Philosophy against Misosophy


Gregory Bahnsen


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Foundations of Christian Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective, edited by Gary North, Ross House Books, Vallecito, CA, 1979, 191-239.

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  

Socrates or Christ: The Reformation of Christian Apologetics (continued)

Greg Bahnsen


An Overview of the History of Apologetics

A detailed history of the way in which men throughout the centuries have attempted to defend the Christian faith is not feasible in the space available here.  However, it is possible to get a general characterization of apologetical strategies through history, for, as Avery Dulles says in his History of Apologetics,204 “A careful reading of the old masters in the field reveals that the same basic problems continually recur and that it is almost impossible to say anything substantially new.”  And the most characteristic thing about the apologetic arguments which one encounters in the history of the church is that they were Socratic in their outlook: they tended to divide the corpus of dogma into that which can be rationalized and that which is mysterious; they held that man’s mind is competent and authorized to prove truths in the former category by means of autonomous tests; they subjected God’s word to validation by the sinner’s (allegedly) neutral and self-sufficient intellect; and they played down both the antithesis between believing and unbelieving epistemology and the sufficiency, clarity, and authority of natural revelation (as distinguished from natural theology, of which there has been an overabundance).  Like Socrates, historically most apologists have taken the piecemeal approach of proving a few items here and there by argumentative appeal to factual evidence, logical coherence, social and individual benefit, and/or inward personal experience.  Their attitude (at least in apologetic writings, if not also in theological discourses) has been similar to that of Euthyphro, rather than that of Paul’s Areopagus address.

During the Patristic Period, up until about A.D. 125, the faith and discipline of the Christian community were the central concerns of the Apostolic Fathers, not the credibility of their message.  However, we do find Clement attempting to interpret the resurrection in terms of man’s common and natural experience.  During the second century, all the major motifs in apologetical history came to be foreshadowed.  It is a telling commentary upon these apologies that they are modeled after (1) the assaults of the pagan philosophers upon polytheism, and (2) the attempts of Helenistic Jews to show the superiority of Mosaic revelation to pagan philosophy.  The recurring themes are illustrated by the following examples. The Letter to Diognetus exposed the folly and immorality which are fostered by pagan idolatry, and then it went on to emphasize the moral effects of the gospel on the mind and heart of believers—as does Aristides in his brief Apology to the emperor Hadrian.  In customary style, Tatian attempted to prove that the Mosaic revelation was more ancient than the Greek writers.  In his Apologies, Justin Martyr said that the philosophers were enlightened by the divine Logos and thus were Christians without realizing it.  Aristides confronted the problem of a plurality of religious options, arguing from comparative studies that Christianity is the least superstitious.  Athenagoras argued on philosophical grounds that there cannot be a plurality of gods.  In the same vein as Quadratus’ stress on the gospel miracles, Athenagoras wrote On the Resurrection of the Dead.  Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew argued for the deity of Christ from the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.  And finally Theophilus appealed in Ad Autolycum to the subjective testimony of the heart.

An epistemological continuity with the intellectual perspective and interpretation of experience in unbelieving thought was openly propounded, then, as early as the second century (witness Clement, Athenagoras, and especially Justin).  The kinds of arguments which Socrates utilized in his apology were all reflected in the Christian apologetic strategies of the second century (namely, appeals to fact, logic, beneficial effects, and the heart).  That is not surprising, seeing that both Socrates and the apologists took a neutralistic, autonomous approach to knowledge.  God was in the dock before the bar of human reason and experience.  As a result, the apologetic strength of Paul was lacking.

