Changing Apologetics

Changing Apologetics February 10, 2012

In some ways defense of the Christian faith is the same; in other ways it has changed — for some quite dramatically. Example: C.S. Lewis argued that without God morality is disestablished as a universal. For some this argument is compelling; for many today this argument confirms what one already believes but does not compel faith. Apologetics, then, shifts to meet new counterarguments and new challenges. Good apologists shift because they listen.

I have a question of two for you: What is the most compelling argument for you when it comes to the Christian faith?

In reading this new book by McClymond and McDermott on Jonathan Edwards (The Theology of Jonathan Edwards) I was struck how versatile Edwards was in his apologetics, and in some ways anticipates apologetics in postmodernity. (And in some ways offends the same.) The authors of this sketch Edwards’ apologetics, a topic he never addressed in a book but the man left behind notebook after notebook with detailed discussions of most issues in apologetics.

The context for Edwards’ apologetics is deism, and they observe that much of deism is Christianity diluted. Former Christians became deists, or deists were expressing their beliefs out of a Christian culture so that the reasonable religion and reasonable ethics were de-Christianized or de-supernaturalized remains. Edwards’ own apologetics emerge from William Paley’s evidentialism and Schleiermacher’s religious sense.

They break Edwards’ apologetics into three kinds of arguments:

1. External, or evidentialism. Edwards believed that natural reason could not attain to God but that regenerated reason could aid us in understanding God. Traditional elements in evidentialism come into play with Edwards. Thus, classic arguments for God (ontological, cosmological, teleological, and moral argument) appear in his notebooks. He also defended the Bible as self-authenticating. (This sort of argument to me is confirmation of one’s faith and not a compelling argument.) Historical evidence like the monotheism of Jews, the survival of the Jewish people, miracle, resurrection, Jesus’ prophecies, the life of the early apostles and the spread of Christianity all make their appearance.

2. Internal, or experientialism. Schleiermacher almost made the Christian experience invulnerable to disproof, while Edwards made the experience of God a higher form of epistemology. Direct experience of God made a person certain of what he or she knew. He’s interacting here with the currents of thought flowing from Locke and Hume. So revelation transcends natural reason. This is the witness of Christians through the ages — this sense of knowing God as a result of transformative experience — and at the same time a question mark for the skeptic.

3. Implicit, or explanatory. Edwards sought to show that all streams of knowledge eventually lead to divinity or theology. In other words, he sought to explain how all branches of knowledge could be used to support his theology, or theology itself. He knew many fields, and the authors explore metaphysics, British moral philosophy and (of course his big one) history. Another way of putting this is that Edwards colonized everything he learned for his kingdom of theology. His is a case of faith seeking understanding.

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  • Tim


    I’d be very interested to see apologetic arguments that take competing claims into account.

    For instance, it’s fairly common to hear one’s personal, inner testimony provided as evidence. After all, who can argue with that right? But when one compares that to competing testimonies, how does that provide any additional evidence not already available to support, say, Mormonism? Or Buddhism?

    Same thing for miracle claims such as faith healing. I know so-and-so who had this incurable/untreatable condition, and God healed him/her. You can’t just dismiss that, right? But how does this compare to faith healing claims among other religions, such as Hinduism? Are the Christian cases really more compelling than the competing Hindu ones?

    What about historical attestations to miraculous events? A lot of powerful stuff in the NT with respect to that. But how does it compare to other historical attestations to “miracles”, often in mass, that many today discount – such as some of the more dramatic Marian apparitions?

  • Interesting post, and not surprising.

    Jesus, I’d say. Canonically, or as revealed in scripture. You can relate Jesus to whatever categories are available I suppose in some way. But for me, the beginning and the end of apologetics is simple: Jesus.

    Without Jesus, the message of Jesus we have nothing at all. He makes sense out of everything, he is the fulfillment of everything, in him the new humanity, indeed the new world takes shape.

    Since the revelation of Jesus is historical in the incarnation, of course we(I just lost the rest of this comment, and must try again- this netbook!) should do historical study, but always letting the canon of scripture be what it is, and do what it does.

