A Weakness of Christian Apologetics?

Discussion in 'Apologetical Methods' started by CatechumenPatrick, Dec 21, 2009.

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  1. CatechumenPatrick

    CatechumenPatrick Puritan Board Freshman

    Please consider my questions thoughtfully.
    Perhaps some of you listen to the Reformed Forum. I just listened to the newest Reformed Media Review, on the movie Collision with Doug Wilson and Christopher Hitchens. Some of you may have seen it. In any case, I know many of you have read the works of Van Til, Clark, Frame, Bahnsen (and of course listened to his debates). Some of you are presuppositionalists, others evidentialists, many others I’m sure love apologetics but don’t see the need to side with any school. That’s fine. My questions are for all of you.
    So I just listened to the latest Reformed Media Review, on Collision, and I’ve heard the debates between Wilson and Hitchens. The central argument throughout the movie and debates that Wilson employs is one we’ve all heard. How can the atheist (or any non-Christian) account for moral truths? That is, how can the atheist provide a justifiable standard for objective moral truths, and avoid complete moral nihilism? Hitchens, by the end, more or less admits that he can’t, that it’s a work in progress. I’m sure many Christians got the warm-fuzzies when they heard his concession toward the end. These sorts of apologetic questions come in many flavors. We all remember Bahnsen asking atheists like Stein how they can account for the laws of logic in the materialistic, godless atheistic universe, and we all know and love the usual, pitiful non-Christian responses that are given, like Stein’s silly appeal to conventionality.

    Some of us, like myself, don’t care too much for the quick debate format, and prefer extended articles and books—and, of course, many of us have read these types of arguments in detail in countless books, and not just by presuppositionalists (there’s nothing exclusively presuppositional about asking non-Christians basic philosophical questions, remember). That’s all well and good.

    But wait a minute. Non-Christians (let’s use atheistic naturalists as the example) have philosophers, scientists, and intellectualists of all sorts who spend their lives trying to answer these basic questions. At the risk of being arrogantly pedantic, when it comes to the question “What account of moral truth can the atheist give?” as proposed throughout the movie, I want to ask, what about moral realism (reductionistic or Cornell realism), sensibility theories, nonnaturalism(s), intuitionism(s), expressivisms and projectivist quasi-realism, anti-realist constructivism, and so on? In other words, it’s not like atheists are left speechless by this question, and I find it incredibly arrogant and self-defeating to argue, as Wilson did throughout the movie and as many other Christians do, that atheists have no response to the question “Whence morality?” without responding to the many proposals they have in fact given. It’s comparable in methodology to the atheist Bible critics who know nothing about Christian theology and biblical studies, who insist on pointing out the many inconsistencies of the Bible and its dogmas they know are there. Consider too the Bahnsen-Stein debate. Bahnsen stumped the ignorant Stein with questions about how atheists can account for universal laws of logic. Does Bahnsen really intend to go into the philosophy and foundations of logic or is he just trying to score debate points? I think we have to conclude the latter, considering the fact that he never did any serious work on the philosophy of logic, as far as I've been able to tell.

    Look at all our Reformed apologists—thow much scholarly work have they done in trying to respond to the answers atheists have indeed given to the foundational philosophical questions apologists throw at them? Little as far as their Vitaes show. I used to think that this was because Reformed and Christian apologists were mostly writing to lay-people audiences, but that can’t account for the serious void of literature.

    My question is, what do you think? I often feel like Christians are lazy: We don’t do our homework. We write dozens of books against (for example) evolution saying the same things again and again, rarely ever advancing the debate. We are more interested in proclaiming arguments (and their victory, and the ignorance of atheists and their counterarguments) than doing our research and homework. I feel like almost all Christian apologists write solely for the laity at a less than undergraduate level (e.g., Clark!), all the while expecting those arguments to cut-ice among actual atheist scholars or intellectuals.

