Christians are commanded to defend the faith, to give an “account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). The discipline in which Christians fulfill this obligation is called apologetics (from Greek apologia, “defense”). Evangelical Christians like myself, at least those who are not captivated by the anti-intellectualism of our postmodern age, are united in a commitment to the apologetic task. That is, we are determined to be salt and light in the world in part by “making a defense” of Christianity to the unbelievers we encounter all around us.
But how are we to defend the faith? What is the right or best method for giving a reason for the hope that we have in Christ? Evangelicals differ over the answers to these questions. We differ, that is, over the question of apologetic methodology. I would like to outline the five major methods that Evangelicals have developed for making the case that Christianity is true. For the sake of clarity, it will prove helpful to divide these apologetic methods into two broad schools of thought.
The methods in this school of thought have an optimistic attitude toward the ability of natural human reason to prove (or at least make highly probable) the truth of Christianity. They look for inspiration to examples in the Bible in which the apostles and others used evidence to persuade others to believe (e.g., Acts 2:22; 17:2–3, 22–31; 1 Cor. 15:3–8). There are three approaches to apologetics in this school.
This method has a long pedigree, hence the name. It was followed by many medieval and modern philosophers such as Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Joseph Butler, William Paley, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Hodge. Contemporary Evangelicals who take this approach include R. C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, and J. P. Moreland. (Classical apologists usually claim the support of Aquinas because many.aspects of his apologetic method—not least of which is his use of natural theology—seem to fit the classical approach. But some scholars have pointed out that there are elements of his philosophy that would appear to make him more amenable to the Reformed epistemology view discussed below; see, for example, the discussions in Linda Zagzebski, ed. Rational Faith: Catholic Responses to Reformed Epistemology, University of Notre Dame Press).
The classical method may be called the “two-step” approach. It begins by using natural theology (rational arguments for God’s existence) to establish theism as the correct worldview. After God’s existence has been shown, the classical method moves to a presentation of the historical evidences for the Resurrection and deity of Christ, the trustworthiness of Scripture, etc., in order to show that Christianity is the best version of theism as opposed to, say, Judaism and Islam.
It is sometimes argued that the order of the two steps in classical apologetics is essential: Before one can discuss historical evidences meaningfully, one has to have established God’s existence. The reason is that historical facts (including alleged miracles) are said to be interpreted through the framework of one’s worldview. Unless one knows that there is a God who can do miracles, then it makes no sense to talk about a historical event (even a very strange one) as an act of God. This implies as well that one cannot appeal to alleged miracles to prove God’s existence. As Sproul, John Gerstner, and Art Lindsley argue, “Miracles cannot prove God. God, as a matter of fact, alone can prove miracles. That is, only on the prior evidence that God exists is a miracle even possible” (Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics, 146).
Some classical apologists do not agree. William Lane Craig, for example, argues that miracles may be cited as evidence for God’s existence but that miracles are best used against the background of a theistic worldview as evidence for the historical claims of Christ (cf. “A Classical Apologist’s Closing Remarks” in Five Views on Apologetics, ed. Steven B. Cowan, Zondervan, 316–7).
This approach has much in common with the classical method. The major difference lies in the use of miracles. For evidentialists, miracles do not presuppose God’s existence but serve as evidence for God and for the whole Christian worldview. For this reason, evidentialism may be characterized as the “one-step” approach. It tends to focus chiefly on accumulating various historical and other empirical data for the truth of Christianity.
Thus evidentialists argue both for theism and Christian theism at the same time without recourse to natural theology. They might begin, for instance, by arguing for the historical factuality of Jesus’ Resurrection and then argue that such an unusual event is explicable only if a being very much like the Christian God exists. But, of course, if God is responsible for raising Jesus from the dead, then that very same miracle not only establishes theism but also authenticates Jesus’ claim to be the incarnation of God. Evangelical apologists who follow the evidential method include Gary Habermas, John W. Montgomery, and Josh McDowell.
The Cumulative-Case Method
Both of the previous two methods, despite their differences, see the case for Christianity as involving the presentation of a formal argument or proof. A set of premises are offered from which either a deductive or inductive conclusion is drawn. But, according to advocates of cumulative-case apologetics, the case for Christianity is not best presented as a formal proof. The cumulative-case method does “not conform to the ordinary pattern of deductive or inductive reasoning” (Basil Mitchell, The Justification of Religious Belief, Oxford University Press, 35). Instead, the case is more like the brief that a lawyer makes in a court of law or that a literary critic makes for a particular interpretation of a book. It is an informal argument that pieces together several lines or types of data into a hypothesis or theory that comprehensively explains that data and does so better than any alternative hypothesis. This type of reasoning is called “adductive” reasoning.
