Why Classical Apologetics?

written by Dr. Richard Howe

The following is an excerpt for our Why Trust the God of the Bible? ebook.

One distinctive of Southern Evangelical Seminary that the reader has seen displayed throughout this booklet’s argumentation is a commitment to Classical Apologetics.1 To say that an apologetic method is ‘classical’ is to say something about how SES does apologetics. It offers an answer to the question “what is the proper way for Christians to defend the truth of the Christian faith?” SES’s commitment to Classical Apologetics arises from what SES believes 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 the fact that defending the faith is indeed biblical.

The Bible is clear about defending the faith.

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”(NKJV).2 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” (NKJV). 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” (NKJV). The pressing question here is exactly how are we to stop the mouths of the insubordinate? I submit that it is through sound argument that can leave them without anything left to say in response. We see several instances of this very thing in Jesus’ encounter with the Sadducees. Matt. 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” (NKJV). 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, NKJV).

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” (NKJV). Convicting those who contradict involves defending the truth claims of Christianity.3

The Apostles engaged in defending the faith.

We can also 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.4 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 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.5 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)6 or by scientism (the idea that only the hard sciences can deliver truth about reality)7 or by 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 be 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 this: 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. As we have said, 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. 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 [Isa. 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!”8

The same problem is also exemplified by Finis Jennings Dake, the editor of the Dake Annotated Reference Bible.9 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.”10 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.”11 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.”12

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.13

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. 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, 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.14 

In conclusion, one can 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.

  1. Some material in this article appeared in Richard Howe’s “Classical Apologetics and Creationism,” Christian Apologetics Journal 11, no. 2 (Fall 2013): 5-31.
  2. 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, 17:17, 18:4, 18:19, 19:8-10, 28:23-24.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.]
  7. Atheist Richard Dawkins maintains, “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.]
  8. Kenneth Copeland, Christianity in Crisis Audio Tape (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 1993).
  9. Finis Jennings Dake, The Dake Annotated Reference Bible (Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Bible Sales, 1991).
  10. Dake, Reference Bible, New Testament,  97.
  11. Dake, Reference Bible, in the “Complete Concordance and Cyclopedic Index,” 81.
  12. Dake, Reference Bible, New Testament, 97.
  13. 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.” [Gregory A. Boyd, “Neo-Molinism and the Infinite Intelligence of God,” Philosophia Christi 5, no.1 (2003): 192.] 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).
  14. 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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