Friday, May 29, 2009

The task of apologetics

Over the past few weeks I’ve been interacting with a couple of Clarkians (Sean Gerety & Turretin Fan). Contrary to some obtuse comments by Tim Harris, I haven’t been presenting my own position. Rather, I’ve been responding to them on their own terms.

This has nothing to do with whether or not I’m “agnostic.” Rather, my skepticism is directed at Clarkian epistemology. To be skeptical of Clarkian epistemology is not, itself, a skeptical position. Indeed, the problem with Clarkian epistemology is that it quickly degenerates into unbridled skepticism.

What is the task of apologetics? For starters, apologetics is typically subdivided into defensive and offensive apologetics. In defensive apologetics we defend the faith by refuting objections to the faith. This is primarily for the benefit of someone who is already a believer. In offensive apologetics, we refute opposing positions and offer constructive arguments for the faith. This is primarily directed at unbelievers.

This subdivision is not airtight. Unbelievers can benefit from defensive apologetics while believers can benefit from offensive apologetics.

The problem with “dogmatic apologetics” is that it fails on both counts. As far as the unbeliever is concerned, “dogmatic apologetics” begs the very question at issue.

But that’s not the only problem. “Dogmatic apologetics” also fails at the defensive level. The reason we have defensive apologetics in the first place is that some Christians are unsettled by objections to the faith. The function of defensive apologetics is to either assuage their doubts or forestall their doubts. It can be a preemptive action as well as a defensive reaction.

To ask, "What better reason is there to believe what God says than that God says it?" is perfectly useless to a Christian who is suffering from a crisis of faith.

If every Christian had that level of confidence, there would be no need for defensive apologetics. The reason we have defensive apologetics is that some Christians hit a point along the way where they maybe wracked by doubts. Have second thoughts about there faith.

The “God said it, that settles it” response is useless to a Christian in this state of mind, since he’s having doubts about that very claim. You haven’t given him a reason to believe it.

To claim that “God said it” is not a way of defending the claim that “God said it.” Rather, it’s an assertion that “God said it.” An unsupported statement.

And, of course, false prophets, make the very same claim, whether Muhammad or Swedenborg or Joseph Smith, &c.

Likewise, a statement like “Didn't God swear on his own name because there was nothing higher? No other authority aside from God to which one could appeal in order to be assured that what God said was actually true?” misses the point.

If God swore on his own name because nothing was higher, then there’s no higher court of appeal. Which is fine. A logical place to stop.

But this takes the claim for granted. That’s useless in either defensive or offensive apologetics.

There’s a difference between a statement that claims to be self-warranting, and a self-warranting claim. A statement that merely claims to be self-warranting is not, itself, a self-warranting claim.

Likewise, appealing to “objective truth” fails to explain how the subject of knowledge is privy to objective truth.

What makes objective truth objective is that it’s true in and of itself, irrespective of what the subject of knowledge may believe or disbelieve.

So that appeal does nothing to bridge the gap between the subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge.

And the gap is widened by the Clarkian rejection of sense-knowledge, induction, and–for some Clarkians–innate knowledge, too.

What is my own position? I’m going to touch on three or four issues for now.

1.In the history of epistemology there’s a philosophical tradition which equates knowledge with certainty. I think this goes back to Plato.

One of the problems with making certainty a condition of knowledge is that it tends to impose a godlike, superhuman standard on finite human beings.

It sets an artificial bar on what constitutes knowledge. Sets the bar out of reach for most of what we believe.

But why should Christians accept that arbitrary standard? What makes that a standard in the first place?

Is this something that God requires of us? Does God oblige us to be sure of what we believe?

Greek rationalism reflects the deification of the human mind. It’s not a biblical outlook. It fails to make allowance for the limitations of our creaturely finitude.

Rather, it’s reaching for a God’s-eye view of the world. Grasping for godhood. There’s no reason we should measure our beliefs by that inhuman yardstick.

