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I. The Meaning of the Term. § 4
Apologetics (from Greek ἀπολογία, “speaking in defense”) is the religious discipline of defending religious doctrines through systematic argumentation and discourse. Early Christian writers (c. 120–220) who defended their beliefs against critics and recommended their faith to outsiders were called Christian apologists. In 21st-century usage, apologetics is often identified with debates over religion and theology. The Greek verb απολογεω, as used in the middle voice, means to defend ourselves or to plead one’s own cause. The word’s precise meaning is to make a plea in self-defense or present a vindication against certain charges. The word apology was used exclusively in early times, but it did not convey the idea of excuse, palliation, or making amends for some injury done. It rather denoted a plea or vindication. The plea of an attorney in the courtroom is, in this primary sense, an apology for the cause or client. The advocacy of any set of opinions, either by speech or pen, is really an apologetical service.
(1.) The term Apologetics, however, has become popular only in the last 200 years and is now used technically to denote reasoned arguments or writings in justification of God, the Bible, and Christianity. In general, this applies to any sort of argumentation, such as that of the courtroom or as that of the public argumentation or defense of any cause. Apologetics is thus the science of logical argument, line of reasoning, or vindication. It covers the whole ground of the exposition of the principles of effective pleading (present and argue for [a position]) and of the art of applying these principles in any given case.
* Pleading, in this sense, is not the act of making an emotional or earnest appeal to someone. Instead, it is presenting and arguing for (a position), for example, in court or in another public context. In this case, it is a Christian apologist presenting evidence and arguing for a biblical view.
(2.) Apologetics in relation to religion is the advocacy of the cause of religion in general, whereby the religious view of man and the universe is unfolded. Then, Christian Apologetics is the science of pleading the cause of Christianity or vindicating the Christian system’s claims and contents. An apology is a specific defense against some definite assault. Apologetics, however, is the science of all the defenses, the vindication of Christianity from every possible assault. Apologetics for the Christian system is the science of the presentation of the whole plea for Christianity in such a way as to fortify it from all attacks and to commend it to the minds and hearts of men effectively. Christian Apologetics is the organized defense and the systematic vindication of the whole area of the Christian system. It is not merely defense at one point; it is the science of all defenses.
II. The Usage of the Term. § 5
Tracing the usage of the term would require writing a history of Apologetics. This cannot be attempted here, but a few remarks may be of some interest and value, for the term apology is found in frequent and continuous usage. However, the technical term, Apologetics has come into use only in the last 200 years or so.
(1.) In classic Greek, Xenophon uses the term apology in his Memorabilia, Chapter IV., several times. He employs it when presenting his noble defense of his master, Socrates, against the several charges which were made in reference to his teaching. Here Xenophon not only defends Socrates against the charges of impiety, of corrupting the youth, and of introducing new deities, but he also vindicates, in various effective ways, his master as one of the noblest and best of men. This defense and vindication is Xenophon’s apology for Socrates.
(2.) In the New Testament, the Greek word for apology occurs several times. In Acts 22:1, and in Phil. 1:7, it is translated “defense”; but in Acts 25:8, and 1 Cor. 9:3, it is rendered by the word “answer.” The meaning is the same, however, in all of these passages, for the Greek word is identical in them. If a man makes an answer for himself, his procedure is a defense, and when a man makes a defense, his doing so may be regarded as a reply or answer to some charges made against him. Stephen’s splendid defense of himself, of his Master, and of the gospel cause, recorded in Acts 7, is very properly called his apology. When Paul said, in Phil. 1:17 that he was set for the defense of the gospel, he distinctly announces that he held an apologetic attitude towards that gospel. It is thus evident that the function of Apologetics in relation to the Christian system has a well-defined scriptural basis. In the Scriptures, there are various apologies; and, by inference, Apologetics, as the science of these apologies, has also a biblical foundation.
(3.) During patristic times, as is evident from the writings of the Apostolic and early Greek and Latin Fathers, much apologetical work was done. From Eusebius, the Church historian, we learn that Aristides, Quadratus, and others whose writings have perished, wrote defenses of Christianity. Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras, and Hermas, whose writings have survived in whole or in part, also did much of the same useful work. Justin Martyr’s two Apologies, written in the middle of the second century, are important and valuable works. They are addressed to the Roman Emperor, and they first make an able defense of Christianity against assaults which, from pagan and other sources, had been made against it. Then they exhibit the main beliefs and practices of the early Christians.
Clement of Alexandria defended Christianity against the pretensions of Greek philosophy, and Origen answered the various attacks which Celsus made upon the Christian system. Tertullian vindicated Christianity against the Gentiles on the one hand, and the Jews on the other, while Athanasius wrote against Greek paganism, and Cyril replied at length to Julian. Augustine also wrote an Apology.
(4.) In scholastic times, there was little apologetical activity. The energy of human reason during this period was devoted to the relations between philosophy and the doctrines of Christianity, and the activity of men’s hands was engaged in warlike conflicts with the followers of the prophet of Mecca. Abelard and Aquinas did some apologetical work towards the close of the scholastic period.
(5.) After the Reformation began, the discussions in the sphere of religion were largely polemic. It could scarcely be otherwise in the circumstances. But about a century after the Reformation, when human reason began to realize its freedom in various ways, serious assaults upon the Christian system began to be made from several quarters. These were promptly met by suitable apologies. Lardner, Stackhouse, Addison, Butler and Paley did good work in England, while Pascal and Turretin came to the rescue on the Continent. It is to be observed, however, that these apologies were always definite defenses against specific assaults. They served an excellent purpose, but they did not, in any single case, supply a complete Apologetic. Butler came nearest to this in his Analogy, whose principles are by no means out of date for our own day. There were many noble treatises on natural theology, and excellent books on Christian evidence produced in this age. Still, the scope of Apologetics was not clearly conceived during the century before last (1750-1850), with all its apologetical activity.
