There have been many historical approaches to the academic discipline and practice of Christian Apologetics. There are camps that have formed around philosophical approaches and various ways thinkers have approached the relationship of faith and reason. Though this cannot in any way be exhaustive I wanted to provide a summary of the various ways believers have sought to intellectually and practically defend the faith. I have done this for you by using the titles of popular songs or ways of dancing. You’re welcome. After these brief descriptions will follow two figures which summarize the various views of these positions in tabular form. You’re welcome again.
Classical Apologetics – Two stepping the floor
Classical apologists trace their roots back to the philosophical theology of the early church and the high day of medieval thinking. They think philosophy should serve theology but can take an active role in shaping the necessary preconditions (prolegomena) for doing good theology. Many times the classical method is called a “two step” apologetic in that it first seeks to philosophically prove or demonstrate the existence of God and then secondly, demonstrate the reality of the Christian method, its miracles and revelation in Scripture. They argue that it is hard to talk to someone about the miracle of the resurrection when they don’t even believe God exists. They are not afraid to use the terminology “proving Christianity to be true.”
Evidential Apologetics – Don’t know much about history?
Evidential apologists think two steps are not necessary when one will do fine. This camp focuses on evidences for Christianity and makes inductive arguments based on historical facts. The evidentialists will point to fulfilled prophecy, build an historical case for the literal resurrection of Jesus and point to verifying miracles as reasons to think the Christian gospel is true. Like a good forensic specialist on CSI these dudes dig the pages of history and archaeology and point to biblical evidences that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. Evidentialists love good learning history and think you should know much about it as well.
Some Reformed Approaches – Song References Below
In the reformed tradition there are actually several flavors of apologetic thinking. One unifying factor for people in this camp is that they hold the position that human reason is flawed and devastated by the fall of man into sin. They hold this for biblical and theological reasons. Due to his fallen nature man cannot reason properly so he cannot think his way into God. Fideism, which sort of means “faith only”, which we will handle in a moment, has been an historical presence in the history of reformation churches. In recent times two philosophical movements have come to the fore in the reformed churches. Pressupositionalism and Reformed Epistemology. The first is theologically oriented and the latter is a move in the analytic philosophy of religion. We cover each in turn.
We want Presup, We want Presup!
Cornelius Van Til was the most prominent recent figure in advocating for this methodology in apologetics. The claim here is that the human mind and reasoning is not neutral in that man is at enmity with God. He is suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18) so there is no point in “answering a fool according to his folly” (Proverbs 26:4). We need to get over the myth of common ground and reasoning to God. Humans are not this sort of creature so we should not act as if apologetics is a friendly match of intellectual tennis where truth will simply prevail by way of reasoning. However, the presuppositionalist does find a place for rational engagement and it is on the offense. The apologist should “tear down strong-holds of unbelief” with a transcendental argument showing that the Christian faith is the only rational option. All others deconstruct. Even the use of reason collapses unless we know we can trust it. This only comes from God. So when it comes to “answering the fools folly” (Proverbs 26:5) we must expose the flaws of unbelieving thinking that set itself up against the knowledge of God. I find this a great methodology but it does not produce great historical or philosophical arguments in defense of or in favor of the faith. Thankfully there are classical and evidential apologists for that. We can borrow their tools to use in our method. Hooray!
It’s my prerogative, I can believe if I can believe
In the last half of the 20th century men like William Alston of Syracuse, Nicolas Wolterstorff of Yale and St. Alvin Plantinga (sorry for my preemptive canonization of Alvin, but we do love him) of Notre Dame have made some interesting moves in the philosophy of religions. To get into it here would be either fantastically exciting or phenomenally boring. I’m going to hedge my bets and keep this short. Since the enlightenment atheistic and skeptical thinkers demanded someone be able to “prove!!!” that God exists in order to be rational in believing in him. Skeptics try to find escape clauses in arguments for God’s existence so that may say “see, you didn’t prove it, therefore you are a dumb-dumb for believing in God.” Or something like that. The skeptic thereby places the “burden of proof” on the theist as if unbelief is the only basic and default position. Plantinga has been making the argument that it is purely and properly basic, epistemologically speaking, to believe in God without any argument for God’s existence and to do so is completely rational. One is rationally responsible to defeat arguments presented against belief in God and an intellectual believer should be happy to do so. Certainly St. Alvin has offered reasons to believe in God and he has shown that certain objections to God can be fully removed. His argument dealing with the problem of evil and suffering comes to mind.
Fideism – cause you gotta have faith, faith, faith
Fideism is represented well by Martin Luther’s now infamous quote “Reason is the devil’s whore” and is entirely suspect of any project of human reasoning apart from the divine illumination of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. Faith is a leap but one worth your life. After all, if faith is in GOD who is fully and entirely worth your trust, you should just flow with that. Other apologists see the fideistic position as self-refuting as you must use reason to make an argument against reason. Yet the fideist gives good warnings based upon good theology so let’s listen to him that faith alone, in Christ alone, by the grace of God alone is the only thing that saves. We should give an amen.
Pragmatic – Born, in the USA, I was, born in the USA
So which is right? I think they all offer something helpful in the apologetic enterprise of the church. As a pragmatic American I think our tool belt should have a little of all of these in the mix so that the Spirit can use reasons, arguments, preaching, testimony and whatever else he chooses to bring people to faith in Christ and find the knowledge of God.
OK, enjoy the tables below.
Table 1: Meta-Apologetic Issues
CS Lewis, Geisler
Van Til, Plantinga
God has acted
God loves me
Fidelity to Christ
AP as Prolegomena
As Persuasive Theology
Uses Phil Ideas
Uses Phil Tools
Confronts false Philosophy
Confronts all Phil
Table 2: Apologetic Issues
Is the subject of AP
Rationally Verified Authority of God
Source of AP
Factually Verified Story about Christ
Standard for AP
Self-attesting Authority of God
Story of AP
Self attesting story about Christ
Disprove the Worldviews Underlying Religions
Present the unique, factual, and miraculous character of Christian Religion
Presents the antithesis between Christian and Non-Christian principles.
Explain Christian faith is not religion but relationship
Show that theism is the only or most rational worldview
Use various lines of argument and evidence to build a case for Theism
Show that God’s existence is basic or foundational to all knowledge or proof
Explain that knowing God is a relational matter
Is Theism Inconsistent?
Is Theism Likely?
Is God Sovereign Over Evil?
Can God be trusted Despite Evil?
Miracles are Possible if God exists – validate special revelation
Specific Miracles are probable – serve as evidence in Biblical History
Biblical Miracles are Prophetical – miracles are credible to those who accept Biblical authority
Miracles, internal and external are given to those who respond in faith.
Alternative Views of Jesus cannot be rationally held
Detail evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, fulfilled prophecies etc.
Jesus’ claim to be God as His self-attesting Word, confirmed by Spirit
Call people to meet God’s Love in Jesus
Apologetic methods are cool but they are a bit empty without developing clear thinking, sound theology, good arguments and Christian evidences for use by missional churches and believers.
In the next post I will give, ever so briefly, some important areas of knowledge that apologists must cover in our day.
 Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
 Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).
 It should be noted that Luther’s ranting against reason was in a particular setting of use of reason apart from Scripture in the formation of theology in the Romans church. Philosophy unguided by the words of God is target here.
 These tables are adapted from those in Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr, Faith Has Its Reasons, an Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), 542-544.