What Are We Defending? A Simple Plea To Christian Apologists

Formal introductions are made, the crowd applauds, and the Christian and non-Christian position themselves behind a lectern, notes in hand.  It is a debate, a venue where two worldviews collide in an open forum.

Ever since the advent of the internet, there has been a veritable explosion of resources and recordings of such encounters.  One need only check out the Veritas Forum, or Justin Brierley’s UK radio show Unbelievable, for two more recent examples.  There are hundreds of debates just waiting to be heard out there.  Thousands and thousands of recorded hours.  Most are a mere click away.

Over the past decade, I’ve been afforded the luxury of having a job where I can listen to such exchanges.  It’s been an absolute joy.  But if I may be so bold, I’ve noticed a problematic tendency in the area of Christian apologetics, particularly as expressed in the domain of public discourse.

Now generalizing can be dangerous, no doubt.  But at the same time, an accurate generalization can capture the essence of a real trend.  That’s my aim here.  I want to press my finger on one troublesome spot.

My concern and frustration can be summed up through a question.  I want to ask the Christian apologist what they’re defending.  What are they trying to get people to believe?

Christian apologists are quite good at embracing and utilizing the philosophical nomenclature of academia (which isn’t necessarily bad).  They mine the halls of history for historical evidences.  They craft careful arguments, speak persuasively, and often embody intellectual rigor.  And yet for all of that, my fear is that they aren’t quite sure what they’re defending.  Here I don’t mean to suggest that they aren’t consciously defending Christianity.  They are.  But what I mean is that they aren’t defending Christianity as a deeply biblical viewpoint.

Christianity is not merely theism after all.  Or supernaturalism.  Or Jesus teaching good morals.  I’m talking about Christianity as a very specific and detailed body of truth- interconnected truth where each part is indispensible to the whole.  Dare I say vigorously creedal?

I’ve noticed that there is often a disconnect between the answers provided by apologists and the Scriptures themselves, almost as if they don’t quite want to divulge certain details, really dig into the bits that seem hard to swallow or overly Christian in nature.  So when the opponent across the stage presses them, the apologist often retreats from the Scriptures.  After all, are we really going to delve deeper into theology when the fundamental presuppositions of the theological viewpoint is being challenged?  To do so seems to beg the question.  It appears absurd, even laughable.

For example, if someone is already questioning or expressing disapproval over the Bible’s view of sin, are we going to further illuminate the subject by talking about the kingdom of darkness or the intricacies of God’s Law?  You can’t dig deeper into the thing being questioned, right?

But of course this is quite wrong.  In fact, I would urge that we must dig deeper.  Indeed, it is the most rationally defensible thing to do!

Consider this basic point: If we believe that God is Truth, and if we believe that this Truth directly correlates to reality, it would be pure folly to try to understand life apart from the meaning God has ordained.  His Truth would be the only Truth.  And if we believe that God communicates to us in His Word, that the proper lens for understanding reality is supplied via the Scriptures, we’re bound to take doctrine seriously.  Along these lines, we know that such doctrines are intimately connected and comprise a coherent whole.  The big questions are only going to make sense in light of the smaller strands of biblical data.  As such, they’re indispensable weapons in the apologist’s arsenal.  They can’t be ignored.

And yet they’re often not wielded with the conviction due them, or they’re relegated to the arena of “That’s too much to expect people to take seriously.”

In this respect, my concerns can be crystallized into three basic, even elementary points:

1)      Truth and theology are intimately related (inseparable, actually).  We cannot hope to make a good case for the veracity of Christianity apart from theology.

2)      We cannot expect to be able to elucidate the truth without delving deeper into theology.  Theology provides not only the substructure for Truth, but supplies crucial details that illuminate the Truth.

3)      (1) and (2) are fundamental to Christianity.  So if you don’t agree, or if you don’t defend Christianity with these points firmly in mind, what are you defending?