(6.) In Germany, at about the same time, the need for the defense of Christianity also arose, largely because of the advent of widespread rationalism.* The early German treatises were mainly apologies also, but about the beginning of this century, more systematic treatises of an apologetical nature began to appear. The term Apologetics by degrees came into general use. Planck was the first to employ it, about 1794, but it was only by slow degrees that this technical term came to be generally employed, so that it is only about a generation since Apologetics succeeded in obtaining its rightful place in the theological encyclopedia. Even yet some hesitate to give it a separate place.
* Rationalism: This is a belief or theory that opinions and actions should be based on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response, the theory that reason rather than experience is the foundation of certainty in knowledge, the practice of treating reason as the ultimate authority in religion.
III. The Definition of Apologetics. § 6
The way is now open to give a general definition of Apologetics. The precise form of definition to be adopted will be determined by the view taken of religion in general, and of the Christian religion in particular. And, in framing the definition, it may be best not to make any clear distinction between what is called natural and revealed religion, for Christianity, broadly viewed in the interests of Apologetics, really includes both. All that is insisted on at this stage is that the Christian religion is truly divine in its nature, and that it is the only adequate religion for sinful men, for the reason, mainly, that it is the only one which properly and effectively represents God’s redemptive activity in the world.
Aid may be given in framing a definition of Apologetics by briefly noticing some of the defective definitions which have been proposed. In this way, the accepted definition may the more clearly appear to be, in some measure, satisfactory. In doing so, H. B. Smith is followed in part.
(1.) Schleiermacher says, in substance, that “Apologetics is a preparatory discipline, having to do with the fundamental principles of theology.” It has thus to do with all the ideas, truths and facts which logically precede or historically antedate the system of theology proper. There is not a little that is true in this conception, for Apologetics is a preparatory discipline in relation to theology. But this definition rather describes its place in relation to theology proper than defines what it really is. In addition, it gives too wide a sweep for Apologetics, and includes under it much material which belongs to Introduction. Moreover, it scarcely denotes the specific aim of Apologetics, which is the defense and vindication of Christianity.
(2.) Hännell considers Apologetics “the science of the common ground of the church and theology.” On this rather curious view the question at once arises as to what this common ground is. Till this is clearly answered, one cannot tell what the materials of Apologetics really are. If the Scriptures be that common ground, or underlying principle, then Apologetics is the science of the Scriptures. Or, if Christ be made the common ground, then it is the science of Christ. Or, again, if the common ground be the creeds, then it is the science of the creeds. From this it would appear that this definition is rather too vague to be of much service. And, in addition, it is open to the same objection as the previous definition in that it gives no proper place to the main function of Apologetics in the defense and vindication of Christianity.
(3.) Von Drey defines Apologetics as “the philosophy of the Christian revelation and its history.” From this viewpoint it becomes a branch of philosophy in general, and of the philosophy of religion in particular. This view is right, however, in giving prominence to the historical character of Christianity and in finding the philosophy of history in it. But it reduces Apologetics to a branch of the philosophy of religion, whereas the philosophy of religion is, properly speaking, a branch of Apologetics. And it is perhaps better to avoid the use of the word philosophy in defining Apologetics since it may more properly be regarded as a branch of theological science than as a department of philosophy.
(4.) Sack describes Apologetics as “that branch of theology which treats of the ground of the Christian religion as divine fact.” According to this view, Christianity is held to be real and supernatural in its principles or ground, and the function of Apologetics is to make this claim good. It further prepares the way for dogmatics or systematic theology. The ideal side of Christianity is treated by systematic theology and the real side by Apologetics. This definition has some merits, for Apologetics has, as part of its task, to make good the divine reality of Christianity. Still, it is rather one-sided and incomplete, for it lays exclusive stress upon the historical evidence and leaves little place for the moral and other lines of defense and vindication, which have much apologetic value.
(5.) Lechler gives quite another turn to the definition when he says that “Apologetics is the scientific proof that the Christian religion is the absolute religion.” The function of Apologetics is to exhibit the ordered and systematic proof that suffices to show that Christianity is the only adequate religion for men. This definition points in the right direction, and yet it scarcely supplies what is now needed. The term absolute is a little vague, and Apologetics has not so much to show that Christianity is this sort of a religion as to make out its reality and sufficiency. Then, Apologetics is not best described as proof, even though that proof is scientific in its form. It is rather the science of the defense and vindication of Christianity as the divine redemptive religion. This definition, however, signalizes the fact that Apologetics is a science rather than a philosophy, and this is a good feature of it.
(6.) Baumstark leads us a further step in the right direction when he says that “Apologetics is the scientific defense of Christianity as the absolute religion.” This definition is nearer the mark than any yet given, though it still retains the term, absolute religion. But it has the merit of substituting the idea of defense for Lechler’s notion of proof. It makes the main function of Apologetics to be the scientific defense of the Christian system in general, and in this, it is so far correct. But it would have come still nearer the mark if it had said “the science of the defense” instead of “the scientific defense.” A defense at a single point may be scientific, yet it may not be the science of all the defenses, as Apologetics now claims to be.
(7.) Ebrard’s briefest definition is to the effect that “Apologetics is the science of the defense of Christianity.” This is brief, clear and pointed, and it indicates, better than any of the foregoing definitions, the main function of Apologetics. It may err by defect, though Ebrard, in his exposition of his definition, lays stress upon the vindication of Christianity so that Apologetics really comes to be the science of the vindication of Christianity. Thus taken, it at least forms the point of departure for a correct definition. H. B. Smith agrees with this view and stresses the vindication of Christianity.
