Where the world comes to study the Bible

Speaking the Truth in Love: Perspectives on Apologetics

Integrating the different approaches is not merely a matter of comparing the arguments and looking for ways of harmonizing them. While we have suggested a holistic way of looking at the four approaches, we have also emphasized that we are not proposing a “new approach” or a comprehensive system that definitively unites them. Indeed, we doubt that this is possible or even desirable. In this final chapter we suggest some reasons why the diversity of apologetic approaches is unavoidable and may actually be a good thing.

One Body, Many Gifts: How Apologists Differ

It is too easy to assert that some people are gifted to be apologists and others are not. While true, this observation is one-sided and does not go to the heart of the issue. Some Christians are indeed gifted and called by God to an ongoing and formal ministry of apologetics. But in a sense, all Christians are called to participate in this ministry. In Philippians, for example, the apostle Paul can say both that he was “appointed for the defense of the gospel” (Philippians 1:16) and that the Philippian Christians supported and shared with him “in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (1:7). The apostle Peter instructed the whole church scattered throughout the region to be “always . . . ready to make a defense” to those who asked for the reason for their hope in Christ (1 Peter 3:15).

When Christians think about having different gifts, they often consider the overtly supernatural gifts that Paul discussed in 1 Corinthians 12–14. However, those chapters are notable by their exceptional nature and by the fact that Paul’s focus was on correcting abuse and downplaying the importance of such gifts. While God does work in overtly supernatural ways among Christians as the Holy Spirit wills (1 Corinthians 12:11), the primary and regular way God gifts his people was and is not overtly supernatural. Instead, God’s main ministry gifts to the church are the Spirit-motivated and Spirit-enhanced use of natural abilities that are sanctified and consecrated to God’s service through faith. The apostles themselves are noteworthy examples: Peter was already an adventurous, outspoken man before Pentecost, and thus a natural leader. Paul was a sophisticated rabbinical student knowledgeable in Scripture and the Greek culture, and so brought considerable natural gifts, training, and experience to his ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles.

Consider Paul’s list of gifts given by God to the members of Christ’s body, the church, in Romans 12: prophecy, serving, teaching, exhorting (or encouraging), giving, leading, and showing mercy (verses 6-8). Most (possibly all) of these gifts are not abilities that some individuals have in abundance and others have not at all. They are functions that all Christians are expected to exercise according to their ability, recognizing that some people are exceptionally gifted in one and other people in another. (Prophecy may be the one exception; we leave this question to the side here.) Certainly, all Christians are expected to serve one another (Galatians 5:13), encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 3:13), give to one another (Acts 20:35), and be merciful to one another (Matthew 5:7; James 3:17). Most adult Christians find themselves in positions where they must lead and teach, whether children or younger men and women, or in other places of responsibility (cf. Ephesians 6:4; Titus 2:2-3). Yet some believers will be especially gifted for each of these normal functions of the Christian life.

Just as there are different gifts, there are different kinds of apologists. The two most basic kinds, in terms of regular ministries needing support from the church, are evangelists and teachers (cf. Ephesians 4:11). Some apologists are evangelist-apologists whose ministry is directed primarily to people outside the church, while others are teacher-apologists whose ministry is directed primarily to people inside the church. The former naturally and properly tend to use arguments that are persuasive to unbelievers, while the latter just as properly tend toward arguments that build on assumptions commonly taken for granted by the Christians they are teaching. Of course, all apologists engage in some evangelism and some teaching; we are talking about emphases and special callings.

Regarding the gifted functions in Romans 12, Christians have different strengths in which they can best use their apologetics. Some are most effective when encouraging others using apologetic insights. Some are effective in imparting apologetic concepts to others in a formal instructional setting (that is, teaching). Some are gifted to organize and lead others in the practice of apologetics.

There are other ways Christians engaged in apologetics differ from one another. But these differences can also be found among non-Christians. We will now consider these differences.

One World, Many Individuals: How People Differ

Human beings differ from each another in myriad ways. They come from different parts of the world, speak different languages, are taught in different educational systems. They grow up listening to different songs, reading different books, meeting different people. Apologists will tend to gravitate toward certain approaches because of their background and experience. It is no accident that evangelical scientists tend to be evidentialists or that evangelical artists tend to be fideists. Of course, such observations are generalizations, but they do point up factors that Christians engaged in apologetics need to consider. Thoughtful apologists will want to think about the factors that might influence their preference of one approach over another, other than the specific arguments they think warrant that approach.

