Apologetics = Anti-Faith or Absolute “Certainty”?

Apologetics = Anti-Faith or Absolute “Certainty”? July 5, 2020

Or, “Does Christianity Reduce to Mere Philosophy or Rationalism?”

There seems to be some erroneous — sometimes almost obsessive — thought around in certain circles (roughly speaking: liberal Catholic ones) that apologetics is supposedly about the obtaining of absolute certainty through reason alone, as if faith has little or nothing to do with it. This is flat-out absurd and is a glaring falsehood (I carefully refrained from using the word “lie” because people get all on their ear).

I’ve been doing apologetics for 39 years now — the first nine as an evangelical Protestant — and have been a published apologist for 27 years and published author in the field (four bestsellers and over twenty “officially” published books) for 18 years. I’ve never seen anyone, to my recollection, who was an actual credentialed apologist (not just a guy with a blog who calls himself one after maybe reading one book), who was stupid and philosophically (or theologically) naive enough to teach such a view.

Even St. Thomas Aquinas: often the whipping-boy for those who foolishly think he taught some kind of “hyper-rationalism”, was clearly a proponent of faith and reason. His project was about a synthesis of orthodox Catholic faith with Aristotelian philosophy, which had been recently revived in 13th-century Europe.

Yet there is this thinking that apologists somehow delusionally pretend that hyper-rationalism is “the way” and that “certitude” is placed higher than God Himself; “absolute certainty” is the idol in their hearts and minds, that faith plays so little of a role in their view that they are actually not far from atheism. Rather than “faith alone” the motto is “reason alone” (so we are told). Those are the stereotypes.

Now I shall proceed to show what orthodox Catholic apologists (folks who actually accept the Catholic faith in its entirety) actually believe and teach: using my own example, since I think I am a rather typical one and in the “mainstream” and have perhaps written more on the topic than any other Catholic apologist operating today (2965 blog articles and 50 books). The following are all excerpts from my writings, with the original date and a link.

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And yes, it requires faith, like all Christian beliefs (which, in turn, requires enabling grace). No one denies that. [1997]

It is only the deliberate attempt to denigrate the reasoning process, or the intellect, or mental effort, or “philosophy,” or logic, which undermines what is clearly a biblical viewpoint and creates a false and unbiblical dichotomy between reason and faith. I could go on and on about this, . . . [3-20-99]

Believing Christians and Jews have always possessed “certainty” (I recommend St. John Henry Newman’s Grammar of Assent in this regard [extremely heavy reading: be forewarned] ). It is a rational faith, backed up by eyewitness testimony and historical evidences, and the history of doctrine. It is not mere hyper-rationalistic, Enlightenment-inspired philosophy, . . . No one is saying (or should say) that there is an absolute certainty in a strict philosophical sense . . . [July 2000]

[T]he atheist often demands absolute proof for the Bible’s claims before granting that the Christian has any basis for placing faith in it, that it is God’s inspired word. How an atheist regards any other work as true or false involves largely the same processes, with faith (or, trust, extrapolation, inductive leaps) added onto them. [11-13-02]

Christianity is not philosophy. It may be consistent with true philosophy, and not irrational or incoherent at all (I certainly believe so), but it is something different from philosophy per se. Philosophy simply does not constitute the sum of all knowledge. [3-10-03]

We deny “blind submission” and hold that one can have a reasonable faith and belief that God guides His one true Church. We believe that the one Church which He guides is the Catholic Church. [4-10-03]

When it comes to things like conversion (to Christ or to another faith community) it really comes down to faith. This is how conversion works. We are not computers or machines. We are whole people. Christianity is a faith, and requires faith to adopt (in whatever one of its brands). There is no avoiding this. One can never absolutely prove their system. That is not only true for Christianity but for any thought-system, in my opinion. Faith is also a gift from God and is only received through grace (contra Pelagianism and a religion of works). I think there is a concept of a “reasonable faith” and I certainly seek to follow reason at every turn, because I don’t see that “irrational faith” does anyone any good. A lack of reason can be as harmful as a lack of faith. Some people seem to think that Christianity and personal Christian faith are almost strictly matters of rationalism and making selections, much as one chooses a pair of shoes or what website to visit. This is sheer nonsense. They reduce Christianity to philosophy at various important points, which, to me, smacks of the Enlightenment and a sort of religion possessed by people like Jefferson or Voltaire. [5-13-03]

One ought to always have a reasonable faith, supported by as much evidence as one can find (I thoroughly oppose fideism or “pietism” — which attempt to remove reason from the equation). We accept in faith what appears most plausible and likely to be true from our reasoning and examination of competing hypotheses and worldviews. We are intellectually “duty-bound” to embrace the outlook that has been demonstrated (to our own satisfaction, anyway) to be superior to another competing view. Is that absolute proof? No, of course not. I think “absolute proof” in a strict, rigorous philosophical sense is unable to be obtained about virtually anything. But one accepts Catholicism in and with faith, based on interior witness of the Holy Spirit and outward witness of facts and reason and history; much like one accepts Christianity in general or how the early disciples accepted the Resurrection and the claims of Jesus. [4-25-04]

It requires faith to believe that God will guide His one true Church and preserve it from error, but it is a faith based on what we are taught in the divine revelation, and from Jesus Himself (which is sufficient for me). [6-23-05]

In any event, it requires faith to believe that the Church speaks authoritatively and can be trusted for its theological judgments. You’ll never be able to prove that in an “airtight” sense. [5-18-06]

The same God also revealed that He often refuses to give a sign if the purpose is as some sort of “test.” He wants you to have faith in Him without some absolute proof, just as you have “faith” (i.e., assent without absolute proof) in any number of things that you don’t fully understand. So, e.g., Jesus appeared to “Doubting Thomas” after His resurrection, to “prove Himself.” Yet at the same time, He said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe” (John 20:29). There is more than enough evidence out there to support belief as rational and worthy of allegiance. But God will not be tested in the way that you seem to demand. This is a common biblical motif. [10-11-06]

The fact is, that any Christian position requires faith, for the simple reason that Christianity is not merely a philosophy, or exercise in epistemology. [James] White’s view requires faith; so does the Catholic outlook. One exercises faith in the Catholic Church being what it claims to be: the One True Church, uniquely guided and led by the Holy Spirit, with infallible teaching. Hopefully, one can give cogent reasons for why this faith is reasonable, but it is still faith in the end: reasonable, not blind. [9-4-07]

Christianity is not philosophy. One cannot achieve airtight, mathematical certainty in matters of faith. . . . It requires faith to believe this, and that is what a Catholic does: we have faith that this Church can exist and that it can be identified and located. We don’t say this rests on our own individual choice. It is already there; like “stumbling upon” the Pacific Ocean or Mt. Everest. We don’t determine whether the thing exists or not. And we must believe it is what it claims to be by faith, absolutely. Why should that surprise anyone except a person who thinks that Christianity is determined purely by arbitrary choice and rationalism without faith? That is no longer simply philosophy or subjective preference, as if Christianity were reduced to Philosophy 0101 (where someone might prefer Kierkegaaard to Kant) or the selection of a flavor of ice cream. [10-7-08]

[O]ne can have a very high degree of moral assurance, and trust in God’s mercy. St. Paul shows this. He doesn’t appear worried at all about his salvation, but on the other hand, he doesn’t make out that he is absolutely assured of it and has no need of persevering. He can’t “coast.” The only thing a Catholic must absolutely avoid in order to not be damned is a subjective commission of mortal sin that is unrepented of. [10-21-08]

Christianity is not philosophy: it is a religious faith. It is not contrary to reason, but it does go beyond it. [1-2-09]

Faith by definition means a thing that falls short of absolute proof. I don’t see how Catholics and Protestants differ all that much in this respect. We have faith in things. I think it is a reasonable faith and not contrary to reason, but it is still faith, and faith is not identical to reason . . . this whole discussion of epistemology might be fun and interesting, but again, it overlooks the fact that faith (including Catholic faith) is not philosophy . . . [11-11-09]

I was saying (a variant of what I have stated 100 times on my blog, though I could have stated it more precisely) that religion is not philosophy; Christianity is not philosophy. It can’t be reduced to that. It requires faith. [6-5-10]