None of the apologists showed Christianity to be the definitive truth of God.  No argument was forthcoming that the truth of the gospel was the necessary condition for the changed lives of Christians; indeed, the Christians could have been morally motivated and transformed simply by believing that the gospel is true.  By arguing that the Greek philosophers had plagiarized Moses and had been inspired by the Logos, the apologists assumed the veracity of the philosophers’ perspective (yet maintaining that the Jews had the truth first).  This had certain deleterious effects on the argument for Christianity.  If you agree with the philosophers in their presuppositions, it appears to be arbitrary selectivity to refrain from agreeing to their conclusions.  Besides, the educated pagan would say, if you appeal to the philosophers to validate certain truths of the faith but not others, then this simply shows that the better (validated) teachings of Christianity are also taught by the philosophers—thus rendering the Christian revelation superfluous.  Where Christianity is questionable, the unbeliever does not want to follow it; where Christianity agrees with the philosophers, the unbeliever need not follow it.  Moreover, when the Christian message is placed upon the foundation of pagan thought, it is naturalized and distorted; for instance, given the Greek view of fate (where anything is said to be possible in history), the resurrection of Christ is a mere oddity of irrational historical eventuation.  Appeals to fact are ultimately futile unless the apologist recognizes and avoids the unbeliever’s presupposed philosophy of fact.  For various reasons, the argumentative appeal to fulfilled prophecy and the evaluation of pagan religions as leading to immorality and superstition are mere examples of begging the question.  From a non-biblical perspective, Christianity would be immoral and superstitious.  And from an unbelieving perspective the arguments from prophecy all appear to rely on tendentious readings of the Old Testament.  After all, the orthodox Jewish authorities did not interpret the texts in the fanciful and ax-grinding manner of the Christians.  Why then should an educated pagan feel compelled to believe the Christian apologist?  Finally, the fact that a believer has an inward indication of the truth of his faith may tell you something about the believer, but it says nothing about the objective truth of the believer’s faith.  Thus the second century’s Socratic apologies for the faith were just so much grist for the mills of unbelieving thought.  The intellectual challenge of the gospel was not sounded.

Third-century apologists, especially those of Alexandria, continued to assimilate arguments from Platonic and Stoic philosophers as well as Jewish controversialists.  Clement of Alexandria argued that the best aspirations and insights at work throughout pagan history (e.g., in the mystery cults and Hellenic philosophy) had been fulfilled in their apex, Christianity.  Having studied philosophy under the father of neo-Platonism, Origen argued against the criticisms of Celsus by saying that the Bible agrees with sound philosophy and that the Christian’s inability to prove historical assertions of Scripture is no defect, since the Greeks cannot prove their history either.  The necessity and uniqueness of the Christian message, then, were to a great extent hidden in the apologies of the Alexandrians.  The Latin apologists were not much better.  In Octavius, Marcus Minucius Felix proclaimed that the philosophers of old were unconsciously Christians and that Christians of his day were genuine philosophers.  It is only in Tertullian that we begin to see some return from the epistemological “Babylonian captivity” of Christian apologetics.  However, along with Tertullian’s refusal to integrate Jerusalem with Athens, we also find the counterproductive recommendation of Christian teaching “because it is absurd”—rather than in spite of its apparent absurdity.  The teaching of Athens must be unmasked for its presuppositional absurdity and not simply allowed to stand as an (erroneous) option over against the faith.  As did the other third-century apologists, Cyprian merely repeated second-century arguments for the faith, adding to the evidences the spectacle of Catholic unity—an argument with assumptions which might seem to disprove the truth of Christianity with the arrival of the Protestant Reformation.

The fourth and fifth centuries witnessed the attempt by apologists to construct a new religious synthesis, a global vision constructed from materials in Stoic and Platonic philosophy, yet reshaped by the gospel.  The overriding problem of the previous age had been the relationship between Christianity and classical culture, and now with Christianity seeing amazing success (e.g., the heroic martyrs, advances in doctrinal formulation, the conversion of Constantine), the leading apologists were very open to the solution offered by synthesis.  Typical of the era was The Case Against the Pagans by Arnobius, who evidently was more familiar with Stoic thought than with Christian theology.  Arnobius subscribed to the tabula rasa theory of the human mind and argued that, even though all intellectual options are uncertain, we should believe the one which offers more hope than the others (thus foreshadowing Pascal, Locke, and Butler).  Christianity becomes an eschatological insurance policy.  Arnobius admitted that he had no solution to the problem of evil, did not clearly deny the existence of pagan gods, and left us with an apologetic more suited to deism than to Christianity.  Lactantius made extensive use of Plato, Cicero, and Lucretius in his apologetic, establishing with the competence of reason the existence and providence of God.  From there, he pleaded the limitations of philosophy and went on to accept the deity of Christ on the grounds of inspired prophecy.