2.Apropos (1), suppose that none of our beliefs count as knowledge. I’m not claiming that to be the case. Just discussing the issue from that angle.

Suppose it comes down to probabilities. Some claims are more likely to be true than others. Some claims are truer than others.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that this is the best we can hope for. So what?

Unless God obligates us to achieve a higher threshold, and equips us to achieve a higher threshold, there is nothing wrong with believing something because it’s probably true. Because that’s the best available explanation.

There’s nothing wrong with forming a belief in the basis the evidence which God has put at our disposal. If he wanted us to form a different belief on the basis of different evidence or fuller evidence or better evidence, he could have made that available. So we should be content with the situation that God has put us in.

3.Suppose, however, some of our beliefs can rise to the level of knowledge. Even so, knowledge is not the same thing as certainty. Certainty is a type of second-level knowledge. A belief about a belief.

Suppose I know the Bible is true even though I’m not sure of what I know. Is that a problem?

But as long as saving faith rises to the level of knowledge, isn’t that the main thing?

As long as I’m not wrong in what I believe about God or God’s word, then certainty is a comforting accessory, but hardly a necessity.

Certainty is a bonus point. By definition, assurance is reassuring.

But that psychological state is not the same thing as knowledge. Indeed, it’s possible to be sure of what you believe, but be mistaken. Entertain a false assurance.

Given a choice, it’s better to have knowledge than certainty. Better to have knowledge even though you lack certainty than to have certainty even though you lack knowledge.

4.What about the vicissitudes of memory and sensory perception? I do think there's a way out of the fly-bottle. We could transcendentally argue that God limits the frequency of misperception or misrecollection so that we can know what we need to know when we need to know it. And the "we" would vary according to God's purposes for each individual life, and its relation to other individual lives, in ultimate relation to his integrated plan for human history as a whole.

This isn't begging the question, because, unless you can ground knowledge, you slide into global skepticism–which is self-refuting. So you can reason back from that self-refuting consequence to what is necessary to avoid that self-refuting consequence.

As far as saving faith is concerned, it wouldn't even be necessary to argue for the general reliability of the senses or the general reliability of memory. It would be sufficient to argue that God preserves the elect from degrees of misperception or misrecollection which would threaten to render the saving knowledge of God impossible.


  1. Dear Steve,

    Thanks for your article. While I would certainly phrase things differently at points, I agree with most of what you say.

    In particular, I agree that simply saying "God says 'x'" is not a persuasive argument in many circumstances.

    Furthermore, to the extent that I previously suggested (unintentionally, I might add) that Christians can never give reasons for folks to believe beyond "God said it," I hereby wholeheartedly recant said statements.

    I have posted nine points at my own blog - if you don't disagree with them (and I would be surprised if you did) - then I think the disagreement between us is relatively minor and not worth fighting over.


  2. Steve,

    But doesn't the position you are critiquing generally go hand in hand with prayer and expecting God to make good on the divinely mandated question begging assertions? One would think that was supposed to work for struggling believers as well (even if it doesn't). If it doesn't work, they know the *real* nature of that believer's faith, right? It's just clear there's an airtight loop for some of these folks. They overtly aren't playing the same game (and will quote Isaiah 55:11 to prove it) as someone who is there to reason from a position of agnosticism towards the most rational conclusion. Glad to see you don't fall into that category, but I wonder how you deal (from an alternative Christian perspective) with those that do when they basically are in a debate saying what they basically believe are magic words.


  3. Ben,

    You're using this post as a pretext to debate an issue that has nothing to do this this post. I didn't post on the topic of unanswered prayer. I've done that elsewhere. The phenomenon of unanswered prayer is irrelevant to the argument I used in this post.

    There is no divine promise that every believer will persevere in the faith. There are nominal believers as well as true believers. You're attacking a straw man.

    And the appeal to divine providence to ground our modes of knowledge begs no question if the alternative is global scepticism. That's the point of a transcendental argument.

