The Gift of a Toolbox
In our last post, we talked about methodologies and how they can be like a toolbox, with various implements for different jobs and tasks.
For me, this is similar to counseling fields, where therapists may use an eclectic approach to mix and match various techniques to best suit the client. They might take an understanding of conditioning from a cognitive-behavioral approach, and then combine it with inventories from a family-systems counseling theory.
When you look at it that way, it’s easy to see that learning methodologies in apologetics is actually a missional endeavor. Just like a good psychologist will study many techniques to help a diverse client personalities and problems, a good apologist will try to pick up as many viewpoints and understandings of faith-defense so as to “give an answer to everyone who asks.”
Basically, different approaches work for different people. So let’s talk about those approaches!
A Dictionary of Theories
In counseling, you can get all kinds of books about techniques. These textbooks trace the history of the theories, their founders, and scientific research carried out by using those approaches. However, in apologetics, we don’t really have an exhaustive dictionary of theories. That means, depending who you ask or which book you’re reading, you might see a different list with varied nuance when describing these methods. As a matter of fact, depending on which book I consult on my bookshelf, there could be as few as two systems to as many as seven or eight categories of methods.
So let’s make this clear: I’m not trying to make this an exhaustive list; in this post, I want to highlight the most prominent methodologies by providing brief overviews. Some of the “big names” in terms of methods will get their own posts, and various philosophies of how we use methodologies (e.g., “understanding nuance”) will have more exhibition.
So with that in mind, please don’t be offended if a more obscure theory doesn’t get a lot of screen time. This is just an overview to become familiar with popular and commonly-used tools in the apologetic toolbox.
Top Tier Schools (of Thought)
Even though we don’t have formal categories to organize various techniques, there are two large groupings of apologetics that we may file many of the rest of the techniques under: subjective and objective classes of apologetics.
Over the years, many people have held to the subjective school of thought, including: Luther, Pascal, Lessing, Kierkegaard, Brunner, and Barth. Subjectivists, for various reasons, do not believe one can “logic” (I’m using that as a verb) a non-Christian into belief, but that the faith experience may come through miraculous/internal/personal events, from a presuppositional perspective (where the Holy Spirit directly opens/closes the door to someone’s faith), or even from a Reformed (pre-ordained) process.
Again, this a broad category. Some, like Luther, would argue that reason is a “whore” and an enemy of faith, and others (such as Kierkegaard) use complex philosophies—to prove that subjective apologetics are the more accurate way to go. It’s not contradictory for him to do that, he’s actually being very relevant to audiences that emphasize the philosophical and epistemological viewpoints by speaking their language.
Objective apologetics strive to present evidence for the Christian faith in order to change rationale or mindsets in favor of Christian doctrine. Natural theology, a branch of objective apologetics, employs observations from the world around us as evidence for various claims in Christianity. Aquinas, Butler, Tennant, and Paley are well-known proponents of this flavor.
Similarly, the revelation apologetics school of thought holds to the view that objective evidence is to be found in the universe, but depraved people won’t be able to accept the evidence. To quote Heisler, this view holds that “the Holy Spirit is the sufficient cause of belief… facts are a necessary cause of belief.” Augustine, Calvin, and Carnell all held this view.
Objective apologists use various kinds of logical/rationale-based systems of argumentation, including: theistic evidence, Old Testament prophesies, the character of Christ, and historical arguments for Christianity (cultural, anthropological, sociological, etc.).
As you can see, there are quite a few theories under each of these categories, and there’s also some overlap between the two. We could spend several overview posts highlighting the comparisons between them, but it’s probably better to simply highlight a handful of the most popular one that are subcategories of the two main schools of thought.
This is a field that primarily taps into philosophical arguments for theism or deism, a baseline for arguing towards Christianity and the Bible. For example, the cosmological and teleological arguments for God don’t posit Yahweh or Jesus as being the originators of the universe we find ourselves in, but these arguments are defeaters for a foundationally atheistic worldview. Craig, Heisler, Moreland, Locke, and Sprout all argue from this perspective.
Evidentialism stresses the need for evidence in support of Christian truth claims. Evidence may come in various forms: rational, historical, archaeological, and experiential. Characterized as being an eclectic flavor of objective apologetics, many apologists choose to take this style, including both Josh and Sean McDowell, Wallace, and Strobel.
From this perspective, religious or supernatural experiences are shared to exhibit the veracity of Christianity. Experiences (one’s own or others’) should be interpreted as signs or “self-verifications” (see Heisler) for the truth of Scripture. This introspective focus is upheld by Kierkegaard, Eckart, Barth, and Tillich.
This is an evidential approach that places emphasis on the historical record. This one is a little hard to classify since early apologists (Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Clement, and Origen) primarily used this approach, as the historical record was the present record for their time. They were more reporters rather than modern apologists, but their writings are helpful to historians and us today. Modern scholars who use this approach are J. Montgomery, McGrew, and Habermas.
The foundation of this approach states that one must defend Christianity from the perspective of certain basic presuppositions. Christianity is true, according to these folks, on the basis of being divinely inspired and from God, not because logic, reasoning, and science point to the Truth. Van Til, Frame, and Bahnsen all hold this view.
In the next posts, we’ll be taking most of these key theories and exploring them a little more deeply. For now, I hope this is a good springboard in case you are interested in learning more about these particular methodologies.
Heisler, N. The Big Book of Christian Apologetics
Gundry, S., & Cowan, eds. Five Views on Apologetics
Elwell, W. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology