Five Views of Apologetics

  • Steven Cowan
  • Jan 1, 2000
  • Series: Volume 3 - 2000

Steven Cowan, editor, Five Views of Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 1999). 398 pages. Paperback.

Few evangelical books have seriously tackled apologetic method, or how the truth of Christianity should be defended rationally. The last books I know of that systematically surveyed and critiqued options in this regard were Gordon Lewis, Testing Christianity's Truth Claims (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976; republished by University Press of America, 1990) and Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976), Part One. Geisler's Baker's Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1999) contains several entries related to apologetic method. Before that, the late Bernard Ramm wrote Varieties of Christian Apologetics, revised ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1962). The matter is vital, since good intentions are not sufficient for an appropriate defense of the life-changing and world-challenging truths of Scriptural revelation in our day and age.

This book presents five different approaches, each represented by one of its exponents: classical apologetics (William Lane Craig), evidentialism (Gary Habermas), cumulative case method (Paul Feinberg), presuppositionalism (John Frame), and Reformed epistemology (Kelly James Clark). Cowan provides a helpful introduction to apologetics and on the problems of giving a clear taxonomy of apologetic methods. Following the introduction is a glossary of philosophical terms.

This book covers much ground concerning the Bible's approach to apologetics, where apologetic arguments should begin, how certain arguments for theism and Christianity are, how we should address postmodernism, the place of religious experience, and so on. I will simply describe briefly each apologetic method and make a few comments.

William Lane Craig, one of the foremost philosophers—Christian or otherwise—of our day, understands “classical apologetics” to be typically a two-stage process. First, the apologist uses natural theology—cosmological, design, and moral arguments—to establish the existence of theism: a personal, moral, creator exists. Secondly, the apologist employs Christian evidences for the reliability of the Bible and the uniqueness and finality of Christ, which crucially involves his resurrection. However, Craig admits that one can move someone from unbelief to faith simply by appealing to the historical evidence for the resurrection as the best explanation for the data we possess.

Gary Habermas defends “evidentialism,” which emphasizes historical arguments (or Christian evidences) without necessarily employing natural theology. This has the advantage, he thinks, of directly referring to Christianity, instead of first establishing a more generic theism. Habermas favors a “minimal fact” approach to Christian evidences which argues for the historical reality of key aspects of the life of Jesus—such as his resurrection—instead of appealing to a general reliability of the New Testament as a whole. (James Sire uses this approach in a chapter of his book, Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All? [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994].)

Paul Feinberg argues for a “cumulative case apologetic,” which invokes a broad variety of various kinds of evidence to establish Christianity as the best explanation for a broad range of significant phenomena. He likens the case to that of a lawyer making a brief, as opposed to a series of sequential arguments of the inductive or deductive sort.

John Frame advances “presuppositionalism” in the Van Tillian tradition. He is more open to natural theology and Christian evidences than was Van Til (or Gordon Clark, another brand of presuppositionalist who had a decades-long dispute with Van Til over apologetic method). One must presuppose Christian theism in order to make any sense of the universe. In that way, the apologist should argue from God instead of to God. Frame gives a brief “transcendental argument” to this effect.

Kelly James Clark lays out a “Reformed epistemology apologetic,” which trades heavily on insights from the seminal and distinguished philosopher, Alvin Plantinga. Clark is modest as to what apologetics can accomplish, but favors the use of natural theology. He is less certain that historical evidences give strong enough arguments to establish belief. His key idea is that belief in the Christian God may be “properly basic”—that is, it need not depend on evidence or argument in order to be rational. One may simply find oneself believing in God and be within one's epistemological rights to do so, just we believe in the reality of the past without being able to prove it intellectually.

The presentations by Craig and Habermas are the most worthwhile because they are the most intellectually rigorous and are well-documented. They also tend to agree on most things and reinforce each other's views. Both address probability theory in some depth, as well as the issue of how religious experience can justify belief apart from apologetic arguments.

I tend to favor a cumulative case or abductive apologetic method (which influenced Edward John Carnell and Francis Schaeffer), but with more of an appreciation for natural theology than they held. Nevertheless, Feinberg's comments are the weakest of all the contributors by far. He never mentions the leading exponent of the cumulative case method in our generation, Carnell, nor Carnell's adroit and well-published student (and my esteemed colleague), Gordon R. Lewis. He also omits any reference to D. Elton Trueblood's cumulative case approach. He gives not one word about any of them! His comments are brief, his documentation is thin, and he fails to advance anything very creative or helpful, I'm afraid. He also makes the rather odd claim that apologetic reasoning is more like legal reasoning than philosophical reasoning. I cannot imagine doing apologetics without philosophical argumentation. A better qualified person should have been chosen to defend the cumulative case method, such as Gordon Lewis.

Frame gives his "kinder, gentler" version of Cornelius Van Til, which still suffers from the same kinds of problems—most notably the fallacy of tending to beg the question in favor of Christianity. Nevertheless, the notion of a "transcendental argument" for theism is a good one, but it should not carry all the weight of apologetics. Presuppositionalists (whether Van Tillian or Clarkian) also tend to excel in negative apologetics: refuting non-Christian worldviews. Frame, more than the other writers, insists that his apologetics is the most biblical (as did Van Til and Van Til's deceased student, Greg Bahnsen). Other contributors contest this by either claiming the Bible does not endorse one apologetic or epistemology or by saying that whatever it endorses, it is not presuppositionalism.

Clark's material is philosophically well-informed (one would expect this of a student of Alvin Plantinga!), but apologetically somewhat timid. Clark almost sounds like a skeptic at times. At one point he says, “We simply cannot, this side of the grave, obtain religious certainty” (p. 366). This comes through in his other writings as well, particularly his book, When Faith Is Not Enough (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998). Clark is also far more appreciative of postmodernist notions than I am. On this, see my book, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), especially chapters six and seven, which address apologetics.

I have a few more somewhat unrelated complaints. The editor refers to Francis Schaeffer as a presuppositionalist. This is false; he was a verificationist with more in common with Carnell than with Van Til, despite his use of presuppositionalist vocabulary. Gordon Lewis's fine essay on Schaeffer's apologetic method in Reflections on Francis Schaeffer makes this very clear. Although Schaeffer was one of the leading apologists of the last half of the twentieth century, the only contributor who even mentions him (and only in passing) is John Frame. Further, none of the writers in Five Views address the great apologetic resources found in the French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, an apologist and social critic I have found so insightful and helpful throughout my writing and teaching ministry (although Cowan has one sentence on him in his introduction). Bernard Ramm, to his credit, presents a solid chapter on Pascal in Varieties of Christian Apologetics, which is sadly out of print. Craig rather presumptuously claims at one point that Van Til (Frame's mentor) was “not a philosopher” (p. 235). Frame aptly refutes that charge. I also found at least two grammatical errors in the book. A few rather silly or petty throw-away remarks should have been edited out of the book as well.

Nevertheless, as a professor of philosophy at a theological seminary who teaches apologetics, I found this volume very helpful and useful. Through it I gained a new respect for Gary Habermas's apologetic prowess. But let us not get so involved in methodological concerns that we fail to go out in the world and defend our Christian faith as objectively true, existentially vital, and rationally compelling (Isaiah 1:18; Jude 3)! The stakes are infinitely high. As Pascal said, “Between heaven and hell is only this life, which is the most fragile thing in the world.”

Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary

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