Testing the Rational Foundations of the Faith

Apologetics is a reasoned defense of a position. In a Christian context, the biblical basis is from 1 Peter 3:15: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” Studying apologetics is a little hobby of mine, but as far as it is an application of 1 Peter 3:15 (and 1 Thessalonians 5:21) it is also a necessary part of life as a Christian.

I’d like to start a category on this blog for Apologetics topics. If this site is all about putting 1 Thessalonians 5:21 into practice, then testing the very foundations of Christianity sounds like an appropriate area of study. I’m fully convinced that the Christian faith is rational, and the task of apologetics is to show that. As a Christian who fancies himself an intellectual, it really bothers me when I see other Christians behave and think irrationally. My intellectual bent isn’t the only reason that I think so, though. The Bible is full of exhortations to think, to seek wisdom, to understand, and to grow in knowledge. We are called to love the Lord with all our minds, and be transformed by the renewing of those minds. There are even entire books of the Bible devoted to wisdom (Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). 

I recoil at fideism. The idea that faith and reason are hostile to each other, that faith is a leap one takes in lack of, or in spite of reason. While faith is not the same thing as reason, faith as a concept is not in opposition to it.

Faith is belief or trust in an authority. If I have faith in someone, I trust that what they say is the truth. Now I can have faith in an authority without any good reason for thinking that person is trustworthy. (All of us have been guilty of the common logical fallacy known as appealing to authority.) On the other hand, there might be very good reasons for thinking a person is worthy of trust. In this case, the faith placed in this person is in harmony with reason; it isn’t hostile to it.

So, Christians have faith in Jesus – we trust that what He reveals to us is true and corresponds to reality. We trust Him when He says that we are sinners, and need a savior. We trust Him when He tells us that He is the only savior. We trust Him when He says the Old Testament is the Word of God, and the writings of the apostles (the New Testament books) represent Him, and therefore are also the Word of God.

(The nature of the content of this sort of faith, the Biblical saving faith, is also more than an ascent of the mind, but also a yielding of the heart. It’s a belief-in, not just a belief-that; a submission of the will to the truth of which the mind is convinced.)

So the question of apologetics is, are there good reasons to think Jesus is faith-worthy? Do we have good reasons to think we know what He said? Can He be trusted?

Apologetics is not Evangelism

Apologetics is not the same as evangelism. This is important. Now, apologetics is a tool that can be used by Christians when evangelizing, but preaching the gospel, and being used by the Holy Spirit to save lost souls is not one and the same as apologetics. Believing is by hearing, and hearing by the word of God, as we saw in Romans 10:

For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!”

The Holy Spirit seeking the lost is not the work of human reasoning, and so the task of an evangelist is not to convince or argue a person into believing. However, reasoning and arguments may be tools used by the evangelist. Apologetics can remove barriers to belief, if those barriers are caused by some intellectual doubt. While people have the capacity for rationality, few of us make important life-decisions based on pure logic. So very often, our worldview and beliefs are formed by our desires and bias, not by pure intellect. After all, belief is an act of the will (a yielding of the will, in the case of the gospel), so belief-in does not necessarily follow from belief-that. But, to the extent that belief-that is required for belief-in, apologetics has its use.

Perhaps the best use of apologetics, however, is for the believer. For those who already call themselves Christians, discovering the reasonableness and rationality of one’s faith will do wonders to strengthen that faith. If for no other purpose, apologetics is useful because understanding more about God and His word, will help the one who knows God, get to know Him and His word better. And what could be more practical than that?

The Proper Apologetic Method

There is not enough time or room to fully justify this, but I’m convinced the right approach to a rational defense of Christianity is what’s known as the Classical Approach. The classical approach claims that the basis for faith – the trustworthiness of the Bible – can be demonstrated. Now the classical approach does not say God’s existence, for example, can be demonstrated with mathematical certainty. “This is because mathematical certainty deals only with the abstract, and the existence of God (or anything else) is a matter of concrete, real existence.”1 Mathematical proofs have a deductive quality, and their own unique precision. As a mere layman in this field, I would explain this difference in this way: there are many more avenues to doubt philosophical proofs than there are avenues to doubt a mathematical proof.

Even so, Classical Apologetics would claim that valid, philosophical proofs can be given for God’s existence, as well as the major attributes traditionally associated with God. These attributes would include omnipotence, omniscience, and eternality, as well as His being the all-good ground of morality.  This approach is in contrast to the Evidentialist approach, which says there is good evidence for it, but it is only probabilistic, not demonstrable; and the Presuppositionalist approach, which claims the truths of the Bible must be presupposed for reason itself to be possible.2

The Classical approach to apologetics is broadly as follows:

1. Establish that the God of Theism exists.
This step brings us to a general Theism, which is compatible with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

2. Show that the New Testament manuscripts that record the life, words, and especially the resurrection of Jesus are historically reliable (it isn’t necessary to establish inerrancy, that comes later). Then, given the success of step 1, this step would conclude that God raised Jesus from the dead in vindication of His claims.

3. Directly following from this, we can establish the authority of the New and Old Testaments as the word of God on Jesus’s authority. The rest is hermeneutics.
If step 2 didn’t already, this step eliminates Judaism and Islam from the possible worldviews, and leaves us with the Bible as the definitive and exclusive revelation of the Theistic God established in step 1.

In the next few weeks, I hope to look at one attempt at step 1. I’d like to explain one version of what’s called the Cosmological Argument for God’s existence. The Cosmological Argument is a category of arguments that attempt to reason from the world, or cosmos, to God. There are many other arguments, including the Ontological Argument, the Teleological Argument, and the Moral Argument, and there are many variations within these. Some of these variations work better than others. From my perspective, the cosmological argument category contains the most compelling and logically successful sort of argument, and it also seems like a reasonable approach according to Romans 1:19-203: “His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made…”

Check out this example of a cosmological argument, and let’s see A) if it can withstand scrutiny, and B) if we can learn anything from the exercise.

1 http://normangeisler.com/an-apologetic-for-apologetics/ BACK

2This is even stranger than it may sound at first. It’s not obvious at first what presuppositionalists mean by their claims. When I first started looking into their approach, it seemed like, “an emphasis on examining the things we all presuppose, and asking if they make sense given our worldview.” But that is not what they’re saying. That is what every apologist does to some degree. As it turns out, they are not trying to make an ontological point (what must be true, for reason to be possible), they’re trying to make an epistemological point (what we must know, or presuppose, for reason to be possible). This deserves a post all its own, especially since it touches on some very basic errors that I think pervade the Reform Theology camp. BACK

3 If this opens up ridiculous number of questions regarding Christian epistemology, congratulations, you’re a nerd! Which just means, you desire to deeply understand the truth. But this is another huge topic that can’t be dealt with here. BACK

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