THE BEST METHODOLOGICAL APPROACH TO APOLOGETICS

Posted February 12, 2016 (Originally written on November 8, 2012)

  
                There is, in today’s society, a sense of awe regarding any sort of evidence or intellectual viability concerning the Christian faith. To be sure this sense of stupefaction is not as serious as it was twenty or thirty years ago, as Christian apologetics has certainly come a long way since then. However, the fact remains that for some reason people these days just don’t seem to trust Christianity like they have in past generations. Of course this is to a large extent due to the simple fact that man is fallen and fundamentally opposed to the things of God apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ, which comes through the redemption brought by His death on the cross and through faith in His name that brings with it ultimate justification before Almighty God, but there is, in modern times, more to it than that. The fact of the matter is that Christianity is openly offensive to the minds of non-Christians, especially people who have been educated by Western public institutions, and even for the many of the Christians who have been educated by these same places Christianity seems to be but a thing to believe “even though there is no good reason to do so.”
               This raises the question of whether or not apologetics is even meaningful first and foremost, and as to that question let it simply be said that the answer is an unmitigated “YES!” As for the other formidable question that this dilemma poses, that would be something to the effect of “What is the best way to present a Christian apologetic in today’s world?” While there are several notable ways to approach and present apologetic arguments, it would seem as though, at least in the West, there would be a specific method that would be most effective to reach the general population with the evidences for Christianity, but one must remember that everyone has different intellectual needs and circumstances, and so that just may not be the case after all. In this paper there will be a discussion of what seems to be the best approach to apologetics with regard to various types of situations when addressing an individual, followed then by a brief look at what the best apologetic approach would seem to be if one was to address a large crowd all at once, on a non-individualistic level. After that this paper will end with some concluding remarks.
When Appealing to an Atheist/Agnostic
            When appealing to an atheist/agnostic,[1] the most fundamental issue is getting him/her to acknowledge that God exists, or at least that it is plausible that God exists. Dr. Winfried Corduan, who defines himself as an evidentialist in terms of apologetic methodology,[2] defines Atheism as “the denial of any God whatsoever.”[3] According to the atheist, “the world is all there is.”[4] So, since Christianity is founded on the most fundamental principle that God exists, it would be necessary to establish that premise and its viability prior to attempting to prove any other of the Christian truth claims.
            This feat does not necessarily have to begin with or only entail arguments strictly for the existence of God, such as the traditional theistic proofs. It can also include arguments that answer questions such as “Why does anything at all exist?”, “Why did the universe begin?” and so on, as Dr. William Lane Craig addresses in his book On Guard.[5] These questions will, or at least should cause the atheist to consider the implications of such questions and similar ones, which ultimately lead to the reality that unless there is a God it is impossible to make sense of anything.
            This idea of first presenting a case for the existence of God fits most properly under the heading of classical apologetics. This classical approach would also include refuting the atheist’s own worldview,[6] which would include a belief in naturalism and maybe materialism, and showing how those worldviews are self-defeating or at best impossible to prove. For instance, one could easily point out that materialism is self-defeating because it denies the reality of anything not made up of some sort of physical substance, and the very idea of materialism, and every other idea, is necessarily non-material, and so one must utilize what one denies (an idea, namely the idea of materialism) to affirm materialism, which is irrational. As for naturalism, “it is virtually impossible to prove a negative,”[7] such as the idea that nothing except the natural world exists, and so at best the naturalist must hold such a view on faith, which is essentially what the atheist ridicules the Christian for doing regarding his/her Christian beliefs.
            So, when one is interacting with an atheist, it seems best to begin with the types of arguments that will lead to the idea that either God does exist or that if God does not exist then nothing else makes sense. It is also necessary to refute the worldview of Atheism and the major beliefs entailed therein. Proving general theism before proving Christian theism seems the best route to take when dealing with the atheist, for to establish that a god exists before trying to establish that the God of the Bible is the God that exists appears to be the most logical method to pursue, although one would be a fool not to acknowledge that people do not always accept various truths in logical succession, for the mind, although ultimately rational, nevertheless sometimes grabs pieces of information and forms beliefs without necessarily having a logical basis for those beliefs, and so the atheist may mentally skip the idea of general theism and move straight to Christian theism.
Therefore, when dealing with an atheist, it seems best to utilize the classical approach to apologetics, which includes establishing basic theism and refuting Atheism, followed then by establishing the truth of Christianity in particular.[8] To be sure, there are other methods that may also be effective when dealing with an atheist, especially since it is debatable whether or not anyone can truly and completely be an actual atheist, for the Bible seems to indicate in Romans 1:20 that everyone knows that God exists, but then again Hebrews 11:6, Psalm 14:1, and Psalm 53:1 seem to indicate that it is in fact possible for people to truly deny the existence of God and even to actually believe that He does not exist, and the human ability to suppress the truth to such a subconscious level that it is virtually nonexistent to the mind is all too obvious in today’s world. Hence, the classical method seems most appropriate for a beginning apologetic when interacting with anyone who claims to be an atheist. Also, Hebrews 11:6, mentioned above, indicates that belief in God is fundamental to a right relationship with Him, which is yet further support for the idea that the classical approach is to be preferred when dealing with atheists, for one cannot get right with God without first believing that He exists, and it should always be the aim of apologetics to bring people closer to the truths of the gospel message and into the kingdom of God (which ultimately takes an act of the Holy Spirit, but apologetics is a tool that God uses to bring people closer to an assent of the gospel truths).