In addition, apologists should use common sense and try to match their apologetic to the person with whom they are speaking. Technical distinctions that are important in the academic study of apologetics usually have no place in presenting apologetics to one’s neighbor, schoolmate, co-worker, or family member. Someone with a scientific bent who wants empirically based evidence should be offered such evidence, even while being told that empirical facts alone cannot settle questions about God. Someone who is clearly struggling emotionally due to personal experiences should usually not be met with the cosmological or transcendental argument (though words of comfort might implicitly make points similar to those defended with those arguments).

Much attention has been given during the past half-century or so to analyzing the differences in attitude, aptitude, and related basic personality characteristics among people. Since psychology is still very much in its infancy, these studies should be regarded as suggestive, not settled fact. Still, they offer interesting and significant insights into the differences among Christian apologists.

In Conformed to His Image, one of us (Ken Boa) explained how the natural differences in people’s spiritual, psychological, and physical inclinations provide some insight into why Christians gravitate toward different approaches to spirituality. For example, Christians tend to place a premium on theological renewal, personal renewal, social transformation, or inner transformation. An excessive focus on one of these four aspects of the Christian life results in rationalism, pietism, moralism, or quietism respectively.1

One Process, Many Stages: How Apologetic Needs Differ

One of the main reasons apologists often suppose that there is only one right approach is the assumption that an apologetic must move, or at least point, a person from rank unbelief to sound belief. The standard paradigm apologetic encounter is that of a Christian trying to convince an avowed atheist that the absolute truth is that God exists, is triune, views human beings as sinners deserving judgment, became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, redeemed us from our sins, and inspired an inerrant Bible. This is a tall order, and the notion that an apologetic is invalid if it does not meet this standard is enough to discourage all but the extremely confident.

The validity of the apologetic does not depend on its success, but on its utility in facilitating success through the hidden illuminating work of the Holy Spirit within non-Christians. On this premise, we favor the view that an apologetic is valid and valuable if it provides the basis for a non-Christian moving at all closer to embracing the Christian faith. People are indeed either dead in sins or born again, lost or found, unjustified or justified. But they may be closer or further away from crossing over from life to death, depending on what they believe or do not believe. People are typically not standing still: they are generally either moving toward faith or toward unbelief. A person who did not believe that a God exists but has now accepted that fact through hearing an apologetic argument has moved in the right direction. (Of course, factors other than what a person believes can affect the direction he is moving, but those fall outside the province of apologetics.)

It may be, then, that some apologetic approaches are more useful at certain points along the spectrum than at others.

Common Questions from Unbelief to Faith

Possible Apologetic Arguments

It doesn’t matter to me if God exists or not.

Pascal’s Wager: If God exists, it matters! (F)

God may be real to you, but he’s not to me.

Is Jesus real enough for you? (F)

You live every day as if God exists. (R)

How do you know there is a God?

Without God, there is no meaning. (R)

No other worldview makes sense. (C)

There are many lines of evidence. (E)

The stories in the Bible are hard to believe.

If God exists, nothing is too hard for him. (C)

Why must we believe in the God of the Bible?

God fulfilled prophecy and did miracles. (E)

How do we know Jesus rose from the dead?

The tomb was empty and people saw Jesus. (E)

Wasn’t Jesus just a great prophet?

Great prophets don’t claim to be God. (C)

Why is Christianity alone the truth?

The God of Christianity is the only true God. (R)

Christ is the truth; Christianity points to him. (F)

I’d like to believe, but I’m not sure.

Read the Gospels and get to know Jesus. (F)

C: Classical; E: Evidential; F: Fideist; R: Reformed

Thus, speaking very broadly and generally, we would suggest that elements of the fideist approach are most valuable at the extreme ends of the process of a person moving intellectually from unbelief to faith. This is because fideism is strongest in dealing with the personal or volitional dimension of apologetic questions. The Reformed approach is strongest in exposing the irrationality of unbelief (vital early in the process) and affirming the exclusivity of the Christian truth claims (vital near the end of the process). The classical and evidential approaches are strongest in defending specific truth claims that tend to be questioned in the middle of the process.