An instructive contrast can be seen between the attitudes of Ambrose and Eusebius.  The former said that, “It is good that faith should go before reason, lest we seem to exact a reason from our Lord God as from a man.”  For Eusebius, faith undergirded knowledge, and yet knowledge prepared the way for faith (as is evident from his two-part work, The Preparation of the Gospel, and The Proof of the Gospel).  Eusebius was a forerunner to Augustine in two major respects: he pioneered the apologetic of world history (arguing for the truth of Christianity from its amazing success in the world), and he platonized the Bible almost as much as he baptized Greek speculation.

The domination of the Socratic outlook in Christian apologetics is further witnessed in Theodoret’s work, The Truth of the Gospels Proved from Greek Philosophy.  Theodoret felt able to incorporate the highest insights of neo-Platonic speculation into his Christian philosophy, yet he argued simultaneously that Christians alone live up to the best insights of the pagans.  The same problem with arbitrary selectivity afflicted the early thinking of Augustine, when he felt that unaided human reason is capable of establishing God’s existence by indubitable arguments.  Augustine was confident that if Socrates and Plato had been alive in his day they would certainly have been Christians.  Augustine also argued from the moral miracle and superlative success of the church to the truth of the faith; in The City of God he expounded the common argument that the growth of the church and the death of the martyrs are incredible except upon the assumption of the historical resurrection of Christ.  Of course, to the extent that Augustine “proved” the existence of God in Platonic fashion—Plato’s god, like Plato’s static forms, was the only god Plato’s logic could prove—he testified that God could not come into contact with the temporal realm of history.  This God would then be in external dialectical tension with His creation, as in all Greek speculation.  On the other hand, when Augustine turned from this a-historical, rationalistic god to the evidential apologetic of world history, he encountered difficulties again.  With Eusebius he had found evidence for the truth of Christianity in the beneficial effects it brought the empire as well as in the church’s success.  But now that the course of history and the conditions in state and church had been attributed to God (in order that they could serve as evidence for Him) Augustine was compelled to turn around and argue in The City of God that the state of affairs was not the responsibility of the Christians; he felt compelled to vindicate the Christian faith and its God from culpability for the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410.  Augustine had wanted to prove the truth of Christianity from the hard evidence of history, and to the hard facts his opponents now forced him to go—landing him right in the midst of the problem of theodicy.  (Later, Salvian completed the turning of the apologetic of world history on its head, arguing that the course of events evidences the judgment of God rather than His beneficence.  It is clear that, from Eusebius to Salvian, it was not the simple facts of history that could be taken to prove the truth of Christianity, for facts of a conflicting character—facts of both weal and woe—were appealed to in order to prove the same conclusion.  Obviously, a presuppositional commitment to the Christian faith was brought to bear in an interpretative way upon the facts, rather than the brute facts leading to Christian commitment.)  As for Augustine’s argument for the credibility of Christ’s resurrection, his considerations merely showed that the martyrs either believed a false tale or that they were willing to sacrifice their lives, not for a specific story, but for a broad ideal which (for the sake of winning popular attention) incorporated elements of historical exaggeration.  The presuppositions brought by unbelievers to the facts would determine whether one of these interpretations with respect to Christ’s resurrection should be preferred over the believer’s interpretation—just as Augustine’s presuppositions determined what interpretation he should give the facts of world history (allowing them to evidence both God’s beneficence and God’s judgment).

In the later writings of Augustine, however, we do recognize a movement toward a clearer understanding that by faith alone does the Christian accept the existence of the triune God, that the Bible is accepted on its own terms, and that all of history and life must be interpreted in the light of God’s revelation in order to be intelligible.  Augustine moved away from the dialectical epistemology of Greek thinking and toward an epistemology consonant with the doctrine of salvation by grace alone (which he urged against Pelagius).  In his Retractions Augustine expressed the conviction “there is no teacher who teaches man knowledge except God.”  In a manner parallel to that of Ambrose, Augustine came to appreciate more accurately that one must believe in order to understand.  Such a non-Socratic perspective would not be propounded with force again until the time of John Calvin.

