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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