Toward a Holistic Apologetic Method
Apologetics has a significant presence in the Christian tradition, stretching from the various authors of the New Testament who sought to present evidence for their faith in Jesus as the Messiah, to the Church Fathers as they struggled with various heretical teachings that arose within the young Church and the Pagan cultural milieu in which they lived, down to the modern era wherein we see the Church responding to Atheistic Naturalism, radical theories in sexuality, family and governance. In each era the Church has had to learn new methods for effectively responding to questions and challenges to biblical beliefs and the biblical worldview. In the Twenty-first century it is important that we too take stock of the scope and methods of our apologetic heritage with an eye toward changing and adapting where necessary. It is no longer sufficient to rely on one approach. Post-modern society, having moved to the logical end of the errors of the Enlightenment, demands an apologetic method that can respond to the various types of skeptical inquiry. While the Enlightenment emphasized reason, it also placed emphasis on a hyper-naturalist worldview based on misguided ideas of what constitutes rational thought, leading to Atheism. One study found that Atheism in the U.S. and U.K., with its emphasis on science as the source of all truth, acts as a religion in the lives of adherents, providing some measure of meaning for them.1 This is a direct result of the rationalism of the Enlightenment. As Andreas Kostenberger notes, the Enlightenment was:
...characterized by an antisupernatural bias and a critical—if not skeptical—spirit that emphasized studying the Bible just as one would approach any other book.2
As Western culture has progressed it has become ever increasingly irrational in its demand for not simply the athiestic naturalist worldview, but an anti-supernaturalism and even a rejection of the very foundation of the Enlightenment-rationalism. Society has adopted a Post-modern hyper-subjective worldview. That is, it has largely rejected reason and logic in favor of subjective perceptions, opinions, likes and dislikes as though they were objective truth. Koukl states much the same, writing:
The truth is that effective persuasion in the twenty-first century requires more than having the right answers. It’s too easy for postmoderns to ignore our facts, deny our claims, or simply yawn and walk away from the line we have drawn in the sand.3
This means our apologetic method most be flexible and integrate the various approaches available to us. In turn, this requires apologists to discern the strongest method and arguments for the various challenges, issues and even personality types the apologist will encounter. In seeking a synthesis of the Classical, Evidentialist, Presuppositionalist, and Experiential methods we broaden the scope of apologetics as well as broaden the potential appeal according to personality, background, existing presuppositions and the emotional proclivities of the skeptic. This in turn makes our presentation of the Gospel more likely to fall on good soil, as it were. Our apologetics becomes more personal. This is a dynamic apologetic methodology. As Francis Schaeffer put it:
We cannot apply mechanical rules. We, of all people, should realize this, for as Christians we believe that personality really does exist and is important. We can lay down some general principles, but there can be no automatic application. If we are truly personal, as created by God, then each individual will differ from everyone else. Therefore, each man must be dealt with as an individual, not as a case, a statistic or a machine.4
Apologetic Method Overview
It is helpful to first briefly explore the various apologetic methods we seek to synthesize. They are:
Classical- Classical apologetics relies on the faculties of reason and logic to arrive at certain conclusions. It is significantly influenced by Classical Philosophy in form and is most clearly seen in the works of Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Canterbury, etc. It is a very intellectual approach to questions of faith and generally begins by arguing for Theism and then for Christianity as the most reasonable form of Theism.
Presuppositional- The Presuppositionalist will start from Sacred Scripture and argue from it, assuming the skeptic must acknowledge the authority of the Old and New Testaments. This is due to the fact that most Presuppositionalists have a negative view of the effectiveness of human reason to arrive at spiritual truth apart from divine revelation. This approach is seen in the works of Cornelius van Til and other Reformed theologians and apologists.
Experiential- The Experientialist shares the Presuppositionalists distrust of human reason, preferring to challenge the skeptic to a lived experience of the truths of the Gospel. Rather than rely on arguments for any given proposition, they urge the skeptic to test the truth claims in their own lives to judge the veracity of them. It also argues that we must understand a skeptic's personal background, whether it be cultural, ethnic, or familial, to properly present the truths of the Gospel to them. This method can be witnessed in the works of Myron Penner, N.T. Wright and many in the “culturally relevant” wing of Evangelicalism.
Evidential- The Evidentialist approach shares much in common with the Classical approach. It tends to emphasize the evidence for the historical elements found in Sacred Scripture, frequently dealing with such topics as the historical Jesus, His death and His resurrection as these are frequently questioned. In doing so, this approach places significant confidence in human reason and logic to comprehend and acknowledge the evidence presented. Evidentialism is found throughout the New Testament, where the authors either present arguments for the historical events being recounted or present the testimony of those who were themselves eyewitnesses to the events.