(8.) Bruce, in theory, practically agrees with Ebrard, and speaks approvingly of his general positions. But he is inclined to take a much narrower view when unfolding his defensive statements of Christianity. “Apologetics is a preparer of the way of faith, an aid to faith against doubts from whatever place or source they may arise, especially those engendered by philosophy and science. Its specific aim is to help men of ingenious spirit who, while assailed by such doubts, are morally in sympathy with believers.” This view of the central function of Apologetics is scarcely adequate, and it leads almost necessarily to a constantly concessive treatment of the grounds and contents of the Christian system. And further, Bruce’s view scarcely gives scope to the presentation of the defenses as a whole in a scientific way, according to some principle inherent in the very nature of Christianity. It makes Apologetics little more than a series of varying apologies. And, in addition, instead of properly defining Apologetics, it indicates, and that correctly enough, the homiletical (art of preaching or writing sermons) use and value of Apologetics rather than giving a proper definition of the science.
(9.) The following definition is the one which underlies this treatise: Apologetics is that branch of theological science that presents a systematic defense and vindication of the reality of that divine redemptive agency which is resident in, and operative through Christianity upon the world. This states the function of Apologetics in harmony with the view already presented of its deeper point of departure. In Christianity, there is a divine redemptive activity operative in the world; for the Christian religion is not merely a system of truths, it is also a set of redemptive agencies or activities. Apologetics is here defined in such a way as to indicate that its fundamental aim is to make good the reality of these divine redeeming agencies resident in and operative through Christianity. This view, moreover, enables Apologetics to deduce its principle for a scientific presentation of all the defenses from the inherent nature of Christianity, regarded at its root as a set of divine renewing activities operative in the world. In this, there may be some gain in clearness and in completeness.
As a further definition, somewhat expository of the one just given, and as presenting more fully its concrete details, Apologetics may be regarded as that branch of theological science that presents a reasoned defense and vindication of the essential truth, supernatural origin, divine authority, and inherent sufficiency of the Christian system of doctrine, of worship, of ethics, and of redemption, together with the systematic refutation of all opposing systems. These two forms of the definition serve to determine the idea of that branch of theological science which is the theme of this treatise. The former indicates its point of departure and inner function. The latter exhibits its task more in detail and its practical function. Taken together, they serve the theoretical and practical ends of a definition of the Apologetics of the present day.
IV. The Aim of Apologetics. § 7
Apologetics deals with Christianity from a certain point of view. This point of view is expressed in a general way by the definition of it just given. An exposition of this definition will serve to exhibit more fully the noble aim of this branch of theological science. When Apologetics understands clearly what its peculiar task is, it will be better able to proceed with its performance. From the definition proposed, the aim of Apologetics is threefold in its nature.
(1.) It undertakes to defend Christianity. From the very nature of the case, it is the legitimate defender of the Christian system. This system represents the divine redeeming activity operative in the world, and it is natural to expect that the agencies of evil, also ever active in the world, shall make assaults upon Christianity. It is the professed aim and proper function of Apologetics to ward off these assaults. It must not only meet these attacks in detail but take a position where it can defend the citadel of Christianity from every attack. And it may sometimes happen that the weapons with which the enemy assaults Christianity are actually captured and transformed into an armor of defense for it.
No attempt is made, at this stage, to sketch the varied attacks against which Apologetics must make a valiant defense. The attacks may be made upon the truthfulness of the doctrines and reality of the worship of the Christian system or upon the trustworthiness of its ethical system and the potency of its redemptive scheme. These attacks Apologetics must resist and ward off. The assaults may be directed against the supernatural origin and hence against the divine authority of the doctrines, rituals, ethics and redemption implied in Christianity. These assaults, in like manner, are to be boldly met and bravely resisted. And, again, the inherent adequacy of Christianity to be a suitable and sufficient religion for sinful men, in the matter of doctrines, worship, ethics and redemption, may be called in question. If so, Apologetics must bear in mind that it is set for the defense of Christianity. And the lines of its defense must encompass the Christian system on every side, in order that its aim may be properly conceived and its duty fully discharged.
(2.) Apologetics also aims at the vindication of Christianity. It not only meets the assailants of this true religion, but it fortifies the citadel itself. To defeat these assailants is not enough, for this defeat might only exhibit the skill and courage of the defenders and do but little to reveal the inherent sufficiency of the Christian system. Hence, Apologetics proceeds to vindicate Christianity as the adequate and all-conquering redemptive activity of God in the world. This vigorous aim of Apologetics is exceedingly important and serviceable. The truth, the divine origin, authority, and the complete adequacy of the grounds and contents of Christianity are to be unfolded in such a positive and effective way that its inherent power and glory will be manifest.
This opens up a wide field that cannot even be sketched here. The adequacy of the Christian view of the world about us, of man as part of the world and with definite relations to Almighty God, is to be fully exhibited. The Christian doctrine of sin and of the redemption from it provided in Christ, together with all the excellencies which center in Jesus Christ, must be plainly opened up. The true nature of the Bible and of historic Christianity, as well as the reality of the religious experience of the Christian, are to be unfolded in all their beauty and power. To this noble task of vindication, Apologetics is committed, and its fitness for this task is undoubted, so it may bravely do its duty.
