Christian apologetics: is there, besides the current popular approaches, another way to “take every thought captive”?

28 Aug
Room for another?  Can another transcend these?

Room for another? Can another transcend these?

“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” — 2 Cor. 10:5

There are generally thought to be three approaches to Christian apologetics. Definitions will vary, but here are what I think are some good ones.

One approach is known as fideism which says that the best defense of the faith is preaching the Gospel, and that “rational evidences” have nothing to do with the process.  Faith and reason, while both having their place, are opposed to one another like oil and water.

Presppositionalism has its roots in Calvinist theology, emphasizes the unbelievers darkened reason and the power of the Word of God to convert, and, according to John Frame, “should present the biblical God, not merely as the conclusion of an argument, but as the one who makes argument possible” (Cowan, Five Views on Apologetics, 2000, p. 220).

Evidentialism looks to engage a persons’ rational capacity and takes advantage of accepted methods of doing scientific and historical research. It examines the claims made about Jesus Christ by the eyewitnesses of the Biblical narratives, and looks to determine whether or not the claims are, as the Apostle Paul put it, “true and reasonable” (Acts 26).

What is one to make of the variety of approaches to Christian apologetics?

The 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard is usually classified as belonging to the “fideist” school of Christian apologetics, Basically, Kierkegaard says that there is something very suspect about a question like “What is the proper object of faith?”.  He says that to answer such a question is like a lover attempting to reply to the query, “Could you love another woman?”

In order to understand fideism, I think its important to “put the best construction on it”, something that presuppositonalist Alvin Plantiga seems to do (here is another well-written and intriguing post on the topic). Wikipedia has what I think is a very helpful and interesting paragraph (as of today at least) under its overview.

Kierkegaard: associated with “fideism”.

Kierkegaard: associated with “fideism”.

Alvin Plantinga defines “fideism” as “the exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth.” The fideist therefore “urges reliance on faith rather than reason, in matters philosophical and religious,” and therefore may go on to disparage the claims of reason.[5] The fideist seeks truth, above all: and affirms that reason cannot achieve certain kinds of truth, which must instead be accepted only by faith.[4] Plantinga’s definition might be revised to say that what the fideist objects to is not so much “reason” per se—it seems excessive to call Blaise Pascal anti-rational—but evidentialism: the notion that no belief should be held unless it is supported by evidence. (bold mine)

Plantiga, of course, would not consider himself a fideist.  But what does evidentialist apologist and living legend John Warwick Montgomery, commenting on the well-known 20th century Reformed theologian Gordon Clark, have to say about Plantiga’s own approach, that is presuppositionalism?:

“As with all genuinely presuppositional theologies, [Gordon] Clark’s grandiose, seemingly “rationalistic” system reduces to fideism and to what the theologians of the German Reformation called Schwarmerei…” (J.W. Montgomery, Where is History Going?, p. 178)

Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantiga has his own rather sophisticated presuppositional viewpoint

Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantiga has his own rather sophisticated presuppositional viewpoint

On the other hand, Reformed apologist and evangelist Sye Ten Bruggencate, in a rhetorically powerful speech/sermon about presuppositional apologetics (see here) says the following of Montgomery’s approach:

“Examine the evidence so you can get to God – that is evidential apologetics… we give evidence to the unbeliever so that they can use their own reason to get to God… that is just what Scripture tells us not to do.”

According to Bruggencate, with evidential apologetics one necessarily puts the king on trial instead of submitting to him.  As C.S. Lewis put it, “God is in the dock”.  Is that really the case?  Can that, with some evidential approaches and attitudes, be the case?  Of course, the good Dr. Montgomery, who has written

“…we are to render ourselves and our message historically vulnerable as did our Lord Himself when He deigned to enter fully and unreservedly into the maelstrom of human history. If we so present Him, His historical claims will assuredly prevail, for, as those who had eyewitness contact with Him declared, His manifestation in history was accompanied by many infallible proofs.’” – John Warwick Montgomery, Preface, Where is History Going?, 1969)”

…would surely take exception to that characterization!*  And interestingly, C.S. Lewis would have been the first to defend him (see picture below).

The author of this book, on Montgomery's 1963 essay "Jesus Christ and History": "Your lectures did me good and I shall constantly find them useful...I don't think it could be bettered." (Appendix B in "Where is History Going?")

The author of this book, on Montgomery’s 1963 essay “Jesus Christ and History”: “Your lectures did me good and I shall constantly find them useful…I don’t think it could be bettered.” (Appendix B in “Where is History Going?”)

How can this divide amongst various Christian apologetical approaches be overcome? Andrew Clover, who blogs with me over at Reformation 500, recently said to me in an email (bold mine):

I have often wondered if there isn’t a presuppositional way to argue from evidence. The reason most evidential argumentation falls flat is because the underlying assumptions of the unbeliever’s worldview are rarely challenged. So even though the evidence presented is often very solid, the unbeliever reinterprets it through his own grid. [Presuppositional apologetics] seeks to challenge those assumptions, whatever they may be in particular cases.

It seems to me that it should be possible, at least in theory, to make a holistic apologetic that both challenges the assumptions of atheists and even other religions on a philosophical level, while simultaneously showing how the evidence all points to the biblical worldview being correct. Of course, none of that means anything without the gospel; but we both know that already.

This is what we are going to be looking at more closely. For a preview of some of the content of that discussion, check out this very interesting post at the Brothers of John the Steadfast blog by Sam Schuldheisz, titled “Lutheran and Reformed Apologetics: An Overview”.  I also recommend reading the comments as I think a very productive discussion – involving both Dr. John Warwick Montgomery and Dr. Rod Rosenbladt! – took place there.

I’ll leave you with a quote from a man named Jim Pierce who participated in that conversation:

I think there is a third way and that is plainly speaking the Gospel truth to all and defending one’s own faith from the Scriptures. Furthermore, we should use whatever else we can adopt from both evidential and presuppositional apologetics while we confess the truth of Christ
…as Lutherans who don’t believe, teach, and confess that we can come to faith through reason, we shouldn’t be so concerned about using what we can from presuppositional apologetics as we confess our faith in Christ (or, we shouldn’t reject the whole of presuppositional apologetics out of hand). In other words, it is the Holy Spirit doing the converting, so let’s use all the tools we can which will not conflict with our confession of faith

I think Jim is making some real sense here, and in the coming series, I will do my best to clarify how this might be done – starting with my own deep appreciation for evidential apologetics and John Warwick Montgomery.  I hope that you will find it helpful, and I invite you to offer me help as well in this process.


UPDATE: That upcoming series will be called: “Strengthening Montgomery’s Case?: Beyond the Evidentialism-Presuppositionalism-Fideism Debate Towards a Stronger Christian Apologetics”



*Montgomery’s point about Christ making Himself vulnerable goes hand in hand with the Lutheran emphasis on God using humble, simple, and weak things so as not to terrify us utterly with His power and holiness.  Working through the Word and Sacrament, God makes Himself able to be resisted.




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Posted by on August 28, 2014 in Uncategorized


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