Popular Apologetics: Promising More Than It Should?

The majority of popular apologetic approaches appeal to some form of evidentialist theory, which says that if enough evidence is presented in favor of Christianity the unbeliever, and the skeptic would be required by the dictates of rationality to accept it as true. Many well-known authors make remarkable claims concerning the veracity of human reason, empirical verification, and the supposed obvious objective truth of Christianity. It is thought that the preponderance of evidence in favor of Christian theism demands a positive verdict. We are often told concerning the claims of Christ that there should be "no doubt about it." [1] The new rising star of apologetics Lee Strobel, claims to have "systematically documented the eyewitness evidence, the corroborating evidence, the documentary evidence, the scientific evidence, the psychological evidence, the prophetic evidence and the historical data" reaching the conclusion that "Jesus really is God's one and only Son." [2] Bill Bright declares that he "personally has never heard a single individual who has honestly considered the evidence deny that Jesus Christ is the Son of God . . .The evidence confirming the deity of Jesus Christ is overwhelmingly conclusive to any honest, objective seeker after truth." [3] He goes on to claim that even C.S. Lewis "found the evidence so convincing that he has accepted the verdict that Jesus Christ truly is whom he claimed to be." [4] These authors' along with several other evidentialist type apologists seem to think it is incumbent upon unbelievers to accept proofs and arguments as giving sufficient reason to put faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. Is it necessary to provide arguments and amass evidence in favor of Christian theism in order for the unbeliever to be saved? Can the Christian be considered rational even in the absence of reasons and proofs? Is evidential apologetics reasonable? Before we can adequately answer these questions we need to define the major tenets of an evidentialist apologetic.

Evidential Apologetics

According to Gary Habermas evidential apologetics "focuses chiefly on the legitimacy of accumulating various historical evidences for the truth of Christianity." [5] Similar to classical apologetics, evidentialists appeal to arguments and theistic "proofs" as legitimate means in defending the faith: "Instead of having to prove God's existence, the evidentialist treats one or more historical arguments as being able both to indicate God's existence and activity and to indicate which variety of theism is true." [6] In some ways evidentialism resembles the way knowledge is gained through the scientific method. Evidence is garnered, hypotheses are made, claims are tested and conclusions are reached. Kreeft and Tacelli clearly encourage this approach when they say: "To those who prefer the methods of natural science we say: Then be scientific! Read the proofs! Look at them carefully! See whether they work!" [7] It needs to be kept in mind that although many evidentialist's are not thoroughly consistent in their apologetic they by and large tend to elevate reason, objectivity, and logic while downplaying the subjective aspects of belief in God.

The Evidentialist Challenge

Even though most evidentialists and classical apologists stop short of claiming that evidence alone can convert someone they never the less write as if the evidence is so compelling that it practically demands obeisance. Paul's plea to "give a reason for the hope within you" is all too often interpreted as commanding the Christian to provide rational and logical arguments in order to defend the faith. In fact, most argue that the believer must provide evidence in order to be rational. Corduan says: "In the face of an onrush of arguments critical of Christianity, it may not be rational to hold on to Christian belief apart from evidence." [8] With few exceptions the majority of popular apologists have succumbed to the evidentialist challenge. The evidential challenge is put forth by mathematician W. K. Clifford. He declared: "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." [9] The Christian evidentialist answers Clifford's challenge by arguing that there is indeed sufficient evidence from historical and archeological discoveries in which to prove the intellectual viability of Christian belief. Thus both the skeptical evidentialist and the Christian evidentialist both agree on the need for evidence in supporting one's beliefs (especially in order to be considered rational). Ronald Nash observes: "Theistic evidentialists and their anti-theistic counterparts start from the same presupposition, namely, that the rationality of religious belief depends upon the discovery of evidence or arguments to support the belief." [10] The Christian evidentialist attempts to face the evidential challenge by appealing to the same presupposition. Are they successful? Most contemporary evangelicals would respond with a resounding yes. However, this is mostly due to the immense popularity of Christian evidentialist apologetics and their appeal to those struggling with their faith in the midst of secular onslaughts from enlightenment type rationalists and postmodern relativists. The fact that evidential type apologetics has failed to convert all the "reasonable and objective" seekers, which the likes of Habermas, Strobel and McDowel contend are merely choosing to stubbornly resist the overwhelming and compelling evidence, is reason enough to question the legitimacy of the whole enterprise both theistic and anti-theistic. [11]

Evidential Certainty?