    Stages Toward Faith

    Dominant Approaches

    Disinterested/ignorant

    Fideism

    Skeptical

    Reformed apologetics

    Confused

    Classical apologetics

    Has specific objections

    Evidentialism

    Has general objections

    Classical apologetics

    Is checking for a way out

    Reformed apologetics

    Has lingering doubts

    Fideism

Of course, we are not suggesting that unbelievers always pass through this entire process before becoming convinced. Nor are we claiming that the different approaches only have utility at the stages indicated. We simply want to suggest that the different approaches have been developed at least partly because they tend to be more potent at different stages of a non-Christian’s movement toward conviction. Moreover, as we argued in the preceding two chapters, each of the four approaches can be broadened to include elements of the other approaches.

One Faith, Many Questions: How Apologetic Problems Differ

We have already seen that apologetics deals with a variety of questions and suggested that different approaches are more effective with certain kinds of questions than others. This is true even when on a superficial level the questions seem to be on the same subject. We saw in the last chapter that the so-called problem of evil actually includes four distinct problems that are characteristically and most effectively addressed by the four different apologetic approaches (the deductive, inductive, theological, and existential problems of evil). Non-Christians can ask if a claim makes sense (for example, “Are miracles possible?”), what evidence supports it (“How do we know it happened?”), what it proves about God (“How do we know that God did it?”), or why it is significant for us (“Why does it matter to me if it happened?”). These questions correspond to the classical, evidentialist, Reformed, and fideist approaches respectively.

Approach

Typical Question

The Point

Apologetic Argument

Classical

“Are miracles possible?”

What it means

Miracles are coherent in a theistic worldview.

Evidential

“How do we know it happened?”

Why it’s true

The crucial biblical miracles are well attested facts.

Reformed

“How do we know that God it?”

What it proves

The miracles are found in God’s authoritative word.

Fideist

“Why does it matter to me?”

Why it matters

The miracles show that God cares and that we need faith.

Many apologists already address more than one of these questions. For example, a classical apologist views the first question as relevant in the first step of a classical apologetic (establishing theism) and the second question as relevant in the second step (providing evidence for Christianity as the true theism). Both classical and evidentialist apologists view the third question as answered at the end of the apologetic argument (when the inspiration of Scripture is concluded from the testimony of the miraculously vindicated Jesus Christ). Reformed apologists can and do answer the first question in essentially the same way as a classical apologist would. All apologists can address the fourth question and would give essentially the same answer. Again, integration is already happening: what we hope to encourage is more deliberate, systematic efforts at integrating the insights and answers of other approaches into one’s apologetic. One of the benefits of doing so is that we will be able to answer a broader range of questions more successfully.

Metapologetics: Four Approaches

 

Classical

Evidential

Reformed

Fideist

Ground

Reason

Fact

Revelation

Faith

Form

Rational

Empirical

Transcendental

Paradoxical

Perspective

Normative (immanent)

Situational

Normative (transcendent)

Existential

Precursors

Anselm

Aquinas

Joseph Butler

William Paley

John Calvin

Thomas Reid

Martin Luther

Søren Kierkegaard

20th Cent. Advocates

C. S. Lewis

Norman Geisler

J. W. Montgomery

Richard Swinburne

Cornelius Van Til

Alvin Plantinga

Karl Barth

Donald Bloesch

Gospels

John

Luke

Matthew

Mark

God

God exists

God has acted

God has spoken

God loves me

Knowledge

Internal coherence

Faith is reasonable

Use rational tests to assess truth claims and to choose a worldview

External coherence

Faith is not unreasonable

Use sound methods for arriving at truth by discovering and interpreting facts

Fidelity to Scripture

Unbelief is unreasonable

God, as revealed in Scripture, is foundational for all knowledge of truth

Fidelity to Christ

Faith is not known by reason alone

Truth about God is found in encounter with Him, not in thinking about Him

Theology

Apologetics as prolegomena

Catholics, broadly evangelicals

Apologetics as polemics

Evangelical Arminians

Apologetics as part of theology

Calvinists, especially Dutch

Apologetics as persuasive theology

Lutherans, neoevangelicals

Philosophy

Apologetics uses philosophy’s ideas

Apologetics uses philosophy’s tools

Apologetics confronts false philosophy

Apologetics confronts all philosophy

Science

Consistency model:

Show that science properly interpreted is consistent with the Christian faith

Typically generic creationism

Confirmation model:

Use science to give factual confirmation of the Christian faith

Typically old-earth creationism

Conflict model:

Show that true science depends on the truth of God’s revelation

Typically young-earth creationism

Contrast model:

Show that science deals with physical matters, faith deals with the personal

Typically theistic evolutionism

History

Objective view of history difficult but possible

Right view of history requires right worldview

Objective view of history quite realizable

Right view of history requires right method

Objective truth about history given in Scripture

Right view of history based on revelation

Christ objectively revealed by the Spirit in Scripture

Faith cannot be based on historical knowledge

Experience

Religious experience not irrational

Test experiences by worldview

Religious experience may not be reliable

Test experiences by facts

God’s image in man is point of contact

Test experiences by Scripture

Experience faith, don’t defend it

Experience of faith is self-validating

Apologetics: Four Approaches

 

Classical

Evidential

Reformed

Fideist

Scripture

Scripture is subject of apologetics

Rationally verified authority of God

First, theism; second, Christ; third, Scripture as attested by Christ

Fulfilled prophecy proves inspiration if God exists

Scripture is source of apologetics

Factually verified story about Christ

First, historicity of Scripture; second, Christ and theism; third, inspiration

Fulfilled prophecy proves inspiration, which proves God

Scripture is standard of apologetics

Self-attesting authority of God

First, Scripture’s divine claims; second, irrationality of all alternatives

Fulfilled prophecy presupposes inspiration

Scripture is story of apologetics

Self-attesting story about Christ

First and always, Scripture as witness to Christ

Fulfilled prophecy is God’s advance witness to Christ

Religions

Disprove the worldviews underlying other religions

Present the unique factual, miraculous character of the Christian religion

Present the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian principles

Explain that the Christian faith is not a religion, but a relationship

God

Show that theism is the only or most rational worldview

Cosmological, moral arguments most common

Use various lines of argument and evidence to build a case for theism

Design argument most common

Show that God’s existence is basic or foundational to all knowledge & proof

Epistemic argument most common

Explain that knowing God is a relational matter

All direct proofs are rejected; argument from paradox used

Evil

Deductive problem of evil: Is theism inconsistent?

Freewill defense: evil result of free choice of creatures

Inductive problem of evil: Is theism likely?

Natural theology defense: evidence for God holds up

Theological problem of evil: Is God sovereign over evil?

Compatibilist defense: God not direct cause of evil

Existential problem of evil: Can God be trusted despite evil?

Theologia crucis: God shows his goodness in Christ

Miracles

Miracles in general are possible

Miracles, credible in theistic worldview, are credentials of special revelation

Specific miracles are probable

Miracles provide evidence for theism in the context of biblical history

Biblical miracles are prophetical

Biblical miracles are credible to those who accept the Bible’s authority

Christ’s miracles are paradoxical

Miracles, external and internal, are given by God in response to faith

Jesus

Examine alternative views of Jesus to show that none can be rationally held

Detail evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, fulfilled prophecies, and the like

Present Jesus’ claim to be God as his self-attesting Word confirmed by Spirit

Call people to meet God’s love in Jesus

Jesus is someone no human could invent

Conclusion

The apostle Paul affirmed that there is “one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling” (Ephesians 4:4). Sometimes Christians allow their differences to obscure the unity that Paul affirmed. The church is one body, but it has many and varied members. We are empowered by one Spirit, but he has gifted us in different ways. We have one hope, but that hope can be articulated in many different ways to persuade others to respond to the Spirit’s call to join us in that hope.

In this book we have emphasized the complementary ways in which different approaches to apologetics can be fruitfully related to one another. In doing so, we have sought to represent each approach at its best and in the most sympathetic manner possible. This means that we have often passed over some of the egregious errors and faults that can be found in the apologetic arguments and teaching of the very human, very imperfect apologists whose views we have discussed. (We hope others will do the same for us!) At the same time, we have drawn attention to some of the most important weaknesses that attend each of the major approaches, along with their perennial strengths. We handled the approaches in this way to underscore the fact that all of us can learn from other approaches.