In the period intervening between Augustine and Calvin, the key apologists were Qurrah, Anselm, Peter the Venerable, Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, Martini, Lull, Duns Scotus, Henry of Oytha, Sabundus, Denis the Carthusian, Nicholas of Cusa, and Ficino.  The most significant light was of course that of Thomas, but all contributed toward turning the tide of apologetical argument into more mystical and metaphysical channels.  Qurrah’s famous allegory emphasized the necessity for man to compare the competing world religions and make a decision between them based on his own autonomous standards of plausibility.  Christianity was simply one hypothesis among many which had to be judged by the sinner’s anticipatory ideas of divinity.  Characteristically for such autonomous apologetics, Qurrah failed to give any adequate resolution or basis for choice between competing anticipations!  In Anselm, we find the beginning of very sophisticated reflections upon the relationship between faith and reason.  Anselm understood the necessity of spiritual renewal and held that man needs faith in order to have understanding.  However, he was not consistent with this Augustinian perspective, for he did agree to write in such a way “that nothing from Scripture should be urged on the authority of Scripture itself, but that whatever the conclusion of independent investigation should be to declare to be true” (Monologion).  Anselm did not completely divorce himself from the pitfalls of autonomy.  Peter the Venerable was the most eminent apologist of the twelfth century, appealing in his arguments against Jews and Moslems to the objectivity of philosophical study as a model for the impartiality he thought should characterize apologetics.  Abelard complemented this theme by holding that human reason, making use of evidences, could pave the way for an initial faith, which in turn prepared for the supernatural act of faith elicited under divine grace.  Abelard assigned reason the jurisdiction to select which authority to follow, and he maintained that the divine Logos had illumined not only the Old Testament prophets but also the Greek philosophers—both of which prepared for the revelation of Christ.  Socrates could not have been more satisfied.  His autonomous reason could then have dealt with the prophets as just one more tradition among many.

In the conflict between Anselm and Abelard, Thomas Aquinas agreed with Abelard that it is possible to prove from reason the basic truths of theism, especially with the help of Aristotelian philosophy.  However, in order to guarantee that there is some need for faith (which must be sharply distinguished from knowledge, with its rational foundations) Thomas went on to argue, in agreement with the Jewish theologian Maimonides, that there is a higher level of religious truth that is impenetrable except by means of revelation from God.  Reason builds the lower story of religious truth, and revelation completes the superstructure.  Yet even in the upper story, reason can show the credibility and probability of the truths believed on faith.  In the lower preamble to faith, Thomas used his famous Five Ways to prove God’s existence; in the upper story dealing with the mysteries of the faith Thomas utilized arguments which we have seen propounded many times previously.  Subsequently, however, Thomas stopped penning his Summa Theologica after undergoing a mystical experience which he felt dwarfed his previous argumentation.  And thus all the elements of the Socratic apology finally came to expression in the approach of Thomas Aquinas: neutrality, autonomy, dialectical epistemology, subjecting God to test, dichotomizing the field of knowledge, assuming the natural ability of human reason, and locating the seat of authority in man’s thinking process.  Aquinas would have been warmly welcomed at the Areopagus, without the mockery Paul received.  He would have appealed to facts, logic, beneficial effects, and mystical experience in a way which would have been congenial to the philosophers of Athens; Thomas would have helped them to absorb totally the Christian message into an alien philosophy and thereby transform and naturalize it.

