An apologetic armoury

The Briefing

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Originally Published:
Payne, T, Marshall, C and Jensen, P 'An apologetic armoury'. The Briefing, issue 51, July 1990, pp. 3-6.

Tagged: apologetics evidentialism presuppositionalism


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Co-written with: Colin Marshall, Tony Payne

In part one, we looked at two approaches to apologetics—the Presuppositional and Evidential methods—typified by Francis Schaeffer and Josh McDowell. We saw that both approaches have their problems, while being useful in different contexts.

In this article, we will suggest how to get the most from these two approaches.

We should recognize, at the start, that both of these methods are found in the Bible. In Mark 3:23-26, we find an example of Jesus using the ‘presuppositional’ approach. In this case, he uses a reductio ad absurdum argument—if you take X as your starting point and pursue it to its logical conclusion, you end up saying something quite absurd. Jesus argues that if he is driving out demons by the power of Beelzebub (as the Pharisees say), then Satan’s kingdom is divided and destroyed. Since there is evidence of Satan’s activity all around them (notably demon possession), this conclusion is absurd.

However, more often, the Bible tends to use an ‘evidential’ approach. Three broad areas of evidence are used to authenticate the divine word to man.

  • Miracles. It is interesting to note that miracles confirming the truth of God’s word are clustered around Moses, Elijah/Elisha and Jesus. By themselves, however, miracles are not a reliable guide to truth (see Mt 7:21-23; Mk 13:22).
  • Fulfilled prophecy. If a prophet predicts a future event, and it does not take place, then that is clear evidence that the prophet is false and ‘presumptuous’ (Dt 18:21-22). Again, however, even if the prophesied event does take place, the prophet’s words may still not be reliable (Dt 13:1-5). In Acts, the proof of Jesus’ Messiahship is seen in his fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies, such as the pouring out of the Spirit (Joel 2) and not ‘seeing decay’ in the tomb (Ps 16).
  • History. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues from the strength of the historical evidence that Jesus’ resurrection was real.

A strategy

Before we outline a broad four-point strategy that encompasses the best from presuppositional and evidential methods, there are some general comments to make.

We must remember that every individual is different. There is no such thing as the ‘average non-Christian’. Each person has his own objections, his own background, his own presuppositions. We must tailor our apologetics to the individual, using that which is helpful and appropriate for each person.

In talking with this unique ‘individual’, we should be ready to use an appropriate mixture of defence and attack. Our aim is not simply to answer questions; to parry the thrusts of the non-Christian so as to win the argument. We should also aim to give positive, persuasive reasons for belief, as well as exposing the foolishness and inadequacy of unbelief.

We should also note the difference between logical reasons for belief and subjective motives for belief. Some of the elements of our apologetic strategy will be logical and objective, such as this: “The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is x, y and z. Therefore, there is good reason to accept that the claims he made regarding himself are true.” This is a reason for belief. It is logically persuasive.

However, there are other facts that we can put forward which, whilst not having logical force, are powerful motives to believe. For example, if I point to my changed life and peace of mind as being the result of knowing Christ, it can be a powerful argument in favour of Christianity (especially if these life changes are clearly visible to my non-Christian friend). Logically, they don’t carry much weight—it could be argued that other religions also produce peace, or that the changes are due to other factors in my life—but from a subjective, pragmatic viewpoint these factors can be powerful.

Given these general points, let us now look at a broad four-point apologetic strategy. Remember, this strategy will be shaped to the needs of each individual we talk with.

1. Clarify the objection

The first thing to do is to explore the content and background of the objection that is being raised. What does your friend mean by claiming to be an ‘atheist’? What factors have influenced him to describe himself this way? What religions or philosophies has he experienced or studied?

It is important to establish whether the question is a red-herring (in order to avoid the gospel), or a genuine intellectual problem, or an emotional response to recent events. If your friend’s mother has just died, his questions about hell do not require a logical, tightly argued response, but plenty of love and sensitivity.

2. Show that the alternative is unlivable

This is where the presuppositional emphasis comes in. We should try to show that the alternatives to Christianity are ultimately dissatisfying. For example, if our friend is arguing that there is no God, we need to point out the implications of that position. If there is no God, what basis is there for value or meaning in life? What basis is there for morality?