    It’s hard to take 120 minute debates with more than a grain of salt. Why, though, do so many books and articles by Christian apologists accomplish little more than these sound-bite exchanges? Here’s my wish: that Christian apologetics would have the same scholarly standards that have been shown in recent Christian work in critical commentaries and historical theology (like Muller’s Post-Reformation Dogmatics and the many other great works on Post-Reformation Scholasticism that show countless years spent in research while at the same time not being hasty or arrogant in their conclusions).
  2. Covenant Joel

    Covenant Joel Puritan Board Sophomore

    I certainly echo some of your sentiments...while I am not particularly aware of secular views of moral theory, I am more aware of Islamic views. And I have found that in Christian apologetic literature, there seems to be little real understanding of Islam and Muslims. We do really need to go much deeper and really understand what they say if we are to fully interact with their arguments and provide persuasive responses to them.
  3. Confessor

    Confessor Puritan Board Senior

    Patrick, I agree in full.
  4. CharlieJ

    CharlieJ Puritan Board Junior

    It is simply one aspect of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind of which Mark Noll wrote. In particular, I think that since the secularization of the university, Christians no longer feel safe outside of their own theology departments. It's not just apologetics. What recent Christian has done groundbreaking work in anthropology, mathematical theory, sociology of knowledge, etc.?
  5. Zenas

    Zenas Snow Miser

    No serious apologist of any stripe actually thinks atheists are left speechless when asked to account for morality. The point is, and I don't think this is arrogant to say, atheists cannot rationally account for morality. Yes, there are attempts to do so, but they fail in some respect because they rely on appealing to a Higher authority in order to ultimately account for morality. This isn't arrogant, it's just plain truth. This isn't to say Wilson, Van Til, or anyone else thinks atheists are left speechless by the question. If it were so, why would Wilson debate Hitchens, at length?
  6. Wayne

    Wayne Tempus faciendi, Domine.

    I must admit I am generally uncomfortable with the debate format. That context seems to preclude any intent to win the heart and mind of the opponent.

    I wonder if there might be some usefulness for you in an historical study of the debate between Francis Schaeffer and Bishop James Pike?

    Or to illustrate:
  7. DeborahtheJudge

    DeborahtheJudge Puritan Board Freshman

    While Noll may have a point, he also misses the point. There is common grace. We work in the common realm.

    -----Added 12/22/2009 at 12:21:47 EST-----

    How exhaustive is your knowledge of these materials?
    Do you realize that the sheer diversity of opinions in our society (or universities, for that matter) speaks to the insufficiency of any of them to explain/guide us?

    And more importantly, do you read scholarly papers? Have you not seen the numerous amount of arguments concerning any range of topics in the discipline of philosophy that support a Christian worldview? The Christians with credentials work in universities! Thats what a scholar does.

    As to the methods of debate and popular apologetics, I see them as more clearing the forest to see the trees. Most of the arguments are broadly true. And really, I would rather spend a half hour watching James White tear a Muslim apologist apart than spend two hours reading that same Muslim's lame, unpersuasive arguments. When I argue, I care about clearing away confusions and popular myths of the Gospel in a format people can understand.
  8. Christusregnat

    Christusregnat Puritan Board Professor

    If unlettered fisherman could confound the deepest Jewish scholars of their day, the task cannot be as difficult as it is made out to be by the original post. Christianity has a systematic monopoly on the truth, and debates are often for the benefit of the believer rather than to win over the opponent. There is a largely pastoral value in rebuking the gainsayer, and silencing his mouth. This is commanded in Scripture of all pastors, and if it seems arrogant, then perhaps we need to reconsider the desperate ignorance, blindness and satanic darkness that the 31-flavors of godless philosophy takes on.

  9. Confessor

    Confessor Puritan Board Senior

    Still though, apologists must work to interact with these further answers by the unbelieving thinkers. To just look at them and think, Well, I know Christianity is true and therefore do not have to respond to this, is intellectually irresponsible. Sure, it doesn't need to be done in order to actually vindicate Christianity, but nonetheless we have to become all things to all men and be willing to extend that far to reach out to these unbelieving philosophers.

    If nothing else, apologists can mention that unbelievers have attempted to respond to the "basic" arguments against unbelief. Rather than saying that morality implies God, and atheists have no answer, period, the apologist should say that morality implies God, and even though atheists have attempted to respond to these points (perhaps giving a few examples), these responses are inadequate.