(3.) The further aim of Apologetics is to refute opposing systems and theories. This is its offensive function. Having repelled the assaults of the foe and having exhibited the impregnable nature of the Christian citadel, the final service of Apologetics is to assail the opposing systems and to reveal their weakness and inconsistency. For this purpose, Apologetics takes the open field and enters on a vigorous campaign against the foes of the Christian faith. Not only are the assaults of these foes to be met, but the foes themselves are to be driven from the field. Every anti-theistic system, and all anti-Christian schemes, are to be carefully considered, and their claims and pretensions are to be rigidly scrutinized. As the children of Israel were commanded to drive out, conquer or destroy all the Canaanites from the land of promise, so Apologetics is commissioned to drive off, conquer or destroy all the opponents of Christianity at the present day, and to take full possession of the promised land, which God’s redeeming activity in the world pledges to her. Hence, Apologetics aims to defend and vindicate Christianity and to refute opposing systems.
V. The Nature of Apologetics. § 8
The aim of Apologetics largely determines its nature so that some remarks on the latter topic may very properly conclude this chapter. As the function of Apologetics really springs from the conflict between light and darkness, good and evil, in the world, so, in its very nature, Apologetics must be controversial and polemic. As its threefold aim leads to defense, vindication, and refutation, so its controversial or polemic nature emerges on these same lines.
(1.) In apologetic service, there is an element of controversy. This feature of this service grows out of the assaults made upon Christianity, against which Apologetics defends it. With these assailants, Apologetics has a controversy that will not be content without victory. The controversy which thus arises takes many forms. Is the reality of the supernatural factor involved in the Christian system questioned or is the validity of the redemptive activity of God resident in Christianity assailed; then Apologetics, by a vigorous controversy, makes its defense. Is the historicity of the Old and New Testament records impugned, and does a destructive historical criticism impair the authority of these records; then Apologetics has earnest work to do in making a proper defense at this point. If the assailant dons the garb of the philosopher and in a learned way, assails the validity of the grounds upon which belief in God rests, or boldly asserts that God is beyond the scope of human knowledge or presents a false view of the relation between God and his works, then Apologetics must enter the lists of controversy, and resist the assault. If the attack approaches with the apparatus of the scientist, threatening, with weapons found in the open field or framed in the laboratory, to destroy Christianity, Apologetics must be prepared to drive back this foe with the weapons of a true and reverent science. And if these invasions planned against Christianity are at times bold, bitter or blasphemous, then Apologetics is to stand its ground and repel the onslaught calmly; and, if at times it seems to be contending in a losing cause, it may simply have to stand still and see the salvation of God, and, when it least expects it, its wondering eyes may behold the horse and his proud rider cast into the sea.
(2.) Apologetical service has in it the factor of exposition. This feature appears as the vindication of the Christian system is faithfully conducted. This vindication necessarily requires thorough exposition of the grounds and, to some extent, of the contents of this system. This opens up a wide field of apologetic activity. The Christian idea of God, as the infinite tri-personal Spirit, and the source and ground of all finite things, and as the righteous and gracious moral ruler, whose mighty power and tender mercy are over all his creatures, is to be expounded in all its fullness of meaning. The relation of God to his works, as both immanent in all things and yet transcendent in relation to all finite things, must be faithfully set forth. Here the theistic philosophy is doing a splendid apologetical service at the present day in expounding that relation of God to the universe, which provides a real and rational basis for the redemptive activity of God in Christ by the Spirit, which Christianity represents.
A similar expository service is rendered by Apologetics on behalf of the sacred records of the Christian system. Apologetics opens the Bible and lets it speak for itself. As it speaks, we hear historians telling of events that happened when the nations of antiquity were young; we hear its prophets, with great solemnity, speaking, as they were taught by God, of things yet far in the future; we are held spell-bound by its poetry, as it sings, in lofty strains, the praises of God in the accents of heaven; we also hear parables and proverbs which stand unrivaled through all the ages; and, above all, we listen to the story of the transcendent life and tragic death of the man of Nazareth, the Savior of sinners; and as we do so, we are compelled to confess that this wonderful book has no equal.
The apologetical vindication of Christianity presents, as its central, peerless personage, Jesus of Nazareth, and gives its challenge to the world to produce his equal. His life, so unlike his degenerate and formal age; his teaching, so different in all respects from that of his own time; his moral heroism, so marvelous at every turn; his death, with all its mysterious meaning; his resurrection and ascension, with the redemptive influences which flow from him into the world, all combine to present Christianity to the world with a simply invincible apologetic. Christianity vindicates itself at the bar of reason and before the tribunal of conscience. It commends itself as fully satisfactory to the heart and as potent for the life all along its pathway. It is like the godliness it commends, profitable both for this life and for that which is to come.
(3.) In its nature, Apologetics has also an element of criticism. This is the polemic aspect of Apologetics. It emerges when the refutation of opposing systems is pursued. This refutation necessarily leads to a searching criticism of all those theories and schemes which profess to supply the place of Christianity. This polemic of thorough criticism is of much value in our own time, for modern thought proposes many substitutes for Christianity. The critique of atheism need not detain Apologetics long; for there are no tribes of atheists, and few individual atheists feel absolutely secure in their denial of God. Then materialism, in its scientific and philosophic forms, and especially in the view of man which it teaches, must be carefully criticized. So, too, pantheism, in its various idealistic, monistic, and evolutionary phases, has to be examined with the utmost diligence, for it is subtle and seductive. In like manner, positivism and agnosticism, as the twin brothers of a certain modern type of thought, are not to be passed over without minute examination. And pessimism must have its mask taken from it, and false moral theories must be exposed. Skeptical and naturalistic theories of the Scriptures, of the Christ of history, and the facts of Christianity in the world, are to be put into the witness box and cross-questioned by Apologetics. In addition, rival religions, and non-religious social theories, are to be scanned employing competent criticism and tested by the light of reason and experience. Thus, it will appear that when all these opposing systems are weighed in the balance of Apologetic criticism, they will be found wanting.