This is a mentality of reducing Christianity to mere philosophy rather than a religion and spiritual outlook that requires faith and incorporates innate and intuitive knowledge that God grants to us through the Holy Spirit and His grace. . . . This sort of thinking is post-Enlightenment hyper-rationalism. It certainly isn’t a biblical outlook. [6-8-10]

There are serious lessons to be learned here: along the lines of having an informed, reasonable faith (complete with apologetic knowledge as necessary), and of yielding up our private judgment and personal inclinations to a God and a Church much higher than ourselves. Faith comes ultimately by God’s grace and His grace alone: not our own semi-understandings. Christianity is not “blind faith”; it is a reasonable faith. But there is such a thing as allegiance and obedience to Christian authority, too. When reason is separated from faith or (on a personal level) never was part of it, “faith” (or the unreasonable facsimile thereof) is empty and open to Satanic and cultural attack, and we are tossed to and fro by the winds and the waves: a cork on the ocean of our decadent, corrupt, increasingly secularist and hedonistic culture. [8-9-10]

“Evidence” is not used in this sense to mean “absolute proof.” A hundred times in my writings, I’ve stated that the Catholic notion of “biblical evidence” is not absolute proof, but rather, consistency and harmony with Scripture and a given doctrine, including implicit and indirect, deductive indications. [9-20-11]

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My conversion, then, in summary (considered apart from God’s grace; I am talking specifically about my thought processes), was a combination of the cumulative effect of three different “strands” of evidences (contraception, development of doctrine, and the Catholic perspective on the “Reformation”): all pointing in the same direction. This was perfectly consistent (epistemologically) with my apologetic outlook that I had developed over nine years: the idea of cumulative probability or what might be called “plausibility structures.” [2013]

If we have all faith and no reason, that is fideism, which leads to many bad things. If we go to the other extreme and place reason above faith, then we have positivism and hyper-rationalism (the roots of theological liberalism, or sometimes rigorist schism, the radical Catholic reactionary outlook, and many heretical sects which deny the Holy Trinity, etc.), leading to the loss of supernatural faith if unchecked. The balance is a reasonable faith: with faith higher than reason, but a faith that is always in harmony with reason, inasmuch as it is possible, given the inherent limitations of reason. [12-28-13]

We believe in faith first; we don’t have to “solve every problem” before we believe. That’s not Christian faith, given by God’s grace, but man-centered rationalism. There are always “difficulties” and “problems” in any large system of thought. That doesn’t prevent people from believing in the tenets of same. This includes physical science, where there are a host of things that remain unexplained (e.g., what caused the Big Bang; whether light is a particle or a wave, how life began, the complete lack of evidence for life anywhere else, etc.). People don’t disbelieve in the Big Bang because we can’t explain everything about it. Likewise with Catholic dogma. If even science requires faith and axiomatic presuppositions, how much more, religious faith, which is not identical to philosophy or reason in the first place? . . . All of this requires faith, and faith comes through grace accepted in free will. . . . We’d all be in very rough shape if our personal “epistemology” required us to know every jot and tittle of everything before we could believe it. Most things we do or believe in life we don’t fully understand at all. [July 2015]

Christianity requires faith. It’s not philosophy. We accept many things that we don’t fully understand. People do that in many areas of life every day. [10-8-15]

An intelligent Christian position doesn’t maintain “absolute knowledge” but rather, a reasonable faith in God, or belief in Him, that is made very plausible and likely to be true, by arguments such as these, which indeed provide evidence. [10-29-15]

I don’t think any [theistic arguments] provide absolute proof (but I think absolute proof is difficult to attain in any field of knowledge, so no biggie). But that’s not to say the weaker ones fail. My own view for many years now (at least 30) is that the strength of the overall argument for theism and Christianity is in a cumulative sense, adding up to very strong plausibility (like many strands becoming a very strong rope), seeing that all the arguments point in the same direction. [11-6-15]

Like all arguments from analogy, it is one of plausibility, not one of intended “absolute proof.” In fact, I think all the arguments for God are of the same nature. [11-10-15]

Well, it’s a mixture: faith and reason. The appeal to Church history or tradition also requires faith, but it is a reasonable faith, able to be substantiated historiographically. [5-6-16]

