Advice to Christian Apologists Part 1

William Lane Craig

Have you ever wondered what type of training would be the most beneficial for those who aspire to become Christian apologists? Dr. Craig, when asked to present for the Stobb Lectures, recently addressed students interested in apologetics as ministry, offering them three key pieces of advice to help in that pursuit. Here, in the first of two parts, he explains why budding apologists should select an area of specialization in their studies and then demonstrates why a background in analytic philosophy provides a crucial foundation, even as a part of historical and scientific apologetics training.

In 1983, when Alvin Plantinga delivered his inaugural lecture as the John O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, he chose as his topic "Advice to Christian Philosophers." Today I've chosen as my subject the related, but somewhat broader, topic "Advice to Christian Apologists." Plantinga's advice was, however, directed toward those who already were Christian philosophers, whereas my remarks might be more appropriately entitled "Advice to 

Budding 

Christian Apologists," that is to say, to those who will but have not yet entered into a ministry of Christian apologetics and wish to know what goes into effective apologetics training.

We saw yesterday the tremendous need for and benefits of Christian apologetics, both in shaping culture and in influencing individual lives. Now to help us to do this well, let me make a few suggestions.

1. Apologetics training - Select some area in which to specialize.

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Select some area in which to specialize 

. Some popular Christian apologists make the mistake of trying to be a jack of all trades, and so they are master of none. As a result, their knowledge of the field may be very broad, but it is not very profound. While they may be able to present an initial argument for Christian truth claims, they soon wilt under the pressure of critique, especially on the part of specialists. Speaking on a university campus, they may find themselves ridden with anxiety lest a non-Christian faculty member should show up in their audience and raise an objection they are at a loss to deal with. If that does happen, they may not only embarrass themselves but also injure the credibility of the Christian faith. A merely generalized knowledge of Christian apologetics is fine for certain contexts, and certainly better than nothing, but it will limit the horizons of your ministry.

Instead, I encourage you to specialize in a certain area of apologetics, even as you continue to be well-informed in other areas. For example, given the renaissance in Christian philosophy that has been going on over the last 40 years in the Anglo-American world, many of our best Christian apologists today are, not surprisingly, philosophers.

Christian philosophy, involved as it is with issues of epistemology-like justification, rationality, and warrant, - issues of metaphysics - such as the nature of ultimate reality, truth, and the soul - , and of ethics - such as the existence of moral values and duties, theories of the foundations of value, and the meaning of moral claims - , naturally lends itself to Christian apologetics training. Indeed, the Christian philosopher can hardly avoid apologetics, since the questions he studies are pertinent to a Christian world and life view. Even if his conclusions should turn out to be largely sceptical - say, that we cannot know the nature of ultimate reality - , that conclusion would be vitally important to Christian apologetics, since such a conclusion would scuttle the project of natural theology. So the field of philosophy has a natural affinity to apologetics.

a. Apologetics training - Why a background in philosophy is invaluable to the apologist

Indeed, I should say that the relevance of philosophy to apologetics is so great that even if you do not specialize in philosophical apologetics but choose to go into some other type of apologetics, you would do well to take a strong dose of analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy is the kind of philosophy that predominates in the Anglophone world. This style of philosophizing contrasts sharply with that of Continental philosophy. Whereas Continental philosophy tends to be obscure, imprecise, and emotive, analytic philosophy lays great worth and emphasis on clarity of definitions, careful delineation of premisses, and logical rigor of argumentation. Unfortunately, theology has for a long time learned to follow the lead of Continental philosophy, which tends to result in darkness being piled upon darkness. The renaissance of Anglo-American Philosophy of Religion over the last 40 years has shown that important apologetical issues can be brilliantly illuminated through the light of philosophical analysis. Richard Swinburne, Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford University has written,

It is one of the intellectual tragedies of our age that when philosophy in English-speaking countries has developed high standards of argument and clear thinking, the style of theological writing has been largely influenced by the continental philosophy of Existentialism, which, despite its considerable other merits, has been distinguished by a very loose and sloppy style of argument. If argument has a place in theology, large-scale theology needs clear and rigorous argument. That point was very well grasped by Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, by Berkeley, Butler, and Paley. It is high time for theology to return to their standards. 

