Classical Apologetics

posted by cacpro

By Richard G. Howe, Ph.D.,

One distinctive of Southern Evangelical Seminary is our commitment to Classical Apologetics1. To say that our apologetics is ‘classical’ is to say something about our apologetic methodology. It is to say something about how we do apologetics. It offers an answer to the question “what is the proper way for Christians to defend the truth of the Christian faith?” Our commitment to Classical Apologetics arises from what we believe about the nature of God and how He has created us in His image; including how we reason as humans and how we know truths not only about God, but about the rest of His creation.

The Biblical Basis for Apologetics

In a mild sort of irony, Christian apologists sometimes find themselves needing to give an apologetic for apologetics. We are called upon at times to defend defending the faith. There are at least three lines of evidence that defending the faith is indeed biblical.

In several places, the Bible commands us to defend the faith. First Peter 3:15 tells us to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” Jude 3 says “Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” Another passage that is seldom cited in this context is Titus 1:10-11a. “For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped.” The pressing question here is exactly how are we to stop the mouths of the insubordinate? I submit that it is through sound argument which can leave them without anything left to say in response. We see several instances of this very thing in Jesus’ encounter with the Sadducees. Matthew 22:23-24 recounts the incident where Jesus was challenged to explain whose wife would a woman be in the next life if she was married to more than one man in this life. After schooling them in sound reasoning and biblical interpretation, the narrative observes that He had “silenced the Sadducees.” In another instance we find “But they could not catch Him in His words in the presence of the people. And they marveled at His answer and kept silent.” (Luke 20:26)

Being able to cogently respond in certain situations is one of the distinguishing characteristics of a church elder. In the passage in Titus, right before the passage cited above we learn that the overseer must be able “by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.” Convicting those who contradict involves defending the truth claims of Christianity.

The Apostles Engaged in Defending the Faith.

Not only are we instructed in the Bible to defend the faith, but we can see that the Apostles themselves modeled for us defending the faith. A chain of references throughout the book of Acts shows how often they confounded, proved, had dissensions and disputes, reasoned, explained, demonstrated, spoke boldly, persuaded, and solemnly testified with Jew and Greeks in the synagogues, marketplace, and schools about the things concerning the Kingdom of God. One can make several observations about how the apostles reasoned. Notice that they confronted both those who had a regard for the authority of God’s written word (the Jews) and those who did not (the Greeks). Sometimes the appeal was from that biblical authority (Acts 17:2) and sometimes it was from other sources (Acts 17:22-33). The reactions ranged from some believing (Acts 17:4, 12), to some not believing (Acts 17:5), to some wanting to hear more (Acts 17:32).

The Evidence is Strong for Defending The Faith.

Last, one compelling reason to defend the faith is that there actually is strong evidence demonstrating many of the truths of Christianity. While not everything about our faith is susceptible to rational demonstration, many of the preambles to the faith as well as many of the elements of the faith certainly are.

God’s ultimate revelation of Himself to mankind is through the Incarnation. In Jesus dwells “all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” (Col. 2:9) The Incarnation is the climax of God’s revealing Himself through a long line of prophets. It is the climax because Jesus is God Himself in bodily form. This long line of prophets, together with those whom Jesus appointed to be His own apostles have given us God’s inspired, inerrant word—the Bible.

In addition to the Special Revelation that we have as the Bible, God has also revealed certain things about Himself through his creation. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:20) Psalm 19 tells us that “the heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork.” Though our capacity to reason based on God’s revelation of Himself through creation, there is a tremendous body of evidence that demonstrates many of the truths of Christianity.

Christianity is Supported by Philosophy.

Rational speculations and intellectual analyses of reality constitute that body of knowledge that has come to be known as philosophy. To be sure, there have been many mistaken notions throughout the history of philosophy. Cicero is reputed to have said that “there is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it.” However, one can acknowledge that there is indeed overmuch absurdity to be found in philosophy without indicting philosophy as a whole. Just because our God-given faculties of experience and reason can sometimes fail us, does not mean that they cannot also be used by God to lead us to many of His truths, for this is exactly what Romans 1 tells us and why it is that we are without excuse in rejecting God’s revelation of Himself through creation.

