Apologetics: Basic Approaches
There are three basic approaches or schools of what is called “apologetics.” This word comes directly from the Greek, which has to do with the idea of giving a defense. So what is being talked about is how one goes about trying to defend the truth of the Christian faith. That there are three approaches, however, does not mean that everyone fits neatly into one of them. People do borrow from each; and while a person might prefer one school over another, it is not uncommon for such a person to grant the value, and even, at times, the necessity, of the others.
The first approach is classical apologetics, which historically has used five arguments for the existence of God.
1.) Cosmological argument—This is the argument from cause to effect. Every effect, that is, everything that happens, must have an appropriate cause. The only appropriate cause for the existence of everything is God. No one or nothing else can account for the existence of the universe.
2.) Teleological argument—This is the argument from purpose and design. That the world is characterized by precise and intricate order and regularity shows that it cannot have come about by chance, that is, by mere mathematical probability. There must be one who designed the universe to work as it does. This designer must be God.
3.) Ontological argument—This is the argument from existence. We are finite and imperfect beings who live in a world that is finite and imperfect. Nevertheless our minds are able to conceive of a being who is absolutely perfect and infinite. Because we are able to do this, such a being must exist, and this being is God.
4.) Anthropological or moral argument—This is the argument from the makeup of mankind. People possess both intelligence and a sense of right and wrong. They can only have these qualities if the being who brought mankind into existence is both intelligent and moral. This intelligent and moral being is God.
5.) Ethnological or religious argument—This argument appeals to the universality of religious beliefs. Everyone has some form of belief in a deity, even if that deity ends up being another person or even themselves. For this basic belief in deity to exist (even though such beliefs may be idolatrous), there must be a universal cause for it, and this cause is God.
Numerous weaknesses to each of these arguments have been made. For our purposes here, the most important one is that none of them necessarily leads to the one true God who has revealed himself uniquely in Scripture and in his Son. These classical arguments can lead to a general concept of God; but at some point, if these arguments are used, one will need to make the assumption that the God to whom these arguments point is the God of the Bible.
The second approach is evidentialism. As the name indicates, it is concerned with providing evidences for the truth of Christianity. Those of this school tend, therefore, to focus on arguments from fulfilled prophecy and miracles, particularly the resurrection of Jesus. Their initial goal is to show the reasonableness of believing that the Bible’s account of history is trustworthy, and that the prophecies and miracles are credible. The evidentialist will then go on to make the concluding case that Jesus was indeed God and that one needs to repent of his sin and trust in Christ.
Probably the most common critique of this approach is that it can, even unintentionally, depend too much on human reason and the skill of the one making the case. No matter how good the presentation might be, one’s acceptance of the gospel is rooted in the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing clarity to the mind and conviction to the heart. In addition, there is the challenge of trying to overcome biases against the historicity of the Bible. If someone believes from the beginning of the discussion that there are errors in Scripture and that it is more concerned to relate religious truth than historical truth, it is going to be rather difficult to change such a person’s mind by trying to argue from the Bible itself. Because of this, sometimes evidentialists will appeal to scientific observations and other arguments from classical apologetics to try to establish some common ground at a more basic level, before moving on to arguments from prophecy and miracles.
That people generally do not approach the Bible from a kind of neutral position—that they do possess assumptions about it from the beginning—leads to the third approach of apologetics, which is presuppositionalism. Those of this school maintain that while evidences drawn from philosophy, nature, history, and Scripture can certainly be useful, one needs to begin somewhere else. One needs to start with the belief that God has spoken to us and revealed himself in the Bible.
We all have presuppositions, that is, we all make assumptions about what is true and what is false. We make assumptions about why the world looks and operates the way it does. We make assumptions about what things are important in life and which are not. And these assumptions are formed by a whole host of things, such as family upbringing, educational and economic advantages, friends, and the influences of the broader culture around us. No one, then, is purely neutral or objective. Everyone possesses a viewpoint, or worldview, concerning these and other subjects.
A secularist’s viewpoint is no more objective or neutral than a Christian’s. Each one tenaciously clings to presuppositions that drive his thinking and acting. The secularist is making the assumption that the universe is closed—that there is no God who is responsible for its creation, operation, and preservation. Thus from there, while the secularist may realize that there are things in the world that are not as they should be—that things are done to him by others that are “wrong” and that he does things that are “wrong”—he nevertheless assumes that there is no such thing as sin and a future judgment for those sins from which he needs to be delivered and for which he needs to be forgiven. But he cannot prove any of it on paper. He presupposes it and so makes choices according to those presuppositions.
Likewise, the Christian is making assumptions too; however, he is assuming that the universe is open. There is a God who made, governs, and sustains it by his perfect wisdom. And beyond this, the Christian believes that God is active in it. He can perform things outside of what is usually observed. Like the secularist, the Christian also realizes that things are wrong with the world and with himself. But unlike the secularist, the Christian considers these wrongs to be “sins,” the Bible’s term for offenses against the holy God. Thus, in the Christian’s worldview, there is going to be a future judgment from which one needs deliverance and forgiveness; and only in the Bible can one learn how these are experienced. Also like the secularist, the Christian cannot prove any of this on paper. He, too, presupposes it (though granted such presupposing can only come from the Holy Spirit’s convicting grace) and so makes choices according to those presuppositions.
Presuppositional apologetics challenges the secularist, and everyone else, to see how inconsistent his presuppositions are—that his life and his world around him do not make sense without a biblical view of God as both Creator and Redeemer, and mankind as created and sinful. If one adopts the set of “givens” that the Bible puts forth about God, creation, ourselves, and Christ, then Scripture’s explanation for how all of them fit together, culminating in the assurance of the forgiveness of sins and of peace with God in this world and in the unending one to come, makes perfect sense.
Once this basic starting point of presuppositions has been established, depending on who you are talking with, arguments and evidences from the other two apologetic approaches may be helpful. As well as possible, consider the other person with whom you are trying to share the gospel. It may be that he or she already possesses a measure of openness to listen to you, and may respond quite well to various evidences. But others may be more set against the Christian faith, in which case revealing their own assumptions may first need to be done before you can go on to have a more profitable discussion by sharing your assumptions derived from Scripture.
Remember, too, that God calls all believers to give an answer to everyone who asks (I Pet. 3:15). As we humbly seek his help, and then watch for opportunities, he promises to go before us and accomplish his sovereign will in the lives of those to whom he is directing us.
Michael D. Roberts (DTh, University of South Africa) is assistant pastor at Grace Bible Fellowship Church in Quakertown, PA, where he also sits on the committee for the Quakertown Regional Conference on Reformed Theology. He also serves on the Christian Education committee of the Bible Fellowship Church.