Such is the nature of Apologetics. Blended and aiding each other in the service rendered to Christianity, there will be controversy, exposition, and criticism as defense, vindication, and refutation proceed.
Classical apologetics is so called because it was the apologetic method practiced by the first thinkers who studied and practiced the application of reason to the defense of Christianity. These pioneer apologists included Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas. The roots of classical apologetics are found in some second- and third-century apologists as well. Modern classical apologetics is represented by William Paley, John Locke, C. S. Lewis, B. B. Warfield, John Gerstner, R. C. Sproul, William Craig, J. P. Moreland, and Norman L. Geisler.
Classical apologetics stresses rational arguments for the existence of God and historical evidence supporting the truth of Christianity. Stress is placed on miracles as a confirmation of the claims of Christ and the biblical prophets and apostles.
Contrasts with Presuppositional and Evidential Apologetics. Classical apologetics differs from various forms of presuppositional apologetics in its handling of proofs for the existence of God and its use of historical evidence. Classical differs from evidential apologetics over whether there is a logically prior need to establish the existence of God before arguing for the truth of Christianity (e.g., the deity of Christ and inspiration of the Bible).
Classical apologetics is characterized by two basic steps. Its first step is to establish valid theistic arguments for the truth of theism apart from (but with appeal to) special revelation in Scripture. Its second step is to compile historical evidence to establish such basic truths of Christianity as the deity of Christ and the inspiration of the Bible. The use of the resurrection of Christ often plays an important role in this second step.
Validity of Theistic Proofs. Classical apologetics accepts, and presuppositionalists reject, the validity of traditional theistic proofs for God. Some presuppositionalists replace traditional proofs with transcendental arguments for God of their own. Not all classical apologists accept all the traditional proofs for God. For example, many reject the validity of the Ontological Argument. But most accept some form of the Cosmological Argument and the Teleological Argument. Many also believe the Moral Argument is valid.
Presuppositional apologists reject the validity of theistic proofs for God. Most of them accept the validity of much of what David Hume and Immanuel Kant said in their critiques of theistic argumentation. Some, such as Gordon Clark, do this on the basis of empirical skepticism. Cornelius Van Til and others do it because they believe facts have no meaning apart from the presupposed trinitarian world view. Whatever the grounds, all true presuppositionalists join atheists and agnostics in rejecting the validity of traditional theistic proofs for God.
Historical Evidence and Theism. One apologetic tactic is to show the historical reliability of the New Testament and argue from that credibility to the New Testament’s testimony that Jesus claimed to be, and was miraculously proven to be, the Son of God. From this, Jesus’ own voice is added to historical evidence that the Old Testament is the Word of God. His promise of the ministry of the Holy Spirit does the same for the New Testament.
Sometimes classical apologists begin this second step by showing that the Bible claims to be, and is supernaturally proven to be, the Word of God. In doing so they often use the same basic evidence as is used by evidential apologetics. This includes miracles, fulfilled prophecy, the unity of the Bible, and other indications of its supernatural origin. The difference between the evidentialists and the classical apologists at this point is that the latter see the need to first establish a theistic universe in order to establish the possibility of miracles. Evidentialists do not see theism as a logically necessary precondition of historical apologetics.
The basic argument of the classical apologist is that it makes no sense to speak about the resurrection as an act of God unless as a logical step it is established that there is a God who can act. Likewise, the Bible cannot be the Word of God, unless there is a God who can speak. And Christ cannot be shown to be the Son of God except on the logically prior premise that there is a God who can have a Son.
While some evidentialists use theistic proofs, they do not believe it is logically necessary to do so. They believe this is simply an alternate approach. The works of John Warwick Montgomery and Gary Habermas fit this category.
At this point there is a similarity between classical apologetics and presuppositionalism. Both believe that one cannot argue legitimately from historical data unless he begins with the prior premise that a theistic God exists. They differ about how to establish this prior premise. The presuppositionalists claim that each worldview acts as a presuppositional grid to filter incoming facts and attempt to make them fit the individual’s idea of how the world works. But underlying that process is a built-in, suppressed knowledge of the truth, as expressed by Romans 1 and Augustine’s dictum that every human being is “doing business” with God. The apologist is dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit to show the failure of the held worldview and to excite the innate knowledge. Classical apologists insist that the apologist takes a more active role in partnership with the Holy Spirit to reason through the truth about God and until it is established and admitted in the heart of the unbeliever.
Objections to Classical Apologetics. Other Christian views make several important objections to classical apologetics. Some of these come from evidentialists and others from presuppositionalists or fideists, who reject the validity of traditional theistic arguments.
Invalidity of Traditional Proofs. Both fideists and strict presuppositionalists reject all the classical arguments for God’s existence. Their specific objections are considered elsewhere.
Invalidity of Historical Arguments. Fideists and presuppositionalists contend that no appeal to any kind of evidence, including historical evidence is valid, since the same data is interpreted differently under varying worldview perspectives. There are no bare facts. All facts are interpreted, and the interpretation derives from one’s worldview. If the dead body of Jesus can be agreed to have come back to life, even that information can be understood differently by different worldviews. A Christian theist sees the event as a supernatural resurrection that confirms Christ’s claim to be the Son of God. But the pantheist views it simply as a manifestation of the One Being, of which we are all a part. It reveals Christ to be a guru, not God the Creator revealed in human flesh. The atheist or naturalist views the event as a myth or at most an anomaly that has a purely natural explanation.
In response to this objection, many classical apologists, the author included, agree with the basic point made by the presuppositionalists but note that this does not affect the approach, since classical apologetics believes it is logically necessary to establish theism first as the worldview context in which facts of history are properly understood.
Classical apologists and the presuppositionalists disagree on two matters. First, classical apologists contend that they can establish theism by traditional rational arguments, and presuppositionalists do not. Second, classical apologists argue that it is only logically necessary to establish theism before one can properly understand the historical evidence. Many presuppositionalists, following Van Til, insist that one must presuppose a Triune God who has revealed himself in Scripture as a necessary presupposition for any historical evidence in support of Christianity. But this, to the classical apologists, is simply arguing in a circle.
The Validity of Transcendental Arguments. Not every presuppositionalist discards all arguments in favor of Christianity. Some use a transcendental argument (e.g., Greg Bahnsen). They insist that the only valid way to argue for the truth of Christianity is to show that it is transcendentally necessary to posit the basic truth of Christianity as a condition for making any sense out of our world. On no other presupposition can one even assume there is any meaning in history or science, or even attempt to communicate.
The classical apologists agree that this is true so far as theism is necessary to view life as meaningful and coherent. In a closed system there is no ultimate meaning, no ultimate values, and no “miracle” happens that cannot be accounted for by naturalistic phenomenon (cf. John 3:1–2; Acts 2:22; Heb. 2:3–4). But it is not necessary to presuppose that the God is triune, has a Son incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth, and has revealed himself in the sixty-six inspired books of Christian Scripture. One can make sense of the world by assuming less than the whole truth of Christianity.
Other differences are detailed elsewhere. It is sufficient to note here that they involve the role of faith and reason, especially the use of logic or reason to demonstrate God’s existence which classical apologists use and pure presuppositionalists reject.
The Need for Apologetics
Apologetics is the discipline that deals with a rational defense of Christian faith. It comes from the Greek word apologia which means to give a reason or defense. In spite of the objections to doing apologetics in this sense from fideists and some presuppositionalists, there are important reasons to participate in the work of apologetics.
God Commands It. The most important reason to do apologetics is that God told us to do so. The classic statement is 1 Peter 3:15, which says, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” This verse tells us to be ready. We may never run across someone who asks tough questions about our faith, but we should still be ready to respond if someone does. Being ready is not just a matter of having the right information available, it is also an attitude of readiness and eagerness to share the truth of what we believe. We are to give a reason to those who ask the questions. It is not expected that everyone needs pre-evangelism, but when they do need it, we must be able and willing to give them an answer.
This command also links the work of pre-evangelism with Christ’s place as Lord in our hearts. If he is really Lord, then we should be obedient to him as “we demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). This means we should confront issues in our own minds and in the expressed thoughts of others that prevent us and them from knowing God. That is what apologetics is all about.
In Philippians 1:7 Paul speaks of his mission as “defending and confirming the gospel.” He adds in verse 16, “I am put here for the defense of the gospel.” This implies that the defender of the gospel is out where he or she can encounter others and defend truth.
Jude 3 adds, “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” The people Jude addressed had been assaulted by false teachers, and he needed to encourage them to protect (literally agonize for) the faith as it had been revealed through Christ. Jude makes a significant statement about our attitude in verse 22, that we “have mercy on some, who are doubting.”
Titus 1:9 makes knowledge of Christian evidences a requirement for church leadership. An elder in the church should “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” Paul also gives us an indication of our attitude in this work in 2 Timothy 2:24–25: “And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” Anyone attempting to answer the questions of unbelievers will surely be wronged and be tempted to lose patience, but our ultimate goal is that they might come to a knowledge of the truth that Jesus has died for their sins. With so important a task at hand, we must not neglect obedience to this command.
Reason Demands It. God created humans to reason as part of his image (Gen. 1:27; cf. Col. 3:10). Indeed, it is by reasoning that humans are distinguished from “brute beasts” (Jude 10). God calls upon his people to use reason (Isa. 1:18) to discern truth from error (1 John 4:6) and right from wrong (Heb. 5:14). A fundamental principle of reason is that it should give sufficient grounds for belief. An unjustified belief is just that—unjustified.
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He surely would have been willing to add that the unexamined belief is not worth believing. Therefore, it is incumbent upon Christians to give a reason for their hope. This is part of the great command to love God with all our mind and heart and soul (Matt. 22:36–37).
The World Needs It. People rightly refuse to believe without evidence. Since God created humans as rational beings, he expects them to live rationally, to look before they leap. This does not mean there is no room for faith. But God wants us to take a step of faith in the light of evidence, rather than to leap in the dark.
Evidence of truth should precede faith. No rational person steps in a elevator without some reason to believe it will hold him up. No reasonable person gets on an airplane that is missing part of one wing and smells of smoke in the cabin. People deal in two dimensions of belief: belief that and belief in. Belief that gives the evidence and rational basis for confidence needed to establish belief in. Once belief that is established, one can place faith in it. Thus, the rational person wants evidence that God exists before he places his faith in God. Rational unbelievers want evidence that Jesus is the Son of God before they place their trust in him.
Objections to Apologetics. The most frequent opposition to apologetics is raised by mystics and other experientialists. Fideists and some presuppositionalists also raise objections of two basic kinds: biblical and from outside Scripture. An apologist for apologetics can see in the Scripture texts usually quoted against the work some misunderstandings or misapplications, which do not really show apologetics to be unnecessary.
Objections to Apologetics from the Bible. The Bible does not need to be defended. One objection often made is that the Bible does not need to be defended; it simply needs to be expounded. “The Word of God is alive and powerful” (Heb. 4:12). It is said that the Bible is like a lion; it does not need to be defended but simply let loose. A lion can defend itself.
This begs the question as to whether the Bible is the Word of God. Of course, God’s Word is ultimate and speaks for itself. But how do we know the Bible, as opposed to the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon, is the Word of God? One must appeal to evidence to determine this. No Christian would accept a Muslim’s statement that “the Qur’an is alive and powerful and sharper than a two-edged sword.” We would demand evidence.
