‘Five Views on Apologetics’

Although it rarely seems to be a concern for many evangelicals, heated debate concerning the use of different approaches in apologetics is not uncommon.[1] But is discussion of apologetics methodology simply an esoteric, in-house concern for apologetics geeks? Or is it a highly important question for all Christians because using the wrong method amounts to a betrayal of Scripture? In this review of Five Views on Apologetics, I want to suggest that it is helpful for us to clarify what kind of apologetics methods we use, and why.  These methods should, of course, always be used for the glory of God with the ultimate goal of conversion or the re-affirmation of Christian faith, not simply to win intellectual arguments. That said, there seems to be more unity between the different approaches than is sometimes recognised by advocates within each ‘camp’, a point which this book appears to reinforce. What, then, are the five views?

Classical

According to William Lane Craig, we can show that Christian theism is true by presenting arguments for theism and evidences for a specifically Christian theism (the ‘classical’ view). When coupled with defensive apologetics, these demonstrate that Christian theism is the most plausible worldview. The Holy Spirit will then use such arguments to bring unbelievers to a knowledge of God by “removing their sinful resistance to the conclusion of our arguments.”[2] Craig’s view of classical apologetics contains a defence of the importance of reason: “Reason in the form of rational arguments and evidence plays an essential role in our showing Christianity to be true, whereas reason in this form plays a contingent and secondary role in our personally knowing Christianity to be true.”[3]

Craig’s argument is interesting because he starts with the importance of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit rather than a position which argues for the truthfulness of Christianity from the starting point of reason.  This stands in stark contrast to a certain caricature of classical apologetics, which is often seen as an attempt to “argue the non-Christian into Christianity.” One potential weakness, however, is the role which the classical position gives to the Bible.  John Frame is right to point out that the Holy Spirit primarily bears witness to Scripture[4], and a danger which is perhaps most prevalent in the classical view is that God’s word is under-utilised in favour of abstract arguments (i.e. – the cosmological, teleological or ontological arguments).

Evidential

Gary Habermas concedes that the evidential method of apologetics has much in common with the classical method. The primary difference is the way in which historical evidences are used. He describes evidentialism as the “one-step” approach to using historical evidence in apologetics, in contrast to the “two-step” approach of the classical method. As Habermas states, “Instead of having to prove God’s existence before moving to specific evidences (the “two-step” method), the evidentialist treats one or more historical arguments as being able both to indicate God’s existence and activity and to indicate which variety of theism is true.”[5]  it focusses primarily on assembling various historical evidences for the truth of Christianity (the historicity of the resurrection being one example).

The aim of grounding apologetical arguments in evidence seems entirely appropriate, and anyone who has seen Habermas’ presentations on the historical evidence of the Resurrection will know that he is an able defender of the Christian faith. Yet the main risk, it seems, with this view is that it can potentially limit the role for the witness of the Holy Spirit and the primary role of God’s word as revelation.  This danger is not abundantly clear from Habermas’ essay because he does not advocate ‘hard evidentialism’ (Craig critiques him as “endorsing belief in Christian theism on the basis of the testimony of the Holy Spirit apart from evidence!”[6]).  However, if this position is taken to an extreme, it can devalue the special revelation of Scripture and over-emphasise the importance of historical evidence.

Cumulative Case

Feinberg says that in the classical view, “God’s existence must be proven first” whereas in the cumulative case, “one may start with any element of the case, and…appeal may be made to some other element to support or reinforce the claim that Christianity is true.”[7]  One of the strengths of this view is that it highlights the problem with many of the classical arguments in that they are not, by themselves, ‘conclusive.’ For example, the cosmological argument might be convincing for a theist. Yet atheists and agnostics may protest that the ‘cause’ behind the universe need not necessarily be God.[8] However, as Craig points out in his response to the cumulative case method, a theistic proof is not designed to offer ‘proof’ in the scientific sense, but only be “sound, informally valid” and have premises which “are more plausible than their denials.”[9]

Feinberg proposes several ‘tests for truth’, which include the test of consistency, correspondence, comprehensiveness, simplicity, livability, and fruitfulness.  Whilst these tests seem appealing, they are actually quite problematic.  This can be seen when the ’test of simplicity’ is applied, for example, to the miraculous circumstances around Jesus’ birth. Instead of accounts of angels, visions, and a virgin birth, a critic could say that a much ‘simpler’ explanation is that Jesus was conceived through natural means.  The standard of ‘livability’ is highly subjective as this test could arguably apply just as equally to other major world religions.  Also, it is difficult to distinguish any significant difference between the evidentialist approach and the cumulative case method.  So I agree with Habermas’ assessment that “Paul Feinberg’s approach could be considered as a subspecies in the camp of evidentialist methodology.”[10]

Presuppositional

John Frame suggests that “For Christians, faith governs reasoning just as it governs all other human activities.” [11] Reasoning, therefore, cannot take place in some neutral ‘common ground’ between faith and unbelief. A major strength of the presuppositional position is the recognition that we cannot properly discuss facts until we clarify the presuppositions which act as the lens through which we see those facts.  Another advantage is its strong emphasis on the fallibility of human reason. Furthermore, it avoids discussing the ‘probability’ of the existence of God.  To say, “God probably exists” based on the cosmological, moral and/or teleological argument seems to fall short of proclaiming Scripture faithfully. The God of the bible is the ‘God who is there’ (Schaeffer), not merely a likely hypothesis.  The presuppositional method certainly avoids this danger, yet so too does a classical or evidential approach which submits itself first to the witness of the Holy Spirit.  On this basis it seems that Craig, Habermas and Frame are closer to each other in their approach than is sometimes recognised by those within the classical, evidential and presuppositional camps.