    Otherwise, when apologists imply that there are basically no answers -- and that is what they imply when they bring up their arguments -- it can damage a Christian's faith when he discovers that there are responses by unbelievers.
  10. Peairtach

    Peairtach Puritan Board Doctor

    I'm sure there is always more work to be done by Christian and Reformed intellectuals in both demolishing secular and other non-Christian worldviews and exploring and building the Christian alternative.

    As the secular world and worldview unravels around us, I hope and pray that their will be more of that.

    People like Kuyper, Schaeffer, Lewis, Rushdoony to some extent, Bahnsen, Van Til, Frame, and many others, have been pioneers, not forgetting Augustine, Calvin, the Puritans, etc. Many of these guys are basically ahead of their time.

    The illumination of the Bible by the Spirit and the building of the full-orbed Christian approach to life is a long process in history until the worldwide Church reaches full-maturity.

    The next big revival and reformation, will make the one in the Sixteenth Century look like a vicar's tea party for Satan and his minions.
  11. Christusregnat

    Christusregnat Puritan Board Professor

    Actually, such would be spiritually irresponsible, because there was no call to repentance attached.

    I believe that the passage alluded to does not refer to studying the deep things of satan and his deceptive philosophies, but has to do with certain indifferent matters, such as cultural expectations and preferences. That said, I am not arguing for a studied ignorance, but I am addressing the OP's pressure for something that Scripture never pressures us to do: become experts in satanic philosophies in order to seem respectable in debate.

  12. Irish Presbyterian

    Irish Presbyterian Puritan Board Freshman

    Does Bahnsen really intend to go into the philosophy and foundations of logic or is he just trying to score debate points? I think we have to conclude the latter, considering the fact that he never did any serious work on the philosophy of logic, as far as I've been able to tell.

    Greg Bahnsen's Phd was in Epistomology and he did quite a bit of work on the Philosophy of logic. In his debate with George Smith he was more than happy to engage the history of western Philosophy but Smith wouldn't go with him.

    The problem for Bahnsen, Van Til et al was not that Atheists didn't have an answer to the question of morality but rather the Epistomological foundations of those answers. None of the so called answers that some of the best Atheist Philosophers have given can ever give an account of orgin. They always have to step outside their worldview and borrow the language of the Christian worldview.

    Christopher Hitchens is no amateur and had plenty of time to read up on some of the best academic replies to Wilson's major point. Even if he had I don't think he could have explained the ultimate question of origin.
  13. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    Without tryng to get into any sort of discussion on the merits of one apologetic method or another, or on the effectiveness of "debate", etc., I think the basic criticism is misguided.

    The whole issue, boiled down, appears to me to be as old as the world. Take a look at Genesis 4 & 5. First we have Cain's family history. Look what they accomplished! Husbandry, music, metalwork! Wonderful mastery of the world.

    Look at Seth's history. What a pathetic lot. No geniuses mentioned. No "fathers" of anything. What a bunch of losers. Don't "God's people" even care about the world, about meeting the atheists and idolaters on the field and being "better"?

    What we should care about are the most important things. Working in quietude and diligence at whatever our callings are in this world. If God wants you to write that tome on philosophy of Logic, then you should get busy. Otherwise, he wants faithful parents, faithful laborers, faithful pastors, faithful in your other, simpler callings.

    How many of the athiest "brilliants" have private success? How many of them are truly devoted to the welfare of others. These days, we hear a whole lot about how athiests are as "good" people as "religious" people. But the statistics concerning who it is who actually gets out and helps people, and gives to charity, etc. are still unchanged.

    My point isn't to go along with either "lumping together" or a focus on "good works". But to point out that on fundamental matters, the atheists not only do not go the distance any better than the "religious" they criticize, they don't even see those basics as particularly significant.

    Another thing, we are not appreciating the time-scale, nor the limitations imposed on us by the era in which we live. If our time has been (for several generations) a "holding effort" against a new series of attacks by unbelievers, who are we to criticize the efforts made by many pastors, or apologists/authors, to strengthen the faithful inside the perimeter?

    Whining about the lack or perceived quality of offensive effort of late is only to complain, "Why aren't more of you interested in what I think is important?!" Why not try in quietude, diligence, and persuasion to gather a cadre of similarly gifted persons, or a team of complementary differently-skilled people, and go a-raiding?

