Beyond Culture Wars,
Are You Prepared To Give A Defense?
A Crash Course In Evidential Apologetics
1999 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
Christian apologetics is the strategy of setting forth the truthfulness
of the Christian faith. Its concentration is upon the intellectual vindication
of the gospel as (1) true, and (2) superior to every other intellectual
system on the market. The best of evangelists may be praised for encouraging
people to commit their lives and hearts to Jesus Christ as their sin-bearing
Substitute, but for many hearers the scandalon of the Christian message
(one cannot save oneself by works of law, but is in total need of some
Grand Substitute who is able, in their place, to satisfy the awful demands
of a completely holy God over him or her) is never gotten to. How so?
These hearers are not convinced that the message of the gospel in 1
Corinthians 15 is true--however much it may appeal to their real human
need for forgiveness and redemption. The message of law and gospel may
be attractive, but it has in their minds not yet "passed the bar"
of epistemology (the philosophical term for measuring what we legitimately
know to be true).
The historical origin of apologetics is to be found in the legal procedures
in ancient Athens. The plaintiff brought his accusation before the court.
The accused had the right of making a reply (apologia) to that accusation.
This reply was an effort to demonstrate the falsity of the accusation.
Hence we have the verb apologesthai (to make reply, to give an answer,
to legally defend oneself) and the noun apologia (the answer given,
or the defense made).
The classical example of an apologia is, of course, the famous Apology
of Socrates before the Athenian court of law. It is preserved for us
in the Dialogues of Plato. (The social use of the noun "apology"
or the verb "to apologize" in the sense of excusing oneself
for some miscue or blunder or offense is secondary in classical Greek,
although it is the popular meaning in contemporary English practice.)
Switching to the New Testament usage, both the verb and the noun occur,
but are never rendered as "to make an apologetical defense"
or "to make an apology." Rather, our translations will translate
"to make reply" or "to give an answer" or "to
make one¹s defense."
And there is considerable apologetic activity recorded in the New Testament.
For example, on numerous occasions Jesus was accused of some fault by
the religious leaders of His day, and to this accusation our Lord made
His defense (apologia)--even though it is not named as such. One thinks
of Matthew 22 where three leading questions were asked of Jesus by the
three leading Jewish sects of that day. In each instance, Jesus made
reply (apologia). Or think of the Apostle Paul as his activity is described
in the closing chapters of the Book of Acts. The Apostle defended himself
before the mob in Jerusalem (Acts 22:1 ff.), before the Jewish council
(Acts 23:1 ff.), before Felix (Acts 24:1 ff.), and before Festus and
Agrippa (Acts 26:1 ff).
In the case of the apologists of the first two centuries, we see focus
made especially on the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in the
Person and work of Jesus Christ and in the salvation He wrought by His
death. And apologetics "comes of age" with the great St. Augustine.
Augustine saw to the bottom of the issue, namely, that the fundamental
issue is Christian defense of the Gospel where the truthfulness claim
is made, and the reality of the possession of a true knowledge of God.
There are apologetic elements in most of Augustine's writings, but his
masterpieces are The City of God and The Confessions.
In wrestling with the problems of the truth of Christianity and the
problem of true knowledge underlying Christian faith, Augustine laid
the foundations of Christian apologetics.
The Plight of the Non-Christian
You may have been a Christian for years. If so, God be praised for it.
But I ask you to think back to before you were. Or, if that is for some
reason impossible, walk with me for a moment or two in the moccasins
of the contemporary pagan. Now by "pagan," I am not referring
to a person's moral behavior. I simply mean what the Christian ancients
understood by the word "pagan," viz. someone who rejects the
historic Christian Gospel of Christ. I use the term "pagan"
in this sense only (and so, I think, should all of us). Moral evaluation
has virtually no place in Christian apologetics for the simple reason
that the Christian is a sinner before the Ten Commandments in the same
sense that the pagan is a sinner before the Ten Commandments. To divide
the world into the categories "sinners" and "Christians"
without an understanding that the Christian's righteousness is only
the imputed righteousness of Christ is to witness not to Christ, but
to our own self-righteousness, our Phariseeism, our "prissiness."
One critic has said that our century is characterized by the words "secular"
and "pluralistic." And so it is. We think not in Biblical
categories today (as did people of a prior generation), but in secular
ones--period. And our secularized culture is also characterized by the
word "pluralistic." That is, many religious positions exist
side-by-side in our twentieth-century western world--positions which
logically may all be false, but cannot all be true.
I asked you a moment ago to imagine what that would be like for you
if you were uncommitted to any religious persuasion whatever. What would
you make of it, if in the same morning on some California campus you
were confronted by the Mormons, the Christians, the Hari-Krishnas, the
Atheist Student Fellowship and others? It makes one think of the movie
Airplane, in which the pilot was trying to get to his plane,
only to have to run the gauntlet of religious people on either side
of the airport walkway. His answer was a relatively simple one. By use
of his training in the martial arts, he simply kicked, punched and rolled
all of them to a pulp! Attractive as that sounds, it is not really a
solution to the pagan's problem. He legitimately wonders how he would
be able to adjudicate that a given religion's truth-claim was true vis-a-vis
conflicting claims. How would you solve that problem? Would you try
to judge according to esthetic standards, the most beautiful religion
being the one to which you would commit yourself? But what guarantee
do we have that beauty is the test for truth? Perhaps, if there is a
God, he is worse than Descartes' "evil genius"--not only planting
confusion in our minds at every moment, but worse! Perhaps He is a cosmic
sadist and the answer to the problem of evil is that cancer is for His
amusement! If this is true, then choosing a religion because of its
beauty would be worse than foolhardy.
But perhaps you could choose by religious experience, electing for
that position which seemed to most easily offer inner ecstasy. (One
could imagine choosing between representatives of the Trinity Broadcasting
Network and today's followers of Timothy Leary who would liturgically
partake of Peyote!) How about that option? Blissful as it would be,
it would hardly solve the epistemological question: Have I committed
to a religion that accurately reflects the way things are in the universe?
Pentecostal ecstasy and its secular equivalent (drug-induced bliss)
finally both avoid the question of truth.
Or perhaps one would commit to a religion on the basis of its internal
consistency (coherence). This option is certainly more philosophically
sophisticated than those which we just considered, but still inadequate
because of its naïveté. That is, one can arrive at, or even
invent, consistent positions which are out of touch with the nature
of the objective universe. One thinks of Christians such as the late
Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Hadon Clark, or of comparable secularists
like Lenin, Marx, or the Flat Earth Society. Consistency may be desirable,
but as a primary test for truth it is hardly adequate. There are relatively
coherent positions which are just weird, but others which approach the
Resistance to the Apologetic Enterprise
To the amazement of many apologists, the most vigorous opposition to
their work comes from the church! The nature of the objections varies,
but objections they are!
From old liberalism we heard that science was the way to understand
the world of fact and theology should just listen to science. Most liberals
believed that Christianity is not basically a religion of propositional,
objective truth, but a way of life focusing on feeling (Schleiermacher)
and social action (the "social gospel"). To make matters worse,
the old liberal believed that Christianity was not qualitatively different
from the other religions of the world ("many roads leading to the
same God"), and so, the Christian was not called upon to try to
convince others of Christianity's truth-claims.
What of the position that succeeded old liberalism, Barth's neo-orthodoxy?
Barth was the one largely responsible for the demise of old liberalism,
but actively objected to the apologetic enterprise. He tried to maintain
the objective, factual character of the saving events in Scripture,
but also to "wall them off" from the possibility of secular
examination. Using the category of "meta-history" or "supra-history,"
Barth maintained that the miraculous events of Scripture were not subject
to the canons of ordinary historical inquiry. In later years, he switched
to saying that validation of the miraculous events of Scripture cannot
be apart from prior belief in them. But both points of view arrive at
the same point, anyway. Neither scripture nor the saving events recorded
in scripture can be objects of "proof" to the unbeliever.
Rather, "faith" is the way to know that the Bible is God's
word or that the resurrection took place.
But at least Barth tried to maintain the factual, objective character
of such events as the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ.
With Protestant existentialism (R. Bultmann), saving events of scripture
were removed even farther from the possibility of objective verification.
For Bultmann, the "core" of Christian faith does not center
in historical events at all. Rather the center is the existential experience
of salvation in the present (a sort of Heideggerian message with lots
of New Testament word studies to demonstrate that Heidegger's atheistic
existentialism and the New Testament writers were really saying the
same thing). Verification is only by means of present experience of
"encounter" with the so-called "Christ of faith."
Both Barth and Bultmann were convinced that objective, factual investigation
of the Bible would destroy confidence in its truthfulness, so each (in
his own way) removed Scripture from scrutiny.
What about the Christian pietists? Ironically, their position is similar
to that of the radical critic, Bultmann! See if these words of piety
sound familiar: "Christianity has to do with the heart and behavior--not
with propositional truth and the mind." "The key thing is
experiencing Christ in a saving way." "The primary hurdle
to 'getting saved' is thinking too much." "All of us seek
to justify ourselves by use of our minds and by 'head knowledge.'"
Bultmann echoed all of these statements!
What about those who rock-ribbedly hold to "the faith once for
all delivered to the saints," who hate all forms of liberalism
and any dilutions of the once-given faith? Surely, those who hold to
a high view of Biblical inspiration and a Nicene Christology would always
cheer the defense of the Gospel as true? Unfortunately, no. The so-called
"orthodox" camp is often occupied by what are called "presuppositionalists"
or "fideists." Presuppositionalists (from the word "presupposition,"
of course) hold that there is such a deep cleavage between the Christian
and the non-Christian that it is dumb for the Christian to try to argue
the truth of the Gospel with the non-Christian. Sin has blinded his
mind so deeply that he cannot interpret revelational facts properly.
Christian argumentation with the non-Christian is just so much wasted
breath. Amazing as it sounds, some of these fellows go so far as to
say that the non-Christian, from his non-Biblical viewpoint, cannot
even rightly interpret secular facts (e.g., the chemical composition
of water, or the materials stress factors necessary to build a safe
The "fideist" (literally, one who has "faith in faith,"
who holds that one must first blindly believe before one can know or
rightly understand revelational truth) goes even farther: he says that
it is not only dumb to attempt to defend the truth of the Gospel; it
is unspiritual to do so--an insult to the Spirit of God and a substituting
of human wisdom for the Spirit's converting work (1 Cor. 1). God the
Holy Spirit is the one who converts; we are called to simply preach
the Gospel--anything more is unspiritual.
Where does one begin with these positions? First, it must be said that
we all know better. Christian and non-Christian alike are capable of
interpreting "secular" facts, and daily demonstrate this.
We all can agree concerning the chemical makeup of water, or about the
material stress coefficients necessary to build a safe bridge.
All university life is predicated on this assumption, and advances
in human knowledge are indisputable evidence that even unregenerate
man can understand the factual nature of the world and rationally
interpret the data of his experience. (John Warwick Montgomery, Lutheranism
and the Defense of the Christian Faith, p. 6)
Second, we must ask how exactly one adjudicates between conflicting
presuppositions? Confidently our fellow believers (almost all Calvinists,
by the way) answer, "By internal consistency, of course!"
And we are back to the problem of Van Til, Marx and the Flat Earthers
again--consistent systems which are said to be true on the basis of
internal logical consistency alone--systems one can know to be true
simply by blindly entering the "charmed circle." But why enter
"charmed circle n" and not "charmed circle n+1?"
Not an easy question to answer. (And, by the by, if one already accepted
the Christian presuppositional viewpoint, one would probably be a Christian
already and in no need of a defense of the faith.)
Third, these brethren (for all practical purposes) deny one of the
basic tenets of the New Testament: the Incarnation of Christ. The eternal
Logos ("Word") became flesh at the time when Quirinius was
governor of Syria. So-called "spiritual truth" is linked here
with the ordinary, the empirical, the historical, the plain, etc. Any
system which tries to divorce "revelational truth" from "ordinary"
or "secular truth" is fundamentally misguided. The incarnation
of Christ stands against all attempted splits. That is, if one cannot
come to understand something of revelational truth by ordinary means,
it is like saying that the fact of the incarnation is somehow different
from "secular facts." But that is exactly what John 1:1,14
denies! If God really became man in Jesus Christ, then His entrance
into the human sphere is open to examination by non-Christian and Christian
alike, and the honest doubter will find compelling evidence in support
of Christ's claims.
