Apologetics

Review of “Apologetic Methods” by J. Brian Huffling, PhD

Over the past few posts I have been defending the idea of circular-reasoning, when it comes to ultimate standards/commitments. Originally, I had planned on closing this section of dialogue with a review of Paul’s defense of the Christian faith in Athens. However, something has been brought to my attention that I believe will be fruitful for you the reader. Recently, a fellow blogger posted a link to an article written by J. Brian Huffling, PhD entitled: Apologetic Methods and a Case for Classical Apologetics. The article concisely describes various apologetic methodologies, and then promotes what the author believes is the best method to use.  Along the way, he offers a critique of Presuppositional/Transcendental Apologetics of which I am an advocate.

I thought the article was excellent in that it supports what I have been saying all along—i.e. it is impossible to argue your position without appealing to the standard you trust in.  In other words, when it comes to ultimate commitments people argue in a circle. Now, I do not know Dr. Huffling personally and so I want to make it clear that this is not an attack on his character or a questioning of his professed faith in Christ. But I do hope to offer a helpful critique in intermural fashion.

Similar journeys towards Christian apologetics regarding motivations, not content…

My journey into Christian apologetics was not something I had originally sought. I was first introduced to the idea of defending the Christian worldview in 2005.  I found it extremely interesting and it stirred my heart, but I figured that this was only for those really smart people. During my sophomore year at Nazarene Bible College I was introduced to the writings of the early Church fathers. Men like Polycarp and Tertullian captivated my attention. I was enamored by the courage of Polycarp in his defense of the faith, and Tertullian’s argumentation against pagan thought. I also marveled over the statement by Tertullian that the “blood of the martyrs [i.e. Christian witnesses] is the seed of the Church.”

Similarly, I want to offer a cogent argument for my faith in the hope that people might be saved in Jesus Christ. The goal of the Christian witness is to present the gospel of our Lord in all its beauty so that Christ is glorified, repentance is granted, and a new life (eternally) is received. Being a Christian witness entails both our sharing and our defending the biblical worldview to a lost and dying world.

Differences in Christian apologetic methodology…

The question is how? How do we communicate our faith so that the message gets through? What is the proper method for answering the critique or edifying the fellow believer? Christian apologetics is committed to “…contend[ing] for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1.3).  Huffling thinks that the best approach for doing this is found in Classical apologetic (hereafter C. A.) method.  He defines this methodology in the following way:

  • “Classical apologetics has been called a two-stepped method. The first step is to prove the existence of God via traditional theistic proofs (the various cosmological arguments, design arguments, ontological, etc.). This method holds to the possibility of natural theology—the ability for reason to demonstrate God’s existence…The second step is to prove the veracity of Christianity by showing, for example (but not necessarily in this exact fashion), that miracles are possible, the Bible is reliable, Jesus claimed and proved himself to be God, etc.” (par 2; emphasis added).

This two-step process is seen as superior to Presuppositional apologetics (hereafter P.A.) because 1) it is believed that it avoids circular-reasoning, and 2) steers clear of the “impossibility of the contrary” (cf. par 12) argumentation which consistent P.A.’s use. Huffling also believes that C.A. provides the necessary framework for properly understanding “evidences for Christianity in a theistic context” (par 11). He states that C.A. “before arguing for God…starts with knowing reality and the absolute nature of truth” (par 10). You may wonder how C.A. is able to do this? By appealing to “natural theology” (par 8).  This is an interesting admission and we shall return to it, but first I want to make some quick clarifications.

What is meant by arguing from the “Impossibility of the Contrary?”

Huffling believes that when a P.A. argues in this fashion this is what they are doing:

  • “Those who hold to this method [P.A.] argue that we should argue for Christianity based on the impossibility of the contrary. In other words, since other worldviews and religions are show to be false, Christianity must be true” (par 4; italics added).

There are two things that immediately catch my attention when I read his definition. First, he couches the argument in a step-by-step fashion that reverses the order of our reasoning. The P.A.’s overarching position is not that we assume other worldviews are false, and therefore Christianity must be true. Rather, we assume Christ first (Jesus is not just our starting point, but our endpoint as well), and then demonstrate why Christianity is true.  This is not a unique approach as all worldview adherents do this. No one is bipartisan when it comes to their faith commitments. A position of neutrality is a false distinction that no one really believes or practices.

Secondly, he fails to accurately represent what is meant by this form of argumentation.  Apologetic debate/argument/dialogue occurs when two opposing faith-systems collide. The argument for the impossibility of the contrary is geared towards offering an internal critique of those two-opposing faith-systems.1 Asking the vital question of which worldview assumptions truly make knowledge possible.

In other words, which worldview provides the necessary preconditions that make knowledge possible? Which governing assumptions make my senses reliable? Which set provides the proper foundation for mathematics? Which makes scientific inquiry possible? What worldview provides the basis for language, communication, and logical argumentation?

