Metapologetics 1: Introductory Thoughts

I have not done much writing about the subject of how one “ought” to argue for the truth of Christianity, a topic known as Metapologetics” for Truth in the Trenches, in part, because this blog was originally conceived of as a lay level resource (which does not always match my gifts, but I try). Secondarily, this technical discussion is sadly a topic that often garners more heat than light; discussions of metapologetics have been described as “the metapologetic wars.” Finally, I’ve always been a bit of an eclectic, academically, and I have intentionally tried to expand my horizons beyond my starting point, this is one of the reasons why I started working on a PhD in apologetics. Initially, I viewed differences in apologetic approach as complimentary, and to an extent I still do, but my exposure has changed my position somewhat, for reasons I will explain below.

So after having avoided this topic for several years, why address it now? There are three good reasons. First, eventually Truth in the Trenches will have a relaunch, and when it does, I intend to have some documents ready to explain the role, purpose and goals of this ministry and answers to questions of metapologetics are a necessary part of that discussion. Second, for those first starting out in apologetics, it can be helpful to understand something about the different approaches different writers take, particularly when they engage in metapologetic discussions. Finally, because I am working on my comprehensive exams right now, and I have been going through a time of examining the work I have done over the past few years, and developing my thought along the way, it’s a good time to discuss the matter. I always find I learn something better when I have an opportunity to bounce ideas off of other thinkers.

But I think, before discussing the different ways of answering questions and evaluating them, we need to consider how we are to evaluate them.

Two Types of Cases

There are more than two types of approaches to apologetics, but there are ultimately two types of cases an apologist will make, and these are related to the two types of questions that apologists try to answer. I bring this up now, because I believe these two types of cases are useful in evaluating different approaches to apologetics.

The first type of case can be summarized by saying “Christianity is true (or probably true) because of X” with X filling in for the type of case being made (for example, “Christianity is probably true because the evidence suggests that Jesus rose from the dead”). This type of case is often called “Positive apologetics” but I prefer the term affirmative, because if we thought of this as a formal debate, the Christian would be arguing the affirmative position within that debate. In affirmative apologetics the Christian, like the prosecuting attorney has the burden of proof.

The second type of case can be summarized by saying “Christianity is not false because of Y” with Y standing in for whatever argument an apologists partners in dialogue might bring up. Here, we are answering objections to issues such as the problem of evil, evolutionary theory, etc. This is usually called negative apologetics, and I like that term for the same reason I like the term affirmative; the negative is the second party in a formal debate. In this case, under most circumstances, the Christian has the burden of rejoinder rather than the burden of proof, this gives us a bit more freedom in maintaining our premises in giving an answer to a given question.

Two Types of Activities

Besides the two types of cases, I believe apologists are engaged in two intertwined activities, though we usually think of apologetics as a singular activity. The first aspect of apologetics is practical and persuasive, the great literary apologists are examples, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Leigh Strobel and Josh McDowell are examples of writers who have had a tremendous impact in bringing people to Christ. Here, I will submit, issues of metapologetics are somewhat pointless, and should not be debated at all. C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity has influenced more lives for Christ than perhaps any other work in the 20th century, are we really going to question his technique? The second activity, and it is probably the area where I find my own strengths (though I strive to improve at the first), is the formal foundation of the faith, that is, it provides justification for our theological beliefs and our Biblical-interpretational techniques, and here someone who engages in apologetics must eventually come to a position on the types of arguments that are compelling. But, perhaps paradoxically, both elements of persuasion and formal foundational concerns are shaped by the culture, philosophy and issues of the apologists society. For example, early Christian apologists often made use of the philosophy associated with Plato. Similarly, modern apologists are affected, sometimes unconsciously, by the intellectual worlds that different apologists inhabit and different schools of apologetics have been influenced by different intellectual mantras and models. For example, Presuppositional Apologists borrow very heavily from philosophers in Kant’s tradition and its popularity is in part a result of a generation of Evangelical scholars receiving their training in Germany where departments of Biblical studies were heavily influenced by German idealism. Evidentialist Apologists, work from a standpoint heavily influenced by English and Scottish thinkers. Classical Apologists are heavily influenced by older rationalist philosophers, they are popular again through a resurgence of interest in the work of Thomas Aquinas through writers such as Norman Geisler.


                The best book I’m aware of on metapologetics is Bowman and Boa’s Faith has its Reasons, dividing apologetics into Classical, Evidential, Reformed and Fideist schools of thought. I’m not comfortable in treating Fideism as a school of apologetics and I tend to view some of the figures they list as reformed thought as representing approaches that are too dissimilar to be adequately combined. I will therefore address three traditions in modern Apologetics, Classical, Evidential and Presuppositional; within these three I am an evidentialist. Rather than trying and failing to write a “neutral” treatise on the three (where I would certainly not succeed) or continuing the metapologetic war (which is pointless and tends to undercut the virtues the faith espouses), I will instead present an outline of why I am an evidentialist, in my description of evidentialism. I will then analyze the classical and presuppositional schools of thought to demonstrate what I think is valuable and useful in those approaches, you might say I am willing to borrow evidence and categories from these two approaches, without treating them as an organizing principle for my thoughts. After that, however, I want to address some types of evidence or thinkers that might be left on the table. Alvin Plantinga, the most important thinker in philosophy of religion today deserves a column, there are existential and personal evidences that I think are valuable to consider, but are often neglected in formal apologetics, and I want to take a column on the great literary apologists, particular Schaeffer and Lewis, from whom I have learned a great deal, and who had a wonderful gift as communicators that I seek (and fail) to emulate.