    Overly simplistic certainly so in regard to my lack of categories altogether, but everything points and goes to Jesus, and then out from him. Jesus, who is the gospel.

  • britt

    When i was 19 years old i was living in an abandon apartment in Oregon,doing drugs,and i had been hitch hiking around the North West looking for ‘the answer to life ( in total i hitch hiked 32,000 miles ).
    On a friday night as i was laying on the ground in the apt ( i was going to hitch hike to LA,Ca on Monday ) i heard a voice saying ‘leave tomorrow’.I jumped up grab 2 butcher knives and starting looking around,thinking someone was in there with me. I heard it again,this time i thought someone was hanging on the ledge of the window,whispering it in the room ( i was on the 2nd floor ).

    The next day i went out a 5:30AM (drug addicts never get up that early…ever ) onto the I-5 freeway,As i sat there i started to think of my destroyed life ( i had just spent 15-18 in a boys home ) and i prayed these words ‘Jesus,if you love me,please save my life,because i can’t do it’ ( i have no idea why i prayed those words or even prayed ).
    A man pulls over named Dave Ginter ,an american who lived in Egypt as a Pastor.
    He told me this story…..about 30 mins into the ride.

    Britt, i live in Egypt,and during the school year,i don’t take any days off,so i can save up my time to come to the US for a long Vacation, i was not supposed to leave until next week.But while in a prayer meeting with 2 other pastors,we all felt like i should live today ( this was 2 days ago ).I just landed in Portland today ( lay-overs and all ) i rented a car and prayed ‘Lord help me pick up a hitch hiker and share your love with him’.
    Well he ended up paying my way for me to come and live with him in Egypt.While i was there i encountered Jesus in a very real way,was set free from drugs ( heroine,crack,meth ,pills,coke robbing houses-stores and very violent ) and knew the love of christ,so much so i could feel it,like touching water.

    It’s been 20 yrs now,and i’ve read tons of books,been in ministry and whenever asked why i am a Christian, i always felt embarrassed,because i never came across a great argument like all my other friends,and for some reason feel like i should. It was for me encountering Jesus and his love that did it for me. I’m not saying that arguments are not good at all, i just never found one that ‘did it’, and yes i use them while talking to others.

    I guess my point is,is that personally for me that best argument was Jesus himself touching a leper like me….

  • Scot,

    Very interesting. I am encouraged to see this series on Edwards. I wonder if you could elaborate (or perhaps lead me to where you have elaborated before) on what you mean that Edwards’ defense of the Bible as self-authenticating is “confirmation of one’s faith and not a compelling argument”.


  • I’m not sure how the title of this post relates to the content… what is the “changing” part?

    I disagree with Edwards on natural reason not leading to God. That sounds more like someone whose brand of theology insisted that other’s experience fit into it. You’d be surprised how many people honestly find God through simply thinking about it and paying attention to the world.

    Apologetics has become a broad term… and most evangelical apologetics has steered away from the more compelling aspects of apologetics brewed in the humanities, a la C. S. Lewis. When apologetics is relegated simply to theologians, it can quickly and easily turn the life of faith into a science and checklists, boxing people in with points like spears. It’s focus is mostly about God’s existence and the Bible’s truth claims more than anything else. But that’s not primarily what we are wrestling with today.

    Today, the changing face of apologetics is a return to art and beauty, not merely as compelling devices of the gospel but as living the gospel in human meaning.

    And that’s what is most compelling to me in both evidence and expereince: that the Gospel is meaningful. And that, to me, is one the central changes needed in apologetics today. Meaning entails a commitment to truth and reason, but also to the understanding the coherence of everyday life in that without having to baptize it over and over with PTL moments.

    I nkow many who believe in God and want to believe the Bible but simply finds it doesn’t work in today’s “Christian” culture. But to address that means addressing some fundamental ideas about the church and the disconnect. But most apologetic ministries focus on 5% of the population (atheists) instead of some of the larger issues pressing on us today. Cultural critics and artists and journalists are making better apologists these days than theologians.

    This is part of the vision of Soulation ( It is moving apologetics into a more fruitful change, exploring why the gospel is good news to humans… making us “appropriately human.”

