Saturday, September 29, 2018

Classical apologetics

A few observations about classical apologetics:

In my anecdotal experience, Calvinists who oppose Van Tilian presuppositionalism often take R. C. Sproul as the standard-bearer of classical apologetics. But there are some basic problems with that:

1. Sproul isn't the most competent exponent of classical apologetics. He's a generalist and popularizer. Winfried Corduan, W. L. Craig, Richard Swinburne, and Stephen Davis are more adept exponents of classical apologetics than Sproul. 

From an earlier generation, I'd classify Warfield as a classical apologist, although there are many current topics that he doesn't cover. 

There's a kind of Reformed chauvinism that latches onto someone simply because he's a fellow Calvinist–one of us–so we first turn to representatives of our own position. However, the fact that Sproul is a Calvinist is completely unrelated to his philosophical competence as an exponent of classical apologetics.  

Another well-known proponent of classical apologetics is Norm Geisler. Geisler has mentored a generation of protégés. However, Geisler spreads himself very thin, and he's not a topnotch. 

In fact, Corduan is a Calvinist! Although Corduan generally writes for popular consumption, he's more sophisticated than Sproul. 

Sorry if this comes across as elitist, but apologetics is an intellectual field. We're up against the best minds that secularism and non-Christian rivals have to offer. So it's necessary to have a standard of comparison. 

2. Theologically, Craig, Corduan, Swinburne, and Davis range along a continuum. Swinburne is the least orthodox while Corduan is the most orthodox. 

And that draws attention to another point. Classical apologetics uses a two-stage argument: the first step is to use natural theology to establish God's existence while the second step, building on the first step, is to establish Christian theism. That means there's no integral relationship between classical apologetics and Christianity, or any particular Christian tradition. A classical apologist can be a Calvinist, Thomist, Molinist, open theist, Lutheran, Wesleyan, Catholic, Muslim, or Orthodox Jew. Because the first step isn't Christian, a Christian second step isn't entailed by the first step. Although the second step is inseparable from the first step, the first step is separable from the second step.

Because the first stage of the argument is compartmentalized in that regard, the initial stage is not and cannot be informed by Christian theism. The second step can't feed back into our understanding of the first step, which is theologically neutral in a sectarian sense. 

That's another reason why it's arbitrary for a Calvinist to reach for Sproul as the go-to guy on classical apologetics. There's no internal relationship between Calvinism and classical apologetics. 

Notice that thus far I haven't offered a value judgment on classical apologetics. I'm just offering some clarifications. 

3. There's a sense in which truth is circular: a system of logically implicated truths and causally implicated facts. Contingent truths and necessary truths. That gives rise to the cliche that "all truth is God's truth". 

But in that event, there's no necessary starting-point in apologetics. You can break into the circle at any point. 

Moreover, unlike a two-step apologetic, which is unilinear and irreversible, a circle runs clockwise and counterclockwise. One set of truths will illuminate another set of truths, in no particular order. For reality is holistic. If Christian theism is true, then that truth permeates truth in general. If Christianity is true, then reality is Christian in general–in which case you can't artificially isolate a non-Christian starting-point from a Christian conclusion. 

Rather, there's an emerging pattern. The pattern was always Christian, but that may be inevident until more of the pattern is on display. 

Classical apologetics is defective in that regard. That's one reason I'm a presuppositionalist rather an a classical apologist. 


  1. Thanks Steve,

    It's a weighty topic, but I appreciate your thumbnail sketch. Allow me to add my little fingernail to your thumbnail.

    I love Sproul. I have his ESV in study form, and it is a treasure. God bless this Reformed heavyweight.

    But apolotetically? The classical arguments have their place, and in the right (biblical) context they are beautiful. However, outside of this context, while interesting, they are no more tied to a Christian worldview than an Islamic worldview (for example, and as Hays alludes).

    This is key. A good presuppoisitional apologist will not hesitate to employ the classical arguments; indeed, these arguments ought to be essential to any sound apologist. It is about context, timing, and, ultimately, grounding.

    1. Thinking about this some more, the 'evidentialist' makes much of their 'openness' in engaging the unbeliever. But hold on a minute. Is it not the case that the 'evidentialist' simply has their go-to case and employs it trope-like in clockwork fashion?

      In contrast, does not the presuppositional apologist weigh the debate, see where the rebel is heading, and employ (whatever - given the moment, it may be the presuppositional or evidential) argument accordingly?

      The 'noble evidentialist' makes much of the 'mechanical' nature of PA, but ask yourself, which is more mechanical, the go-to classical apologist's spiel or the more considered presuppositionalist's approach, where they weigh the argument before them?

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  2. Did Sproul classify himself as a classical apologist? I would have classified him as a practical presuppositionalist. He talked a lot about the contributions of neo-Platonism (I was always amused how he would pronounce his name, "Play dough.") and extol the virtues of Aquinas. I didn't always agree with his take on these things, and just talking about philosophy in this way doesn't make one a classical apologist. Ultimately, his arguments were biblical rather than philosophical relying more on sound exegesis of the text of Scripture than anything else. If he was an apologist at all, holding an epistemology of revelation over and against an empirical or theoretical epistemology makes one presuppositional - of one sort or another.

    1. There's how he classified himself and then there's whether his own position was something of a pastiche.

    2. Unless I am losing my marbles, I seem to recall a talk where Sproul specifically criticises presuppositionalism. Now, whether or not this was a criticism levelled at the more rigid and silly presuppositionalism, I do not recall, so my recollection may be wholly unhelpful. But I offer it up nonetheless, in full preparation for unfriendly fire :)