Basics of Apologetics: Four Methods (Part 2 of 3)

September 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Christian apologetics has four distinct methods or approaches. I’ve outlined my understanding of these four schools of thought, including some of their popular adherents. I think that most apologists use more than one method but seem to favor one over the rest.

St. Thomas Aquinas by Carlo Crivelli, 15th century

Classical apologetics was the earliest approach to defending Christian faith. It begins by using various theistic arguments (i.e. cosmological, teleological, ontological and moral arguments) to establish the existence of God. Once theism is established, the next step is to present various evidences (i.e. fulfilled prophesy, resurrection, historical reliability of Scripture) to set apart Christianity from other forms of theism. Classical, or traditional, apologists include St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Canterbury, and more recently, C.S. Lewis, R.C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, and William Lane Craig.

Evidentialist apologetics is similar to classical in its value of logic and reason, but puts more emphasis on empirical evidence. Evidentialism uses available facts and data as a starting point to argue, mostly inductively, for Christianity. An extreme form of evidentialism forwarded by W.K. Clifford called epistemological evidentialism, says that “it is wrong, everywhere, always, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Since there is no way to produce sufficient evidence to prove that it’s wrong to believe something without evidence, the maxim is unreasonable and self-defeating. Most evidentialists, including Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, Francis Schaffer, B. B. Warfield, John Warwick Montgomery, and Clark Pinnock, don’t go to that extreme.

Reformed apologetics is a little more heady, but worth understanding. Based on some of the work of John Calvin and pioneered mainly in the 19th century by theologian Cornelius van Til, reformed apologetics is often called Presuppositionalism. Because the natural man is corrupt and can’t truly be relied upon to use knowledge and reason perfectly, presuppositionalism starts with presupposing the truth of Christianity. One important truth is that God, who created us in His image, is the transcendental source of our knowledge, and this alone makes sense of our use of knowledge and reason. Since this method begins with the assumption that God is real and the Bible is true and seeks to prove the same, it’s seen as circular. But since every argument about ultimate authority (including human reason) is circular because it ultimately appeals to itself, reformed apologists admit this from the start, but then seek to show that only the God of the Bible makes sense of our use of reason and knowledge in the first place. Some contemporary reformed apologists are Gordon Clark, Alvin Plantinga, John Frame and Greg Bahnsen. This approach doesn’t disallow the use of reason to appeal to facts, but acknowledges that we need to first presuppose Christian theology to explain any kind of human experience.

Fideism is an approach to apologetics that at first glance seems to combat the very idea of apologetics. Fideists advocate the use of faith apart from reason. (The word literally means “faith-ism” in Latin). Like the other methods, Fideism comes in different forms, and has been associated, by others moreso than by themselves, to Blaise Pascal, Johann Georg Hamann, Søren Kierkegaard and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Most of these philosophers agree that everything we experience must ultimately taken on faith anyway. “Faith alone” is a Biblical principal for salvation, and it’s acceptable to believe based solely on faith. But I think the other camps agree that the exclusion of God-given reason is not what the Bible means, particularly when doing apologetics, but that reason be placed in the proper framework.

I would agree with Emmaus Apologetics professor Mark Stevenson when he advocates an “eclectic approach” to apologetics in light of the different methods. Much depends on the specific argument and who you are talking with. Think of these modes of apologetics and the various arguments within them as tools. We all have our favorite tools—I favor reformed/presuppositional approach using the transcendental argument. But it’s best to have many tools available depending on the job to be done.

1: What-Who-Why | 2: Four Methods | 3: The 1 Peter 3:15 Model

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