Martini and Lull expounded the position of Aquinas with missionary fervor, both giving primacy to reason over faith.  Martini propounded the Thomistic apologetic to Saracens and Jews, and Lull devised a set of diagrams (with concentric circles and revolving figures) that he claimed could, when used properly, answer the most difficult theological questions to the satisfaction of Averroists, Saracens, Jews, and Christians alike.  Like Richard of St. Victor, Lull even contended that all the mysteries of the faith could be supported by necessary reasons.  The Thomistic lower story of autonomous reason began to engulf the upper story of authoritative revelation.  John Duns Scotus held a similar position, holding that faith could be objectively justified before the bar of autonomous reason; he produced a list of ten extrinsic reasons which he felt demonstrated the credibility of the Bible.  His medieval list represents the non-presuppositional apologetic arguments which are in vogue even today!  Henry of Oytha distinguished between intrinsic evidence (internal, rational demonstration) and extrinsic evidence (external reasons which point to the probability of something), maintaining that “any man of reasonable and uncorrupted judgment” (where we are to find such men was not indicated) must rightly conclude that the combination of intrinsic and extrinsic evidence undoubtedly proves the Bible to be divine revelation.  Catalan Raimundus Sabundus composed the Book of Creatures, which aimed to lead the mind to rise through the various stages of the chain of being to a contemplation of God.  Like all “chain of being” schemes, this one effectively denied the Creator-creature distinction.  Sabundus held that human reason had the power to prove most everything in the Christian faith without reliance upon the authority of revelation.  Contrary to Isaiah 55: 8-9, God’s thoughts really are quite like man’s thoughts, apparently.  He saw both his Book of Creatures and the Bible as authoritative and infallible; thus they were held to be concordant—with the Book of Creatures having priority as the necessary road to accepting the trustworthiness of Scripture!  Here it becomes quite clear that autonomy in apologetics leads to the undermining of Scripture’s self-attesting authority; if Sabundus were correct in his estimates of reason’s capability, there would be little if any need for supernatural revelation.  The progress of post-Augustinian, intellectual self-sufficiency in apologetics resulted finally in the disintegration of the faith defended!

In the fifteenth century, the scholastic apologetical method was best supported by Denis the Carthusian, who is known for his Dialogue Concerning the Catholic Faith—wherein he explained that faith cannot proceed from self-evident principles, since it is not a form of worldly wisdom, and yet historical arguments can verify the miracle stories.  He is also remembered for a chapter-by-chapter refutation of the Koran based upon historical validation of the Bible, Against the Perfidy of Mohammed.  Denis wrote this work at the urging of Nicholas of Cusa, who himself wrote on the same subject in his Sifting the Koran.  Nicholas held that the Koran could be sifted and used as an introduction to the gospel; indeed, principles in the Koran, he imagined, lead one naturally to accept the Trinity, incarnation, and resurrection.  In harmony with this spirit, Nicholas also composed a synthesis of the major religions of the world, outlining their lowest common denominator in On Peace and Concord in the Faith.  Marsilio Ficino, whose principal work was entitled Platonic Theology, thought of the philosophers of the ancient world as precursors to Christianity and attempted to use Platonic reason to support Christian faith (in contrast to the prevailing Aristotelianism of his day).  However, after an initial commitment has been made to a positive use of the world religions or Greek philosophers in apologetics, the Christian faith is eventually distorted and modified.  Once you have said “yes” to the principles of apostate philosophy, it is too late to say “but” when you subsequently want to disagree with its conclusions.  And thus Ficino was led to believe that, since Plato was only “Moses speaking the Attic language,” the variety of religions found in the world are permitted by God in order to give the creation luster; Christianity is simply the most perfect among the various religions.  It is just one more testimony among many, albeit the “best” one.

In the history of apologetics up to the Reformation, then, Christians wedded themselves for the most part to a Socratic approach, which in turn undermined the definitiveness of Christianity, the significance of miracles, the self-attesting strength of Scripture, the necessity of special revelation, the clarity of general revelation, the prerequisite of faith for understanding, the necessity of faith at all, and even the uniqueness of the Christian message.  What emerged was the exaltation of the intellect, the natural integrity of reason, the delusion of neutrality and autonomy, and the dominating authority of Greek philosophy.  By beginning with Socrates, apologetics could not conclude with Christ.

