Classical Apologetics

Before diving into a short overview of classical apologetics, something should be said about apologetic method. Some argue that apologetic method is irrelevant. All that really matters is that you are defending the Christian worldview. This reasoning has led more than a few apologists to endorse and implement what is called an integrationist approach to apologetics. Method no longer matters. Well, not only is such an approach naïve and illogical, it is a beautiful display of postmodernism and its impact on not only biblical theology, but the field that is charged with the defense of biblical theology: Christian apologetics. Christian theism is true, then its claims about God, man, and sin are true also. And if those claims are true, it is impossible for apologetic method not to matter. A central concern of apologetics is epistemic authority. Ignore this concern and it is difficult to see how apologetics is even possible. For this reason, apologetic method matters.

Learning Outcomes

  • Recognize a working definition of Classical Apologetics
  • Understand the basic presuppositions of Classical Apologetics
  • Identify the theistic arguments made popular in Classical Apologetics
  • Recognize the difference between Classical Apologetics and Evidential Apologetics
  • Cursory evaluation of the weaknesses of Classical Apologetics

Classical Apologetics Defined

Classical apologetics stresses the use of human reason and rational argumentation for the defense of the Christian worldview. This approach stresses rational arguments for the existence of God and historical evidence for the truth claims of Christianity. Stress is placed on the role of miracles as confirmation of the claims of Christ and hence, the truthfulness of the Christian message. Classical apologetics relies heavily on the theistic proofs for the existence of God.

Presuppositions of Classical Apologetics

Classical apologetics operates on the ground of natural theology. As natural theology goes, so goes classical apologetics. By ‘natural theology’ (or sometimes ‘rational theology’) is meant the procedure of establishing or making probable certain theological propositions about the existence and character of God, from premises of a non-theological character.[1] Of course then it follows that a second major presupposition of Classical Apologetics is the concept of neutrality. According to this view, men are a blank slate and are capable of looking at the evidence without any philosophical prejudice. This view involves the presupposition that there is such a thing as brute facts. In other words, facts exist out there apart from interpretation. But if God created all the facts of the universe from the beginning, then the facts had meaning from their inception. The human mind observes phenomena and interprets it. There can be no such thing as a brute fact that later becomes a meaningful fact without that meaning being arbitrary. Hence, the existence of brute facts is impossible and if they did exist, they could never be known.

Natural Theology

Natural theology claims that unregenerate men are fully capable of making right judgments and forming accurate conclusions about the truth of God and of facts about God. In the broad sense ‘natural theology’ refers to what can be known or rationally believed about the existence and nature of God on the basis of human reason and our natural cognitive faculties.[2] Natural theology then is the study of what can be known about God from nature. This would include not only nature in the physical world but the natural cognitive faculties of human beings.

Evidential Apologetics

Evidential Apologetics begins with the evidence rather than with rational arguments and follows the evidence wherever it may lead. Even though evidential apologists agree that there is no such thing as brute fact, and that men bring biases to the table, he is a highly optimistic view of natural man’s ability to handle the evidence fairly. Its most characteristic feature is its specializing in propositional evidences, of which the historical variety is the most prominent, moving on to God and the truth of Christianity by what we have called the one-step approach.

Critique

Classical apologetics contends that there is a difference between knowing that Christianity is true and showing that it is true. I am not convinced this view can stand up under analysis. It seems that Christianity relies on both the work of the Spirit in knowing that Christianity is true, and the centrality of the Word of God in showing that Christianity is true. Classical apologetics seems to give some attention to the former while ignoring the latter. Moreover, nowhere do we see the Spirit of God using anything but the Word of God to produce genuine knowledge in the newly regenerated. Classical apologetics seems to make the bold claim that since “all truth is God’s truth” the Spirit of God uses that truth like He does any other truth. The claim however is without even Biblical evidence. The classical method always relies heavily on natural theology and the use of the theistic proofs to show that the truth claims of Christianity are true, or more accurately, highly probably true. But this is indeed no true at all. For example, William Lane Craig’s own kalam argument only shows that the universe had a beginning. It does not show us that the God of Christianity exists and created the universe. In other words, not one of the theistic proofs actually proves that the absolute, self-contained Triune God revealed in the Bible actually exists. These arguments have been thoroughly refuted by philosophers like Kant and Hume. Additionally, the Christian doctrine of total depravity casts serious doubt on the legitimacy of natural theology, the possibility of neutrality. If it is true that men have suffered irreparable cognitive damage as a result of sin, then it seems there is no way for anyone to truly examine and evaluate the evidence for God from a neutral standpoint. Fallen sinners are described as blind, ignorant, and operating with a futile mind. Not only this, fallen sinners are described as knowing and hating God and as unwilling to do anything that is actually pleasing to Him. The doctrine of total depravity and the effects this condition has on the unregenerate mind serve as insurmountable challenges to the strain of natural theology required in classical apologetics.

Special note

You will hear it often said by apologists that the Spirit of God uses all kinds of methods to save sinners and bring men to the truth of Christian theism. However, that is not what is being disputed in this article. It is true that the Holy Spirit saves sinners even though the sermons that are preached and the preachers who preach them are far from perfect. That fact is a red herring. The concern here is solely focused on whether or not a method is consistent with Christian doctrine  and faithful to the Biblical message it seeks to defend. That is the only thing that concerns us. Far too many apologists take a pragmatic approach to this question. As a result, they employ an apologetic method that is out of step with the truth it seeks to defend and worse, they end up with a rationalistic version of Christianity rather than the supernatural one that is revealed and taught in Scripture. So the next time someone says that the Holy Spirit uses all the different methods of apologetics you can be sure that they do not really understand the real concern.

Summary

  • Classical Apologetics, by definition takes an optimistic view of autonomous human reason.
  • This method of apologetics focuses on rational argumentation and historical evidence in its approach to defending the claims of Christian theism.
  • Natural Theology is central to classical apologetics.
  • Epistemic neutrality is a necessary condition for the success of classical apologetics.
  • The view that there are human beings who truly do not know that God exists must be true in order for classical apologetics to be a viable method for defending Christianity.
  • Classical apologetics seeks to show that it is highly probably true that God exists and only then moves to show that the claims of Christianity are highly probably true.
  • The most contradictory method in apologetics to classical apologetics is the presuppositional method.

[1] Paul Helm, The Divine Revelation: The Basic Issues (Vancouver: Regent College Pub., 2004, ©1982), 22.

[2] Michael Sudduth, The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology, Ashgate Philosophy of Religion Series (Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, ©2009), 1,

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