Each of these methods is certainly strong in their own right and contribute to our apologetic toolbox. However, we must also recognize the weaknesses of each, since those weaknesses reveal what would be a more appropriate approach in specific situations. Again, a brief examination of each is helpful. With regard to both the Classical and Evidentialist approaches, they tend to place heavy emphasis on reason and logic, which works well with educated skeptics and those who appreciate facts, reasoned argumentation and logical thinking. However, in our post-modern culture, where emotion and subjective criteria are considered to be equally true and valid as scientific and historical facts, reason and logic are easily dispensed with. The fact is most post-modernists are not moved by such arguments. They are ruled by emotion and whatever is the most recent commonly accepted ideas, regardless of whether these meet the test of truth. Therefore, the Classical and Evidential approach will not be effective in all situations. Koukl accurately states:
Moreover, the Christian faith is much more than just an acceptance of facts about God. The call of Christ is not to develop enough mental ability or academic rigor to figure out the pathway to truth. Rather, Christianity involves many different dimensions existing beyond a mere mental assent to facts, such as stepping out in faith, receiving grace, submitting to Jesus, accepting mystery, and partaking in the love of God.5
The Presuppositionalist approach tends to emphasize that any claims of good, bad, right, wrong, etc. must have an objective and transcendent source, otherwise any such claims remain mere subjective opinions and have no binding force. In fact, many will even suggest reason itself must be grounded in the transcendent. As correct as these arguments are, they generally do little to move the skeptic's needle, as it were, in the direction of salvation. Discussion of the irrationality of the skeptic's worldview based on transcendental arguments can be used against the apologist, as Koukl makes clear.
...according to their own contrasting framework of rationality, many will find certain Christian doctrines themselves irrational (e.g., the full deity and full humanity of Christ existing as one person or the doctrine of the Trinity), so the claim that their non-Christian view is irrational could easily be turned back on the apologist.6
It should also be noted that the Presuppositionalist's insistence on starting any response to challenges with the quoting of Sacred Scripture usually leads to a fruitless discussion, as most skeptics do not view it as an authority. In fact, most disregard it altogether, so using endless quotes achieves nothing. It is first necessary to establish a foundation of agreed upon premises upon which to build the discussion. This might require the apologist to shift into a more Classical or Evidential approach, again depending on the character and personality of the individual skeptic.
Finally, the Experiential approach, which tends to emphasize the individual's own lived experiences and cultural framework is effective in many missionary oriented ministries that bring Christians into contact with very tradition-oriented cultures, such as those of the Far East, as well as many of the cultures and people groups of the Middle East. It may also have some impact on Western post-modernists who focus on emotion and lived experiences for drawing conclusions about life and the world around them, since it provides a challenge to them to experience the claims of Christianity for themselves, bypassing the usual criticisms and going to the heart of the gospel life. In writing of the strengths of this method, Koukl states that it:
...warns against a dry rationalism, rightly recognizing that Scripture does much more than simply appeal to our brains.7
However, this approach would likely not be effective with the atheistic naturalist, for example, since it tends to minimize propositional truths and often ignores both reasoned arguments and historical evidence. Koukl warns against this pitfall:
It is one thing to prefer the E/N approach; it is another thing to completely avoid interacting with the historical and logical arguments for and against Christianity.8
The Synthesis: Dynamic Apologetics
It should be very clear then that our apologetic methodology must embrace the total spectrum of approaches if it is to respond effectively to the various personalities, backgrounds, assumptions, presuppositions and unique challenges that each skeptic brings to the discussion. The most common objections to the truth claims of Christianity tend to be fairly consistent across the board. Frequently encountered are objections such as:
Universalism-The proposition that all religions are equally true and just different paths to the same God.
Scientism/Atheism- Evolution proves Christianity wrong and science can provide a surer path and meaning for humanity without the need for religion.
Bad Experience- Either the skeptic points to historical events such as the Inquisition and Crusades to dismiss Christian truth claims, or they have personally had a bad experience with Christians which “proved” Christianity is somehow defective or wrong.
Each of these will bring a variety of challenges that will demand a wide range of responses, which any one given approach simply could not adequately respond to. For example, responding to the Bad Experience with arguments from the Experiential method will very likely prove fruitless. Likewise, attempting to respond to the objections of the Atheist Naturalist with arguments from experience will be met with scorn. The same would be true of the arguments of Presuppositionalists. Such skeptics would better be served by arguments leaning more heavily into science and philosophy. An example of this would be the following from Dr. Graham Floyd. His response to the claims of evolution includes the following:
Since evolution is supposed to occur via natural processes and forces, the question arises as to how these natural processes and forces interact with transcendent, abstract universals causing these universals to become exemplified in the world. For example, the properties being hairy, having lungs, and being four-footed were not exemplified in the natural world at some point in the distant past according to the theory of evolution and neither were essences, such as being a cat, being a bird, and being a fish. How did the natural world or the forces within it cause these universals to become exemplified given that universals are beyond the realm of nature and cannot be affected by nature? It does not seem possible especially since the natural world and its objects would themselves be exemplifications of various universals. The natural world cannot cause itself to become exemplified so that it may cause other exemplifications of universals. How can the theory be rational if nature has no ability to connect with the transcendent?9
This is a strong and reasoned response to claims for evolutionary theory and is only found in the Classical Method, which tends to rely on observation of the natural world, philosophy and science. The point here is not to denigrate any one particular method, as all hold value. What is being stressed here is that we take stock of the weaknesses of each approach in encountering certain personalities, claims, etc. and adjust our methodology appropriately. The Holistic Apologetic Method enables us to employ an array of arguments, tactics and answers which serve to advance the conversation such that the gospel is presented intelligently and with a sensitivity to the skeptics need and not necessarily cater to our own personal comfort zones. Learning to do this is a fairly easy task for most, but only on the level of raw data.
