Foundations of Christian Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective,
edited by Gary North, Ross House Books, Vallecito, CA, 1979,
November 2, 2011
The Unsettled and Complex Character of Apologetics
The Basic Question of Method
The Socratic Outlook
The Christian Perspective
Paul’s Apologetic Method: Acts 17
An Overview of the History of Apologetics
The Reformation of Apologetics
or Christ: The Reformation of Christian Apologetics
is not difficult to understand the general idea of apologetics. Simply
put, apologetics is the study and practice of defending the Christian
faith against the array of challenges, critical attacks, and
scrutinizing questions leveled contrary to it by unbelievers. As
Cornelius Van Til expresses the thought in the opening sentence of his
apologetics syllabus, “Apologetics is the vindication of the Christian
philosophy of life against the various forms of the non-Christian
philosophy of life.”1 Consequently, to be an apologist, one
simply needs “to join the struggle in defense of the faith, the faith
which God entrusted to his people once and for all.”2
The Unsettled and Complex Character of Apologetics
However, while the general concept of apologetics is uncomplicated, a
whole galaxy of issues and questions clusters around the exercise of
that task. For instance, in his Introduction to Christian
Apologetics, J. K. S. Reid asks: What does apologetics defend? Can
it be faithful to the faith? Against what or whom is the defense
conducted? How is the defense to be conducted? What is the relation of
apologetics to dogmatics?3
term “apologetics” was first introduced to denominate a specific
theological discipline by Planck in 1794.4 Yet this label
was obviously cognate to the titles of certain second century treatises,
like the Apology of Artistides, the First Apology and
Second Apology of Justin Martyr, or Tertullian’s Apologeticum.
Whether one studies the church’s earliest post-apostolic confrontation
with the unbelieving world or the period when apologetics was developed
as an academic science, he notes that a complex of material and
methodological questions has persisted in generating disputes among
various schools of thought, all of which claim to be doing apologetics.
Bernard Ramm provides a convenient summary of such key issues in
Varieties of Christian Apologetics.5
What is the relation between philosophy and Christian theology? Perhaps
philosophy is something for which theology has no need (Tertullian), is
inspired (the Alexandrians), is theology’s servant (Augustine), is an
independent authority (Aquinas), is a completely separate field
(Pascal), or at best a merely temporary alliance (Barth).
How valuable are the theistic proofs? They have been seen as valid (Thomists),
needing to be supplemented with moral conviction (Hodge), invalid
(Clark), inconsequential (Calvin), and irreligious (Kierkegaard).
What should be our theory of truth? The mark of truth might be
probability (Butler), consistency (Clark), consistency and factuality
(Carnell), probability and logical precision (Tennant), paradox
(Kierkegaard), dialecticism (neo-orthodoxy), personal encounter
(Brunner), or an epistemology of the Holy Spirit (Calvin).
Are the intellectual effects of sin negligible (Pelagius), slight
(Romanism), engulfing (the Reformers), of mollified by common grace (Masselink)?
Should special revelation be viewed as completing natural revelation
(Romanism), recovering natural revelation (the Reformers), or an event
for which Scripture serves as a pointer (neo-orthodoxy)?
What is the nature of Christian certainty? It has been found in the
church’s infallibility (Romanism), scientific probability (Butler,
Tennant), inward certitude in the face of ambiguity (Kierkegaard), and
genuine epistemic assurance in contrast to mere probability (Van Til).
Is common ground created by common grace and general revelation
(Carnell), found in existential pre-understanding (Bultmann), or not to
be found at all (Barth)?
Should faith be seen as the response to a credible authority
(Augustine), in contrast to evidentially grounded conviction (Aquinas),
a venturesome act of will, a response of the emotions (Kierkegaard), or
the correlate to revelation?
With respect to the usefulness of evidence, it has been held as the
means for certifying Christianity (Montgomery), as something which can
be appreciated only after the Holy Spirit’s work (Calvin), as the
complement to the Holy Spirit’s work (Warfield), and as immaterial
because it is evaluated in terms of one’s more basic philosophical
What is the relation of reason to revelation? Does it prepare the way
for revelation, conflict with revelation, or constitute a completely
questions as these have continually arisen in the history of
apologetics. Indeed, well over a century after Christian scholars
inaugurated self-conscious attempts to reduce apologetics to a
well-defined field of endeavor (a specific discipline), confusion still
persisted with respect to the place of apologetics among the theological
disciplines, its proper task and divisions, its value, and its relation
to faith-as evidenced by B. B. Warfield’s 1908 article, “Apologetics,”
for The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge.6
attempted to distinguish apologetics from apology, but they differed
among themselves respecting the principle of distinction (Düsterdieck,
Kübel). Apologetics was variously classified as an exegetical discipline
(Planck), historical theology (Tzschirner), theory of religion (Rübiger),
philosophical theology (Schleiermacher), something distinct from
polemics (Kuyper), something belonging to several departments (Tholuck,
Cave), or something which had no right to exist (Nosselt). H. B. Smith
viewed apologetics as historico-philosophical dogmatics which deals with
detail questions, but Kübel claimed that it properly deals only with the
essence of Christianity. Schultz went further and said that apologetics
is concerned simply to defend a generally religious view of the world,
but others taught that apologetics should aim to establish Christianity
as the final religion (Sack, Ebrard, Lechler, Lemme).
Still others held that the task of apologetics is to present evidences
for Christianity, and Warfield claimed that apologetics should seek to
establish the presuppositions of theology: namely, the facts of God,
religious consciousness, revelation, Christianity, and the Bible.
Accordingly he divided the discipline into philosophical apologetics,
psychological apologetics, revelational apologetics, historical
apologetics, and bibliological apologetics. F. R. Beattie more simply
divided the field according to philosophical, historical, and practical
apologetics. In the tradition of Aquinas, some apologists made it their
goal to show Christianity to be worthy of belief for reasonable men; yet
others, like Brunetiere, proclaimed that faith was most powerful as a
heartfelt response apart from reason.
Therefore we observe that, while the general idea of apologetics is easy
enough to grasp, it is by no means a simple project to settle upon an
incisive analysis and decisive operating method for the discipline.
Amidst a maze of conflicting answers to the fundamental questions
rehearsed above, settling upon a course to follow in defending the faith
can be very perplexing. Just as the church at large has not settled
upon a unified doctrinal perspective, so the many-faceted and
theologically oriented issues of apologetics have not been give clear
and agreed upon answers. Consequently, when one engages in defending
his faith, it is requisite for him to think through complicated
questions and make responsible theological judgments, for his apologetic
approach will of necessity be selected from a beehive of competitors.
And no Christian wishes to be stung with a misguided, incongruous or
fault-ridden line of defense.
Cornelius Van Til, Apologetics, class syllabus (Philadelphia:
Westminster Theological Seminary, reprinted 1966), p. 1.
Jude 3 (N.E.B.).
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), pp. 10-14.
Einleitung in die Theol. Wissenschaft.
Baker Book House, 1961, pp. 17-27.
Ed. S. M. Jackson (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1908), I, 232-238.
The Basic Question
Greg L. Bahnsen page