The church of the New Testament is not some esoteric, occult, gnostic
sect whose teachings are demonstrable only to initiates; it is the
religion of the incarnate God, at whose death the veil of the temple
was rent from top to bottom, opening holy truth to all who would seek
it. (John Warwick Montgomery, Lutheranism and the Defense of the
Christian Faith, p. 11)
Luther, who was at his best with the theme of Christmas, put the matter
of John 1 nicely in a hymn: "He whom all the universe cannot enclose,
Doth now at Mary's breast repose." Or think of Luke who says that
Jesus "made clear by many and manifest proofs His identity."
Again, the Apostle John reports Jesus once saying, "If you do not
believe my words, believe me for the sake of the works that I do; they
bear witness of me." John's use of the word semeion (signs) makes
it perfectly clear that Jesus' miraculous activity was there in order
to convince those who did not yet believe that he was the promised supernatural
Christ--not those who already did.
The Basics of an Evidential Defense
of the Gospel
The Biblical basis of an evidential approach to the defense of the Gospel
was just alluded to. But let us consider a few additional examples.
Think of Doubting Thomas. He had said to the other disciples, "Until
I see the nail prints in his hands and thrust my finger into the wound
in His side, I will not believe!" The Lord Christ would have had
every right to chastise Thomas for this, but in fact did not. Instead,
He graciously offered exactly what Thomas had demanded as concrete,
empirical evidence for His deity. As Dr. Montgomery has described the
Though Christ told Thomas that it would have been better for him
to have believed without seeing (i.e., that he should have believed
the testimony of his fellow disciples who had already seen the risen
Lord), this rebuke was not given as a substitute for the proof Thomas
needed. Rather, it followed both Jesus' appearance to Thomas and Thomas'
affirmation of Jesus' deity. Only after Jesus brought Thomas to faith
through graciously giving him evidence of His resurrection did He
point out to him where his faith had been lacking. (John Warwick Montgomery,
Lutheranism and the Defense of the Christian Faith, p. 9).
Or think of the story of Jesus healing the paralytic. The paralytic's
friends had brought him to where Jesus was, hoping that He would heal
their friend. But the crowds were so dense that they could not get through
them while carrying a cot. They came up with the idea of going to the
roof, taking off some of the tiles, and lowering their friend's cot
down into the room where Jesus was. Jesus spoke immediately to him:
"Be of good cheer, My son. Your sins are forgiven." The Jewish
religious leaders in the back of the room grumbled, "Who can forgive
sins but God?" [In this they were, of course, correct!] Jesus,
knowing their question asked, "Which is easier to say? 'Your sins
be forgiven,' or 'Rise, take up your bed and walk'?" Note that
the question was not, "Which is easier to do?" but "Which
is easier to say?" The answer is that it is easier to say, "Your
sins be forgiven," because that act is, by its very nature, invisible.
But, our Lord went on, "Šin order that you may know that the Son
of Man has authority on earth to forgiven sins, I say to you, 'Rise,
take up your bed and go home.' And the man rose, took up his bed and
returned home praising God." Jesus linked the invisible and non-empirical
(forgiveness of sins) with the empirical, concrete and testable (the
healing of the paralytic¹s body). There is no split here between the
so-called "spiritual" and the empirical!
One of the ways that the apostles and the earliest Christians argued
that Jesus was the Christ of Israel and the Savior of the world was
by appeal to Old Testament prophecies which were fulfilled in him. The
earliest Christians, in presenting the Gospel as true, spoke to their
Jewish brethren in terms of Isaiah's prophecies or of Psalm 22 being
supernatural, predictive prophecies of what had just been fulfilled
in Jerusalem (and in Bethlehem before that). They were arguing that
Jesus was Israel's promised Messiah, the One promised and spoken of
by Moses, Isaiah, Daniel, etc. millennia prior to that time. And we
need to do a little work on that one, too. It has always been a major
arrow in the quiver of Christian presenters.
Another integral aspect on an evidential approach to the defense of
the Gospel as true centers on miracle, particularly the miracles performed
by our Lord, and, even more specifically, his bodily resurrection from
the dead. And why is this such an integral part of the case? Very simply
because He pointed to these events as the ultimate verification of the
truth of His claims concerning Himself.