Given this, I submit that sound philosophical reasoning can demonstrate the existence and many of the attributes of God. Further, philosophy can show us what the nature of truth is and that truth is knowable. It can also help us understand the nature and grounding of human morality. Last, philosophy is indispensible in demonstrating the nature and limits of science.

Christianity is Rooted in History.

Not only can philosophy service us in the defense of the faith, but so can history. Since Christianity arises out of God’s invasion of history, then the tools of the historian can be brought to bear in demonstrating the truth of Christianity. Second Peter 1:16 tells us “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” Even more to the point is John’s comments in his first letter. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life; the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us; that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:1-3)

Christianity is Corroborated by Science.

More and more the findings of the sciences are producing evidence that demonstrate certain truths of Christianity. Astronomers now know that the universe had an absolute beginning a finite time ago, just as Genesis says. What is more, the universe exhibits an inconceivable amount of physical characteristics, known as fine tuning, that give evidence of having been created for the purpose of sustaining life. It has only been recently that we have begun to unlock the complexities and intelligent design that constitutes living systems. Last, increasingly archeology is corroborating the narrative history of both the Old and the New Testaments.

The Anatomy of Classical Apologetics

Given that the biblical mandate for apologetics is clear, exactly how should the task be undertaken? Classical Apologetics is characterized by three levels of demonstration: philosophical foundation, the existence of God, and the truths of Christianity. The order is deliberate as the first level makes the second and third steps possible and the second step makes the third step possible.

Philosophical Foundation

The first level maintains that philosophy is essential in establishing the foundation for dealing with unbelievers who might bring up certain challenges, including the challenge that truth is not objective or the challenge that only the natural sciences are the source of truth about reality. Thus, when encountering the unbeliever (and sometimes even a fellow believer), the Christian must (if the occasion demands it) defend that reality is knowable, that logic applies to reality, and that morally fallen human beings have some capacity to intellectually understand (even if they morally reject) certain claims of the Christian faith. It might also be necessary, depending upon the assumptions of the unbeliever, to delve into issues regarding the nature of reality itself. The apologist would not necessarily need to deal with these matters in as much as many unbelievers (and believers) already work with these normal, rational commitments. Only in those cases where the unbeliever (or believer) has been unduly influenced by Postmodernism (the idea that truth is relative to the individual or culture or is otherwise qualified from its classical understanding) or scientism (the idea that only the hard sciences can deliver truth about reality) or some other false philosophical system would the apologist have to deal with these issues. Thus, unless your hearer is open to the tools and principles of objective logic and reasoning, it will impossible to embark on a defense of the faith with him.

Philosophy also is essential in dealing with certain interpretive issues of the Bible. Two areas come readily to mind. The first has to do with the principles of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), generally considered. The second has to do with specific interpretive issues dealing with the nature of God Himself.

Every reader of the Bible has some method (whether consciously or unconsciously) of how to interpret it, which is to say that every reader of the Bible has some hermeneutic. The question is: where does one get one’s principles of hermeneutics? It is impossible to get one’s principles of hermeneutics from the Bible itself. This is so because, if one could understand the Bible in order to get these hermeneutical principles, then he understands the Bible before he has his principles of understanding the Bible (which means he would not need the principles he was seeking to get from the Bible). On the other hand, if he thinks he cannot understand the Bible without some principles of understanding the Bible (I would argue that this has to be the case) then that means he could not understand the Bible enough to get the principles themselves (if he was committed to the notion that he gets those very principles from the Bible). Either way, he runs into an impossible situation. We see, then, that it is impossible to get all of one’s principles of interpretation of the Bible from the Bible itself, even if he can get some of them. Instead, they have to come from somewhere else.

The reader might be expecting me to argue here that these principles must come from philosophy. This is not my position. Instead, these principles of hermeneutics are grounded in the nature of reality itself. To be sure, reality is what it is because God is who He is and creation is what it is because of how God created it. In all of this, I am not suggesting that one has to do an in-depth examination of reality in order to somehow excavate principles of hermeneutics so that he can then begin to understand his Bible. Rather, I maintain that, in many (if not most) instances, such principles of understanding are very natural to us as rational creatures created in the image of God (in a way analogous to how we naturally perceive the physical world around us with our sensory faculties). It remains, however, that there are occasions where a more in-depth philosophical examination of the issues is warranted. This is increasingly so as false philosophies grow in their influence on people’s thinking.

