Friday, December 23, 2005

Brief Introduction to Christian Apologetics

This paper was presented at the 20th Dec 2005 Agora meeting.

The word Apologetics derived from the Greek word ‘apologia’ (απολογια), which basically means ‘defense’. This word has been used to describe one’s formal justification in the court of law. Thus, Apologetics have nothing to do with admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret [1]. Apologetics is one giving a statement of justification for his/her belief or state of affairs.

Nature of Apologetics
Christian Apologetics is about defending the truthfulness of Christian faith that was revealed to us by Jesus Christ, and answering honest objections that are hindering people from accepting Him. B.B Warfield defined Apologetic as ‘the systematically organized vindication of Christianity in all its elements and details, against all opposition.’[2]

Christian apologists are required to have an utmost commitment to the Truth; that is our Lord, Jesus Christ. And it is through this commitment Apologetics found its purposes. Simply say, without any commitment to the Truth, there is nothing to be justified and none to be defended of.

The driving force in Apologetics is and should be biblical theology. This highlights the fact that there is always an inclination for apologists to replace their foundation with philosophy rather than biblical truth. Whenever this replacement took place, Apologetics that attempt to defend orthodox Christian theism will only end up defending something else. For example: A non-theological based method of conducting Apologetics may still defend the existence of God, but it will not defend the entire historical Christian’s doctrine of God. This is thus, because theology in Apologetics acts as the essential pillars in Christian faith that set itself as the one and only Truth; excluding it from other worldview or religion. And if any of these essential teachings were not uphold in Christianity, the belief would collapse; it cannot remain as Christianity but turn into some pseudo-Christian belief. Thus, in view of this, Apologetics’ main concern is in upholding the truthfulness of these basic doctrines and defending them from threats from within the Christian community and without. In a defense, both negative (defense) and positive (offend) apologetics are encouraged; the former being demonstrating that belief in Christianity is not irrational or absurd, while the latter build the case for Christianity as the only true belief among the rest in the great marketplace of ideas. In this matter, Apologetics is the mastery of the art of riposte.

Role of ‘Proof’ in Apologetics
‘Proof’ in the classical sense is not very much relevant in today’s society as it was in the pre-postmodern era. In those times, under the influence of Rene Descartes, the degree of proving was measured by absolute certainty. The Cartesian’s epistemology has made certainty impossible to be achieved. Contemporary Apologist Ron Choong [3] pointed out that the term ‘proof’ demands a prior agreement as to what constitutes acceptable satisfaction for proof; such as the scientific notion of repeatable experimentation or logical analysis. As senior fellow of The Agora Malaysia, David Chong, observed that it is impossible to have some kind of bombproof knowledge in Apologetics, given our finiteness, limitation and sinfulness.

Therefore in Apologetics, the term ‘inference to the best explanation’ is more preferable than ‘proof’, as suggested by Paul Feinberg. It is a rational approach of conducting Apologetics by engaging in seeking to understand Christian faith and other religion or worldview as a system of belief. From there, we test the truthfulness of each worldview to see which would provide the best explanation that conforms to reality [4].

Function and the Purpose of Apologetics
Steven B. Cowan, in his book ‘5 views on Apologetics’, listed 2 vital functions of Apologetics in our Christian living: (1) To bolster the faith of Christian believers, and (2) to aid in the task of evangelism [5]. In other words, through Apologetics, Christians can be secured as reasonable and rationally justified in embracing Christian faith, and, in the hope that, non-believers could be shown that Christianity is the Truth that they cannot reject without being irrational. Secondly, Apologetics helps in bridging or building the communicating track that would reach out to the non-believers in evangelism. In one way, it serves as a shield to defend, and in another, building a common ground for the non-believer to see the grace and the truth of Jesus Christ. Thus, Apologetics sometimes are recognized as a part of ‘Pre-evangelism’. Perhaps Ron Choong offered a more comprehendible description of Apologetics, “…Apologetics is not in the business of proving anything. It serves two functions, to comfort the believer that his commitment to convictional confession is reasonable and to explain to the unbeliever why this is so.” [6] For convenient sake, I would regard ‘Personal Faith’ as the first function and ‘Pre-evangelism’ as the second.