    As for Bahnsen's ability, or depth of preparation, it seems incredible to me that from merely listening to a debate or two, anyone would feel qualified to critically interact with a man of his calibre. He had (I believe) two earned doctorates--one in Divinity (from WTS), the other in Philosophy (from USC or UCLA, I can't recall). He was not a tenured professor, though he taught briefly at RTS. He supported himself and his family by lecturing, preaching, writing.

    That is to say, he took the callings he had in the order of their priority. Since God didn't see fit to settle him in a place where he could invest himself in "scholarly" endeavor, who are we to pout when he didn't write a book we wished he had? He died, weary and worn out at age 48. He gave us a body of work, so judge him on that--not on what he "failed" to do.

    He had read quite widely in the whole field of philosophy. That much is obvious from his debates. What about his "original" material? He was a Theologian first, and "creativity" is often a failure in such persons. Better to respond to "creative" attacks, than to risk heretical leaps. But he was certainly "innovative" (or fresh) in the area of Ethics. Ever hear of "Theonomy in Christian Ethics"?

    Ever listen/watch his debate with EdwardTabash? That is a more "heady" debate than the GordonStein debate. And though ET was more focused and more engaged than the cocky (going in) GS, he still lost the debate going away. Bahnsen showed himself far more alert to the variety of logical options, and the whole field of intellectual inquiry than his opponent.

    Christians have made, and continue to make, profound contributions to the world of scholarship. They have, in the past century, been systematically excluded from the "respectable" world, where at one time professed belief in God was simply a given for anyone who expected to be taken seriously in many areas of study.

    And Christians will likely earn their way back to such a position, as atheistic and idolatrous intellectual efforts "hit the wall" they have always hit, over the milennia. We just don't know when that wall will be struck, or the madness that will result. But whenever unbelief hits that wall, they end up in magic and in strange religious practice.

    This is necessarily the case. And history simply proves it. The Towers of Babel keep being built, and God keeps scattering men in futility. I think about the immense efforts and monies expended in the past few decades on things like Hubble Telescope, and now this huge (and hugely expensive) Collider.

    The atheists expect to get their "answer" to the universe when they get their data on Higgs Bosun. I think that the Dawsons and Hitchens of the world are really counting on it. And they are a little scared. It's making them bold and shrill.

    But I expect something different. I expect a retreat into magic and superstition (where true faith does not result). This is what happens when men run out of answers, and the path they have put so much hope in to lead them to the holy-grail of knowledge peters out. Then, as in the Middle Ages, only the Christians will have the confidence to stick to the true path of knowledge (a portion of which was ripped-off some time ago by the atheists, and renamed "the scientific method").

    Sorry to break it to the atheists, but there's a reason that modern science was not "stillborn" in Western culture. And it has everything to do with a Christian view of the world.
  14. Theogenes

    Theogenes Puritan Board Junior

    "Here’s my wish: that Christian apologetics would have the same scholarly standards that have been shown in recent Christian work in critical commentaries and historical theology (like Muller’s Post-Reformation Dogmatics and the many other great works on Post-Reformation Scholasticism that show countless years spent in research while at the same time not being hasty or arrogant in their conclusions)."

    The Church certainly needs men of scholarly bent and acumen to develop these ideas beyond where we are today. Well, Patrick, maybe that is what God is calling you to...
  15. ChristianTrader

    ChristianTrader Puritan Board Graduate

    First off, the number of credentialed Reformed Apologists is a pretty small number (especially with regard to Reformed Theologians), so one should not expect the academic output to be overwhelming. The heavies would probably be Scott Oliphint, John Frame, James Anderson, Owen Anderson, and Michael Sudduth. (One could probably slip Poythress in there as well) And each of them has done serious work (Whether you think of it as good or not is up to you).

    Next, the overwhelming majority of arguments against Atheism etc are not something particular to Reformed Theology, so one should not have any problem using arguments by the myriad of Christian Apologists.
  16. CatechumenPatrick

    CatechumenPatrick Puritan Board Freshman

    No offense, but this comment might show a lack of humility and anti-intellectualism that seems to me very common among Christians. How can you know what philosophy is satanic if you do not study it? The level at which you can refute a position usually corresponds to the level at which you understand it. Hence if one wants to leave the experts without excuse or objection, must not one become an expert him/herself? The last thing I was recommending was to become experts to be "respectable in debate"--I criticized the debate format in my post, after all. I was recommending we not shy away from being excepts so we can put our money where our arguments are! Finally, to label as "satanic" any work done by non-Christians shows an ignorance of the two kingdoms and the role of common grace, but I'm not sure that's what you are saying.