The data that the cumulative-case advocate seeks to explain include the existence and nature of the cosmos, the reality of religious experience, the objectivity of morality, the existence of consciousness, certain other historical facts such as the Resurrection of Jesus, etc. In other words, the cumulative-case apologist takes the whole of our experience in this world and asks: Which worldview best explains all of this data taken together? To answer this question, the cumulative-case apologist will appeal to certain rational criteria such as logical consistency, empirical fit, comprehensiveness, simplicity, etc. It is argued that the Christian worldview best accounts for the data of experience in light of these criteria, and thus it is the worldview most likely to be true. Cumulative-case apologists include Basil Mitchell, Paul Feinberg, C. Stephen Evans, and C. S. Lewis.
The two methods in this school of thought are less optimistic than the evidentialist school about the ability of human reason to prove the truth of Christianity to unbelievers. They put more emphasis on the “noetic effects of sin” (i.e., the detrimental effects of sin on the mind; cf. 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:4). Therefore, they de-emphasize the use of evidence and reason in apologetics.
Presuppositionalists include Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, and (perhaps) Francis Schaeffer. The evidentialist methods assume that unbelievers and believers share common rational principles (logic, rules of evidence, etc.) that allow for the construction of apologetic arguments that ought to persuade any rational person. But, due to the noetic effects of sin, presuppositionalists hold that there is no such common ground between believers and unbelievers. There are no neutral premises or facts that the apologist may appeal to in formulating an argument. The premises of any argument that the Christian apologist presents necessarily presuppose the truth of the Christian worldview. Many presuppositionalists would go so far as to say that any such argument presupposes the truth of the entire Christian revelation in Scripture.
In this scenario, the apologist must simply presuppose the truth of Christianity as the proper starting point in apologetics. He cannot offer arguments with premises that could be accepted consistently by unbelievers. The presuppositionalist attempts, then, to argue transcendentally. That is, he argues that all meaning and thought—indeed, every fact—logically presupposes the truth of Scripture and the existence of the God it reveals.
John Frame puts the matter this way: “We should present the biblical God not merely as the conclusion to an argument but as the one who makes argument possible” (Five Views on Apologetics, 220). By demonstrating that the unbeliever cannot argue, think, or live without presupposing God, the presuppositionalist tries to show the unbeliever that his own worldview is inadequate and to get the unbeliever to see that Christianity alone can make sense of his experience.
One of the most dramatic developments in contemporary philosophy has been the arrival of Reformed epistemology, a controversial and influential new approach to religious knowledge. Reformed epistemology is essentially a reaction against Enlightenment rationalism. As Kelly James Clark explains, “Since the Enlightenment there has been a demand to expose all of our beliefs to the searching criticism of reason” (ibid., 267). We have been told that if a belief is unsupported by evidence of some kind, it is irrational to believe it.
Reformed epistemology challenges this assumption. Those who advocate this view hold that it can be perfectly reasonable for a person to believe many things without evidence (e.g., that there is a mind-independent external world, that there are other minds, that I had toast for breakfast, etc.). Most strikingly, they argue that belief in God and the truths of the Christian faith do not require the support of evidence or argument in order for it to be rational.
The Reformed-epistemology apologist will not necessarily eschew making positive arguments in defense of Christianity, but he will argue that such arguments are not necessary for rational faith. If Calvin is right that human beings are born with an innate sensus divinitatis (sense of the divine), then people rightly and rationally may come to have a belief in God immediately without the aid of evidence. Moreover, through the “internal witness of the Holy Spirit,” a person may be prompted rightfully to accept the specific truths of Christianity without the aid of apologetic arguments.
For the Reformed epistemologist, the focus tends to be on negative apologetics, simply responding to challenges to one’s Christian belief as they are encountered. On the positive side, the Reformed epistemologist will, in the words of Clark, “encourage unbelievers to put themselves in situations where people are typically taken with belief in God” (ibid., 279), attempting to awaken in them their latent sense of the divine. The list of contemporary Reformed epistemologists includes Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, George Mavrodes, William Alston, and Kelly James Clark.
Though the five apologetic methods discussed above do not constitute an exhaustive list of apologetic approaches, they do represent the most well-known and popular argumentative strategies in the Evangelical apologetics community. It is also important to mention that the advocates of these various methods, though they have significant differences, all agree on the importance of offering a rational defense of the Christian faith. And it might be said with some force that many of the differences in these various methods are more matters of emphasis than differences in substance. In any case, the Evangelical community has a rich and varied tradition of apologetics that provides multiple ways in which the faith once-for-all-delivered to the saints may be defended.