  • Jeff Cook’s argument in the upcoming Everything New is spectacular 🙂

    Seriously, In terms of arguments that really move people, I would put them in this order: Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary argument against Naturalism, Craig’s version of the Kalaam argument has teeth and isn’t easy to undercut, and though it has no contemporary champions: Aquinas’s third way (from contingency) is excellent. I have no refutation. It desires some fresh work. I think it does real damage to materialistic theories that want to advance a multiverse or oscillating universe.

    Looking forward however, I believe the most successful arguments in coming years will be either pragmatic arguments (contemporary versions of the Wager for example) or paradigm focused arguments that simply say “as a whole the Christian theory is a better way to look at reality with less of the baggage and despair of other views”.

  • Dale (5).

    Love your post.

    You said, “The changing face of apologetics is a return to art and beauty, not merely as compelling devices of the gospel but as living the gospel in human meaning.”

    Is speaking ever an entry point in your mind or is it the case that we showcase the Christian life vibrantly — and then put forward argument/clarification/unpacking/etc?

  • Japie

    For me, prophecy far outweighs other aspects of apologetics. It’s interesting to note that a third or more of the bible is as a result of information or commands through dreams. The supporting information gathered in Daniel and applied in Revelation is astounding.

  • For me Lewis’s universal argument for morality has become pretty strong recently. After listening to a bunch of Christopher Hitchens debates it finally hit me that every time he hits Christianity for being morally abhorrent, he’s fighting with borrowed ammunition.

    More subjective arguments (from beauty and experience) are also very powerful but they they always seem to end up in the murky realm of mere preference.

  • Kenny Johnson

    I came to faith in Christ in my early 20s. I had an encounter with God too, but my encounter with God was not on the level of Britt’s and its probably why I still struggle with doubt. I had gotten to a point in my life where I had long acknowledged God existed, but did not know God. I finally felt that need to find out what that meant. Someone suggested I pray about it. I prayed that God would reveal Himself to me and lead me to know Him. Within about a week, I had 3 invitations to different churches. Two of them from people I hadn’t seen in several years — and one of those from someone who I had previously thought was likely dead or in prison. . .

    I took those as a sign. But yet, I still struggle with doubts. . . and really have since I started my faith journey. I used to find a lot of apologetics arguments to be really compelling, but over the years that have become much less satisfying. But they aren’t necessarily less satisfying because I found holes in them or found them less logically sound, but because they no longer left me “convinced.”

    So for me there are two things that still help: 1) Jesus, His life, His teachings, and His resurrection.

    2) Hope. For me, a life without faith is a life without meaning, purpose, or hope. So my faith rests largely on my great desire for hope. Which… ironically is my wife’s name.

  • I’d be a lot more interested in what non-Christians say are the most compelling, for precisely the reason you allude to above: apologetics among Christians simply confirms, or perhaps bolsters, their faith, by definition.

    If I were asked what apologetic bolsters my faith, then I’d say something like what Wilker and Witt tried to capture in A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature. It’s a sort of evidentialism. I like Berger’s “signals of transcendence” too. Obvious problem, of course, is that these don’t particularly point to the Christian God revealed in his Christ.

    For that, there’s only one argument:


  • Jim Byrne

    Since Schleiermacher was born after Edwards died, the apologetics of the latter did not “emerge from” the religious sense of the former. A similar point might be made about Edwards and Paley :D.

    However, one might make a case that similar modern currents that shaped Edwards in the American colonial backwoods would direct the thinking of these later figures in Europe. My question is, in “apologetically” marrying their faith to the spirit of their times, did these figures make their thought largely irrelevant to our times?

  • Peter G.

    Jim, I noticed that too.

  • @Jeff (7)…. thanks! Good to hear from you. I don’t know if you remember us meeting at a Zondervan luncheon in Denver.

    Yes, speaking is a part of all of it. We do it all the time. Pop over to and see what we’re up to… exploring what it means to be appropriately human (the humanities have largely been neglected by evangelical theologians as not only a medium but a truth exploring mechanism). One resource we have ( is an exploration of how our doctrine and beliefs fit into our experiences. This too is apologetics and one we have found resonates with a lot of people who are searching and questioning. I have a masters in the performing arts and another in philosophy of religion… wedding apologetics and imagination is part of my DNA which I feel like I’m just beginning to understand.