When Appealing to a Non-Christian Theist
            Norman Geisler’s book Answering Islam[9] is a great example of an appropriate and adequate approach to doing apologetics when appealing to the non-Christian theist. The book first lays out the basics of Islamic monotheism and what Muslims believe, and then it turns to provide a Christian response to those beliefs, followed by a positive defense of the Christian faith. This seems to be the best literary approach when dealing with non-Christian theists in groups, for to establish the basics of the opposing position is important in a literary work prior to attempting to rebut that position. However, when dealing one on one with a non-Christian theist, say a Muslim, there is no need to identify the basics of their religious beliefs or worldview because they already know such things. The only value in doing so would be to clarify their position or to show that one is knowledgeable of their position, which may gain the apologist some respect in their eyes. Ultimately though, since they already believe that a god exists, and even more so only one God, it would seem as though the best approach to apologetics when dealing with a non-Christian theist is to rebut and refute their religious system and worldview and then provide evidence in favor of the Christian position. In general there seems to be no necessary need to establish the basics of their religion or worldview prior to refuting it, for in a sense the apologist would do so as he/she refuted their position anyway. This approach is somewhat conducive of the classical approach since it involves refuting the non-Christian theist’s worldview, but it is ultimately more along the lines of the evidentialist approach since it primarily involves providing evidence in favor of the Christian worldview without first establishing theism,[10] since theism is already presupposed by the non-Christian theist. Acts 17:22-33, 22:6-21 and 26:1-23, as well as other passages in the book of Acts support this idea of presenting Christian evidences as the main apologetic approach to non-Christian theists.
When Appealing to a Non-Christian Non-Theist Who is Not An Atheist
            When dealing with someone who is not a Christian, a theist, or an atheist, such as a pantheist or a panentheist, the best apologetic approach seems to be similar to what has just been dubbed appropriate when appealing to a non-Christian theist, while also implementing the approach discussed regarding the atheist. This is because if the person is not an atheist then they already have some form of non-naturalistic or extra-natural beliefs, but if they are also not a theist then they do not have a proper sense of monotheism either, and so while it is not necessary to establish the viability of supernaturalism per se,[11] it is still necessary to establish the existence of only one God, and also the evidences for Christianity. It would then seem best to first establish strict monotheism in this case, followed by a presentation of the evidences for the Christian faith. Since this involves first establishing theism, although not necessarily in the same manner as when dealing with an atheist, along with refuting the opposing worldview of the one whom is being addressed, prior to presenting evidence in favor of Christianity, this approach would seem to best fit into the category of the classical method of apologetics. Hebrews 11:6 again affirms the necessity of belief in God, and the passages from the book of Acts mentioned above provide the grounding for presenting Christian evidences, such as fulfilled prophecy and a defense of the resurrection, once theism is established.
When Appealing to a Christian
            When presenting apologetic material to a Christian, it would seem as though the best way to do so would be, on an individual level, to simply ask them questions about what they are unsure about and then address those questions, along with any additional information that the apologist might think is pertinent to their Christian faith that they may be unaware of. It is also a good idea to try and address the concerns of the non-Christians as well, but since they often times, although not always, are concerned with the less important matters of life it is sometimes necessary to guide the conversation in a manner that properly highlights the most essential aspects of life and Christianity. This can also be an issue when dealing with fellow believers, and it is most appropriate to focus primarily on those things that will edify the soul and mind and bring them into a more intimate relationship with God, and so again it may be necessary to guide the conversation in a manner that leads to such a conclusion instead of simply addressing their questions and concerns. This needs to be handled with great discernment and a good deal of prayer though, for if done wrongly it may give the impression that the apologist is being dismissive of their concerns, which is unbecoming to say the least. This is true when addressing the Christian and the non-Christian alike. 1 Corinthians 2:2 makes it clear that the central focus of the gospel message is Christ and His crucifixion, and 1 Corinthians 15:14-17 makes it even clearer that Jesus’ resurrection is fundamentally necessary to the gospel message, and so ultimately all of one’s apologetic approach in one way or another should lead toward these central gospel themes. With these truths in mind one can most effectively claim apologetic truths to the believer. Obviously the classical approach is unnecessary here, since the believer is both a theist and a Christian, and the evidentialist approach also seems unnecessary, since they are again already a believer. Also, the presuppositional approach is irrelevant, because all true believers presuppose the trustworthiness of the Scriptures.[12] However, at this point it is not so much a matter of trying to convince the believer of Christian truths as it is giving him/her a solid and rational basis for believing what they already believe, and so the method is not as important as the arguments when addressing fellow believers.
 