"If you do not believe My words, believe me on the basis of the
works that I do. They bear witness of Me."
"Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days."
"But just as Jonah was in the belly of the leviathan for three
days, even so (kathos) shall the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth
for three days."
The apostles made use of the argument from the resurrection of Christ
with regularity. It was Peter who wrote the verse that is the sedes
doctrinæ for all of us to engage in apologetics when the non-Christian
demands it: "But always be prepared to give a reasoned defense
to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is within youŠ"
(1 Pt. 3:15). And it was the same Peter who spoke of being an eyewitness
to Christ's majesty and His resurrection from the dead. Think of his
words, "We have not followed cunningly devised fables when we made
known to you the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses
of His majesty." The key element in the apostles' defense of the
Gospel was miracle, and particularly Jesus' resurrection; our defense
should be no less centered on this.
And think of the practical advantages of this. As I mentioned, belief
in Christ's resurrection is central in Christian belief (1 Cor. 15 defines
what the Gospel consists of; read it carefully and compare what you
read there to what your pastor tells you the Gospel is!). In defending
the truth of the Gospel from this vantage point, one is returning to
one's evangelistic task in defending the fact of Christ's resurrection;
there is no split between "evangelism" and "apologetics"
here. Try to have that kind of clarity and connection with the ontological
argument, or some other philosophically-based approach!
In the evidential case we are going to have to deal with the matter
of the historical reliability of the gospels. It is unavoidable in an
evidential case. But, we are lucky. Today, the smorgasbord of what is
available and always increasing is evidence to the truth of the fact
that the primary documents of Christianity were early written and there
was not time to "fiddle" with them. Some have dated Mark in
the mid-50's. The earlier the dates of these books, the harder it would
have been for the followers of Christ to do "fornical kaboodelin"
with them. It is one thing to say, "I don't have to come to terms
with the reports of Christ's resurrection from the dead, because actually,
Luke was written by a drunken French monk in A.D. 800." You really
could avoid the claim that way. Unfortunately for the non-Christian,
he can't escape through that route. The dating of these documents is
integral to the case.
In doing this, notice, we must not fall prey to that which we are so
easily seduced into--that is, extra-biblical evidences, whether it is
the Shroud, Josephus, etc. First of all, we should build the case for
the historical integrity and reliability of what is in the gospel accounts.
This might take something so basic and simple that it almost embarrasses
me to mention it in a group like this, but with the non-Christian it
is important. We must ask him to imagine cutting the beautiful leather
off his Bible, trimming the gold edges off, darkening the red letters
of Jesus' words, and tearing it into separate books. The non-Christian
has it in mind that it is a "holy book," and that one must
not treat this as if it were a compilation of sources from the pens
of Paul or Peter or the other Apostles. We must get him to imagine that
these are historical reports, or letters, written very "early on
in the game." Also, we must evaluate them in the same way we would
a manuscript of some other secular or antique work. We must help the
non-Christian to see that we are not viewing the Bible as a gold edged,
leather-bound book let down out of heaven on a string. Sometimes the
orthodox high doctrine of inspiration can bite us in ways we do not
expect. What we want to deal with is whether this particular letter,
or this particular biography, is dated early, and whether it was written
by people who were eyewitnesses of the events. This is done in the same
way we would examine any other work coming to us from antiquity. Notice,
we are not asking the non-Christian to employ a "religious method"
in order to arrive at the answer to the religious truth question. What
we are asking is for him to employ what he does in his ordinary life.
Application at Rockwell Cafeteria
Most apologetic conversations center on one or two of about eight or
nine questions. Paul Little summarizes these nicely in his book, Know
Why You Believe. There is no high-level degree required to understand
this material at all. Remember Peter's words quoted earlier about always
being ready to give a defense. This doesn't take a master's degree or
doctorate work. It can be learned by the average layman without committing
to years of study. The major problem is that since the same questions
are answered over and over again, we simply "tune out." The
temptation is to leave the conversation, because we¹ve answered this
same question so many times before.