  4. Steve,

    Oops. Sorry. Didn't mean to attack anything. My question really wasn't about the efficacy of prayer. If you haven't confronted other Christians as I've described that think apologetics is about asserting the entire worldview necessarily (basically undefended)and believe that doing so (with prayer) is the correct way to go about it or if you don't see the connection between that and the presuppositionalism you are critiquing here (maybe it doesn't apply, I don't know), then I apologize. Perhaps I misunderstood something.

    take care,

  5. Inclusion or Exclusion
    Some people have an Idea that God is inclusive for mans eternal destiny, that all religions and all people will be saved. That God will allow all of mankind to enter into heaven because everybody is good so God must be fair and include everyone! It is true God does love the whole world but God is exclusive about mans eternal destiny without the Savior. To keep this simple man has a problem called sin in which man refuses to believe that there are eternal consequences for having sin, which is a one way ticket to hell. God is holy and he will not allow anyone with sin to enter into heaven. God is hurt and angry about our sin, we have broken his laws. But God is just and good and he knows our need so he provided a solution to our problem. His solution to our problem is to have our sins removed by having our sins placed on someone else, a sacrifice for us; paying for the penalty of the sin we have in our lives. So that someone else would get the penalty of Gods wrath and separation on him that was meant for us. So God sent his son Jesus on a mission from heaven to earth as our sacrifice to die on the cross on our behalf after this happened three days later Jesus came back from the dead, alive. But that’s not all remember I wrote that God is exclusive about mans eternal destiny without the Savior? The only way that Gods promise can be applied to your life is for you to turn from your way of thinking and know that your sin offends and hurts God and call on the Lord Jesus who’s alive to save you. Your sins are then transferred to Jesus for what he did at the cross, dying and being abandon by God because of your sins, for you and because Jesus arose from the dead he is alive you can now enter into a relationship with God. Will you call out to Jesus to save you? It’s your choice to enter in exclusively with God’s grace for you. Where will you want to spend eternity after hearing Gods promise for you?
    If the answer was yes that you do want Jesus as your sin bearer, Savior, and you do believe God raised Jesus from the dead you can pray with your voice.

    “Dear Lord Jesus save me.”

    Acts 20:21 Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance towards God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.

  6. Pilgrim,

    There are several problems with what you posted if it's supposed to be an apologetic.

    1. "It is true God does love the whole world" -- this is false, if by "whole world" you mean "every single person." The word "world" has at least seven different meanings in the Gospel of John alone (I assume this is an inference from John 3:16, which, mind you, don't say "whole" but just "world" in the first place).

    2. "To keep this simple man has a problem called sin in which man refuses to believe that there are eternal consequences for having sin, which is a one way ticket to hell." -- It is quite possible for someone to know darn well that there are eternal consequences for his unbelief and yet he still refuses to believe, and it is not his lack of belief that sends him to hell but rather all of his sins together.

    3. "God is hurt and angry about our sin" -- God cannot be hurt. He can be grieved, but this is not the same thing. This may be semantics for you, but given the ambiguity of the term "hurt" you should clarify it.

    4. "God is just and good and he knows our need so he provided a solution to our problem." -- This has nothing to do with God's justice. God's justice would demand that everyone who sins be cast into hell. It is because God is merciful that He provides an alternate solution.

    5. "His solution to our problem is to have our sins removed by having our sins placed on someone else, a sacrifice for us" -- that is only half true. And this is critical because almost everyone (at least in Western society) misses this. Jesus Christ was the propitiation for our sins, not just the atonement for them. He not only took our sins upon Himself (forensically), but He also transfered (forensically) His righteousness to us. Thus, it is not enough that someone can take our sins; that someone must also first live a perfect life. Because if all you've got is your sins taken from you, you still have no righteousness; you've been set to zero, but that's not a positive value. Therefore, Jesus's life is just as important as His death.