Personal Faith
Engaging in Apologetics helps to develop a comprehensive Christian worldview. While it is not entirely the scope of Apologetics in building worldview, but it is an extra that can be gain by training ourselves in Apologetics. Basically Apologetic is countering anti-Christianity ideas or worldviews or philosophies. To counter these, apologists have to seek hard to build their view of seeing things through Christ’s eyes, which would present a view that correspond to reality more, and to provide a better explanation (if possible, solution) than its rivals. In this sense, Apologetics helps in strengthening one’s faith by affirming the reliability of one’s belief.

Secondly, practicing Apologetic is in obedient to the second greatest commandment that is ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself’ (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27). Why is this so? As blessed with education and literacy, we are thus obliged to defense our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are still young in their faith. C.S Lewis remarked:

‘To be ignorant and simple now- not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground- would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethrens who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” [7]

In view of that, we should always be willing to protect the younger believers from being toss thro and fro easily by the currents of anti-Christ ideas as to prevent them from being deceived. As Abraham Kuyper stated in his book titled ‘Lecture on Calvinism’, the only way to stand against all these attacks, we have to articulate a true Christian worldview “of equally comprehensive and far-reaching power.”

This function of Apologetics can be understood as “a surgical tool to remove excess ‘intellectual’ fat so that the gospel could reach the mind more precisely with less interference”, noted Ron Choong [8]. Simply say is that; Apologetics removes barriers that keep people from believing by answering their honest questions. In our world today, just as in the past, there are numerous circulations of deceiving, blaspheming, and anti-Christ ideas. And these ideas are prevailing not only in the secular world but had found its way into the local churches. Such barrier is the main one that prevents effective evangelism. As theologian Gresham Machen observed, “False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here or there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the relentless force of logic, prevents Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion”. [9]

Simply say, if we allow Christian faith to be viewed as some illogical fantasy by the world, our evangelism would not bear much fruit even if we preach as zealous as the reformers. This is where Apologetics step in. We have to develop a ‘pre-evangelism’ ground between the non-believers and us. And Apologetics is one of the best grounding work, if not the best, given by God. It builds a common ground acceptable to pre-believers reasonably and convincingly as it can be. This ground is like a ‘bridge’ for the flow of the gospel to the inquirer.

Limit of Apologetics
As good as any system of thoughts can be, there are still limits and temptations within the domain of Apologetic. One of the limits in Apologetic is that it cannot forces belief. As noted of its importance and weakness, author Tan Soo-Inn states,” I don't think apologetics can compel belief. Its task is to show the reasonableness of our faith to believers and unbelievers alike...” [10] For example: Apologetics can demonstrate the historical reliability of the gospels but it cannot forces the unbelievers to accept the fact even though it has been demonstrated of it rationality. Thus, it is in this gap the work of the Holy Spirit fits in. This gap also known as the ‘noetic effects of sin’ by theologians. It is an idea that the Fall had negatively affected the ability and the willingness of unbelievers to accept the presented arguments even though those arguments were good.

Temptation in Apologetics
As mentioned earlier in the Nature of Apologetics, very often Apologetics motive led to doctrinal compromise if the pillars of Apologetics are anything other than orthodox Christian theism. Usually apologists are inclined to demonstrate the case for Christianity with better persuasive rigor. And to do this, apologists are tempted to replace Christian doctrines with popular philosophies [11].

For example: The 2nd century apologists Justin Martyr and the 13th century Thomas Aquinas displayed a similar motivation that they compromised the Christian doctrine of creation, to accommodate Aristotelian idea that God and the universe have existed paralleling one another in an infinite time frame. Another example is the current Open Theism that compromises the foreknowledge of God for the humanitarian notion of free will.