The second interpretive issue has to do with the specifics of what the Bible says about the nature and attributes of God. Without a sound philosophy, the student of the Bible would be unable to ground the classical attributes of God, including God’s immateriality and infinity. This is so because many passages of the Bible speak metaphorically about God as having various bodily parts. Unless there is some way to judge that such passages are figures of speech, one runs the risk of falling into heresy.

Consider the challenge of understanding the Genesis narrative when it says that Adam heard the sound of God “walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” (Gen. 3:8) How could God walk in the garden without legs? If He has legs, how could He be transcendent to the universe as Christianity understands God to be? Some might suggest that perhaps these specific descriptions are a Theophany (an appearance of God in human form, referred to by some as a Christophany, before the Incarnation). Even if this explains the narrative here, there are many other physical descriptions of God, some of which cannot possibly be explained as a Theophany.

It will not do to appeal to other verses of Scripture to adjudicate the matter. As an example, one might suggest that we can know from John 4 that God is Spirit and therefore He cannot literally have bodily parts like legs. Thus (they might say), when Genesis 3 talks about God walking, it must be speaking metaphorically (if it is not a Theophany). The problem with this response is that there would be no way to judge whether the Genesis passage is to be taken as metaphor and John 4 is to be taken as literal or whether John 4 should be taken as metaphor and the Genesis passage is to be taken as literal. We can only defend the fact that the above verses are indeed metaphors and John 4 is literal by an appeal to reality.

To illustrate what I mean here, consider an easier example. When we read in the Scriptures “For you shall go out with joy, And be led out with peace; The mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isa 55:12) we know that this is metaphor precisely because we know from reality that mountains cannot sing and trees do not have hands. Our ability to know this is because of our simple apprehension of the nature of mountains and trees by means of our sensory faculties. But our knowledge of the nature of God (i.e., whether He does or does not have bodily parts) cannot be done directly by our sensory faculties. It requires more actions by the intellect. These actions constitute doing philosophy (or, more precisely, metaphysics). We can know by sound philosophy not only (to some extent) what the nature of God must be like (and thus we can know that He cannot literally have such bodily parts) but we can also know certain solid principles of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics). This is not so say that a believer cannot understand his Bible without formal training in philosophy. It is to say, however, that sound interpretations can only be rigorously defended against heretics and critics with some training in sound philosophy.

The problem is not merely academic. There are teachers within the ostensive Christian community who embrace such heresies as God being a finite, limited being. Consider these words by Word of Faith teacher Kenneth Copeland.

The Bible says [Is. 40:12] He measured the heavens’ with a nine-inch span. Now the span is the difference, distance between the end of the thumb and the end of the little finger. And the Bible says; in fact the Amplified translation translates the Hebrew text that way: that He measured out the heavens with a nine-inch span. Well, I got a ruler and measured mine and my span is eight and three quarters inches long. So then God’s span is a quarter-inch longer than mine. So you see, that faith didn’t come billowing out of some giant monster somewhere. It came out of the heart of a being that is very uncanny the way He’s very much like you and me: a being that stands somewhere around six-two, six-three, that weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple of hundred pounds, a little better, has a span of eight and, I mean nine inches across; stood up and said “Let it be!” and this universe situated itself, and went into motion. Glory to God! Hallelujah!

The same problem is also exemplified by Finis Jennings Dake, the editor of the Dake Annotated Reference Bible. Dake views that God is a person “with a personal spirit body, a personal soul, and a personal spirit, like that of angels, and like that of man except His body is of spirit substance instead of flesh and bones.” Dake also argues that “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all present where there are beings with whom they have dealings; but they are not omnibody, that is, their bodies are not omnipresent. All three go from place to place bodily as other beings in the universe do.” He undoubtedly says this because of how he takes those verses that speak of God in bodily terms. He argues:

God has a personal spirit body (Dan. 7:9-14; 10:5-19); shape (Jn. 5:37); form (Phil. 2:5-7); image and likeness of a man (Gen. 1:26; 9:6; Ezek. 1:26-28; 1 Cor. 11:7; Jas. 3:9). He has bodily parts such as, back parts (Ex. 33:23), heart (Gen. 6:6; 8:21), fingers and hands (Ps. 8:3-6; Heb. 1:10), mouth (Num. 12:8), lips and tongue (Isa. 30:27), feet (Ex. 24:10), eyes and eyelids (Ps. 11:4; 33:18), ears (Ps. 18:6), hair, head, face, arms (Dan. 7:9-14; 10:5-19; Rev. 5:1-7; 22:4-6), and other bodily parts.

