Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
August 21st, 2015 by Joel Watts

ugh… apologetics

I know… some of you are going to mount a defense against this…

apologetics. The rational defense of Christian faith. Historically, apologetic arguments of various types have been given: philosophical arguments for the existence of God; arguments that the existence of God is compatible with suffering and evil; historical arguments, such as arguments from miracles and fulfilled prophecies; and arguments from religious experience, including mystical experience. (See argument from prophecy; evil, problem of; mysticism; theistic arguments.) Some distinguish positive apologetics, which attempts to argue for the truth of Christianity, from negative apologetics, which merely attempts to remove barriers to faith by responding to critical attacks.1

On at least on UMC FB group, there is a discussion about “apologetics.” To be truthful, while I know people who enjoy apologetics, I myself find the (well, a particular subset of the) field completely unusable — as a Christian, as a theologian, as an academic. There is simply no proof offered for God that I find convincing except for praxis, nor do I need everything to align in an “either/or” fashion in order for me to 1.) believe in God or 2.) be a Christian.

Justin the Philosopher

Justin the Philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is not meant to discount the Apologists of the early Christian era — St Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian; however, look at what they argued and how they argued. They had no real need to fit Christianity into a box but focused on proving to Rome that Christianity and Christians could exist as a not-new religion (i.e., they weren’t atheists), and answering the basic questions about Christianity that allowed it to exist (this is “historical apologetics,” according to the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics). Contra this today when you have the need to use apologetics as a tool of conversion.

Apologetics is the vindication of the Christian philosophy of life against the various forms of the non-Christian philosophy of life.

It is frequently said that apologetics deals with theism, while evidences deals with Christianity. For that reason, it is said, apologetics deals with philosophy while evidences deals with facts.2

Apologetics forces God to be rational according to human terms.3 I have no need for a rational God, one that can be proven by well-crafted words, calculations and latticed scaffolding. Rather, while God is known — that is not all God is. God is also Mystery.

“Religious belief should be assessed as a rounded whole rather than taken in stark isolation. Christianity, for example, like other world faiths, is a complex, large-scale system of belief which must be seen as a whole before it is assessed. To break it up into disconnected parts is to mutilate and distort its true character. We can, of course, distinguish certain elements pin the Christian faith, but we must still stand back and see it as a metaphysical system, as a world view, that is total in its scope and range.”4

This is a good working quote about what it means when we once said God is Rational:

God is personal. When we say this we assert that God is rational, self-conscious and self-determining, an intelligent moral agent. As supreme mind he is the source of all rationality in the universe. Since God’s rational creatures possess independent characters, God must be in possession of a character that is divine in both its transcendence and immanence.5

But can we through rationality and reasoning come to know God?

Into this debate about his existence, I will not pretend to enter. I must take up humbler ground, and limit my ambition to showing that a God, whether existent or not, is at all events the kind of being which, if he did exist, would form the most adequate possible object for minds framed like our own to conceive as lying at the root of the universe. My thesis, in other words, is this: that some outward reality of a nature defined as God’s nature must be defined, is the only ultimate object that is at the same time rational and possible for the human mind’s contemplation. Anything short of God is not rational, anything more than God is not possible, if the human mind be in truth the triadic structure of impression, reflection, and reaction which we at the outset allowed.6

By the way, Thomas Oden, while calling this argument “quintessentially modern” also sees in this the same arguments as advocated by people such as a certain John Wesley:

Yet its spirit is to some degree anticipated by numerous Christian writers who have appealed to “doing” the truth as a basis for understanding it (notably Baxter, Wesley, Phoebe Palmer, and Kierkegaard), stressing the importance of praxis in the knowing of God’s greatness and goodness (esp. John Cassian, Ignatius Loyola, and Teresa of Avila).7

Returning to James’ argument, he is not saying that God is irrational (in the classical sense), only that the there is no argument logical enough to prove the existence of God. We believe and we do; we do and we believe. Lex orandi and all of that.

Now, go back to the first definition offered. If you are looking at certain apologetics, dealing more with philosophy and theology, count me in. Indeed, as Peter Kreeft argues in his handbook on apologetics, we Christians are called to “apologetically reason.]]] But, more often than not, this is not the type of apologetics I see.

Do you like apologetics? If so, what type? Who is your favorite apologist?

  1. C. Stephen Evans, Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 12.
  2. Cornelius Van Til and William Edgar, Christian Apologetics (2nd ed.; The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 2003).
  3. That is, rationality as we are given it. We find apologetics defending inerrancy, young earth creationism, etc… as a sign of the existence of God, which I account as a human reasoning. Tertullian would say that because of the Logos God is Rational (Ad. Prax. V.). I need to leave room for nuance and further discussion here. Generally, what I mean is is that most of what I see in apologetics forces God to act according to human logic rather than existing as a being with Reason.
  4.  William Abraham, “Soft Rationalism,” in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, 2nd ed., ed. Michael Peterson et al., p. 99.
  5. R. A. Finlayson and P. F. Jensen, “God,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 418.
  6. William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York; London; Bombay: Longmans Green and Co, 1897), 115–116.
  7. Thomas C. Oden, The Living God: Systematic Theology, Vol. I (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 172.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

3 Responses to “ugh… apologetics”
  1. But he has always given evidence of his existence by the good things he does: he gives you rain from heaven and crops at the right times; he gives you food and fills your hearts with happiness.” (‭Acts‬ ‭14‬:‭17‬ GNT)

  2. Joel, at best, modern apologetic, especially the TV kind (I have a few that I actually like), and in the bookstores shelves today, at best, affirm Christian faith rather than explaining or proving the existence of God. Attempting to prove God’s existence is foolish and futile simply because even the servants of God, at least one of them, who lived closer to the Jesus’ era than we do, teaches that the kind of belief which makes us accept that “God is” comes by means not controlled by us. I acknowledge this is not “very scholar” but not everything must be “scholarly” established. I don’t have any idea how God exists, but I trust (different than knowledge) He does and I am comfortable with that. In fact in some key biblical passages is God who does the knowing of us (which is more than intellectual knowing); but we respond to Him mostly in trust and less in knowledge.
    I will, not engage in the type of argumentation in which the Apostles did not engage.

    Since I am not matching up to your scholarly post with my comment here, let me add the most terrible type of comment a scholar can take: experience! When I was in doubt of the resurrection, a long time ago, perhaps in my mid 20’s, I read an apologetic book wherein the author was giving me (in a rather scholarly way) the profile of every single one of the early disciples and that proved to me that in no way those men (among them Peter) would risk their lives for a truth, let alone for a lie… That was key for me to begin to accept the witness of a few who were present and others who learned from them.
    So, I guess apologetic has room for its existence, albeit a narrow and confined one.

  3. Joe Tognetti says

    When I was taking philosophy courses in college, I would often write papers that explored the reasonableness of faith. How pre-modern “proofs” like first-cause, etc., did not prove God’s existence, but they showed that faith in God was an equally rational belief as atheism.

    In this way, I have often found apologetics helpful in refuting the most basic but ever-popular cultural myths about Christian faith and the Bible, such as “faith and reason cannot co-exist” or “the Bible is totally unreliable and therefore means nothing in terms of our life and faith today.” I currently do not engage in much apologetics, but when I had just been called to ministry (which coincided with me becoming a Protestant Christian), I found CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ to be helpful building blocks in affirming and building my faith. But then again, I did not expect either (or any) apologetic source material to definitively prove the validity of my faith; I merely sought affirmation that reason and Christian faith could co-exist, and in that sense, apologetics was helpful.

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