Another temptation to apologists is fame and recognition. When one’s knowledge has been widely recognized, pride will just be at the door front waiting to devour. It is a struggle that anyone from international apologist Ravi Zacharias to local lay apologists will get into. Thus, besides constant prayers, reflection and devotion, apologists should remember the first attitude in practicing Apologetics: Humility before God and His words.

Objection against Apologetics
Apologetics presuppose objective truth exists and knowable, yet in these postmodern times, truth became either unknowable or relative. This serves the main objection towards the practice of Apologetics. Postmodernist holds that, as long as truth is untenable, there is no truth to be defended. This claim strikes the heart of Apologetics. Therefore, scrutinizing postmodernism is a necessary task of Apologetics, which ignorance of it is nothing but a fatality to the vocation. As Nancy Pearcey noted,” As Christians we must make it clear that we are not offering a subjective, private faith that is immune to rational scrutiny. We are making cognitive claims about objective knowledge that can be defended in public arena”[12].

Theology of Apologetics
“Theology is reasoned discourse concerning God”, wrote Christ Seminar’s general secretary, Yen Nie [13]. As mentioned in the Nature of Apologetics above, the driving force behind Apologetics is and should be biblical theology (a biblical reasoned discourse concerning God). This is imperative to every apologist. No Christian apologists obliged to defend something that he is not part of.

Defending the truthfulness of the gospels has been in practice by Christians since the time of the apostles. Paul saw his major activity in ministry as ‘defending and confirming’ the gospel to the gentiles (Philippians 1:7). Given the historical background of the early churches in the Middle East and Europe, Christian faith was no less being threatened by heretics than in our generation. The records that imply the attempts of pagans and pseudo-Christians to corrupt and pervert the gospel can be found in many places in the New Testament such as 1 Cor 3:1-4, 2 Cor 11:1-15, Gal 1:7-9, Col 2:8, 1 Tim 1:3-4, Heb 5:12-14, 2 Pet 2:1-3, and 1 John 4:1-2. Besides these, many writings of the early church fathers were concerned with the prevailing heresies of that time. For example: Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) – Dialogue, Irenaeus (130-200 AD) – Against Heresies, Tertulian (155-225 AD) – Against Marcion, Jerome (347-420 AD) – Against the Pelagians, and Augustine (354-430 AD) – Against Manichaeaus [14].

Therefore, it is not a wonder that there are apostolic commandments in the Bible that urges believers to pick up the task of Apologetics. In Hebrews 5:13-14, mature believers were asked to constantly train themselves to distinguish between the good and evil (this includes discerning truth from falsehood – 1 John 4:6). In his letter, Paul required Timothy to use the inspired Scripture to teach, rebuke, correct, train, and equip believers for their Christian living. In fact, apostles Peter gave the clearest instruction in 1 Peter 3:15 that we should set our hearts apart for Christ and always be prepared to give an answer and reason to everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have. All of these were the duty of the apostles and the early church leaders in protecting the gospel and the church of Christ from heretical teachings as well as the anti-Christ heathen philosophies. In line with the importance of this duty to preserve the purity of the gospel, Christians are admonished to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and [to] take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor 10:5).

Apologetics support Jesus Christ’s vision of the kind of worshipper that God seeks- those that worship in spirit and in truth. Many Christians nowadays worship in anything but of truth. Today churches are being filled with worshippers who are there every Sunday to get some kind of ‘good feelings’ without knowing the truthfulness of those feelings. They are blind in interpreting experience and emotion. Without scriptural interpretation, they are seeking mysticism rather than the Truth that edifies (Romans 12:2). This ecclesiastic chaos owed its debt to many uninformed, if not ill, church leaders.

In sum, the call for Apologetics by God through His Scripture, for the service of His Church is found in His own words: “[we] must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that [we] can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:9)

Apologetics involved in connecting Reason and Faith for one’s belief. Humans are created in God’s image and are required to live rationally and responsibly (Genesis 1:27, Colossians 3:10, Isaiah 1:18, Romans 1:19-20). It is by this given faculty that humans able to plainly infer from nature for the existence of a Creator.