The Apologetics of Listening
It is one thing to memorize a set of arguments to respond to skeptics and an entirely different task when we recognize that the holistic apologist of necessity must be someone who can “read” a personality quickly and recognize when an objection is intellectual or emotional. The key to this is found in Sacred Scripture. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath;”10 The apologist must learn to listen. The knowledge we can in our study of apologetics and Christian philosophy is not an end of itself, nor does it make us effective messengers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We should have the goal of serving the lost, not winning arguments. Dr. John Daniel McDonald writes that if we are to be Christ shaped philosophers, then our volitional union with God in Christ is:
manifested in obedience; their work under the submission to Christ’s authority and guidance of the Holy Spirit; and their disposition toward God and others in the context of their work. A key theme, therefore, is that of obedience.11
Christ listened to those who challenged Him or who came to Him in need and always responded wisely and with the appropriate temperament. In obedience to His example and the many admonitions of Sacred Scripture, we should be listeners before we are speakers. As Dr. Paul Fritz wrote:
Jesus did not listen to people just to find something to criticize. The Lord listened to people with His eyes, ears, and His whole mind. Christ took time to show people how important they were to Him by giving them his undivided attention. The Lord listened to people's emotions, ideas, and implications.12
Listen to the challenges without creating a false premise the skeptic never implied, which is an unfortunate and frequent occurrence in social media encounters between Christians and skeptics. Pay close attention to the words and phrases used and the various contexts in which they use them, as they often clue the apologist in to the way the individual skeptic defines that word or phrase. Listen for the emotion or lack thereof in the skeptic's voice. One study on nonverbal communication found that an estimated 60 to 65 percent of all personal communication between people is done through nonverbal behaviors.13 These often-subtle clues can assist the apologist in recognizing whether a particular objection is rooted in an intellectual misunderstanding or a potential emotional hurt that is present, though unspoken. Listen for the confidence or lack thereof with which they assert their objection, as this can be an indicator of either the fallacy of appealing to authority or of simply repeating something the skeptic heard from friend, social media, or in a classroom setting but does not truly comprehend. It is also important to listen with our eyes. Pay attention to body language and expressions, as these too can be indicators of what apologetic method would be best to use in dialogue with the individual skeptic.
Apologetics demands flexibility, a broad scope of knowledge, submission to the will of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that we be willing to listen much more than we speak. The Holistic Apologetics Method is only effective insofar as the apologist is willing to conform to these demands. As Dr. McDonald wrote:
As we go about our work as Christ-shaped philosophers, may we embody right listening in our relationship with God in Jesus Christ and our engagement with others, regardless of whether they are fellow believers or not. May our philosophical interactions, disagreements, and debates be informed by the virtue of listening such that our speech aids—not hinders—the proclamation of truth for the glory of God.14
We should engage skeptics with strategy and discernment such that we can respond according to their needs, whether expressed verbally or non-verbally, and by so doing, strengthen our arguments for the truths of the gospel. As Peter Kreeft has said:
Arguments may not bring you to faith, but they can certainly keep you away from faith. Therefore, we must join the battle of arguments.15
Let's engage it strategically.
1. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 49, 2013
2. Andreas J. Kostenberger, The Cradle, the Cross and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville: B&H Academic, Second Edition), 2016. Preface.
3. Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 22.
4. Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There, (Switzerland: L'Abri Fellowship 1968) 196.
5. Ibid., 181.
6. Ibid., 193.
7. Ibid., 197.
8. Ibid., 199.
9. Dr. Graham Floyd, On the Metaphysics and Coherence of Evolution, (Evangelical Philosophical Society 2022), 5.
10. The Epistle of James 1:19.
11. John Daniel McDonald, PhD, Be Quick to Hear and Slow to Speak: Exploring the Act of Listening as a Christ-shaped Philosophical Virtue, (Evangelical Philosophical Society, 2021) 4, 5.
12. Dr. Paul Fritz, How Jesus Ministered To People By Listening, (sermoncentral.com October 18, 2000).
13. Gretchen N. Foley, Julie P. Gentile, Nonverbal Communication in Psychotherapy, (Psychiatry MMC Journal, June 2010), 38-44.
14. Ibid., 19, 20.
15. Peter Kreeft, Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, (Los Angeles: Monarch 1994) 21.