Five Views on Apologetics
By Steven B. Cowan, ed.
Reviewed by Brian Morley
12.2 (Fall 2001) : 255-257
Apologetic methodology has been a topic of debate in recent decades, due partly to the contrasting views of a number of prominent apologists and partly to developments in thinking about the underlying epistemological issues. Cowan’s book brings direct interaction in a field that rarely benefits from it.
In the book, each apologist presents a case for his apologetic approach and responds to the others. Then each has a chance to respond to his critics. And finally, Cowan, a pastor and an adjunct professor of philosophy at Ouachita Baptist University, offers his insights into the areas of agreement and disagreement.
William Craig, with characteristic precision, sets forth his Classical Method, adding that he sees a difference between knowing Christianity to be true and showing it so. Accordingly, the Christian’s primary assurance is not from argument but from the internal witness of the Holy Spirit: “[R]ational argument and evidence may properly confirm but not defeat that assurance” (28). As to showing Christianity to be true, Craig supports the traditional two-step method of using arguments for the existence of God to show that theism is more probable than not, and using historical arguments to demonstrate the truth of Christianity.
Gary Habermas, the Evidentialist, rightly distinguishes between evidentialist epistemology, which holds that something must be proved in order to be believed, and evidentialism as an apologetic methodology (the view he defends). Though the former has fallen into disfavor, the latter is widely used by apologists who are, for example, internalists (i.e., those who hold that for belief to be knowledge a person must be aware of his reasons for holding the belief in question), foundationalists (who hold that some beliefs, such as those that are self-evident, can be known without being supported by other beliefs), and reliablists (who hold that belief is knowledge if we know that we obtained it through a process that reliably gives us knowledge).
Habermas argues for a one-step approach in which both God and Christianity can be proved chiefly by the historical method—the existence of God being convincingly entailed in an event like the resurrection. In addition, however, he welcomes theistic arguments. Craig finds the approach too broad to be a distinct method (122) and argues for greater stress on theistic arguments. Without that stress, he says, the Christian’s appeal to the miraculous will seem ad hoc (i.e., contrived to explain a narrow set of facts and unconnected to other knowledge or explanations). The problem will be avoided, Craig points out, if theistic arguments are used to provide independent support for a supernatural being.
Paul Feinberg sees Christian theism and its competitors as whole systems of belief that compete as the best explanations for all the data for which we must give an account (151). The model for his Cumulative Case method, then, is not philosophy or logic, but law, history, and literature. Consequently, premises and derivations are absent; however, tests for truth are appropriate. These are the same tests used in other rational endeavors, such as science and history, and include consistency, correspondence, comprehensiveness, simplicity, livability, fruitfulness (favorable consequences), and conservation (changing the theory only as necessary; Craig rejects this as akin to mere commitment to one’s theory and thus pluralistic in its effect, 181). The advantage of comparing whole explanations, says Feinberg, is that an opponent must offer an alternative that is superior to Christianity and not merely criticize it.
Craig responds that Feinberg confuses argument to the best explanation with accepting the cumulative nature of evidence (i.e., that arguments can be added to one another to make a stronger case). Habermas points out that a cumulative case is essentially an inductive one (193) and that the approach is standard for Evidentialism (184). Consequently, it is difficult to see it as a distinctive methodology.
In contrast to Kelly James Clark (the Reformed Epistemologist), John Frame believes that the Bible is specific as to not only epistemology but also apologetic methodology. In other writings, Frame has modified some of Van Til’s views while maintaining, as he does here, major themes. For these he is criticized. Craig, Habermas, and Feinberg object that Presuppositionalism is problematically circular, presupposing Christianity in order to prove it (e.g., Craig, 232 , who says that the view “is guilty of a logical howler”). Frame defends it, saying that Christians presuppose God’s Word as the ultimate standard of truth, there being no higher standard by which to validate it (355, 357). He admits a circularity which argues “for an ultimate standard of truth by appealing to that very standard” (356), yet his approach welcomes evidence, logical syllogism s, and the like. In fact, Craig characterizes Frame’s own example of an apologetic case (223f.) as “a straight evidentialist apologetic” (233). Yet in Craig’s view, Frame fails to use one of Presuppositionalism’s central insights, the transcendental argument (233), which (following Kant) argues for x by showing that even a denial of x must assume that x is true. Frame counters that unlike Craig and fellow Presuppositionalist Greg Bahnsen, he himself does not think that the transcendental argument must be unique, but can incorporate other types of arguments (359).
While Frame argues that apologetics shows what we must believe, Clark argues that it shows only what we may believe—the central insight of his Reformed Epistemology being that one need not have proof in order to be rational (364, 372). Surprisingly, some of the most spirited exchanges occur between these epistemological cousins. Clark finds Frame a cut above other Presuppositionalists, namely Van Til and Bahnsen, both of whom he characterizes as long on assertion but short on proof (256, 259; he finds Van Til “obviously false” where he is not outright “baffling,” 255).
Clark points out that Reformed Epistemologists like Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff have helped turn the intellectual tide toward belief by successfully showing that Christianity is rationally acceptable even if its arguments cannot coerce belief. Faith is like that, Clark says; it is a matter of the will not the intellect—a leap not into the dark, but into the dim (373). Habermas responds by quoting atheist Keith Parsons, who says that if theists claim only that they are rational, then atheists can certainly claim the same, and on that basis theists should be met with apathy rather than hostility (334).
In spite of the contrasts there is a surprising amount of agreement between the authors. Each agreed that apologetics should not only respond to objections but also present a positive case, that the Holy Spirit’s role is pivotal, and that there is useful common ground between the believer and non-believer. Habermas and Craig disagreed about little, and Clark said he could have written much of what Craig had to say (366). Craig found Frame’s model of his case for Christianity quite evidentialist. Perhaps it was their affinity on a practical level that, in turn, led Frame to recommend writings by Craig and other “evidentialists” (229 n.).
The book is a must read for anyone interested in apologetics, especially those who want to explore the latest thought on apologetic approaches. It is lucid enough to be helpful to those new to the field (I have had some enthusiastic responses from students) while still being sophisticated enough to interest the scholar. It is a welcome contribution to this pivotal area of Christian thought.