In presenting an integrative analysis of apologetic systems, there is a real danger that we will be misconstrued as claiming to present yet another approach as the best or most complete approach to apologetics. We have therefore stated repeatedly that we are not advocating a “fifth” approach or proposing a system for definitively integrating all four basic approaches. Nor do we imagine that what we have said here is or should be the last word. We have our own pronounced tendencies and limited points of view, as do all apologists. Some of us are inclined to see issues in terms of either/or, emphasizing the dichotomies, the watershed issues, and the unbridgeable differences between points of view. Others of us are inclined to see issues in terms of both/and, emphasizing the commonalities, the qualifications to be made on both sides of a debate, the potential for reconciliation between seemingly opposed points of view. We confess to being persons, and apologists, of the latter kind. But we do not claim that our viewpoint in this regard is better—only that it is a needed voice to balance the viewpoints of the either/or temperament. In other words, we apply our “both/and” even to the need for the contributions of both the single-approach polemicists and the multiple-approach integrationists.

There are, after all, issues on which Christians must take a decisive stand for truth and against error, insisting that one is either upholding the truth or advocating error. Either one affirms that all facts are what they are ultimately because this is God’s world, or one denies that God is the sovereign Lord of creation. Either one affirms that Jesus Christ rose physically from the dead in real space-time history, or one denies this cornerstone truth of the Christian faith. Either one affirms that the Bible is God’s Word, communicating revealed truth just as God willed, or one undermines the church’s foundational source for its worship, its practice, its doctrine, and its apologetics. Either one affirms that God is known savingly only in Jesus Christ, or one erroneously encourages people to believe that there is hope for them outside a relationship with Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. The multiplicity of ways that these truths have and can be defended should not be allowed to obscure the fact that these are the nonnegotiable principles for which all sound Christian apologetics must contend.

For Further Study

Boa, Kenneth D. That I May Know God: Pathways to Spiritual Formation. Sisters, Oreg.: Multnomah, 1998. Applies insights into varying personalities and varying periods of church history to the question of why people follow different approaches to spiritual growth.

Afterword
Joining the Discussion

We hope that Faith Has Its Reasons has whetted your appetite for learning more about the great apologists of the past two millennia and for thinking more deeply about the issues introduced in this book. To that end, we invite you to visit us online and to find out about opportunities for further reflection and study.

Ken Boa is the founder and president of Reflections Ministries. Its mission is to provide safe places for people to consider the claims of Christ and to help them mature and bear fruit in their relationship with him. The ministry’s web site (http://www.KenBoa.org) features a variety of resources for Christian apologetics.

Rob Bowman is the founder and president of the Center for Biblical Apologetics. Its mission is to revolutionize Christian apologetics by bringing together the best resources available and by working to fill in the gaps where good resources still don’t exist. The ministry’s web site (http://www.biblicalapologetics.net) includes an apologetics resource network and an online discussion forum dedicated to the issues covered in Faith Has Its Reasons.

As Christians, we rejoice to know a living God whose word is faithful and true, whose revelation is both eminently reasonable and wonderfully beyond our comprehension, whose incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth left a trail of evidence confirming his entrance into our space and time history, and whose presence gives our lives meaning, purpose, value, and hope. Truly, the Christian faith has a rich treasure of reasons to share with each other and to offer to anyone who will listen. Let’s not keep it to ourselves!

Appendix A
Categorizing Apologetic Methods

In this book we have identified, described, and compared four approaches to apologetics. The rationale for this fourfold analysis is given briefly in chapters 3 and developed throughout the book, but especially in chapters 21-23, where we compare the four approaches. In this appendix we will compare this analysis to the way other writers have analyzed apologetic thought into different approaches, models, or methods.