That is the question.  What are we defending?  If we’re defending Christianity, it needs to be distinctively Christian from top to bottom.  It’s going to require an extremely detailed and nuanced view of Christianity, one that accords with the jots and tittles of Scriptures.

So my plea to Christian apologists, especially those with a philosophical bent, is to never shy away from this fact.  Don’t be afraid to speak theologically.  Embrace biblical categories.  Oftentimes a crucial point is only going to be able to be defended by unpacking a doctrine.  If your opponent considers this to be out of bounds, merely explain why it cannot be any other way.  “For if Christianity is true,” you might say, “then the Truth would function this way.  And if you won’t allow for this possibility, then you’ve excluded Christianity from the start.  And besides, don’t you need to know what you’re really disagreeing with anyway?”

So again, my plea to Christian apologists is to consider afresh the relationship between systematics and apologetics, or good old fashioned biblical fidelity and faithful witnessing.    Don’t fear unpacking the Scriptures.  Fishermen didn’t, and they turned the Roman world on its head.

18 Comments

  1. JN April 2, 2013 at 11:06 pm #

    Was just thinking about this type of thing in a recent blog post of mine. That too often we want to avoid the eye rolls or the appearance of being un-intellectual by “embracing biblical categories”, as you say, and declaring the veracity of God’s word. When, in fact, the only intellectual approach to life is to root knowledge in the God of the Scriptures. I feel like many apologists believe they can reason people into the faith, but the apostles believed that the gospel was the power of God unto salvation.

    Thanks for the post.
    SDG

  2. alcoramdeo April 3, 2013 at 12:26 am #

    Thank you, Brother Austin, for a very necessary perspective clearly stated.

  3. KJQ April 3, 2013 at 8:48 am #

    In my humble opinion, the greatest Christian apologist of the last century was Dr. Greg Bahnsen. I’ve read several of his books, and have several of his DVD lectures on defending the Christian worldview. They are marvelous. His training in and thorough grasp of both secular philosophy and reformed systematic theology was unsurpassed.

    Dr. Bahnsen stated (and I agree) that the purpose of Christian apologetics is not evangelism. It is primarily to strengthen the faith of believers, and secondarily to silence the mouths of unbelievers. We need to remember that only the Holy Spirit and the preaching of the gospel can regenerate the spiritually dead.

    • Chase April 4, 2013 at 11:19 pm #

      If we are truly defending our faith, shouldn’t the gospel be at the heart of our defense? It surprises me that Bahnsen would say that. He was an ardent student of Van Til, whose apologetic “is simply a thoughtful form of evangelism,” according to Westminster Apologetics Professor William Edgar.

      • David Pulliam April 5, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

        Not necessarily. It depends on what you mean by “heart of our defense.” In one sense the answer is no since we are dealing with the intellect when we are working through apologetics. It fuels our hearts to increase our desire for God, but the primary focus is on the mind. Don’t see this as putting the mind and hearts as contraries but as two important parts of us who work conjointly building each one up.

        in another sense the gospel is of course at the center of apologetics. It is the core or as you said the heart of apologetics. It is the driving force for why people make a defense of the faith.

        I don’t know if that’s very helpful, but hopefully I haven’t muddled the waters to badly.

  4. GAW April 3, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

    Stanley Fish of all people once made the comment that most often, when someone asks you to defend your viewpoint, they are asking you to step away from your position and defend it from the outside. In doing so, however, you are place yourself in the position of defending something by first assuming, at best, that it is inapplicable, at worst, that it isn’t true.

  5. David Pulliam April 3, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

    Austen, thank you for your post. What your asking is certainly not unheard of. This is what Van Til argued for, being wholly Biblical all the way through our apologetics and unabashedly so.

    I think the end goal can be often confusing for some people since various debates will have different end goals. For instance, recently at Purdue, William Lane Craig and Alex Rosenburg debated the issue of the rationality of faith. This debate is different then say a debate on the existence of God, the historicity of the scriptures or if belief in God is rational. Sometimes, for instance the Craig v. Rosenburg debate, the issue is not just about Christianity but whether faith is a rational method of belief. This applies to those in other religions as well.

    These discussions are not simple, and there are thousands of years of debate underlying them. Reducing the debate to simple points usually cuts out important parts that are helpful in understanding what’s going on.

    Hope that’s helpful.

    • Austin Brown April 3, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

      Actually, I named my second son Cornelius Van Brown. No, not really. But I kinda wanted too 🙂

      I’m glad you noticed the affinity between presuppositionalism and my post. I’m a huge fan of Van Til, so it would have bummed me out if you didn’t notice any parallels.

      All that being said, I would urge (not surprisingly) that it would be intellectual suicide to discuss the rationality of faith, for instance, without holding firmly to Christian presuppositions. If God is absolute Truth, then there is going to inevitably be circularity. The same is true with counter claims. So yeah, I think you are very right to point out that such discussions are in no way simple. They’re profoundly deep. I would never advocate reducing them to simple points that cut out important parts. Keep the important points 🙂

      • David Pulliam April 5, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

        I assume you think Plantinga’s work is intellectual suicide then? (Warranted Christian Belief) His work is primarily philosophical while using theological concepts to explain the rationality of faith.

        I don’t think there is circularity regarding God as absolute Truth. I think that route is philosophically dangerous and leads to a very sad way of seeing the world – see Nietzsche and Will to Power. The reason I think so, is that it is common sense to deny circular arguments validity. (My logic prof responded to someone asking him why circular arguments are invalid by saying “because they are!”) That being so, A. the argument for Christianity is not circular or B. Christianity is not an argument.

        I take the latter choice. I think there are great arguments for God’s existence (Kalaam and the modal ontological argument are simply fun to think about, even if you don’t agree with them.), and we can use history to acquire a good understanding of Jesus and the historicity of the NT. On the other hand, I don’t convince people of Jesus Christ as Lord. That’s the Holy Spirit.

        Austen, what do you think? Would Van Til agree with me? 😉

        • Austin Brown April 5, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

          Hi David,

          I think there’s some basic misunderstandings here. I like Alvin Plantinga and believe he is an extremely gifted thinker. There are times when I wish he would more firmly anchor his thinking in explicit biblical teachings, but I don’t frown upon his rigorous philosophical arguments, so far as they are arguments.

          I would encourage you, if you haven’t already, to check out some of John Frame’s works on presuppositionalism. I have found him to be quite helpful.

          But before I part, let me offer a bit of a challenge. You decried the notion of circular arguments. In one important sense you are absolutely correct. But I would urge that when dealing with ultimates, circularity is unavoidable. You mentioned logic. Could you tell me how you justify or establish the validity of logic without appealing to or utilizing logic? It’s not possible. You have to use the very thing in question. The same is true with sense experience, rationality, etc.

          I believe (roughly speaking) the same is true with God. Such is the nature of absolutes… which, I would urge, is profoundly significant as an epistemological argument.

          For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself… (Heb 6:13)

          • David Pulliam April 6, 2013 at 12:18 pm #

            Austin, thank you for your response. I’ll definitely look at John Frame’s work. I saw he has a course on apologetics on Itunes, any suggestions on a place to start?

            You’ve offered a great challenge. When looking at logic, I find that the foundation of logic is irrefutable. What I mean is that I can’t think outside the laws of logic. For instance, to the law/principle of non-contradiction can’t be argued against without following it. Denying it is affirming it. It’s common sense explained. I don’t need to justify these laws because it’s obvious that they’re true. Who wouldn’t deny that if something isn’t, then you can’t say that it is?