Besides that, God made it a distinction between human and animal in which the former has rational and the ability to reason while the latter has not (Jude 1:10). Thus, our livelihood depends on the use of Reason in exploring and investigating our own lives. Socrates phrased it well, “An unexamined life is not worth living”. As for Faith, my friend, Steven Sim paraphrased, “An unexamined faith is not worth believing.”

Having said that, besides the theoretical-propositional approach, one must not conduct Apologetics without what master apologist William Lane Craig called as the ultimate apologetics, that is: our life [15]. It is our lives that serve as the main witness to the truthfulness that we claimed to defend. And this is also the most difficult Apologetics to be carried out. This Apologetics can only be done through the Holy Spirit working in us, transforming us every day to conform to the likeness of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29).

The Holy Spirit is of utmost significant in Apologetics. His work is crucial if Apologetics is to succeed in convincing unbelievers of the truth of Christianity. Gary Habermas wrote,” Human agency is not responsible for regeneration. Apart from God’s influence, conversion will never take place”. This means that, no matter how good our apologetic arguments are, they cannot by themselves bring a person to faith in Christ [16].

Varieties of Apologetics
There are many approaches in Apologetics as well. Just like any other human system, each approach has its own pros and cons. Nevertheless, one common ground among these 5 approaches is that their foundation is and always should be theology. Within these 5 methods; the Classical, Historical, and Cumulative belongs to the evidential camp, while Presuppositionalism and Reformed Epistemology belongs to the non-evidential one. By evidential, are those that rely on and apply evidences in their argument, and non-evidential is the evidence-uninvolved group.

Each case is argued or presented through different degree of reliance on philosophy and empirical facts. It is up to the comfort and expertise of the apologist to belong to any one camp. Though each method is weak at some points and strong at others, nevertheless, every approach is sacred and pleasing to God so long as his or her Apologetics is being practiced for the glory of God alone.

Classical Apologetic
The outstanding point of this method from the rest is that it appeals to Reason as the starting point to defend the faith. By reasoning from nature, classical Apologetic depends heavily on Natural Theology. Types of classical methods are Cosmological, Ontological, Morality, and Teleological. Classical Apologetic involved 2 stages in arguing the case for Christianity. Thus, it is also known as the ‘2-steps’ approach. Basically, step 1 is in the position to build a theistic framework through Natural Theology, while step 2 relies on historical evidences, such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the historical reliability of the gospels, in arguing for the truthfulness of Christian theism. Simply said, classical apologists establish God’s existence first, then only moves on to argue that this God is the Christian God. This method is both deductive and inductive laden.

Some of the past classical apologists are Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, William Paley, B.B Warfield and C.S Lewis (because of its long history in Apologetics, this method also known as the ‘traditional’ approach).

Modern classical apologists are William Lane Craig, J.P Moreland, Peter Kreeft, Norman Geisler, R.C Sproul, and Richard Swinburne. Current Intelligent Design (ID) movement proponents; William Dembski, Stephen Meyer, Jonathan Wells, Michael Behe, Guillermo Gonzalez, Hugh Ross and Jay W. Richard belongs to this camp as well.

Historical Apologetic (known as ‘Evidential Apologetic’ in ‘Five Views on Apologetics’)
This method is almost the same as classical Apologetic in it dependence on evidences in argument. The only difference is that historical Apologetic goes directly to historical evidences to argue for the truthfulness of Christianity, skipping the first step in classical approach. Therefore, it is known as the ‘1 step’ approach. This ‘1 step’ is an inductive case instead of applying both deductive and inductive as the Classical. Gary Habermas and N.T Wright are the few outstanding ones in this category [17].

Cumulative Apologetic
Adherents to the cumulative method practice Apologetic in an informal manner. This method “does not conform to the ordinary pattern of deductive or inductive reasoning" [18]. This approach overlaps the Classical and Historical Apologetics in the utility of Reason and evidence but it makes use of both in a different way.