Bernard Ramm

One of the earliest attempts to discuss the diversity of approaches to apologetics in a comprehensive way was Bernard Ramm’s 1953 book Types of Apologetic Systems,2 which was issued in a revision edition in 1962 as Varieties of Christian Apologetics.3

Ramm classifies apologetic systems into three types and identifies three representatives of each type, each of which is given a chapter. The first type stresses the subjective immediacy of religious experience as the grounds for confidence in its truth. The truth about God is found through “existential encounter” with Him, not in proofs or arguments. Ramm identifies Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, and Emil Brunner as representatives of this type.

The second type stresses natural theology and appeals to reason as the starting point of apologetics. These apologists seek to prove Christianity the same way scientists seek to prove their theories. Ramm identifies Thomas Aquinas, Joseph Butler, and F. R. Tennant as examplary apologists of this type.

The third type stresses revelation as the foundation of human knowledge of the truth of the Christian faith. Apologists of this type argue that the proper role of reason in apologetics is to explicate God’s revelation, not to prove it. In Types, the earlier edition, Ramm identified Augustine, Cornelius Van Til, and Edward John Carnell as representatives of this type. In Varieties, Ramm dropped the chapters on Van Til and Carnell (both of whom were still alive) and substituted chapters on John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper.

The system stressing subjective immediacy of religious experience is obviously the same as what we are calling fideism. Pascal was by our account a precursor to fideism and Kierkegaard in the paradigm example of a fideist. Brunner is in our view a mediating figure between fideism and the classical approach, as is illustrated in his famous debate with Karl Barth over natural theology (which Brunner defended against Barth).

Ramm’s system stressing revelation is essentially the same as what we call Reformed apologetics. Calvin, Kuyper, and Van Til are key figures in the development of this approach. Augustine is widely regarded as a precursor to the Reformed approach by its advocates, though not by its critics; but then, virtually all Christian apologists wants to claim Augustine as a forebear. Carnell, as we argued in chapter 20, integrated Reformed and evidentialist apologetics (and in his later works introduced some elements of fideism as well).

Ramm’s type that stresses natural theology includes both classical and evidentialist apologetics. Butler and Tennant clearly fall into the evidentialist tradition (Butler as a pioneer, Tennant as a modern proponent), while Aquinas can be viewed as a precursor to it. On the other hand, Aquinas set the standard for the classical approach, so much so that some of its most notable modern advocates (such as Norman Geisler and Peter Kreeft) are avowed Thomists. As we have noted before, the classical and evidentialist approaches are very close, which explains why Ramm could treat them together. We distinguish them because in the twentieth century evidentialism emerged as a distinct alternative in its methodology to the classical approach.

Gordon Lewis

Probably the best known textbook surveying the different apologetic methods is Gordon Lewis’s 1976 book Testing Christianity’s Truth Claims: Approaches to Christian Apologetics.4 The structure of the book is illuminating. After an introductory chapter, Lewis offers one chapter each on five apologists followed by four chapters on Carnell. The purpose of the book is to show that what Lewis calls Carnell’s “verificational approach” brings together the valid elements of the other approaches. They are, Lewis says, “like separate pieces of a stained glass window” that Carnell “sought to put . . . back together” (176). In an appendix Lewis reviews more briefly the thought of ten other apologists.

Lewis’s first apologist is J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., whom he describes as advocating “pure empiricism.” His approach, according to Lewis, uses “the test of objective evidence” (45). Buswell falls clearly within the evidentialist approach we have identified. Lewis’s bibliography at the end of the chapter includes many works by John Warwick Montgomery (our main exemplar of evidentialism), whose approach is surveyed in the appendix and likened to Buswell’s.

Next, Lewis examines “rational empiricism” as a system that employs “the test of objective evidence and logical thought-forms” (76). Although the chapter title identifies Stuart Hackett as the primary exemplar, Lewis divides his attention equally between Hackett and Floyd E. Hamilton. Oddly, in the appendix he characterizes Norman Geisler’s approach as “most similar to that of the pure empiricists” (311), though in Lewis’s defense it should be noted that Geisler was in the early stages of his career at the time (his book Christian Apologetics appeared in 1976, the same year as Lewis’s book). In our analysis Hackett, Hamilton, and Geisler are all advocates of the classical approach.