    Metaphorical intelligence is a big part of it (Kathleen Norris speaks of this in The Cloister Walk).

    How many popular apologists and theologians today really value art and the humanities? We think it’s a device by which to cram our theology. But that kills it because it doesn’t allow the play of human experience to give it meaning that way. The emergent art movement to convey the gospel has been, well, in my view, a nice attempt. But as long as it’s used for propaganda, it fails. It becomes peripheral rather than at the center. My artist friend, Jeff Lefever, who runs Foundation for the Biblical Arts has been talking about this for a while. He needs a larger audience.

    A reason Christian music (as art) is accepted in evangelical culture is that it can be used to evangelize. But that’s also why so much Christian music is uninteresting (sorry… no offense intended). Even the worship music movement feels flat. When it ceases to evangelize, it gets criticized (as the Jon Foreman of Switchfoot has alluded). It’s “secular” counterpart is often far more “Christian” because it validates human experience as real and allows us to explore it with courage. I believe it is only as we explore our humanity do we understand where the Gospel fits into it and becomes a natural part of it. After all the “good news” was “good news” to someone… namely humans. If we cannot find how it is good news to humans in every corner of our lives, then it isn’t enough good news. (One thing I appreciate about Scot is his drawing his readers/students back to the Jewishness of the Scripture… for that opens up possibilities that go beyond our “church” experience and lifts it out of an institution and into national importance… this is all part, on my view of the bigger picture.).

    Reconciling human meaning is a part of apologetics that is no where in sight in evangelical circles. The humanities are usually just something whose power is to be suspect. And so Zondervan approached a friend of ours to write “Christian” vampire books… as if that was the point of vampire books.

    IMAGE Journal has been a wonderful example of faith and art speaking into our culture. Greg Wolfe is one of the thought leaders on this. But he’s very concerned about today’s apologetics using art because it makes a mess of it without understand arts place in our lives.

    As for modern apologists, Craig may be good at the Kalam argument but he says he doesn’t understand why people think Lewis said anything profound… I like Craig but he misses Lewis’ genius–the metaphorical intelligence… the ability to get past those watchful dragons… to hold up an object for all of us to examine together… the compelling forces of rhetoric. Even people who are Lewis scholars tend to make him dry (Jerry Root and Alan Jacobs being exceptions). Craig is a great debater but few find his debates meaningful and walk away unmoved. I sat in a class of his once and heard him give a definition of wonder that was about as wonder-less as it could get. I have another friend who is a professor and I sat in his philosophy lecture… he’s very witty and spelled out the Kalam argument in creative ways so that any student paying attention would have laughed and imagined themselves into theism. Maybe without even knowing what had just happened to them.

    Anyway, some jumbled thoughts. Thanks for listening.

  • Jeff, I also find it interesting, on topic, that Edwards believed that unless your emotions are moved, you will not change. We’ve found it resoundingly true (despite that Edwards himself, I’ve heard it reported, was a rather dry speaker) and reinforces what I’m getting at.

  • Jim Byrne

    I see Edwards as making a valiant, last ditch effort to preserve a “whole-personed” Christianity in the face of the acids of modernity. He was a genuine polymath, and as Scot McKnight points out, he genuinely saw theology as the Queen of Sciences. But already in his day, Christianity was breaking down into rationalistic, moralistic, aesthetic and pietistic, etc. componenents, with various “traditions” favoring some facets above others. In America, revivalism thrived on the frontier while transcendental thought swept through the old New England churches. In seeking to hold these facets of Christianity together, Edwards made use of modern tools that may have ultimately split them apart. In Europe, the various uses of Christianity made by Schleiermacher, Kant and Paley illustrate the same thing.

    This isn’t to say that there haven’t been attempts toward recovery of a more whole-personed Christianity since then. Reformed thinkers such as James Orr and Abraham Kuyper did just that in the late 19th century, by borrowing from the Ritschlian notion of “weltanschung.” And I applaud projects that seek to mine the Jewish tradition toward the same end.