The analogy of the lion is misleading. A roar of a lion “speaks for itself” with authority only because we know from previous evidence what a lion can do. Without tales of woe about a lion’s ferocity, its roar would not have authority. Likewise, without evidence to establish one’s claim to authority, there is no good reason to accept that authority.
God can’t be known by human reason. The apostle Paul wrote, “the world by wisdom knew not God” (1 Cor. 1:21 KJV). This cannot mean that there is no evidence for God’s existence, however, since Paul declared in Romans that the evidence for God’s existence is so “plain” as to render “without excuse” one who has never heard the gospel (Rom. 1:19–20). Further, the context in 1 Corinthians is not God’s existence but his plan of salvation through the cross. This cannot be known by mere human reason, but only by divine revelation. It is “foolish” to the depraved human mind. Finally, in this very book of 1 Corinthians Paul gives his greatest apologetic evidence for the Christian Faith—the eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Christ which his companion Luke called “many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3 NKJV). So his reference to the world by wisdom not knowing God is not a reference to the inability of human beings to know God through the evidence he has revealed in creation (Rom. 1:19–20) and conscience (Rom. 2:12–15). Rather, it is a reference to human depravity and foolish rejection of the message of the cross. Indeed, even though humankind knows clearly through human reason that God exists, nevertheless, he “suppresses” or “holds down” this truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18).
Natural humanity can’t understand. Paul insisted that “the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:14). What use, then, is apologetics? In response to this argument against apologetics, it should be observed that Paul does not say that natural persons cannot perceive truth about God, but that they do not receive (Gk. dekomai, “welcome”) it. Paul emphatically declares that the basic truths about God are “clearly seen” (Rom. 1:20). The problem is not that unbelievers are not aware of God’s existence. They do not want to accept him because of the moral consequences this would have on their sinful lives. First Corinthians 2:14 (NKJV) says they do not “know” (ginosko) which can mean “to know by experience.” They know God in their mind (Rom. 1:19–20), but they have not accepted him in their heart (Rom. 1:18). “The fool says in his heart, There is no God” (Ps. 14:1).
Without faith one cannot please God. Hebrews 11:6 insists that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” This would seem to argue that asking for reasons, rather than simply believing, displeases God. But, as already noted, God does call upon us to use our reason (1 Peter 3:15). Indeed, he has given “clear” (Rom. 1:20) and “infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3 NKJV). Second, this text in Hebrews does not exclude “evidence” but actually implies it. Faith is said to be “the evidence” of things we do not see (Heb. 11:1 NKJV). Just as the evidence that a witness is reliable justifies my believing testimony of what he or she saw and I did not, even so, our faith in “things not seen” (Heb. 11:1 NKJV) is justified by the evidence that God does exist. The latter evidence is “clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Rom. 1:20).
Jesus refused to give signs for evil men. Jesus rebuked people who sought signs; hence, we should be content simply to believe. Indeed, Jesus did on occasion rebuke sign seekers. He said, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign!” However, this does not mean that Jesus did not desire people to look at the evidence before they believed. Even in this passage Jesus went on to offer the miracle of his resurrection as a sign of who he was, saying no signs would be given, “except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matt. 12:39–40; cf. Luke 16:31).
Jesus offered his miracles as a proof of his messianic office. When John the Baptist inquired whether he was the Christ, Jesus offered miracles as proof, saying: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matt. 11:4–5). And when replying to the Scribes, he said: “ ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ He said to the paralytic, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home’ ” (Mark 2:10–11).
Jesus was opposed to entertaining people by miracles. He refused to perform a miracle to satisfy King Herod’s curiosity (Luke 23:8). On other occasions he did not do miracles because of their unbelief (Matt. 13:58), not wishing to “cast pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6). The purpose of miracles was apologetic, viz., to confirm his message (cf. Exod. 4:1–9; John 3:2; Heb. 2:3–4). And this he did in great abundance for “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him” (Acts 2:22).
Do not answer a fool according to his folly. It is argued that atheism is folly (Ps. 14:1), and the Bible says we should not answer a fool. We agree with Proverbs 26:4, but we also concur with Proverbs 26:5 which says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Either the Book of Proverbs was put together by a mad man, or the lesson of the passage is that we have to be careful in how and when we choose to confront false ideas. Don’t just argue with someone who will not listen to reason, or you will be just as foolish as he is. But if you are able to show a person the error of his thinking in a way that he can understand, perhaps he will seek God’s wisdom rather than relying on his own.
Apologetics is not used in the Bible. If apologetics is biblical, then why don’t we see it done in the Bible? By and large the Bible was not written for unbelievers but for believers. Since they already believe in God, Christ, etc., there is no need to prove these truths to them. Apologetics is primarily for those who do not believe, so that they may have a reason to believe.
But apologetics is used in the Bible. Even those familiar with it don’t recognize it, since they don’t realize that what they are looking at is really apologetics. Moses did apologetics. The first chapter of Genesis clearly confronts the mythical accounts of creation known in his day. His miracles in Egypt were an apologetic that God was speaking through him (Exod. 4:1–9). Elijah did apologetics on Mount Carmel when he proved miraculously that Yahweh, not Baal, is the true God (1 Kings 18). Jesus constantly engaged in apologetics, proving by signs and wonders that he was the Son of God (John 3:2; Acts 2:22). The apostle Paul did apologetics at Lystra when he gave evidence from nature that the supreme God of the universe existed and that idolatry was wrong (Acts 14:6–20).