People believe, almost instinctively, in their value and importance as persons. If there is no God—if there are only various combinations of atomic particles—then there is no logical basis for values, personhood or morality. We need to work hard at bringing our apologetic conversations back towards Jesus. He is the answer to a lot of questions—all the questions that matter.

It can take time and a lot of hard work to get our friend to admit that without God there is no basis for moral values. It is often necessary to present an absurd or grotesque example to make the point. Sometimes we need to be a Devil’s Advocate and interrogate our friend on the basis of his own beliefs.

3. Show that Christianity is liveable

Conversely, we may also wish to spend some time demonstrating that Christianity is satisfying. Our belief in a creating, redeeming God provides a strong basis for meaning, personal significance, values and morality. As James Sire puts it, we need to point out that Christianity is the ‘best fit’—it explains man’s rationality, his sinful nature, and his sense of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. In other words, Christianity works.

We can also argue here that Christianity, as I experience it, is satisfying and real. By testifying to our own personal encounter with Christ and our changed life, we present a powerful motivation for accepting the truth of Christianity—“taste and see that the Lord is good”. Perhaps the most powerful form of this argument is to point to the new community that is created by genuine Christianity. Wherever people have come to Christ, their fellowship is characterized by love, caring for individuals, mutual acceptance, and so on (cf. Jn 13:34).

Again, this is a pragmatic motive for belief, rather than a logical reason, but it is often worth presenting. Often, people do not need rational reasons for belief—they already know that it is all true. Often all they need is the motivational push to do something about it.

All the same, we need to recognize the limitations of these elements in the strategy and not place too much weight on them. It might be argued that other religions also give hope, meaning and value, and that, in a practical sense, they work for their adherents. We could respond by arguing that their beliefs do not provide as satisfying a basis for life as Christianity does, but this is getting onto tricky ground.

The other problem here is that God can become simply a means to man’s happiness. Truth is defined as what makes me happy and satisfied. The Sovereign God of the Universe becomes a means to an end—my happiness.

4. The Jesus factor

Ultimately, our reasons for belief hinge on Jesus. Who was he? Why did he come? What claim does he have on my life now?

In answering objections and attempting to persuade our friends of the truth of Christianity, we need to keep pointing them towards Jesus. In point 3 (above), we should refer to Jesus as the one who has made a difference in our lives. It is not simply our embracing of an abstract philosophical system (called ‘Christianity’) that has changed our life—it is our encounter with the risen Jesus.

Introducing Jesus into our apologetics moves us in the direction of historical evidence. We can talk about the historicity of the New Testament, the reliability of the documents, their transmission, their being attested by outside sources, and so on. On the basis of a reliable New Testament, we can draw some conclusions about the historical Jesus—that he was Lord (rather than Liar or Lunatic).

His resurrection has a key place in this, for it vindicates Jesus as the one whom God has sent to bring his kingdom, in fulfilment of Old Testament expectation. It is much more than a supernatural ‘proof’ that he is God—in fact, this is not really how the New Testament views the resurrection. The meaning of the resurrection is filled out by the Old Testament, not by our modern desire for a miracle to prove the existence of the supernatural.

All the same, the ‘realness’ of the resurrection is an important step in establishing Jesus’ identity. Once we have come to a reasonable conclusion about who Jesus was, we are in a position to challenge our non-Christian friend about his attitude towards Jesus. “If this man was God in the flesh and is now risen and in all authority, what are you going to do about it?”

We need to work hard at bringing our apologetic conversations back towards Jesus. He is the answer to a lot of questions—all the questions that matter.

In summary, we need a cumulative approach. We need to treat each person differently, bearing in mind their background and individual concerns. We should select which parts of our overall ‘apologetic armoury’ are appropriate for this person, and try to head towards Jesus as the focal point.

Apologetics is a craft, and it is hard to learn it on paper. We’ve outlined a broad strategy, and given some ideas, but ultimately, practice is the only way to improve.

It has been noted by Paul Little (and others) that a few basic questions about Christianity keep coming up all the time: “How do you know that God exists? Is the New Testament true? Is Christianity the only way?” and so on. A knowledge of how to answer these common questions will stand us in good stead for the vast majority of apologetic conversations.

In coming issues of The Briefing we will look at how to answer a number of these basic questions.

This article was adapted by Tony Payne from material by Colin Marshall and Phillip Jensen.