When Appealing to a Mixed Crowd
            It would seem as though when dealing with any of the above types of people, whether they be individuals or groups, as long as the groups are in the same category of people (such as non-Christian theists, atheists, etc.), the method should probably remain the same as mentioned above for each type of individual. This is obviously because whether one is addressing an individual or a group, if they all hold virtually the same convictions then they should be addressed in the same manner with the same methods, at least on a basic level.
            However, if one is addressing a group of non-Christians that are not all in the same category, but rather a mixture of people, such as atheists, non-Christian theists, and so on, since there is not merely one particular worldview being espoused by the audience, it seems best to start with a systematic refutation and dismissal of all major non-theistic worldviews, such as Pantheism, Panentheism, Atheism, and so on, followed by a defense of the Christian theistic worldview. The first bit of evidence in support of the Christian worldview should be a defense of the reliability of the Bible, followed then by a defense of the claims of Jesus and His resurrection, for if the reliability of the Bible is not first established then there is no basis for utilizing and critiquing the claims of Christ therein. It is true that the validation of the claims of Christ support the idea that the Bible is the Word of God, but the Bible must be deemed reliable as a human book prior to using any of its contents in one’s argumentation, otherwise there would be no good reason to even care what it says, let alone believe it, and so the reliability of the Bible must necessarily be established before its divine origin can be established. It is therefore not appropriate to argue for the reliability of the Bible from the presupposition that it is God’s Word, which rules out the method of presuppositionalism.
            As stated above, the method of first establishing theism as the most viable worldview, along with refuting all other major worldviews is representative of the classical method of apologetics. Classical apologetics then moves on to establish Christian theism through providing various types of evidence. This is essentially the method that has here been chosen for an approach to apologetics when dealing with a mixed group of non-Christians. The Scripture passages mentioned above in support of this approach are obviously valid here as well. As for what type of method to use when dealing with a mixed group of Christians and non-Christians, it seems best to act as though the apologist is only speaking to a group of non-Christians, for the Christians are already saved by God’s grace and so their souls are secure, while the unbelievers are on their way to eternal damnation and so their souls are in desperate need of knowing and understanding the truth in the fullest sense possible.
Conclusion
            In conclusion, in this paper there has been a discussion of what apologetic approach is best to take when dealing with a variety of different kinds of people, including atheists/agnostics, non-Christian theists, non-Christian non-theists who are not atheists, Christians, and groups including a mixture of these types of people. In short, it seems best to approach each situation in a way that best caters to the needs of the audience, rather than having a cookie cutter type method, a sort of one size fits all approach. Each of the various types of people are going to require different types of knowledge and arguments. All in all, the classical approach seems to best fit the majority of situations when it comes to apologetics, although the classical approach inevitably and largely entails the evidential approach, with the exception that the classical approach starts with arguments in favor of basic theism, and the evidential approach tends to skip that part of the process.
 
  

While there are several notable ways to approach and present apologetic arguments, it would seem as though, at least in the West, there would be a specific method that would be most effective to reach the general population with the evidences for Christianity, but one must remember that everyone has different intellectual needs and circumstances, and so that just may not be the case after all.

Bibliography
Boa, Kenneth D., and Robert M. Bowman Jr. Faith Has Its Reasons. Colorado Springs: Biblica Publishing, 2005.
Corduan, Winfried. No Doubt About It: The Case for Christianity. Nashville: B&H Publishers, 1997.
Craig, William Lane. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010.
Geisler, Norman L., and Abdul Saleeb. Answering Islam: The Crescent in Light of the Cross. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002.
 
Notes
[1] From here on in this paper agnostics will be subsumed under the term “atheist(s),” since, from a practical perspective, their positions are not much different, even though fundamentally they are obviously not the same thing.
[2] This is from information gathered through personal text messages between myself and Dr. Winfried Corduan.
[3] Winfried Corduan, No Doubt About It: The Case for Christianity (Nashville: B&H Publishers, 1997), 83.
[4] Ibid.
[5] William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010).
[6] Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr., Faith Has Its Reasons (Colorado Springs: Biblica Publishing, 2005), 93.
[7] Corduan, No Doubt About It, 83.
[8] Boa and Bowman Jr., Faith Has Its Reasons, 53.
[9] Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam: The Crescent in Light of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002).
[10] Boa and Bowman Jr., Faith Has Its Reasons, 139.
[11] It is true that Panentheism in some forms involves god as finite and part of the natural world (and hence possibly a form of naturalism), but since this idea is irrational and self-refuting it is going to be ignored as irrelevant in this paper. See Winfried Corduan, No Doubt About It, 95-99.
[12] I realize that some people argue that people can deny certain aspects or parts of Scripture and still be considered true Christians, but based on what Scripture teaches throughout, such as in 2 Timothy 3:16, all of the Bible is God’s Word, and so if anyone claims that any of it is irrelevant or untrue then ultimately they are rejecting God, for to reject His Word is to reject Him, and one cannot reject God and be a Christian at the same time.