The classic case of apologetics in the New Testament is Acts 17 where Paul reasoned with the philosophers on Mars Hill. He not only presented evidence from nature that God existed but also from history that Christ was the Son of God. He cited pagan thinkers in support of his arguments. Apologetics was done in the Bible whenever the truth claims of Judaism or Christianity came in conflict with unbelief.
Objections to Apologetics from Outside the Bible. These objections against apologetics arise from assumptions of its irrationality, inadequacy, or fruitlessness. Many come from a rationalistic or skeptical point of view.
Logic can’t tell us anything about God. This objection is self-defeating. It says that logic doesn’t apply to this issue. But the statement itself is a statement claiming logical thinking about God. It appeals to logic because it claims to be true while its opposite is false. That claim, called the law of noncontradiction, is the basis for all logic. A statement that logic doesn’t apply to God applies logic to God. Logic is inescapable. You can’t deny it with your words unless you affirm it with the very same words. It is undeniable.
Logic in itself can tell us some things about God—at least hypothetically. For instance, if God exists, then it is false that he does not exist. And if God is a Necessary Being, then he cannot not exist. Further, if God is infinite and we are finite, then we are not God. Also, if God is truth, he cannot lie (Heb. 6:18). For it is contradictory to his nature to lie. Likewise, logic informs us that if God is omnipotent, then he cannot make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it. For whatever he can make, he can lift.
Logic cannot “prove” the existence of anything. True, mere logic shows only what is possible or impossible. We know by logic, for example, that square circles are impossible. We know also that something can exist, since no contradiction is involved in claiming something exists. But we cannot prove by mere logic that something actually exists. However, we know that something actually exists in another way. We know it intuitively and undeniably. For I cannot deny my existence unless I exist to deny it. The statement “I don’t exist” is self-defeating, since I have to exist in order to be able to make the statement. So, while mere logic cannot prove the existence of anything, we have undeniable knowledge that something exists. And once we know that something exists (e.g., I do), then logic can help us determine whether it is finite or infinite. And if it is finite, logic can help us determine whether there is also an infinite being.
Reason is useless in religious matters. Fideism argues that reason is of no use in matters that deal with God. One must simply believe. Faith, not reason, is what God requires (Heb. 11:6).
But even in Scripture God calls on us to use reason (Isa. 1:18; Matt. 22:36–37; 1 Peter 3:15). God is a rational being, and he created us to be rational beings. God would not insult the reason he gave us by asking us to ignore it in such important matters as our beliefs about him.
Fideism is self-defeating. Either it has a reason that we should not reason about God or it does not. If it does, then it uses reason to say we should not use reason. If fideism has no reason for not using reason, then it is without reason for its position, in which case there is no reason why one should accept fideism.
To claim reason is just optional for a fideist will not suffice. For either the fideist offers some criteria for when to be reasonable and when not, or else this timing is simply arbitrary. If a fideist offers rational criteria for when we should be rational, then he does have a rational basis for his view, in which case he is not really a fideist after all.
Reason is not the kind of thing in which a rational creature can choose not to participate. By virtue of being rational by nature one must be part of rational discourse. And rational discourse demands that one follow the laws of reason. One such principle is that one should have a sufficient reason for his beliefs. But if one must have a sufficient reason, then fideism is wrong, since it claims that one need not have a sufficient reason for what he believes.
You can’t prove God by reason. According to this objection, the existence of God cannot be proven by human reason. The answer depends on what is meant by “prove.” If “prove” means to demonstrate with mathematical certainty, then most theists would agree that God’s existence cannot be proven. This is because mathematical certainty deals only with the abstract, and the existence of God (or anything else) is a matter of the concrete. Further, mathematical certainty is based on axioms or postulates that must be assumed in order to get a necessary conclusion. But if God’s existence must be assumed to be proven, then the conclusion that God exists is only based on the assumption that he exists, in which case it is not really a proof at all.
Another way to make the point is to note that mathematical certainty is deductive in nature. It argues from given premises. But one cannot validly conclude what is not already implied in the premise(s). In this case one would have to assume God exists in the premise in order to validly infer this in the conclusion. But this begs the question.
Likewise, if by “prove” one means to reach a logically necessary conclusion, then God’s existence cannot be proven either, unless the Ontological Argument is valid. But most thinkers hold that it is not. The reason one cannot prove God by logical necessity is that formal logic, like mathematics, deals with the abstract. Unless one begins with something that exists, he can never get out of the purely theoretical realm. If there is a triangle, we can know logically and with absolute certainty that it must have three sides and three corners. But there may not be any triangles in existence anywhere except in someone’s mind. Likewise, unless we know something exists, then logic cannot help us to know whether God exists. And logic by itself cannot tell us whether anything exists.
If by “prove,” however, we mean “give adequate evidence for” or “provide good reasons for,” then it would seem to follow that one can prove the existence of God and the truth of Christianity.
No one is converted through apologetics. The charge is made that no one ever comes to Christ through apologetics. If this implies that the Holy Spirit never uses apologetic evidence to bring people to Christ, this is clearly false. C. S. Lewis noted that “nearly everyone I know who has embraced Christianity in adult life has been influenced by what seemed to him to be at least a probable argument for Theism” (Lewis, 173). Lewis is an example of an atheist who came to Christ under the influence of apologetics. The skeptic Frank Morrison was converted while attempting to write a book refuting the evidence for the resurrection of Christ. Augustine tells in his confessions how he was led toward Christianity by hearing a Christian debate an unbeliever. Harvard Law School professor Simon Greenleaf was led to accept the authenticity of the Gospels by applying the rules of legal evidence to the New Testament. God has used evidence and reason in some way to reach virtually all adults who come to Christ.
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 Norman L. Geisler, “Classical Apologetics,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 154–156.
 Norman L. Geisler, “Apologetics, Need For,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 37–41.
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