One should take careful notice of how many verses of Scripture Dake has cited. I suspect that if one were to challenge Dake that God does not literally have these bodily parts, his response would be that it is he who is taking the testimony of Scripture seriously since that is what the text seems (to Dake) to clearly say. The only way to answer Dake is by an appeal to sound philosophy.

The Existence of God

The second level of the Classical Apologetics method maintains that God’s existence can be proven by a number of lines of evidence and argument. How this step figures into the overall case for Christianity must not be overlooked. Classical Apologetics maintains that the existence of God must be affirmed before the specific evidence for the truth of Christianity in particular will make sense. Demonstrating the specific truths of Christianity involve, among other things, an appeal to miracles. This is so because God used miracles to vindicate the message proclaimed by His prophets and apostles and His own Son. But miracles are possible only because God exists. This is so because miracles are supernatural acts of God. There cannot be acts of God unless there is a God who can act. Thus, the existence of God must be demonstrated (in those instances where His existence is doubted or denied) before the specific arguments for Christianity can be put forth.

Over the centuries, that have been a number of arguments marshaled to demonstrate God’s existence. These would include the cosmological argument, in terms of which God is argued as the cause of the existence of the universe (both as the cause of the universe coming into existence as well as the cause of the universe being sustained in existence), the teleological argument, in terms of which God is argued as the cause of the design of the universe as things tend toward their appropriate end, and the Moral argument, in terms of which God is argued as the grounding for human morality. But, if one employs the metaphysics of Thomism, this is not merely a general theism. Instead, such sound metaphysics is the only way to prove the classical attributes of God that the church has cherished throughout its history. What is more, it is my contention that, as sound philosophy has eroded from the general Christian philosophical community, to the same extent these classical attributes are eroding.

The Truth of Christianity

Once the existence of God is proven (and, thus, the possibility of miracles is thereby established), specific arguments are given for the truth of the Christian faith, including, arguments from manuscript evidence, archeology, and from other corroborating historical evidence for the historical reliability of the Bible, arguments from the Bible and other sources for the identity of Jesus as the Son of God, and arguments from the teachings of Jesus for the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible.

Conclusion

We see that there is, indeed, a mandate from Scripture to engage in apologetics. According to the Classical Apologetics approach, demonstrating the truth of Christianity necessitates the tools of sound reason and logic that can be employed to build the case that God exists and has certain attributes, and that God has revealed Himself in history through His prophets, apostles and ultimately through His Son Jesus Christ. This mandate has been incorporated into the very DNA of Southern Evangelical Seminary.


Endnotes:

  1. Some material in this article appeared in my “Classical Apologetics and Creationism,” Christian Apologetics Journal 11, No. 2 (Fall 2013): 5-31.
  2. All citations are from The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982). The context of this passage is important. Peter is encouraging his readers to bear up under suffering and persecution. He seemingly expected the godly response to such suffering on the part of his readers to engender inquiries from others as to what it is that enables them as Christians to endure suffering. Peter expected that those watching would ask what is the reason for their hope. In response, the Christians were to be ready to defend their answer.

  3. I am indebted to Simon Brace for helping me see the apologetic application of this verse.

  4. Acts 9:22; 15:2; 17:2-4, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8-10; 28:23-24

  5. Thomas Hobbes thus attributes it, slightly reworded. “[N]o living creature is subject [to absurdity] but man only. And of men, those are of all most subject to it that profess philosophy. For it is most true that Cicero says of them somewhere that there can be nothing so absurd but may be found in the books of philosophers.” [Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan-Parts One and Two, Pt. 1, V, (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 48] Hobbes goes on to explain why he thinks this is the case with philosophers, accounting for it by their failure to use the proper methodology of precisely defining their terms at the outset of their reasonings.

  6. Other verses attesting to the fact that Christianity is a historical reality are Deuteronomy 29; Luke 1:1-4; Acts 7:2-50;  and 1 Cor. 15:3-8.