The question is: can consideration of the evidence produce the type of certainty claimed by its proponents? Can we base our faith on historical approximations and the relativity of evidence? Furthermore, can anyone really have the time and resources to enable a thorough consideration of all the pertinent evidence as Strobel suggests? The answer is a resounding no! According to Daniel Taylor much of Christendom has confused truth with certainty. [12] He contends that:

The ruling methodology for reaching truth in our secular culture reflects the dominance of the scientific model . . . one amasses evidence - as analyzed, classified, and approved by reason - guarding at all times against methodological lapses (like subjective bias, logical fallacy, faulty or misinterpreted data, until one reaches something very like certainty, until one has proof. Now, professional philosophers and other academics will readily admit that absolute certainty of course is not attainable. [13]

He goes on to state that: "unfortunately much of the church has sold out to this myth of certainty." [14] Taylor further chides evidentialist type apologetics for its incessant search for certainty and for fostering the notion that the Christian should never doubt. The fact is that the Christian, so long as they insist on a strict evidentialist apologetic, will never find certainty. As Taylor observes: "Ironically, the insistence on certainty destroys its very possibility. The demand for certainty inevitably creates its opposite-doubt." [15] Those who make commitments of faith on an evidential basis alone often end up with a faith that is as uncertain and shakable as the evidence it is based on. Indeed, if the Christian were to base her faith in the preponderance of evidence she would be compelled to withhold belief until every major doctrine was given empirical under girding. Above all of this stands the assurance offered by Biblical faith.

What Is Biblical Faith?

Biblical faith consists in trusting in a God one cannot see. Faith accepts the historical actuality of the events the bible records as true. This trust is rooted in fundamental beliefs about the nature of the God of the bible not in the ability of evidence to confirm or deny what God has told us took place. Biblical faith is primarily characterized by implicit trust in the person of God as revealed in the Scriptures. Implied in the very nature of trust is the idea of authority. In other words, the Christian looks to God as his or her personal authority in life. Because God has revealed himself as a personal, omnipotent, omniscient, holy, just, righteous and loving God the Christian has good reason to trust. With the character of God as the basis of faith the Christian can trust what God has revealed in His word concerning not only historical events but also the revelation of Jesus Christ.

The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology defines three aspects of biblical faith: 1) Faith in God involves right belief about God, 2) Faith rests on divine testimony, 3) Faith is a supernatural divine gift. [16] That correct belief about God is essential to faith is obvious. As J.I. Packer explains: "some belief about the object trusted is the logical and psychological presupposition of the act of trust itself, for trust in a thing reflects a positive expectation about its behavior." [17] Packer goes on to show the necessity of revelation: "rational expectation is impossible if the things capacities for behavior are wholly unknown." [18] Packer then affirms God's revelation forms the basis for trust: "Throughout the bible trust in God is made to rest on belief of what he has revealed concerning his character and purposes." [19]

1 John 5:9 confirms point number three that faith rests on divine testimony: "We accept man's testimony, but God's testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given us . . ." Here is established the authority of God also. For the simple fact that God's testimony is greater than man's establishes who the Christian ought to look to as his or her's authority. This point will become important as we seek to establish the limits of all human inquiry and knowledge in the face of divine revelation. Of course many under the influence of enlightenment rationalism or liberal theology choose to abandon revelation altogether as a naïve throw back to fundamentalist literalism. As mentioned above it all boils down to the issue of whom do you trust? According to the bible we must accept God's testimony. To do otherwise is to call God a liar. The final aspect of faith is that it cannot be manufactured. In other words biblical faith does not stem from human cognitive functioning or even wish fulfillment psychology. The bible emphasizes not only the divine source of faith but also the inability for unregenerate humans to fully grasp God's revelation. Therefore, faith (at least biblical faith as we have defined it) must of necessity be bestowed upon human beings as a gift. [20]