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By employing the high standards of reasoning characteristic of analytic philosophy we can powerfully formulate apologetic arguments for both commending and defending the Christian worldview. In recent decades, analytic philosophers of religion have shed new light on the rationality and warrant of religious belief, on arguments for the existence of God, on divine attributes such as necessity, eternity, omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness, on the problem of suffering and evil, on the nature of the soul and immortality, on the problem of miracles, and even on peculiarly Christian doctrines like the Trinity, incarnation, atonement, original sin, revelation, hell, and prayer. The wealth of material which is available to the Christian apologist through the labor of analytic philosophers of religion is breath-taking.

If you want to do apologetics effectively, you need to be trained in analytic philosophy. And I say this even if your area of specialization is not philosophical apologetics. Whatever your area of specialization, you will be better equipped as an apologist if you have had training in analytic philosophy. Suppose you choose to specialize in scientific or historical apologetics. The fact is that some of the most important issues you will confront will be questions arising from philosophy of science or epistemology. Over and over again I see scientists and New Testament scholars making faulty inferences or proceeding from unexamined presuppositions because of their philosophical naiveté.

b. Apologetics training - The presupposition of naturalism is a barrier for historical apologetics

Take the field of historical apologetics, for example, specifically historical study of the life of Jesus. It is remarkable how obtrusive philosophical issues are in this field. The New Testament scholar R. T. France has observed,

At the level of their literary and historical character we have good reason to treat the Gospels seriously as a source of information on the life and teaching of Jesus.... Indeed many ancient historians would count themselves fortunate to have four such responsible accounts [as the Gospels], written within a generation or two of the events, and preserved in such a wealth of early manuscript evidence. Beyond that point, the decision to accept the record they offer is likely to be influenced more by openness to a supernaturalist world view than by strictly historical considerations. 

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The accuracy of France's analysis is borne out by the self-confession of the radical Jesus Seminar of the presuppositions that guide its work. The presupposition which the Seminar acknowledges as of first importance is anti-supernaturalism or more simply, naturalism . In this context naturalism is the view that every event in the world has a natural cause. In other words, miracles cannot happen.

Now this presupposition constitutes an absolute watershed for the study of the gospels. If you presuppose naturalism, then things like the incarnation, the Virgin Birth, Jesus' miracles, and his resurrection go out the window before you even sit down at the table to look at the evidence. As supernatural events, they cannot be historical. But if you are at least open to supernaturalism, then these events can't be ruled out in advance. You have to be open to looking honestly at the evidence that they occurred.

The Jesus Seminar is remarkably candid about its presupposition of naturalism. In the Introduction to their edition of The Five Gospels they state:

The contemporary religious controversy turns on whether the world view reflected in the Bible can be carried forward into this scientific age and retained as an article of faith . . . . the Christ of creed and dogma . . . can no longer command the assent of those who have seen the heavens through Galileo's telescope. 

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But why, we might ask, is it impossible in a scientific age to believe in a supernatural Christ? After all, a good many scientists are Christian believers, and contemporary physics shows itself quite open to the possibility of realities which lie outside the domain of physics. What justification is there for anti-supernaturalism?

Here things really get interesting. According to the Jesus Seminar, the historical Jesus by definition must be a non-supernatural figure. Here they appeal to D. F. Strauss, the 19th century German Biblical critic. Strauss's book The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined was based squarely in a philosophy of naturalism. According to Strauss, God does not act directly in the world; He acts only indirectly through natural causes. With regard to the resurrection, Strauss states that God's raising Jesus from the dead "is irreconcilable with enlightened ideas of the relation of God to the world." 

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