The (philosophical-type) believer approaches it from common sense: “If there is such a thing as a God with omni- qualities a, b, c, what would we reasonably expect to see in a man Who claims to be that God in the flesh? What kind of things could or would He do [not absolutely demonstrate according to some philosophical standard] in order for us to credibly, plausibly believe His extraordinary claims?” And when we see Jesus (assuming the accuracy of the accounts on other rational bases, as we do), we see exactly what we would reasonably expect: He heals, He raises the dead; He raises Himself. He calms the sea and walks on water. He has extraordinary knowledge; He predicts the future, etc. It’s more than enough for us to say, in faith: “He’s God.” [5-22-18]

My Opinion on “Proofs for God’s Existence” Summarized in Two Sentences

My view remains what it has been for many years: nothing strictly / absolutely “proves” God’s existence. But . . . I think His existence is exponentially more probable and plausible than atheism, based on the cumulative effect of a multitude of good and different types of (rational) theistic arguments, and the utter implausibility, incoherence, irrationality, and unacceptable level of blind faith of alternatives. [6-18-18]

There are many things we don’t know with absolute certainty (in fact, almost all things, if we want to be strictly philosophical). Catholics believe in a very high degree of “moral assurance” of salvation, but not absolute certainty of salvation. [7-22-18]

It is [an act of faith] insofar as one accepts the possibility of the miraculous and that which cannot be absolutely proven. Since there are many things that can’t be absolutely proven, I don’t think it’s too much of a big deal. [3-27-19]

I would say that, ultimately, God’s existence is not an empirical question, if by that one means, “Can God be proven by empirical arguments such as the cosmological and teleological arguments?” I don’t think that absolute proof is possible, as I have already stated. But those two arguments are still relevant to the discussion; they touch on empirical things, and I think they establish that God’s existence is more likely than not (because they “fit” much better with a theistic world than they do with an atheist world). . . . So does this [Romans 1:19-20] prove that there is a God by rigid philosophical standards? No. But of course, very few things at all can be proven, if we’re gonna play that skeptical “game.” . . . The atheist “explanation” of the existence of the universe is incoherent and implausible, according to what we know from science; the Christian view is plausible and makes perfect sense, even if it is not ironclad proof. Thus, I would say that for one who likes science and interprets the physical world by means of it, theism is the more plausible and believable meta-interpretation or framework. [5-27-19]

What you bring up is something different: “why believe that God is immutable?” I agree with you (I think): this is a teaching that comes from revelation, and Christians accept it on faith on that basis. . . . Is that absolute proof? No. Very few things can be absolutely proven and almost every belief entails unprovable axioms to get off the ground. Christians believe it in faith, based on revelation. And if we do philosophy we think it is reasonable on that basis as well. [7-26-19]

Related Reading

Epistemology of My Catholic Conversion  [4-25-04]

Cardinal Newman’s Philosophical & Epistemological Commitments [10-19-04]

Pascal, Kreeft, & Kierkegaard on Persuasion & Apologetics [9-2-05]

Dialogue with an Agnostic: God as a “Properly Basic Belief” [10-5-15]

The Certitude of Faith According to Cardinal Newman [9-30-08]

Dialogue on Reason & Faith, w Theological Liberal [1-19-10]

Non-Empirical “Basic” Warrant for Theism & Christianity [10-15-15]

Atheist Demands for “Empirical” Proofs of God [10-27-15]

Dialogue: Religious Epistemology (with an Agnostic) [11-17-15]

Implicit (Extra-Empirical) Faith, According to John Henry Newman [12-18-15]

On Mystery & Reason in Theology [4-5-16]

Analogical Reasoning, and Reasoning from Plausibility [5-27-17]

Argument for God from Desire: Atheist-Christian Dialogue [8-7-17]

Dialogue: Has God Demonstrated His Existence (Romans 1)? [9-1-18]

Theistic Argument from Longing or Beauty, & Einstein [3-27-08; rev. 3-14-19]

Apologetics: Be-All & End-All of the Catholic Faith? NO!!! [7-1-19]

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Photo credit: St. John Henry Cardinal Newman (my “theological hero”) in 1866: four years before his seminal work of philosophy of religion, An Essay in Aid of the Grammar of Assent [public domain]

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