Another Way: Reformed Epistemology

In the landmark book Faith and Rationality Alvin Plantinga along with several other Christian philosophers has met the evidentialist challenge. These scholars rather than advocating the same presuppositions as the evidentialist have instead destroyed the very foundation upon which evidentialists rest their presuppositions. Concerning the evidential position Plantinga asks: "Why suppose that is true? Why should we think a theist must have evidence to be rational? Why not suppose, instead, that he is entirely within his epistemic rights in believing in God's existence even if he has no argument or evidence at all." [21]

Plantinga's objection to the evidentialist challenge forms the basis of the fifth school of apologetics known as the Reformed Epistemological School. We do not have time to fully develop this approach. For our present discussion we need only show how the Reformed method more adequately deals with the problem of archeology and faith by its denial of the evidentialist challenge. Ronald Nash lists at least two major flaws with the evidential position. First, he points out "If Clifford's claim is accepted it would undercut all epistemic activity." [22] Secondly, Nash points out that Clifford's evidential position actually lacks evidence itsself! Nash asks: "Where is the proof for his claim? What evidence does Clifford provide for his belief that it is actually immoral to believe anything in the absence of evidence? Clifford warns his readers against acting immorally with respect to his epistemic activities. But then he turns around and acts "immorally" by advancing a thesis for which he provides no proof or evidence. Clifford is confronted by a dilemma of his own making." [23] What Nash, Plantinga, and others argue is that human beings believe several things without proof or evidence. This would include belief in the truth of Christianity and the Christian conception of God. [24]

What Does It All Mean?

How does our discussion of Reformed epistemology help us develop a proper Christian perspective on evidentilism? For one thing the Reformed method turns the evidential challenge on its head. A strict evidentialist's presuppositions are ultimately self-refuting. This does not mean that Christian evidentialists should abandon their field. Rather, they should be careful that they do not put themselves in the position of carrying the burden of proof for their faith. This would put the Christian believer in the awkward and indeed impossible task of amassing evidence upon evidence in order to prove the truth of Christian theism. [25] The debate would be endless. For every piece of evidence construed by the skeptics as a defeat for Christian belief, the believer would be constrained to counter with some irrefutable archeological or historical find meant to prove the skeptic wrong.

The Reformed epistemological method says that we need not play this game. Belief in God is properly basic. The Christian is rational in his beliefs and does not necessarily need evidential support to firm up his faith or prove it true.

A Proper Christian Perspective

Stephen Evans gives a proper Christian perspective on evidentialism and the Reformed account by advocating a complementary role. He writes: The evidentialist story can be considered as playing two different roles. It can be seen as providing one way in which the witness of the Holy Spirit operates. In this case the evidentialist story becomes a special case of the Reformed story." [26] Evans goes on to explain the difference in convincing someone of the truth of Christianity and explaining how the believer knows the truth of Christianity. The later is up to the Reformed account. While the evidentialist can provide arguments meant to persuade the unbeliever, it is up to the Holy Spirit to use that evidence.

Archeological Evidential Apologetics?

In some ways this is also true of the proper role of archeology in faith. Evidentialists to "prove" the Bible often use archeology. While critics and skeptics sometimes point to inconsistencies between archeology and revelation in order disprove the Bible. We want to see how a Reformed view would account for archeology. Archeology can provide some means to convince the unbeliever of the truth of certain biblical accounts. Everyone is familiar with the case of the Hittites. For years skeptics argued that we do not have any evidence that proves the Hittites ever existed. Years later the evidence was found. However, the purpose of biblical archeology is not to counter skeptical claims, although this can be a pleasant side effect. The main purpose of biblical archeology, and one that forms the proper Christian perspective is to give Christians and Bible scholars greater understanding of history so that interpretation is enhanced and God's revelation becomes clearer. Perhaps James Charlesworth sums the position of this present paper by writing:

Archeology has a powerful service to perform for theology and Christian faith, since Christian faith is not an idea, not an abstraction. It is a personal commitment to God, the Creator, through one's own belief in the revelation manifest in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. It is not to be judged by the canons of reason, nor to be tested by the perspectives of post-Enlightenment rationalism. Faith can never be proved or disproved by archeologists. [27]

Here archeology is relegated to its proper role. The evidentialist's emphasis on evidence is misplaced. This is true for non-Christian evidentialists and Christians evidentialists as well. Unless the Christian has a firm trust in God he or she will be tossed upon the ever-changing waves of the relativity of evidence.

Conclusion

Several Reformed epistemologists argue that the type of commitment Christ calls for is incommensurate with the relativity of evidence. As Stephen Evans asks: "Can passionate, whole hearted biblical faith be rooted in such complex arguments, which at best results in a conclusion with some degree of probability?" [28] We cannot place our faith in a strict popular form of apologetics. Neither can we capitulate to the skeptical evidentialist and seek to attack his position by playing by his own rules. The distance between empirical demonstration and faith-based commitment would be too large for anyone to cross. The reason for this says Evans is that "no human argument can produce the kind of certitude true faith demands; even the best arguments would be subject to doubts and possible objections." [29] Even if there are areas of compatibility between a Reformed account and the evidentialist account the bottom line is that the Christian faith is ultimately based on the authority and character of God not on the authority of a limited, fallible apologetic.

Endnotes

[1] The title of Winfried Corduan's defense of Christianity:

[2] Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 21

[3] Is there such a thing?

[4] Bill Bright, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, (San Bernardino: Campus Crusade, 1991), Fwd.

[5] Gary Habmermas, "Evidential Apologetics," in Five Views on Apologetics, ed. Steven B Cowan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 92.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), 19. The authors go on to give twenty arguments for God's existence.

[8] Winfried Corduan, No Doubt About It: The Case for Christianity, (Nashville: Broadman and Holdman, 1997), fwd.

[9] W. K Clifford, "The Ethics of Belief," in Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Baruch A. Brody (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974), 246. Others who agree with Clifford are men such as David Hume, John Locke, Brand Blanshared, Bertrand Russel, Michael Scriven, and Anthony Flew.

[10] Ronald Nash, Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 71.

[11] This is not to say that there are not people who despite the persuasive viability of theistic arguments and archeological evidence stubbornly choose to disbelieve. There is indeed a whole host of other hindrances to faith. However, if faith truly is a gift of God and it takes the Holy Spirit to ultimately convince someone of the truth of Christianity then we ought not expect even the most sincere, objective seeker to be converted by consideration of the evidence alone.

[12] Daniel Taylor, The Myth of Certianty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992) 78.

[13] Ibid.

[14] 79.

[15] 80.

[16] Packer, J.I. "Faith." In the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 399. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984.

[17] Ibid, 400.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] See Ephesians 2:8; Hebrews 12:2; 1 Cor. 2:14 and 2 Cor. 4:6.

[21] Alvin Plantinga, ed., Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (Indiana: Notre Dame, 1983), 30.

[22] Nash, 73.

[23] Ibid.

[24] It must be pointed out that the Reformed position does not mean to argue that there is no evidence in support of Christianity. Just that those who insist on making the intellectual viability of Christianity depend on evidence, especially archeological evidence, are wrong.

[25] Christian philosopher Winfried Corduan has surely succumbed to this evidential challenge when he states: "In the face of an onrush of arguments critical of Christianity, it may not be rational to hold on to Christian belief apart from evidence." See his book: No Doubt about it: The Case for Christianity (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1997), preface.

[26] C Stephen Evans, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History (New York: Oxford, 1996), 257.

[27] Charlesworth, 17.

[28] Ibid, 259.

[29] 261.

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