A couple examples…

For example, the relativist assumes that truth is constantly influx, changing from one context to another and derived from a variety of environmental factors. They proudly assume that “What’s true for you is not true for me. You have your truth and I have mine.” The Christian believes all truth is rooted in our Creator and therefore absolute; not determined by circumstance, environment or the passing of time. By performing an internal critique of the person’s base assumptions of reality/knowledge derived from their worldview, the believer rightly points out, “If what you say is true, then it is false.” Your basis for knowing eliminates the possibility for knowing.

The same may be said of a materialistic atheist who believes that matter is all that exists. This view of reality teaches that immaterial things on nonexistent (in theory not in practice), and things that have happened in the past are products or chance, accident, or a universe in chaos.  If those things are true, then they are false. Logic, mathematics, science, the reliability of our senses, etc. are not possible based upon the presuppositional commitments of the relativist or materialistic atheist.  All that the impossibility of the contrary argument attempts to do is demonstrate the reliability or the unreliability of the person’s worldview by comparing them in light of what warrants the preconditions necessary for obtaining knowledge. If the Triune God of Scripture is in fact the creator of reality, then it will only be in reference to Him that all truth may be known.

Dreaded Circular-Reasoning

Like most Christian philosophers today, Huffling puts and “X” on circular-reasoning. This is a known sin to many Christian philosophers/apologists. But as I have been saying in previous posts, when it comes to ultimate standards there is really no way around it.

Take for example the label “Christian apologist,” what is the implication that we ought to see, but sometimes fail to recognize? The very label identifies the circular nature of the defense.  We are being challenged (either politely or impolitely) for our faith commitments. We are being asked “Why do you have hope in the Christian faith?” From the outset our defense is geared toward proclaiming the Christ of the Bible.

Peter tells the Christians he was writing to in the first century to presuppose Christ—set Him apart as Holy in your hearts (1Pet 3.15).  In other words, Jesus is our primary commitment.  The Christian apologetic is hinged on Christ, the anchor of our hearts. Contextually, this means we do not think/reason as the non-Christian does (cf. 1Pet 3.14), while identifying how we are to respond when asked for the reason of this hope we cling to (v.15).

On what grounds? Do we provide the reason for the hope we have apart from what we have our hope in? Do we lay aside our hope in order to defend our hope? I hope not. No, Scripture is pretty clear that we start with Christ, reason like Christ touching on aspects of His truth along the way, in order to reason to (lead to) Christ.

Huffling identifies circular reasoning as one of the “many problems” with P.A. (par 12). He rightly points out that we appeal to the use of logic as one example of why not all circular reasoning is fallacious (false), but then says…

  • “such is not a circular problem, it is merely undeniable that reason is unavoidable in discussions or arguments. One is not using reason to prove reason; he is simply saying that it is unavoidable and undeniable” (par 12).

I’m not sure if Huffling realizes it or not, but he has just used a form of the impossibility of the contrary argument. He has stated that using logic in our reasoning is not circular, but axiomatic (i.e. self-evident truth). Essentially, he is arguing that without using logic/reason one could not argue; therefore, it is impossible to not appeal to logical reasoning when coming to the knowledge of the truth. But, that is precisely the point!

Without logic one cannot reason logically, but in order to do so we must use logic to validate our logical argumentation—i.e. a necessary circle—because if we did not do so, we wouldn’t be able to prove anything. In other words, logic is a necessary precondition. This is true with all axioms. They must be assumed. If we did not assume them (axiomatic truths), then it would not be possible to argue at all.2 Is it not therefore, logical to assume the chief axiom of all reality, the One who makes sense of all reality, the Triune God of the Bible? Is not Christ the chief axiom of all Christian thought—the treasure trove of all knowledge and wisdom (Col 2.3), and therefore rightly assumed at the outset when we defend our faith in Him? For apart from Him our faith—including all knowledge and wisdom—loses its savor and is fit to be cast under the feet of all mankind!

The problem is that Huffling uses the very thing that he seeks to deny. First, he assumes C.A. is the superior method of all Christian apologetics, most of all over P.A.  He begins his article with the presupposition of “…the superiority of the classical method” (par 1), then touches on aspects of it along the way (cf. par 2, 4), in order to reason to (lead to) the conclusion that “…the classical model is more comprehensive than the others, puts miracles and evidences in a theistic context, and avoids the problems of presuppositionalism. Thus, classical apologetics is the strongest, most comprehensive model” (par 13). The very definition of a subtly circular argument. I do not fault him or others for this, but merely point it out because all do it.

Another Circular Assumption C.A.’s Draw From…

Moreover, Huffling makes an interesting admission about one of the key tenets of C.A.; natural theology.  Without the assumption of natural theology, C.A. falls on its head. Again, I want to remind the reader that he denies circular-reasoning as a valid form of argumentation, but I must ask from where does Huffling draw the presupposition that “natural theology” is warranted? Where do C.A.’s get their justification for using or appealing to natural theology? The Bible. He cites Romans 1:19-20, which reads

  • “…For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (ESV; italics added).