Another obvious advantage of approaching the defense of Christian truth
through evidence is the connection with science. The possibility of
empirical evidence is always attractive to a scientist. Most of you
know that I spent three of my four baccalaureate years in pre-medical
studies. That meant that I lost the advantage of many of you in the
humanities--while many of you were learning the history of the West,
I was inhaling formaldehyde fumes as I dissected another cat or dogfish.
This sort of argumentation touches someone in the field of science because
things of the past are legitimate sources of scientific inquiry. There
was a big fight in the positivist movement over this. That is, some
said, "Something is only science if it is repeatable." Then,
someone asked, "What about geology?" Brows furrowed, until
finally the positivist relented, "All right, it¹s in." Then
someone asked, "What about history?" And another fight ensued.
But with geology in, there was no stopping history. That is, if you
have dependable eyewitness accounts describing the macro-facts of what
took place in front of them, and recorded them with any degree of accuracy,
the one who is a true scientist will agree that this opens the door
for him to evaluate the truth claims of the facts on the grounds of
What about an evidential defense and the field of logic? Obviously,
there are natural connections. There are Calvinism's coherence-epistemology
and presuppositionalism, and Lutheranism's coherence-to-fact epistemology
and evidentialism. The evidentialist yearns for more than correspondence
to fact. Surely, he wants logical consistency, as well. When there is
a "Y" in the road, which way does one move? Are the facts
to be followed, even if we cannot fit the matter into a logical framework
without some loose ends? Or, do we opt for formal, logical consistency
and ride loose with the facts? Science had to make this decision when
confronted with quantum theory. The experimental data gave hard data
that seem to lead them in opposing directions. Some experiments showed
that light exerted force. Other experiments showed that light behaved
as waves. These two do not logically co-exist. So, did they follow a
presuppositional scientist who said, "I know which side we can
hold with logical consistency. Drop that side and we¹ll hold to this
side." No, they did not. Instead, they affirmed that mathematically,
both situations were true.
An evidential approach links "Christian" knowledge with knowledge
as we have access to it in the rest of our lives (remember what it means
that "Šthe Word became flesh"). This is no esoteric approach--what
we are asking of the non-Christian here is to take the same approach
that he would use to discover whether John Kennedy was shot in Dallas,
Texas on November 22, 1963 or whether he actually slipped on a banana
peel in the town of Crankshaft, Oklahoma on Halloween Eve, 1974.
We need not, with an evidential approach, require that the non-Christian
presuppose the truth of Christianity before we can discuss the matter
together. That is actually, finally, what a presuppositionalist does!
He really is saying to the non-Christian, "Well, since you are
a non-Christian and your mind is totally fallen, we cannot even discuss
the matter of the Gospel unless you first assume that there is a Triune
God, that the Son became incarnate, that he died for the sin of the
world, that he rose again for its justification, that the Bible is the
inspired and inerrant Word of God, and that the best and most faithful
exposition of the message of the Bible is John Calvin's work, The Institutes
of the Christian Religion. Presuppose these things and we can talk."
Now, what is the upshot of all this? Obviously, the recommendation
that we do evangelism in an evidential style. It will require some reading
(it's finite). Unlike apologists of a generation ago, who in America
had only the works of C.S. Lewis (which came slow to America), Wilbur
Smith's Therefore Stand (still in print), and the new work of
a Baptist, Bernard Ramm, and finally, the books of Edward John Carnell.
We live in a day when we have a plethora of apologetic material in print,
available at variegated levels.
The other upshot of all this is that we are the ones called to evangelize.
We don't get to say, "Let my pastor do it. He went to seminary."
Fortunately, apologetics does not require a degree of any sort. But
we must start in our parishes, teaching our children, correcting their
curricula, holding classes, etc. All this is do-able. We are not called
to quit our jobs to begin reading the necessary materials. Much of this
is very straightforward, and we are called to be ready to give a defense
for what we believe. It is a finite task, and can be accomplished if
we start in the context of Sunday Schools. I recommend it, to the evangelization
of the world in our generation, and to the glory of the name of the
Dr. Rod Rosenbladt is professor of religion at Concordia University,
Irvine, CA, and is a host of the White Horse Inn radio program. He is also a contributing
author to Christianity For the Tough Minded, The Agony of Deceit,
and Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation.