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Friday, 11 January 2008

The Sad State of Evangelical Apologetics

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.

1 Peter 3:15

Many times I feel like apologizing for what passes as Evangelical apologetics. Providing a “reason for the hope that we have” certainly includes a rationale for the reasonableness of the Christian Faith. However, we should never for a moment deceive ourselves into thinking that faith in the Incarnate Christ is primarily about “reasonableness”. Neither the Christian faith nor God’s existence will ever be proven mathematically, no matter how elegantly Godel summarized Anslem. The coherence of the Christian faith should certainly be shared with others (noting particularly Peter’s qualification above that it be done with gentleness and respect), but it should not and cannot be reduced to a set of rationalist axioms.

Proof-Seeking Apologetics is a Dangerous Methodology

David Opderbeck has an excellent post comparing the proof-seeking apologetics so often seen in the Evangelical movement, and a more responsible, reliable, and credible approach to Christian apologetics. Responding to the statement that “if the church wants to keep the younger generation, it needs to stress evidence and proof”, David states:

I can’t help but feel a little ill for young people expecting to find “evidence and proof” of a proposition such as “the Bible doesn’t contain any mistakes.” I’m sure folks like Strobel, Geisler and McDowell make some good arguments in support of faith. However, the hyper-rationalist, “provide evidence and proof that the Bible doesn’t contain any mistakes” school of apologetics is not only wrong, it’s harmful.
I couldn’t agree more. As an early teen I sat through a steady diet of Josh McDowell films that defended various Christian faith claims. The basic message seemed to be that anyone brighter than a toad would immediately put their faith in Christ if they were presented with the facts. Although my grasp of probability was relatively limited, I was troubled by McDowell’s “creative” use of statistics to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah. Although this dubious methodology did not lead to a rejection of the faith for me personally, it certainly led me to question some of the very conclusions McDowell was defending. I am concerned that there are others whose faith will not remain intact when they are exposed to this Evangelical proof-centric PR campaign. As David states, it can:
“ultimately undermine the faith of anyone who takes the time to seriously investigate many of the difficult issues involved in understanding various parts of the Bible”.
Defending the Wrong Gospel

Dubious methods are not the only harmful aspect of Evangelical apologetics; sometimes the conclusions being promoted are also dangerous. J. P. Moreland, a prolific Evangelical writer, theologian and philosopher, was recently asked by Christianity Today to identify the top 5 books on Christian Apologetics. One of the five he chose was Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells which claims that:

“many of the most famous “Icons of Evolution” –including Darwin’s “Tree of Life,” finches from the Galapagos Islands, and embryos that look remarkably similar – are based on outdated research and sloppy logic”.
The perplexing aspect of Moreland’s choice is that Well’s treatise is primarily (solely?) about scientific ideas, not Christian thought. Leaving aside the book’s central claims (see Icon of Obfuscation for a thorough critique) I cannot understand how Moreland justifies including it in the category of Christian Apologetics, let alone identifying it as a “Top 5 pick”? What in the world does a scientific theory have to do with the redeeming work of Christ through his incarnation, death, and resurrection? An attack on evolution or any other scientific theory (or for that matter a defense of evolution or any other scientific theory) may be an interesting scientific argument, it may even be a good argument, but if it doesn’t interact with Christian theology or faith, it can hardly be categorized as “Christian Apologetics”. (Disclaimer: I have not read the entire book, just snippets that are available online. I have read articles about the book - both pro & con - and have also perused the table of contents and index. If there is any interaction with Christian theology, it certainly seems well hidden. I would appreciate if someone can confirm whether or not Wells includes any discussion of Christianity).

Even if Wells had discussed Christian theology, I still believe it would be a serious mistake for Moreland to highlight it as a work of Christian apologetics. The implication is that the rejection of evolution is an important aspect of the gospel, and that the gospel stands or falls on the “truth” of evolution. Thus the gospel of Christ is shackled to a specific scientific theory (or more accurately, a rejection of a specific scientific theory). Maybe Moreland and other Christian anti-evolutionists should seriously consider whether Paul’s warning in Galations 1:6-9 is relevant to the message they are promoting.

Evangelical or Moonie Apologetics?

Given that Christianity Today bills itself as the “Magazine of Evangelical Conviction”, it is particularly galling that Wells book was tabbed as a “Top 5 pick” on Christian Apologetics. Wells is a member of the Unification Church led by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, and cannot be considered an orthodox Christian by any stretch of the imagination, let alone an Evangelical. He has published apologetics for Moon’s church and this particularly unorthodox view of the relationship between marriage and the Fall. Is this the type of representative that Evangelicals look to for a defense of their faith? What is next for inclusion in Evangelical Christian Apologetics? How about something written by Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology? Why not add some Rastafarian apologetics for balance?

Credible and Responsible Apologetics

For Evangelicals really interested in credible apologetics, I suspect that David’s suggestions at the end of his post are a much better place to start than the list provided by Moreland. It includes some fine books by Allister McGrath, one of the best Evangelical writers contributing to the Science / Faith dialogue. And Peter Enns' Inspiration and Incarnation, a personal favorite of mine, is an excellent example of how sound Evangelical scholarship should grapple with the biblical, scientific and historic evidence.

The conclusion of David’s post is also a fitting conclusion to mine.

Some evidential apologetic arguments can provide support for faith, and we are right to stress the general trustworthiness of the Gospels and the circumstantial evidence that support our proclamation that “Jesus is Risen.” But true knowledge, and true faith, do not come from forced external rationalizations. True knowledge and true faith come from relationship.

Well said. Thankfully a relationship with the Creator is not limited to those who wish to set limits on how the Creator creates.

Addendum: After I finished writing this post I noticed that David published a second post on apologetics called Postmodern Apologetics: a Person, not a Proposition. I highly recommend reading this as well.

6 comments:

geocreationist said...

Using apologetics to argue for faith rarely works on the unconverted or weak of faith. It appeals to the mind, and God wants to appeal the heart.

The same is true for arguing Creation/Evolution. People are generally appealing to the mind, not the heart. No doubt I'm guilty of that.

Luke 5:30-32 says:

30But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"

31Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

This is why engaging people who have made up their minds doesn't work. We need to focus on the sick, the ones who know they need to be touched by God. In such a context Apologetics and discussions of origins have their place. But if the heart isn't getting healed, then appealing to the mind is pointless. It might even push them away.

Cliff Martin said...

Welcome back, Steve.

My break was a little longer than yours, but I have, as of today, resumed my blog with something of an explanation for my hiatus.

This is a great post. I am finding in my conversations with skeptics that a far more nuanced approach to the defense of theism is called for today. The old approaches to apologetics (I used to teach them!) just don't cut it any more. And if the old apologetics does nothing for thinking skeptics, who is it for?

Further, linking anti-evolutionary science to apologetics is self-defeating and dangerous! It is apologetical suicide. Time will tell!

Steve Martin said...

Hi Mike, Cliff:
Both of you are raising a good question: What is the point of apologetics? I think we all agree (and we may be the minority here) that apologetics can NOT be looked at as a primary method to share the gospel - and when its done badly it is downright damaging. So what is the point? I think at times good apologetics can be a complement to sharing the gospel, and at times can be a complement to shoring up the faith of doubters, and at times can be a complement to obtaining a better understanding of God. But I don't think apologetics can ever be useful on its own.

The might of an hope said...

I completely agree with this post, I am myself really disappointed and frustrated by evangelical apologetic.

In fact, they work under very modernistic assumptions: through the method of induction, human reason can find out the truth whatever the subject may be, just look at the evidences, and go wherever they lead.

I find this evidential approach quite useful for the field of applied science like physic, chemistry, biology, it is an indispensable tool if we want to come forward in those fields.