Huffling believes that “the Bible says we can know about God through nature” (par 7). Therefore, arguments from natural theology are seen as justifiable in the C.A. mindset in order to lead people to the possibility of God (cf. par 8). Moreover, he claims that C.A. provides the necessary framework for “knowing reality and the absolute truth of nature” (par 10) so that the miracles of the Bible (I assume like the Resurrection) make sense. Of course, without being coy, I must ask “on what grounds” does the C.A. truly know realty and absolute truth. Does nature teach this? If so, from where is this observation made? If it is an observation from nature (i.e. natural theology), what context is it interpreted from that makes it absolutely true for all reality?

This has always been one of the inherent problems with “natural theology” when used in this way, because nature does not “prove” anything, because nature does not “state” anything, for nature must always be “interpreted,” and this in turn raises the question of “Who’s interpretation is the correct one?” A universal standard is needed in order to verify the truthfulness of an interpretation.  Yard-sticks that are not universally three feet long will provide varying measures depending upon the manufacturer and user. And, they are fit for the trash heap.

In any event, the grounds for much—if not all—of C.A. methodology is built upon a belief that is drawn from biblical teaching. And to be quite frank not very well. Here I will close with my final criticism of C.A.’s prized method.

Misunderstanding and Therefore Misappropriating the Biblical Text

It is often stated that “we can know about God through nature” (par 7; italics added), and then references to passages like Roman 1:19-203 are given. However, I wonder how much care is given when reading the text. The text does not say that “we can know about God” as if that is somehow up in the air. The text says that all mankind does know God because He has made “it plain to them,” having “shown it to them.” These attributes of God are “clearly perceived, ever since the beginning of the world, in all things that have been made.” This text is cited as if Paul only throws out the possibility of knowing God, rather than actually knowing Him.4

However, the apostle is very careful in the use of his language. He does not say that mankind “can know,” but that they “do know.” And yet they willfully “suppress the truth” (v.18) and are before the judgment seat of their Creator “without excuse” (v.20). Or more literally, “without an apologetic.” Unbelievers are said to have no defense before God’s judgment (i.e. wrath, v. 18) because they are fully culpable about His existence as their Maker, but they would rather hold the ball under the water, than let it hit them in the face.

Herein lies the chief problem with the C.A. method of witnessing to the lost. They refuse to start with Christ in order to lead to Christ. They prefer to assume that knowledge is possible apart from God, and argue in one circle in order to get others to jump ship to the Christian circle. Which as you know is logically impossible. Circles are made of an unlimited number of points, but they are closed circuits. To assume that you can lead a person to one closed circuit from another closed circuit is an extraordinary claim, to quote Bill Nye.

But, if unbelievers are functioning on a different circuit than the believer—i.e. their worldview/standard is different—how do we get them to our circle? By presenting the truth of the Christian worldview cogently, passionately, and unswervingly committed to Jesus our Lord, and then allowing the Holy Spirit to do the one thing that we cannot hope to do…convert them to our circle by changing their heart. Or course that raises the question of having a proper anthropology, but that is a discussion best served on another day.

_______________________________

ENDNOTES:

1 Well, that is a bit of an overstatement. The argument for the impossibility of the contrary is one of the three legs that we analyze for determining whether or not the chair of the other person (the worldview and its interrelated presuppositions) is seated on can actually hold up under scrutiny. The other two legs, which work in coordination the one already mentioned, is arbitrariness and inconsistency.

2 Joe Boot, Why I Still Believe—Hint: It’s the Only Way the World Makes Sense (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 85. He writes, “In all argument we must take for granted the authority of certain ideas/principles (presuppositions) as a starting point, in order to evaluate the assumed authority of another person’s basic assumptions (i.e. theism and humanism, respectively). Given this circumstance—that we cannot argue at all without these presuppositions [axioms]—there is an inescapable circularity involved in argumentation.”

3 See Psa 19:1-6 which is often cited as further proof for the use of natural theology with unbelievers, but a wise person would compare such passages with Psa 92:5-6 which reads, “How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep! The stupid cannot know; the fool cannot under this” (cf. Jer 10.10-15).

4 It should be noted that this does not pertain to salvific knowledge, or a right relationship with the Creator of all things. The knowledge is plain and evident to all in the sense that it is wrong to deny God’s existence for all of creation testifies (proclaims the glory) of Him.  Often Christian philosophers seem to struggle with this distinction (I am not saying this is true of Dr. Huffling, I do not know), between knowing God and not knowing Him.  How can they both be true, for they appear to be a contradiction.

Let me answer that in the simplest way I can, by appealing to Scripture. Throughout Jesus incarnated ministry He was surrounded by those who knew Him but did not know him, and those who knew Him completely. This is demonstrated in a number of places in the gospels, but the testimony of Peter is appropriate.

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matt 16.13), and then a variety of answers were given. Then the Lord poses the same question directly to His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16.15). Here Peter answers confidently, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt 16.16). There were those who knew the Lord, but did not know Him. They knew His origin, son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter, the Nazarene. They knew of His power in teaching and in His control over creation, but knowing him they did not know Him (John 6.36) and Jesus said they would die in their sins (John 8.24). This line of thinking is what Paul applies when he writes Romans 1.

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