Steven Cowan wrote,” It is an informal argument that pieces together several lines or types of data into a hypothesis or theory that comprehensively explains that data and does so better than any alternative hypothesis. This type of reasoning is called "adductive" reasoning.” He views this approach more like a “[legal] brief that a lawyer makes in a court of law or that a literary critic makes for a particular interpretation of a book” [19]. Due to it’s informal adductive nature, Norman Geisler referred it as Combinationalism while Gordon Lewis called it Verificationism [20].

Modern Cumulative apologists are C. Stephen Evans, Josh McDowell and Paul D. Feinberg.

Presuppositional Apologetic
Modern Presuppositionalism was discovered by neo-Calvinist Abraham Kuyper; developed by Herman Dooyewerd; popularized by Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, and Francis Schaeffer. Among the rest of the presuppositionalists, Cornelius Van Til was its most famous proponent, therefore this approach also known as VanTilianism.

This method requires the apologist to defend Christianity on certain presuppositions. Thus, its proponents must simply presuppose the truth of Christianity, that is the Bible, as the proper starting point in Apologetics. Presuppositionalists attempt to argue transcendentally- all meaning, every fact, and thoughts logically presuppose the God of the Scriptures. In this way, Christianity will be demonstrated as the one true belief that is consistent by giving the best description on reality. Although presuppositionalist is not against the use of evidence, but evidences involved in most presuppositionalism is none if not minimal. Instead, presuppositionalists are called to look into those presuppositions in interpreting evidences. However, John Frame (a student of Cornelius Van Til) is more open to the use of evidence in his practice of Presuppositionalism.

According to Norman Geisler, there are 3 types of Presuppositionalism: Revelational Presuppositionalism, Rational Presuppositionalism, and Practical Presuppositionalism [21]. Each of these Presuppositionalism overlaps with one another in their application of a presupposition analysis tool called ‘systematic consistency’. It is a tool to test the consistency in a belief system. The difference is that each camp developed their Apologetic from a different paradigm from this tool.

Revelational Presuppositionalism (Van Til, John Frame and Greg Bahnsen)
Starts from the Scripture (applies)à Transcendental argument to demonstrate that only through the view of the Scripture that every fact in the entire existence is meaningful and true. Other systems of belief cannot give real meaning in view of every fact in life.

Rational Presuppositionalism (Edward John Carnell, Gordon Clark and Carl F. H. Henry)
Starts from the Scripture (applies)à Rationality to demonstrate that only through the view of the Scripture that every event in the entire existence is rational. In other words, only Christianity able to give a rational interpretation of every event in life. Other systems of belief cannot offer rational interpretation in life events.

Practical Presuppositionalism (Francis Schaeffer)
Starts from the Scripture (applies)à Livability to demonstrate that only Christian truths can be live and practice in reality. Other systems of belief are unable to be consistently live or practice in conforming their own truths.

Overall, Presuppositionalism is a circular argument (starts with Christianity to proves the case for Christianity), as observed by John Frame himself [22], and it is favorable among those in the reformed tradition. Personally, I share the same view with Gary Habermas concerning this approach, “this position, if better described, not as a distinct apologetic method, but as a theological outlook on apologetics.”[23] I think the best contribution of this method is that it gives an overview of how Christian Apologetics should be like (see Nature of Apologetics above). John Frame, the student of Van Til acknowledged, “Perhaps presuppostionalism is more of an attitude of the heart, a spiritual condition, than an easily describable, empirical phenomenon.”

Reformed Epistemology Apologetic
This approach revolutionized the entire field of religious epistemology when it was proposed by Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff and the rest of those involved in the project Reformed Epistemology by Calvin College [24]. The root of this approach can be traced back to the great reformer John Calvin himself, that the belief in God is properly basic and need not any evidence.