            Hopefully that make sense, if not, dear me maybe I’ve lost my knowledge of common sense…. 😉

          • Austin Brown April 6, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

            I started to listen to Frame’s lectures on ITunes, and truth be told, I got a bit bored and stopped. Now in all fairness, this came after my having read nearly everything he has written. So it was terribly familiar ground. Perhaps it would be a good place to start?

            His more mid-level work is “Apologetics to the Glory of God.” It’s quite good. His longer and more detailed work (which can be a bit dry at times) is “The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.” Scott Oliphint at Westminster is also a very able and erudite thinker in this area. Bahnsen’s classic work is entitled, “Always Ready.” It’s entry level but gets right to the point with tremendous clarity.

            Hope those prove interesting as well as helpful! Great talking, David! I wish you the best in your studies.

  6. rpcnacovenanter April 5, 2013 at 3:05 pm #

    …the theology of the Reformation recognized not only that God is distinct from his revelation and that the one who reveals cannot be fully comprehended in the revelation, but also that the revelation, given in a finite and understandable form, must truly rest on the eternal truth of God: this is the fundamental message and intention of the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology.

    Richard Mueller
    PRRD, v.1 p.p.228,

    Sometimes these discussions seem rather fruitless and confuse different types of knowledge. Paradox being one confused situation in my estimation. I also believe that sometimes the simplicity of Christ is lost and even marred to the point of obscurity for the purpose of obfuscation. Austin is correct in exhorting us back to the principle which our heritage has given us, Sola Scriptura! At the same time we must communicate effectively. Even God condescends to communicate with us, ectypal. Effectual communication is also just as important as the work of the Spirit because that is the means he works through. Even our Lord’s name Logos stresses this importance.

    I wouldn’t claim to be Van Tillian, Clarkian, nor do I outright reject Classical apologetics. Smarter men then myself have battled this stuff out.

    I will just post a few scriptural references that I love when these discussions arise.

    John 13:19 Now I tell you before it come, that, when it is come to pass, ye may believe that I am he.
    John 14:29 And now I have told you before it come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye might believe.

    1Co 1:17 For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.
    1Co 1:18 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
    1Co 1:19 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
    1Co 1:20 Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
    1Co 1:21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
    1Co 1:22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
    1Co 1:23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;
    1Co 1:24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.
    1Co 1:25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

    Psa 19:7 The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.

    1Co 2:1 And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God.
    1Co 2:2 For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
    1Co 2:3 And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.
    1Co 2:4 And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power:
    1Co 2:5 That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
    1Co 2:6 Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought:
    1Co 2:7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory:
    1Co 2:8 Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
    1Co 2:9 But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.
    1Co 2:10 But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.
    1Co 2:11 For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.
    1Co 2:12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.
    1Co 2:13 Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
    1Co 2:14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
    1Co 2:15 But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man.
    1Co 2:16 For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.

  7. braudcj April 28, 2013 at 10:50 pm #

    I’m not so sure. You don’t need to affirm every little nook and cranny of classical Christian doctrine, such as biblical inspiration, in order to be a Christian. I think the idea is to make the transition as easy as possible by only focusing on those fundamental Christian doctrines such as the existence of God and the Resurrection. The rest can be left as in-house debates among Christians who already believe these fundamentals.

    • Austin Brown April 29, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

      Hello Braudcj,

      Thanks for passing along your comments!

      I wouldn’t call the doctrine of biblical inspiration a little nook and cranny 🙂 I believe it is fundamental to the issue at hand.

      But even if we set that matter to the side, I would continue to urge that it is impossible to defend the coherency and veracity of Christianity without taking into account details. How else are we going to provide answers to big questions like the problem of evil or genocide in the OT without delving into the matrix of Christian doctrine? In such cases, generic theology isn’t going to cut it, not if the questioner is thinking carefully.

      • braudcj April 29, 2013 at 6:02 pm #

        I suppose that’s true in the case of answering objections to Christianity, where the burden of proof is on the objector, but not necessarily in the role of making a positive case for Christianity.

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