the evidentialist seeks to show from reliable historical and scientific evidence, that the Christian faith is indeed a reasonable position concerning a probable reality.

One weakness that evidentialist apologetics has been criticized for is that it assumes its conclusion. That is, evidentialism seeks to defend Christianity by appealing to scientific and historical facts. Yet, in order to examine facts, one must interpret them through a worldview. One response to this criticism though is that the unbeliever would not normally be so actively discerning certain views of facts as not fitting within their worldview as to thus reject the facts, which, if presented well and cogently, will ultimately undermine the unbelievers worldview.

Another criticism, which evidentialist apologetics shares with classical apologetics, is the optimism concerning the intellect and reason of men. Evidentialist apologetics has the potential to minimize the effects of sin upon the intellect and the will of the unbeliever. One possible response though is to emphasize the role of God’s common and special grace in the life of the unbeliever. In other words, some evidentialist apologists, while leaning primarily on an evidentialist model, would acknowledge the inability of the fallen human mind and will, and the need for the direct work of the Spirit of God in order to cause any meaningful change of mind or heart.

Reformed apologetics seeks an altogether different approach than classical or evidentialist apologetics. Reformed apologetics rejects “not only rationalism and empiricism but also any epistemology that seeks to combine the two theories” (pg. 260). Reformed apologetists view both classical and evidentialist apologetics as grantind far too much ability to the human mind and will, and thus reformed apologists reject the use of deductive and inductive arguments as utterly insufficient against the fallen human intellect and will. Reformed apologetics rejects any approach that assume man’s self-sufficiency in arriving at truth, but instead argues for the proclamation of the truth of the Word.

Reformed apologetics makes use of the tactic of showing ways in which the unbeliever’s worldview is irrational, and does not hold up when examined against how one naturally lives. Yet the reformed approach would still hold that reason and arguments are ultimately insufficient in convincing the unbeliever, and would also argue that the unbeliever inherently knows the truth in his own heart, but is merely suppressing it.

One of the strengths of reformed apologetics is the acknowledged link between apologetics and theology. Reformed apologetics recognizes that every apologetic method is sourced in a particular theological context, and the reformed apologist would argue against trying to separate the two. For instance, what one’s view of God’s sovereignty versus man’s free will is will have a major effect in the apologetic approach one takes. Reformed apologists argue that one’s theological framework cannot be divorced from one’s apologetic approach, and it would not be wise to attempt to do so.

Another strength, and significant contribution, of reformed apologetics is the emphasis of the essentially different epistemological starting point of Christians and non-christians. Reformed apologists have caused other apologists to acknowledge and ponder the fact that Christians view knowledge differently than non-Christians. The Christian recognizes (or should recognize) that sin has corrupted the mind and will, and thus the ability to know and accept certain truths has been corrupted as well. However, the unbeliever does not have this perspective, and usually views the intellect and will as entirely free.

One potential weakness of reformed apologetics is an overly dogmatic adherence to a Calvinistic worldview. It has already been pointed out that a strength of reformed apologetics is the acceptance of theological assumptions. However, the overly dogmatic emphasis of a particular soteriology can be damaging.

Another possible weakness is the underestimation of the power of factual evidence. Reformed apologetics is correct in arguing that facts alone cannot ultimately convince the unbeliever to accept Christian claims. However, one effective method in showing someone the irrationality of his view is to show him facts that contradict his worldview.

One final weakness of reformed apologetics is that it restricts the methods of apologetics one can use perhaps too much. Reformed apologetics does not allow for any apologetic which would show that belief in God is probable, as apposed to absolute truth. However, this approach fails to recognize that claiming a view to be probable based on certain evidence is not excluding that this view could be known to be correct by some other means. This approach may end up excluding valuable apologetic methods which could aid in the reformed attempt to show the irrationality of the unbeliever’s worldview.

Fideism is often view as antithetical to apologetics. Many fideists would accept this accusation gladly. However, there are those who may be classified as fideists, who do in fact practice some type of apologetic. The basic premise of fideist apologetics is that truth is not a proposition to be understood, but a person to know personally. Thus, the best, and really the only, apologetic that the Christian has to offer is his own life – evidence of a personal relationship with Christ. According to the fideist, God’s divine nature defies any sort of rationalistic, systematic approach. Thus, the unbeliever can be convinced only by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The focus is not directly upon the authority of Scripture, but upon the Holy Spirit’s testimony about the person of Christ, which is also found within Scripture.

One significant strength of fideist apologetics is the relational aspect of the approach. Fideism does well at fighting against the temptation to view Christ more as a concept than as a person. Fideism emphasizes that God is a person, as well as the unbeliever being spoken to. According to fideism, one must always remember that “God’s revelation is ultimately and primarily a revelation of God himself, in which his purpose is to make himself known to us” (pg. 419).

Another strength of fideism is the humble view of man’s ability to reason. Fideism avoids an over-emphasis on rational or evidential methods, recognizing that the fallen human will and mind cannot be convinced with simple facts. Thus, fideism rightly keeps the focus on the person of Christ – another major strength. Ultimately, the apologetic task is not to call people to faith in a system or a worldview, but in a person – the person of Jesus Christ.

That being said, however, one weakness of fideism is that it often assumes that personal knowledge of God is antithetical to propositional knowledge about God. While we must not attempt to substitute propositions for the personal relationship, there are propositional truths about God that we must know and accept.

Fideism can also have an overstated lack of confidence in human reason and intellect. Fidesists rightly emphasize the limitations of human reasoning. However, this can be overstated to the point that one forgets that propositional truths play a key role in knowledge of the Christian faith, and if certain basic propositions about the Christian faith makes absolutely no sense to the unbeliever, he will have a much harder time coming to know Christ personally.

One final weakness of fideism is the willingness to accept liberal interpretations of Scripture, as opposed to holding firmly to the doctrine of inerrancy. Fideism can view a stand on inerrancy as rationalistic, and thus avoids strong stands on biblical interpretation. However, a firm stance on biblical inerrancy does not necessarily mean that one believes every difficulty of Scripture can be resolved by human reasoning.

In conclusion, it is important to note that the majority of apologists today do not adhere strictly to one approach, but instead draw the most useful aspects of each for their particular context. Boa and Bowman point this out when they say, “Typically, these apologists integrate two or more approaches by expanding one approach to absorb elements (usually not the whole) of the others” (481). This is the approach I would favor, as well as the approach that Boa and Bowman suggest, arguing that “this practice of expanding or enriching one apologetic approach by incorporating elements of other approaches is just what apologists should do” (pg. 481).

That being said, it is important to be aware of the different methods and to understand from whence certain approaches arise. No other work could better aid one in this endeavor than Faith Has Its Reasons. Boa and Bowman have produced an exhaustive, yet accessible, reference handbook for the pursuit of a deeper understanding of the basics of apologetic methodology.


About Topher

I'm a pastor, husband, and bookworm in northwestern PA. I started this site as a platform for creating and curating solid resources that make for solid men and women of wisdom, virtue, discipline, and faith. Become a patron and support my work at www.patreon.com/christopherpreston.
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