However, the main problem with the presuppositional view, as Craig points out, is that it is guilty of “begging the question.” It does this by presupposing the truth of Christian theism in order to prove Christian theism.[12]  Frame acknowledges this circularity in his argument, and attempts to defend it, but it remains a major objection to the usefulness of this method.  For example, what ultimately prevents the Muslim apologist from claiming the presuppositional method to support his faith in the validity of Islam?

Reformed Epistemology

According to Clark, Reformed epistemology maintains that “Belief in God, like belief in other persons, does not require the support of evidence or argument in order for it to be rational.”[13]  He makes it clear that this view does not suggest that belief in God could not be based on evidence or argument.  Rather, he argues that God has given us an awareness of himself that is not dependent on theistic arguments (what Alvin Plantinga calls a “properly basic belief”).[14]

Perhaps the most useful aspect of Reformed Epistemology is that it highlights that Christian belief does not require an extensive examination of theistic proofs.  In the vast majority of cases, it is thankfully much more simple.  He points to a study which confirmed his suspicion that even philosophers did not become Christians through theistic proofs at a substantially higher rate than ‘ordinary people’ (like Clark’s non-philosophically minded grandmother)[15].  If nothing else, this should be of huge relief to Christian leaders who do not have the time or inclination to master Aquinas’ Five Proofs!

Evaluation

This book possesses several strengths. Firstly, it clearly and concisely outlines five different positions in a single volume: this kind of treatment is not (to my knowledge) available in this format elsewhere.  Certainly there is no other book in which leading apologists such as Craig, Frame, and Habermas put forward their positions and critique one another’s views so extensively.  It is not a “Beginner’s Guide to Apologetics” but it does provide a helpful primer on questions of methodology.  Secondly, it is encouraging to see the unity between the five views concerning the role of the Holy Spirit in apologetics.  I would wish to go one step further and say it is the work of the Holy Spirit in illuminating Scripture which must be the starting point for Christian apologetics, but the authors vary in their views. Still, no one is arguing for an apologetic that can “reason its way to God” alone, but rather all seem to echo, to a greater or lesser extent, Anselm’s position of “faith seeking understanding.”

However, the main weakness of this book is its taxonomy which is somewhat arbitrary.  For example, there is undoubtedly a considerable degree of overlap between the evidential and cumulative case views: are these two really sufficiently different that they need to be treated as separate views?  That said, this issue is perhaps inevitable as some sort of categorisation is needed and it is and issue which is acknowledged by the editor.[16]  It would have been fascinating to see a contribution from Francis Schaffer (who died over a decade before the publication of this book) who has been described as holding to a ‘modified presuppositionalism.’[17] Frame defines Schaeffer’s approach as having an “emphasis on both presuppositions and verification.”  This is not a weakness but perhaps a limitation of the book – are there other views which could have been included?

Conclusion

I find the classical view particularly useful, especially Craig’s distinction between ‘knowing’ and ‘showing’ the validity of the Christian faith, and his reliance on the Holy Spirit as testimony.  This approach, however, is strengthened when combined with the insights from the presuppositional approach (although, of course Frame and certainly Van Til would argue that the two are irreconcilable). I see no reason why a combination of all of these different methods of apologetics cannot be used at different times, depending on the person or audience being addressed.  Of course, those holding to the presuppositional view may argue that this is impossible, and yet I have not seen a convincing reason why this should be the case. For example, Plantinga’s argument against naturalism is incredibly helpful[18], and a ‘classical’ or ‘evidentialist’ apologist could easily incorporate this argument into their apologetics, even though it stems from the Reformed Epistemological method.

Perhaps the most useful insight this book offers is that, whilst the differences between the different views cannot be ignored, there are many areas of agreement.  All of them agree that sin has distorted human reason to at least some extent, that the Holy Spirit plays a highly important role in apologetics, and that postmodern relativism is self-defeating.[19] Whilst some methods are more coherent and consistent than others, it seems that any of them can be used in accordance with Scripture, and that none can lay claim to being the “only” biblical model for apologetics, as is sometimes suggested.

[1] See James White’s recent critique of William Lane Craig – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQF_LAjvNow

[2] Craig, Five Views On Apologetics, p54.

[3] Craig, Five Views, p28.

[4] Frame, Five Views, p76.

[5] Habermas, Five Views, p92.

[6] Craig, Five Views, p122.

[7] Feinberg, Five Views, p152.

[8] Feinberg, Five Views, p149.

[9] Craig, Five Views, p174.

[10] Habermas, Five Views, p184.

[11] Frame, Five Views, p209.

[12] Cowan, Five Views, p232.

[13] Clark, Five Views, p267.

[14] Clark, Five Views, p271.

[15] Clark, Five Views, p271.

[16] Cowan, Five Views, p376.

[17] https://frame-poythress.org/some-thoughts-on-schaeffers-apologetics/

[18] Craig summarises Plantinga’s argument as follows: “According to naturalism, our cognitive faculties are aimed at survival, not truth. Thus, we can have no confidence in the truth of their deliverances—including the conclusion that naturalism is true! Thus, the very conclusion that naturalism is true is rationally undermined if naturalism is true.”  Five Views on Apologetics (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (pp. 234-235).

[19] Five Views, p376.

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