Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Apologetic methodology revisited

I. For several reasons, I don't normally discuss apologetic methodology. I think it's often a cul-de-sac. Both sides repeat their talking points. Round and round. There's no progress. It's often a substitute for doing apologetics. In particular, presuppositionalists have a bad habit of never getting around to doing apologetics. To their credit, evidentialists produce a lot more apologetics. Finally, I have my own apologetic philosophy. I don't normally talk about it because it's something that informs my apologetics. 

However, I was recently reading two books that prompt me to revisit the issue of apologetic methodology: Why Should I Believe Christianity?, by James Anderson, and Four Views On Christianity and Philosophy, P. Gould &. R. Davies, eds. 

1. Let's begin with a standard evidentialist approach to making a case for Christianity. Some evidentialists attempt to cut to the chase with the "minimal facts" argument for the Resurrection

2. Other evidentialists mount a cumulative case. This may include some or all of the following elements:

i) List criteria for assessing worldviews, viz. consistency, simplicity, explanatory scope, evidence, correspondence to known facts, a theory of justified belief.  

ii) List criteria for assessing testimonial evidence, viz. prior expectations; incentive to be truthful or untruthful; firsthand/secondhand information; proximity in time and/or place to the ostensible event; independent, multiple-attestation; corroboration from non-Christian sources.

3. Present arguments for the existence of God. 

4. Field objections to the existence of God, viz. the problem of evil. 

5. Present arguments for the possibility and credibility of miracles.

6. Present evidence for the general historical reliability of the Gospels. 

7. There are variations on the cumulative case. An apologist might include more or fewer steps. In case you're wondering, I have in mind apologists like Gary Habermas, Timothy & Lydia McGrew, John & Paul Feinberg, Michael Licona, Richard Swinburne, and John Warwick Montgomery. 

II. I think this approach has definite merits. But I also have reservations or criticisms, so let's run back through the list:

1. A "minimal facts" argument is vulnerable from different angles. There's an over-reliance on "scholarly consensus". Likewise, an atheist may say any naturalistic explanation, however unlikely, is more likely than a supernatural explanation. 


i) If we're attempting to demonstrate that something is true or false, then we have to use criteria as a standard of comparison. Sometimes these are unstated or taken for granted. 

ii) However, the identification and justification of criteria are presuppositional issues. So here's one point at which evidentialism and presuppositionalism intersect. Take the relationship between consistency and explanatory scope. There are tradeoffs. A simpler explanation may have less explanatory scope. 

Unbelievers typically favor atheism because it's simpler. But that begs the question. An explanation ought not be simpler than reality. Simplicity and explanatory scope go to deep, contested issues regarding what there is to be explained, viz, abstract objects, values, consciousness.

So the identification and justification of criteria becomes somewhat circular inasmuch as it makes key assumptions about the kind of world we live in. Moreover, it's somewhat circular inasmuch as the nature and existence or nonexistence of God is fundamental to the kind of world we live in. So this gets very complicated very fast. 

3. Both evidentialists and presuppositionalists can present arguments for God. Some of these are quite theory-laden. For instance, the moral argument for God presumes moral realism. That has no traction for an atheist who rejects moral realism.

The kalam cosmological argument presumes the A-theory of time. It denies the possibility of an actual infinite past. By contrast, the B-theory of time allows for an actual concrete infinite. Both theories may deny the possibility of "traversing" an actual concrete infinite. But so long as an actual infinite timeline comes into being all at once, that's possible on the B-theory. So a proponent of the kalam cosmological argument needs to supplement his argument by making a case for the A-theory of time. 

4. The problem of evil has a presuppositional aspect. If you deny moral realism, then there is no problem of evil in the sense of moral evil, although there will still be a problem of deprivation and suffering. 

5. The possibility and credibility of miracles are presuppositional issues. It goes to the kind of world we live in. What is possible or impossible in our world. And that, in turn, bookends the question of what is probable or improbable.  

And, once again, this raises the specter of circularity. How do we balance the evidence for miracles against the alleged evidence for the uniformity of nature? How do we know what kind of world we live in? Atheists typically think the alleged evidence for the uniformity of nature overwhelms any ostensible evidence for miracles. But, of course, that's circular. So we need to distinguish between vicious and virtuous circularity. 


i) Up to a point, I don't object to this as an apologetic strategy. However, one difficulty is how to make the jump from the general historical reliability of the Gospels to the inspiration of Scripture. To the Bible as the word of God.

Some scholars, like Craig Evans and Richard Bauckham, never seem to make that jump. They don't seem to operate with a doctrine of inspiration. For them, general historical reliability is sufficient.

Yet that's theologically deficient. The God of Judeo-Christian theology is a God who speaks as well as acts. Who speaks to and through people. 

Montgomery attempted to bridge the gap by claiming that if you can prove the Resurrection, based on the general reliability of the Gospels, then the Resurrection proves the deity of Christ. And once you prove the deity of Christ, then Christ can vouch for the inspiration of the OT–and by analogy, the prospective NT. But a problem with his argument is that Christ's resurrection doesn't imply Christ's deity. 

ii) Apropos (i), evidentialists typically avoid defending the inerrancy of Scripture. In some cases they think that's a distraction. In some cases they either deny the inerrancy of Scripture or regard that as expendable. 

However, you can't simply decouple the general historical reliability of the Gospels from challenges to inerrancy, for while the general reliability of the Gospels is compatible with some contradictions or historical mistakes, when a critic like Bart Ehrman produces a long list of alleged contradictions and historical mistakes, if that list is demonstrative, then you end up with the general unreliability of the Gospels. 

So even the evidentialist can't avoid responding to objections to the inerrancy of the Gospels. At the very least, he has to cut it down to something consistent with the general reliability of the Gospels. 

7. Finally, the schematic nature of the cumulative case may foster the misimpression that a person can't know Christianity is true, or be warranted in believing that it's true, unless he checks each box in that order. However, the logical order in which we prove something may be very different from how we come to know it. Likewise, there can be different kinds of evidence for knowing something and proving something. I know that I went to high school…because I went to high school. I remember attending high school. That's an argument from experience. If, however, I was proving to you that I went to high school, that would involve showing you the school I attended, showing you school records, showing you my picture in the yearbook. 

1 comment:

  1. Good points. I would add, for the uninformed, that the presuppositional argument for the existence of God is that an absolute God - one who is the source of all facts and their meanings - is necessary for the possibility of rationality. This type of God could never be mistaken about any facts. So the type of God proven by TAG necessarily entails a doctrine of inerrancy. And since an absolute God who speaks infallibly is necessary for the possibility of rationality, this type of God must be presupposed in any investigation of particular historical facts.