This approach is being viewed as a negative apologetic. That means it simply answers objections against the faith and offers no (or a weak and inadequate) form of apologetics for Christian beliefs [25]. Though does not give a positive argument, nevertheless Reformed Epistemology offers a profound view on knowledge that affected not only the Christian circles but the whole epistemology studies in the secular world as well.


Despite various methods of practicing Apologetic, it is up to the comfort and expertise of the apologist to belong to any one camp. As mentioned, each method has weak and strong points; nevertheless, every approach is sacred and pleasing to God so long as his or her Apologetics is being practiced for the glory of God alone.


[1] and

[2] Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker, 1999, articles: B.B Warfield, pg.768

[3] Ron is the founder of ACTS ministry in New York:

[4] Cited in Five Views on Apologetics by Steven Cowan, Zondervan 2000, pg.151. Feinberg listed several ways to test for truthfulness such as Test of Consistency, Test of Correspondence, Test of Comprehensiveness, Test of Simplicity, Test of Livability, Test of Fruitfulness, and Test of Conservation.

[5] Steven Cowan, Five Views on Apologetics, pg.8. (Viewable introduction here:

[6] From my correspondence with Ron

[7] Cited in Philosophical Foundation for Christian Worldview by J.P Moreland and William Lane Craig, pg.17

[8] From my correspondence with Ron

[9] Cited in Philosophical Foundation for Christian Worldview, pg.2

[10] From my correspondence with Tan Soo-Inn

[11] Cited in Reformed Apologetics: An Invitation to the Presuppositionalism of Cornelius Van Til by Samuel Ling

[12] Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, Crossway Books, 2004, pg.222

[13] Yen Nie, article: Theology- Why bother? The article is here:

[14] Norman Geisler, Chosen but Free (2nd ed), Bethany House, 2001

[15] William L. Craig, Reasonable Faith, Crossway Books, 1994, pg.302

[16] Cited in Five Views on Apologetics, pg. 376

[17] See Gary Habermas’ ‘The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ’ and ‘The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus’; N.T Wright’s ‘The New Testament and the People of God’, ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, and ‘The Resurrection of the Son of God’.

[18] Basil Mitchell, The Justification of Religious Belief, Oxford University Press, 35


[20] Cited in the footnotes of Five Views on Apologetics, pg. 17

[21] Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, articles: Apologetics, Types of, pg.44

[22] Cited in Five Views on Apologetics, pg.217

[23] Cited in Five Views on Apologetics, pg.241

[24] See Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God, ed. Alvin Plantinga & Nicholas Wolterstorff, University of Notre Dame Press, 1983

[25] The analysis of this method by Dr. Michael Sudduth can be read here:


The Hedonese said...

Wow! This is the topic I've been longing to do for Agora, and your research will be of great help if we do it next year...

Discussing the limits, benefits and approaches of apologetics.. it's pretty comprehensive for a short talk!

if i may suggest areas to beef up, maybe a discussion on fideism under "objections" which has a long history in christian theology b4 pomo thingy.. and a lil' detail tat open theism is a sort of 'middle ground' between process theology and classical theism

How successful it has been is debatable of course! :)

Quixie said...

I surfed onto your site accidentally. Not bad.

The following is a wonderful piece about the function and form of apologetics.

Quixie said...

oops . . . i forgot the link . . . sorry . . .

(mind the wrap)



jacksons said...

"fideism" and "epistemology" are big issues of our time, and it would be great to pick your brains on this matter.

Kevin Parry said...

I hope you don't mind if I save this article. Although I'm an atheist, I've always been interested in apologetics. Your article provides a good introduction.

mark said...

i was under the impression that rational presuppositionalism was somewhat different and did not start with or assume scripture.

the foward in the book entitled "Benjamin B. Warfield and Right Reason" described it in a somewhat different sense.
it was described in terms of using reason (the laws of thought) as a test for meaning of ones presuppositions or basic beliefs.

is there anyone who has happened to have read that book and can comment on the difference? im somewhat confused as to what RP is now.