In the following two chapters Lewis considers the “rationalism” of Gordon H. Clark, who used “the test of logical consistency” (100), and the “biblical authoritarianism” of Cornelius Van Til, who used “the test of scriptural authority” (125). Clark makes logic primary and argues that the Bible provides the only logically consistent system of knowledge, while Van Til makes the Bible primary and argues that our use of logic must be subordinated to the Bible. Lewis emphasizes the differences between their two methods, which are indeed quite significant. We have treated them as variations of the same Reformed approach, however, because both argue on the basis of Reformed theology that apologetics must start from the Bible as the ultimate authority for knowledge. Clark’s system, after all, is just as much one of “biblical authoritarianism” as Van Til’s.

Lewis turns next to the “mysticism” of Earl E. Barrett as an example of a system utilizing “the test of personal experience” (151). Warren C. Young is also cited at length as an advocate of this approach. These two apologists are not well known today, but they were evangelical professors at Midwest schools in the mid-twentieth century who emphasized personal encounter with God in their apologetics. They may be regarded in our classification as fideists.

In the remainder of the book Lewis expounds on Carnell’s approach and argues that it combines the strengths of the other approaches. In the appendix Francis Schaeffer (296-300), Os Guinness (300-301), Clark Pinnock (301-304), Arthur Holmes (319-326), Bernard Ramm (327-31), and C. S. Lewis (331-38) are profiled and said to take an approach similar to Carnell’s.

Lewis’s analysis of the major types of apologetic systems is quite similar to ours. If Clark and Van Til are treated as variations of the Reformed approach, his book covers the evidentialist, classical, Reformed, fideist, and integrationist approaches.

Norman Geisler

In his 1999 magnum opus, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Geisler includes an article on apologetic types.5 He warns against trying “to make logically exhaustive categories of apologetic systems,” but his main objection is to dividing apologetic systems into only two categories such as evidential and non-evidential (41). He also notes that apologetic types overlap. We certainly agree with these observations. Our four approaches are not exhaustive of all positions, since, as we have pointed out repeatedly, most apologists combine elements of two or more approaches. The four approaches are like the four points on a compass (with an indeterminate number of possible directions) or the three primary colors (with an indeterminate number of possible colors).

Having made his qualifications, Geisler proceeds to identify five types of apologetics. The first is classical apologetics, which “is characterized by two basic steps: theistic and evidential arguments” (41). As we do, Geisler identifies B. B. Warfield, C. S. Lewis, William Lane Craig, Peter Kreeft, and himself as proponents (42).

Geisler distinguishes evidential apologetics from historical apologetics. The former adduces evidence eclectically from a variety of fields to make an overall case for Christianity, and is represented by William Paley and Josh McDowell (42). The latter “stresses historical evidence as the basis for demonstrating the truth of Christianity” and is represented by John Warwick Montgomery and Gary Habermas. Geisler acknowledges that historical apologetics can be viewed as belonging “to the broad class of evidential apologetics”; what makes it distinctive is the priority it assigns to historical evidence (43).

Another type that Geisler discusses is experiential apologetics, which emphasizes self-authenticating religious experiences, both mystical and existential. Proponents include Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth (43). This type is obviously identical to fideism.

Finally, Geisler discusses presuppositional apologetics as a type that “affirms that one must defend Christianity from the foundation of certain basic assumptions” (44). He distinguishes four subtypes: revelational (Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, John Frame), rational (Gordon Clark, Carl Henry), systematic consistency (Edward John Carnell), and practical (Francis Schaeffer). This type is a large part of what we have called the Reformed approach.

In sum, Geisler’s analysis of the types of apologetic systems is essentially identical to ours.

Five Views on Apologetics

Finally, we consider the analysis offered by Steven B. Cowan in a book he edited entitled Five Views on Apologetics.6 In his Introduction, Cowan questions the value of classifying approaches to apologetics according to their religious epistemologies (as in Gordon Lewis’s book), suggesting that “the apologetic approaches that derive from these epistemologies, for all practical purposes, do not differ” (10). He thinks classifying apologetic approaches according to their view of faith and reason, as Bernard Ramm did, is somewhat better, but in the end he concludes that such an analysis also is inadequate (11-13). Instead, he prefers to classify approaches according to “the criterion of argumentative strategy”—the “distinctive types or structures of argument” used to make the case for Christianity (14). Cowan identifies the “Big Four” methods to be the classical, evidential, cumulative case, and presuppositional methods, with Reformed epistemology as a new and dramatic alternative (15-20).

Ironically, the submissions by the five authors chosen to represent these five methods undermine Cowan’s analysis somewhat. William Lane Craig argues in favor of “classical apologetics,” a two-step approach: first offer evidence for the existence of God, and then offer evidence that this God has revealed himself in Jesus (25-55). Gary Habermas presents “evidentialist apologetics” as a “one-step” approach that adduces historical evidence to show that God exists and has revealed himself in Jesus, focusing on the evidence for the resurrection (91-121). Paul Feinberg contends for “cumulative case apologetics,” which seeks to draw upon a variety of arguments for God’s existence, historical evidences, and other kinds of evidence to show that Christianity is the best explanation for everything that we know (147-72).

During the back-and-forth discussions among these three authors it becomes clear that very little separates their methods. In theory Craig’s approach is a “two-step” method while the approaches of Habermas and Feinberg are narrower and broader versions of a “one-step” method. Yet Craig also views his approach as a cumulative case method, and both Habermas and Feinberg acknowledge the value of arguments for God’s existence other than the historical argument. Little wonder that Craig sees the other two approaches as variations of the classical approach, while Habermas and Feinberg see Craig as an evidentialist.

The other two views are from our analysis the “left” and “right” wings of the Reformed approach. John Frame’s “presuppositional apologetics” is a kinder, gentler version of the approach pioneered by Cornelius Van Til. He contends that no apologetic is adequate that does not set forth the God of Christianity as revealed in Scripture as the necessary presupposition of all thinking and of all knowledge (207-231). Frame finds so much of value in the traditional methods, though, that the spokesmen for all three of those methods conclude that he does not really have a distinct apologetic system or approach.

Kelly James Clark’s “Reformed Epistemology apologetics” is, by contrast, a more strident version of the philosophical apologetic developed by Alvin Plantinga. His main contention is that the Christian is rational to believe in God with or without being able to offer arguments in support of that belief. All four of the other participants agree with this point. Clark affirms that some of the traditional apologetic arguments may have value but emphasizes their limitations, arguing that they are generally ineffective in persuading non-Christians (265-84).

Craig speaks for most if not all of the authors when, in his closing remarks, he observes, “What we are seeing in the present volume is a remarkable convergence of views, which is cause for rejoicing” (317). With this sentiment, we fully agree.

Our own view is that apologetic approaches can be fruitfully classified according to both religious epistemology and method, since there is typically a close correlation between the two. Of course, as we have stressed numerous times, individual apologists tend to vary from one another in many ways, so that no ‘taxonomy’ of apologetic approaches will neatly or perfectly classify every apologist. The general validity of the fourfold analysis we have used in this book may be confirmed, however, by comparing the resulting classifications with those of the other studies we have reviewed here.

Four Approaches: A Comparison Chart

 

Classical

Evidential

Reformed

Fideist

Ramm

Reason

Revelation

Experience

Lewis

Rational empiricism

Pure empiricism

Rationalism and Revelational Authoritarianism

Mysticism

Geisler

Classical

Evidential and Historical

Presuppositional

Experiential

Cowan

Classical

Evidential and Cumulative Case

Presuppositional and Reformed Epistemological

-----


1 Kenneth D. Boa, Conformed to His Image: A Practical Handbook to Spiritual Formation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), Appendix A.

2 Bernard L. Ramm, Types of Apologetic Systems (Wheaton, Ill.: Van Kampen Press, 1953).

3 Bernard L. Ramm, Varieties of Christian Apologetics: An Introduction to the Christian Philosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1962).

4 Gordon R. Lewis, Testing Christianity’s Truth Claims: Approaches to Christian Apologetics (Chicago: Moody, 1976). Parenthetical references in the text are to this book.

5 Norman L. Geisler, “Apologetics, Types of,” in Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), pp. 41-44. Parenthetical references in this section are to this book.

6 Steven B. Cowan, ed., Five Views on Apologetics, Counterpoint series (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000). Parenthetical references in this section are to this book. Parts of this section first appeared as a review (by Bowman) in Facts for Faith 1, no. 2 (2000): 61.

Related Topics: Apologetics