    I'm aware Bahnsen did a PhD in philosophy at USC with a dissertation on self-deception. But could you please show me scholarly work (published in peer reviewed journals) he did on logic, epistemology, etc.? I've searched his writings and always come up short.

    Here is a general example of the problem I see--a problem of both scholarship and humility in my opinion. Imagine an Arminian theologian, professor of Systematic theology, writer of critical commentaries and the like, who writes an academic book arguing against Reformed theology and interpretation of texts. Now an appropriate response to this theologian is not to send him a copy of Chosen by God by Sproul. As good a book as that is (and as correct it is), its audience is lay-people, not theologians. Sproul probably could write such a response if he took the time, and I can think of many other theologians who spend years doing such work that is not accessible to many lay-people. Why, though, the double-standard when it comes to apologetics, where apologists more than frequently stop at more or less lay-people or undergraduate studies, even when responding to intellectuals and professors? There are exceptions to this, of course, but unfortunately the majority of exceptions come from Christians outside of or hostile to confessional Reformed theology.
    My worry is one Confessor pointed out, I think. I think our attitudes far surpass our knowledge and commitment. We are like farmers who say next year will be a record crop when we haven't planted a quarter of the field and the season's almost over.

    -----Added 12/22/2009 at 12:51:31 EST-----

    I do like all those authors, but few of them have done much beyond lay-people guides. The most that Frame has interacted with contemporary epistemology as far as I know comes in his review of Pollock's Contemporary Epistemology, an undergraduate text book, which he published in WTJ. Owen Anderson's two recent books (besides being very poorly edited) have very little in them that's new, e.g., his programmatic cosmological argument that is supposed to leave non-Christians without excuse (his books are great examples of triumphing in the many great arguments for theism available while never really saying what they are or where they're found, in my opinion). Scott Oliphint is a good (and humble most importantly) exception, but as he's said himself, he is a theologian not trained in philosophy and others need to do the hard-work (see his recent interview on the Reformed Forum e.g.). Sudduth strikes me as more or less riding the coat-tails of Plantinga, though I haven't read his new book on the Reformed objection to natural theology. I agree that the academic output can't be that great when there's so few people working in these areas (and they have the church to teach after all), nor that we can't use others, like Craig, Plantinga, etc. That's not the point. My point is, we (Reformed) Christians often make it sound like we've done all the hard work already, like the research is there and we are merely handing out abstracts. When in reality it strikes me that most Christians, and most Reformed apologists contrary to how it sounds, are not very familiar with contemporary philosophy or, really, primary sources period.
  17. Zenas

    Zenas Snow Miser

    No offense sir, but I believe Pastor Buchanan addressed your concern re: Bahnsen's percieved philosophical lacking with the following statement:

    Your complaint is according to a standard you yourself have set. Bahnsen and others have no duty to fulfill it. Why don't you though?
  18. ReformedDave

    ReformedDave Puritan Board Freshman

    Patrick, have you read Bahnsen's PhD dissertation, "A Conditional Resolution of the Apparent Paradox of Self-deception"? It is available.
  19. Christusregnat

    Christusregnat Puritan Board Professor

    You have yet to answer my point regarding the unlettered fisherman, and so I will await your reply before responding.

    Atheism and heresy are satanic. If you are unfamiliar with this basic point, you may want to restudy the Scriptures on this point. Heresy is ranked with adultery, murder, witchcraft, etc. (Galatians 5:19 - 21). It is, indeed, satanic. How much more atheism, which denies the very Creator, to whom all men owe reverence and thankful acknowledgement? Even theistic idolatry is spoken of as the worship of demons, of gross darkness, blindness, etc. Do I need to comprehend the arguments of theistic idolaters to condemn them as blind, fleshly, demonic?
  20. Zenas

    Zenas Snow Miser

    Something I'd also like to point out: the only atheist I've seen that has not argued against an imagined straw-man formulation of Christianity is Hitchens. I read Hitchens properly communicate a basic understanding of orthodox Christian theology.

    Dawkins, et al have no intelligent understanding of what they argue against. None. Niether do the run of the mill atheists that I have engaged. Before I ever address anything they say, I have to correct their understanding of Christianity. Even then, most of the responses I have to their arguments are then moot because their arguments stem from their straw-man understanding of Christianity and would have already been addressed. To say that atheists intelligently engage Christians regarding their own beliefs is a falsehood. I doubt it frequently happens.

    I would even go so far to say as it doesn't need to happen. So long as one has a sufficient argument for their position, then by operation of dysjunction, you don't need to know anything about the other position.

    If atheism or theism,
    then not atheism.

    You don't need to disprove or know anything about the other because of this logical operation.
  21. Confessor

    Confessor Puritan Board Senior

    Adam, I'm not saying they cannot be condemned for their clearly rebellious philosophies. But, if I were to say that atheist philosophies cannot account for, say, morality, and an atheist responds with a somewhat complicated answer that I need to work through to understand, then I (or someone, at least) ought to work through it and explain how Christ is the answer even for that topic. I cannot be content with the general arguments when unbelievers have formulated responses to them. A counter-attack is in order.

    Well, since part of apologetics is elenctic, you do need to know something about opposing views. It's the whole "one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens" thing. If an atheist were to say, "These are the reasons I believe in my worldview, and therefore your worldview is not true by disjunctive inference," and if a Christian were to say the same thing, neither of them attempting in any way to disprove the other, then a stalemate would ensue.

    Of course, if one doesn't plan on actually engaging in apologetics with actual unbelievers, then you're right, elenctics aren't needed.
  22. Zenas

    Zenas Snow Miser

    That's not correct if there's an unassailable argument for one position or the other.
  23. Confessor

    Confessor Puritan Board Senior

    Going back to the "one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens" principle, what you have to realize is that, given two contradictories, a person will hold to one of them based on how convincing it is in relation to the other one. Therefore, even if one can present a pristine, unassailable argument for Christianity (which is a lot tougher than "where'd the laws of logic come from?", by the way), it can only help to engage in polemics.

    But, given the fact that we always fall short of philosophical certainty, so long as we are not omniscient, there is no such thing as an "unassailable" argument for Christianity, not in the sense that no more warrant can be provided for it.

    And, to be honest, I find it a bit surprising that in response to the OP, you're actually saying that apologists need to do less work than they're presently doing.
  24. ChristianTrader

    ChristianTrader Puritan Board Graduate

    Why must we fall short of philosophical certainty due to not being omniscient? At the very least some positions are self contradictory and therefore certainly false regardless of one being omniscient or not.

  25. Confessor

    Confessor Puritan Board Senior

    I'll use an example to demonstrate my point. Say I can demonstrate by deduction that atheism is logically inconsistent with the reliability of sensory experience. The argument would still work, for I could simply point to the obvious, common-sense fact that our senses are reliable -- but this would work because it's unreasonable to doubt sensory reliability, not because it's possible to doubt it. (And it is possible to doubt, for it is not a logical contradiction to say "Our senses do not reliably depict an external reality.") Philosophical certainty involves the strict impossibility of doubt.
  26. ChristianTrader

    ChristianTrader Puritan Board Graduate

    Okay and this changes the question from saying that philosophical certainty cannot be had to philosophical certainty can be had with certain topics/questions and not others. Do you agree?

  27. Confessor

    Confessor Puritan Board Senior

    It can be had on those topics of which doubt is logically impossible, yes. But these are exceedingly small in number. I cannot think of any at the moment besides Descartes's cogito.
  28. ChristianTrader

    ChristianTrader Puritan Board Graduate

    Would you put causation (Something comes only from something etc.) into the same category?

  29. Confessor

    Confessor Puritan Board Senior

    Sure, for it is a contradiction to say that nothing comes from something.

    Edit: "Nothing comes from something"? Apparently I have a case of dyslexia.
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2009
  30. ChristianTrader

    ChristianTrader Puritan Board Graduate

    So a goal would be to show that only God has the characteristics of eternality because if that is the case, all other positions would imply Something comes from nothing.

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