  7. Such issues would include the nature of universals, the essence/existence distinction, hylomorphic (form/matter) composition of sensible objects, and the relationships of the metaphysic constituents of sensible objects, including substance, accidents, and properties.

  8. Some postmodernists mistakenly think that any contemporary emphasis on logic and reason (as one might find, for example, in contemporary contentions regarding the inerrancy of the Bible or in Classical Apologetics) is due to the unfortunate influence of Modernism (as they mistakenly understand it). Robert Webber claims that “the issue of modernity has revolved around reason.” [Robert E. Webber, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 98] The fact is, Classical Apologetics’ commitment to sound reason finds its roots going back to (and indeed, beyond) Aristotle who said (regarding the definition of ‘true’ and ‘false’) “To say of what is, that it is not, or of what is not, that it is, is false, while to say of what is, that it is and of what is not, that it is not, is true.” [Metaphysics, IV, 7, 1001b26-29, trans. W. D. Ross in Richard McKeon, The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York:  Random House, 1941]

  9. Atheist Richard Dawkins maintains that “The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence [i.e., God] is unequivocally a scientific question, even if it is not in practice—or not yet—a decided one.” He goes on: “There is an answer to every such question [about miracles], whether or not we can discover it in practice, and it is a strictly scientific answer. The methods we should use to settle the matter, in the unlikely event that relevant evidence ever became available, would be purely and entirely scientific methods.” [Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 58, 59]

  10. For an essential reading on the philosophical issues underlying hermeneutics see Thomas A. Howe, Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation (N.c.: Advantage Inspirational, 2004).

  11. Consider Ruth 2:12 “The LORD repay your work, and a full reward be given you by the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.” or Psalm 17:8 “Keep me as the apple of Your eye; Hide me under the shadow of Your wings.”

  12. Some take the principle of the “analogy of faith” to mean that Scripture interprets Scripture. For a brief discussion of the proper way to understand this principle, see Thomas A. Howe, “The Analogy of Faith: Does Scripture Interpret Scripture?” Christian Research Journal 29, no. 2 (2006): 50-51. The article is available for download at <http://www.equip.org/articles/the-analogy-of-faith> (accessed 07/30/13)

  13. Kenneth Copeland, Christianity in Crisis Audio Tape (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 1993).

  14. Finis Jennings Dake, The Dake Annotated Reference Bible (Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Bible Sales, 1991).

  15. Dake, Reference Bible, New Testament, p. 97.

  16. Dake, Reference Bible, in the “Complete Concordance and Cyclopedic Index,” 81

  17. Dake, Reference Bible, New Testament, p. 97. | 

    Lest someone think these examples are extreme, this issue of the attributes of God is becoming increasing more troubling even within evangelical circles. A perusal of systematic theologies and other sources dealing with Theology Proper over the last 150 years shows a marked drift away from the classical attributes of God. This drift (or in some cases, deliberate migration) is illustrated by the dispute over open theism. Gregory Boyd, in discussing certain passages of Scripture that describes God as experiencing regret or uncertainty about future outcomes, comments: “It is, I submit, more difficult to conceive of God experiencing such things if the future is exhaustively settled in his mind than if it is in part composed of possibilities.” Time and space will not permit me here to examine the status of other attributes of God that are fading away within evangelical circles, including simplicity and impassibility. Nor will time and space permit me to go into the details of why these matter. The question one must ask, however, is how the aberrant or heretical thinking of Finis Jennings Dake and others can be answered. It is my contention that it can only be answered by sound philosophy and sound principles of hermeneutics (which themselves are defended by sound philosophy).  As yet, I have said nothing about what I think sound philosophical reasoning would look like. To be sure, this is a subject that has occupied thinkers for millennia. The views of the seminary have been variously labeled as Classical Realism, Philosophical Realism, Scholastic Realism, Thomistic Realism, and Thomism. Building upon certain central points from Aristotle, Thomism (to pick one of the labels) begins with the common sense experiences of sensible (physical) reality and shows, by a process of philosophical reasonings that certain things must be metaphysically true of reality as such.

  18. I am indebted to R. C. Sproul for this template (basic reliability of the New Testament, who Jesus is, what Jesus teaches about the Bible) in his “The Case for Inerrancy: A Methodological Analysis,” God’s Inerrant Word: An International Symposium on the Trustworthiness of Scripture (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1974): 242-261.

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