Classical Apologetics

Classical/Deductive 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.

Classical apologetics employs a deductive as opposed to an inductive approach in its method. It seeks first to establish truth of a theistic worldview and then moves to show the reasonableness of Christianity. The Scripture as the final authority for epistemic truth is the conclusion rather than the starting point for Classical Apologetics. Human reason is given prominence over divine revelation in the sense that one must use his cognitive faculties to determine if it is reasonable to accept based on revelation. Once it is determined that the claim accords with the criteria of human reason, the revelation can be submitted as having the final say. The retort by Classical Apologetics that this approach in now way diminishes the authority of Scripture rings hollow.

The best way to look at classical apologetics is that it begins with God and argues to the truth of the Scripture. This is the deductive approach. Evidential apologetics, on the other hand, begins with the “facts” of things, to include Scripture and argues inductively to God. It may begin with scientific facts, or even historical facts such as the resurrection and argues back to the existence of God, contending that theism is the best and simplest explanation for the facts.

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 capable of looking at the evidence or brute facts so-called, without any philosophical prejudice. 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. You see, if God created all the facts of the universe, then it follows that those facts had meaning prior to their existence. This creates an obvious problem for the rationalistic approach of Classical Apologetics.

Theistic Proofs

Classical apologetics employs what has come to be known as theistic proofs. For example, the moral argument for the existence of God begins with the incontrovertible fact of moral experience and argues that the universal nature of morality is impossible apart from the existence of God. This is a powerful argument for the simple reason that one has to affirm objective morality to refute it. And since that is the case, the non-Christian is forced to come up with an alternative explanation for the universal nature of moral experience. So far, no view has been able to meet this requirement. Another proof, that began with a prayer of Anselm, is the ontological argumentThis is the argument for God’s existence from being. This is a complex argument that deserves special treatment elsewhere. This argument is rejected by most classical apologists. Another very popular argument is the cosmological argumentThis argument argues from the existence of a universe to its cause. Whatever begins to exist has a cause. The universe began to exist. Therefore, the universe has a cause. Another argument is the argument from design: whatever displays design must have had a designer. The universe displays highly complex design. Therefore, the universe must have had a designer. This is known as the teleological argument.

While these arguments can be helpful when employed properly, they can be devastating to the project of defending the faith when misused. None of the arguments actually conclude with the existence of God, a god, or especially the Christian God.

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 any 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 not the case at all. Christianity is not highly probably true! 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. All the theistic proofs aim to do is show that theism in general is more probably true than not. Essentially, the goal of this approach is simply to demonstrate that belief in theism is reasonable.

It is significant to point out that not one of the theistic proofs actually proves that the absolute, self-contained Triune God revealed in the Bible actually exists. We have to ask if it is the goal of the apologist to prove that some generic god 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, and seriously calls into question the possibility of cognitive or rational 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. The unbeliever refuses to go where the evidence leads him because he has a sinful bias against God. It is a condition from which there is no cure apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. 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 where this argument is concerned. Does a pastor approach his sermon as just any thing I say will do since a perfect sermon is unattainable and God can use it no matter what? Why spend 20 hours preparing if 1) the sermon will fail to be perfect and 2) God will use whatever I say however I say it? The pastor’s concern is with rightly handling the Word of God. It cannot be with what happens afterwards. The concern here is solely focused on whether or not a method is consistent with the Christian worldview 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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