This series was originally written as a single article by Dr Paul Coulter. For purposes of this blog, it has been divided into five sequential blog posts that will be shared in the weeks to follow. Part 1 can be found here.
As Dr Coulter shares, “This article explains what apologetics is, explores the different approaches Christians take to the task, and answers possible objections. Finally it draws on Scripture to outline a faithful approach to defending our faith.”
There are numerous different ways to approach the task of apologetics and it is not always easy to classify different approaches. No one scheme of classification gains universal support. Two possible ways of classifying common approaches are:
a) Depending on the approach to knowing truth about God (i.e. religious epistemologies)
Can truth about God be discovered through human reason in response to observations about the world (empiricism), through a critical appraisal of the inherent logic of different belief systems (rationalism), through Scripture alone (Biblical authoritarianism), through personal experience (mysticism), or through a combination of these means? The debate over these different means of discovering truth about God depends on our belief about:
Differing emphases on God’s transcendence and the noetic effects of sin lead to three distinct starting points for apologetics, as the following table shows:
b) Depending on the way arguments are constructed
Steven B. Cowan argues for a more practical classification of apologetic methods on the basis of “distinctive ways of presenting the case for Christianity, distinctive types or structures of argument.” 3
He identifies five approaches:
1) Classical method (e.g. William Lane Craig, R.C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, Stephen T. Davis, Richard Swinburne) Aims to establish theism through arguments from nature then to present evidences to prove that Christianity is the correct version of theism. Most proponents of this method claim that there is no point presenting arguments from historical evidence until the person has embraced a theistic worldview as they will always interpret them based on their own worldview
2) Evidential method (e.g. Gary R. Habermas, John W. Montgomery, Clark Pinnock, Wolfhart Pannenberg) Uses both historical and philosophical arguments but focuses primarily on historical and other evidence for the truth of Christianity. Will argue at the same time both for theism in general and Christianity in particular.
3) Cumulative case method (e.g. Paul D. Feinberg, Basil Mitchell, C.S. Lewis, C. Stephen Evans) Rather than approaching the task as a formal logical argument, sees the case for Christianity as more like the brief a lawyer makes in a law court – an informal argument drawing together evidence that together makes a compelling case with which no other hypothesis can compete.
4) Presuppositional method (e.g. John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, Greg Bahnsen, Francis Schaeffer) Emphasises the noetic effects of sin to the degree that believers and unbelievers will not share enough common ground for the preceding three methods to accomplish their goal. The apologist must presuppose the truth of Christianity as the proper starting point for apologetics. All experience is interpreted and all truth known through the Christian revelation in the Scriptures.
5) Reformed epistemology method (e.g. Kelly James Clark, Alvin Platinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, George Mavrodes, William Alston) Argues that people believe many things without evidence and that this is perfectly reasonable. Although positive arguments in defence of Christianity are not necessarily wrong, belief in God does not need the support of evidence or argument to be rational. The focus, therefore, tends to be more on negative apologetics, defending against challenges to theistic belief.
The book Cowan edited, entitled Five Views on Apologetics (Zondervan, 2000) contains chapters by proponents of each of these five approaches as well are responses to each chapter by the other four contributors. It is a helpful, although fairly technical, attempt to show the commonalities and differences between different approaches.
A third way: four methodologies
Although I agree that Cowan’s categories are very helpful, I prefer a four–way categorisation of approaches that is used by Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M Bowman, which combines both the epistemology and the approach to constructing arguments. The four methodologies they identify are Classical apologetics, Evidential apologetics, Reformed apologetics and Fideism.
It should be obvious that three of these four approaches are identical to three of Cowan’s: classical, evidential, and Reformed. Cowan’s ‘cumulative case method’ is a distinct approach to formulating arguments but since it draws together insights from the classical and evidential methods it is not strictly a distinct approach to apologetics. Cowan’s presuppositional method is largely subsumed under Reformed apologetics in this four–fold scheme (a careful reading of the descriptions above will show that they have much in common). The fourth approach in the Boa and Bowman scheme, which is not covered in Cowan’s classification although it shares ground with some people Cowan would class as ‘presuppositionalists’, is Fideism. This position correlates to the first line of the table of religious epistemologies, as it identifies faith as the sole way to know God and appeals to the Christian experience of God’s grace as the only appropriate basis for apologetics.
The following table, adapted from Boa and Bowman, details the characteristics of these four approaches to apologetics and the way they tend to deal with some of the most common apologetics issues:4
In practice it is not always easy to place apologists neatly into any one methodology as many use different approaches depending on the question at hand. It is probably best to see these approaches as tools in a toolkit or weapons in an armoury. We can freely draw on different approaches depending on the situation in which we find ourselves. We will return to this idea in the section entitled The dynamic of apologetic dialogue.