However, I also think there are many situations where the evidences are not sufficient to lead to the truth.
It is by the way the case of the sciences of the past: history, archeology, paleontology and so on.
For biblical archeology for example, it is quite possible to interpret the archeology in such a way that there were neither an exodus nor a conquest of the land of Canaan, and this has become the mainstream position among secular archaeologists, for most scholars presuppose that the Bible is just an old religious text, written for propaganda reasons.
If we presuppose, however, that the Bible is the word of God, perhaps not without scientific or historical errors, but trustworthy for all things which concern God and his action in history, then we will question the conclusion of those scholars and honestly seek if it is really the only possibility, the way things happened.

I have done this research for this topic (and a lot of other ones), it has taken me much time, but I came to the conclusion it is really possible for the exodus and conquest to find good correlations with archeology.
I would not be capable to prove this the way things occurred (positive, evidential apologetic) , but I would be capable to disprove the unbeliever, atheist who pretend it is now certain that the exodus is a myth (defensive apologetic)

It is also the case for the authorship of the Bible: if we presuppose it is a propaganda-driven religious text, then it is quite logic to trace back its writting at the periods before and after the second exile.
But if we consider it is God's word, then we can interpret the authorship in very different ways, and consider for instance that most of the books of Moses really stem from him. (even if there was obviously latter editing)

It is also the case for the trustworthiness of the gospels and the ressurection of Jesus, which is of course the kernel of our faith.
I have read many texts and book on that subject, and I find circular reasoning in both camps: liberal theologians and secular historians consider from the beginning of their investigations that these scriptures were not inspired by God, they conclude then that many passages of the Gospel (with some wonders of Jesus which could not be explained away) are posterior invention. Since the theology of the gospel of John is so developped, it must be dated at the end of the first century.
Jesus has predicted the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, and of course, he could not have done that, therefore the gospel of mattew was written after the events, and so on and so forth.

Liberal scholars could also find a lot of more or less plausible story to explain away the bodily ressurection and the account of the empty grave, and to my mind, they were not conclusively disproven by apologets.

But on the other hand, it is also quite possible to consider that the gospels truly reflect the life, death and ressurection of Jesus, and to interpret all historical and archeological evidences according to this starting point, and it was also not disproven.

The same things could be say about evolution and cosmology: we can interpret them without God, but we can also believe that God called the universe into being, and that he has acted troughout the evolution of life and of mankind ( even if million of years later, we would be able to explain the things without his intervention).


I think that matter of worldviews involve a lot of presuppositions and can not be solved through examining the evidence of the physical word.

I am christian because I only see a real hopes, joices, peace, beauty, goodness, salvation in Jesus Christ, and in no other name.
After having done my researches, I have found out that there are neither positive evidences nor negative evidences (also this could have been the case !) which would be conclusive for the christian faith, in accordance with the famous sentence of Blaise Pascal:
„In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't“.

I think that evindential apologetic is profoundly mistaken, to my opinion, God has deliberatedly given no evidences, just indice, for those who recongnize they are wicked, broken and need a saviour.

Steve Martin said...

Welcome "The Might of an Hope":
Thanks for your sharing your own thoughts, and the process you have gone through. Yes, this type of investigation can take a lot of work. You might also be interested in my more recent post on inerrancy.

Charlie J. Ray said...

Apologetics by definition is a use of "reason" to defend the Christian faith. It is a philosophical/theological approach to giving a reason for believing.

As a Calvinist I do not believe that reason can convert anyone in and of itself. Only the Holy Spirit can initiate faith in an unbelieving soul. However, once the unbelieving and elect soul is regenerated then conversion can take place and this is most often accomplished through the preaching of the Bible, including both law and Gospel.

I agree with the Gordon Clark and Van Til schools of presuppositional apologetics because I don't believe that the classical approach taken by RC Sproul and others can convince a determined unbeliever. That being said, the state of apologetic accounts of creation harmonized in some way with the modern worldview seems to be in a sorry state of affairs. On the one hand you have the oversimplication of Josh McDowell and others and on the other hand you have neo-Evangelicals selling out to higher criticism, neo-orthodoxy, and theistic evolution. Is there any hope? Only God knows.