While there is a multitude of apologetical works which could be rehearsed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, there is little need for our purposes to consider them.  No new grand syntheses or new metaphysical inroads were attempted in any noteworthy fashion.  Instead, initiative was profitably assumed by Christianity’s adversaries in these centuries; since the presuppositions of unbelieving thought were being shared, instead of being challenged, by Christian apologists, critics were able to make the faith’s defenders rush to answer detail-objection after detail-objection.  Especially during the eighteenth century was this the case, as blatant, positivistic attacks upon Christianity became stylish for Enlightenment thinkers.  The emphasis in apologetics steadily shifted toward the “shotgun” method of adducing a variety of particular evidences for the credibility of Christianity.  That is, Christian apologists undertook to answer their positivistic critics in kind.  However, the highly destructive philosophy of David Hume vanquished the evidential approach.  Hume effectively illustrated that, given the assumptions of autonomous thinking, induction could not lead to anything better than psychologically persuasive conclusions.  Hume’s nominalism, representationalism, and undermining of the uniformity of nature guaranteed that the “brute facts” of experience would be mute facts, incapable of demonstrating anything—either conclusively or probabilistically.  Hume’s consistent empiricism was the definitive death blow to the empiricistic apologetic schemes that were in vogue (e.g., Butler’s Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature, 1736).  Men like Toland and Tindal converted the case for natural evidences into deism, and men like Lessing and Reimarus effectively countered the autonomous case from historical evidences, the former with respect to principle and the latter with respect to fact.

In terms of general approach, the apologetics of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries produced nothing remarkably new.  Christianity was defended by appeals to pagan philosophers (Steucho), moral effects (Suarez), prophecy (Gonet), common religious notions (Herbert), historical indications (Bossuet, Lardner), inductive proofs (Houtteville), natural teleology (Bentley, Ray), and natural theology (Clarke).  The diversity of defensive stances was remarkable.  Pascal defended Christianity from the subjective reasons of the heart.  Others like Elizalde, Huet, and Wolff strove to produce quasi-mathematical proofs for the faith.  Appeals were made to the inevitability of general scepticism in order to justify blind faith for the Christian (Montaigne, Charron), while others argued in favor of the presumption and probability of Christianity’s veracity (Bañez, Gregory of Valencia, Butler, Paley).  Evidence was culled from natural facts (Locke, Butler, Paley, Nieuwentijdt, Bonnet), the strength of miracles (Juan de Lugo, Boyle), especially the resurrection (Sherlock, Euler, Less).  And because none of these approaches was convincing in its own right, appeal was also made to the convergence of many signs in favor of Christianity (Hurtado).

However, despite all of this variety, apologists were still bound to the crucial defects of the Socratic approach taken by their predecessors.  There was no conscious and consistent attempt to distinguish the Socratic outlook from the Christian perspective and to argue in terms of the latter.  The reformation of theology effected in the sixteenth century had made no noticeable modification of apologetic strategy, for apologists continued to view their reasoning as independent of their theological commitments.  Indeed, the ideal seemed to be that apologetics would autonomously establish the basic truths of theology.  The deeper mysteries of the faith were to be erected upon the self-sufficient foundation of reason and evidential probability.

The volume and complexity of apologetical treatises in the nineteenth century prevent any convenient detailing or cataloguing, but the trends simply remained constant.  This was the century in which attempts were made to reduce apologetics to a special science—without achieving, however, any unity in the field (as discussed earlier in this article).  For the most part, Schleiermacher’s call for apologetics to establish the prolegomenon to theology was heeded.  This project was initiated by both the Romanists (Drey) and the Protestants (Sack); it was worked out to its consistent end by Thomists (Perrone) and Reformed thinkers (Warfield) alike.  In the wake of Kantian criticism and Hegelian idealism, many apologists assigned matters of science, history, and reason to one domain, while setting religious faith apart as a distinct mode of knowing—thereby surrendering completely the transcendental necessity of God and His revelation for intelligible reasoning, which is the inevitable outcome of divorcing faith from knowledge and granting autonomy to human reason.  The outcome—blind faith—was fideism in apologetics (Kierkegaard, Maurice, Herrmann, Bautain), and apologetical appeals to the heart (Schleiermacher, Tholuck, Chateaubriand, Ventura), intuition (Gratry), and religious pragmatism (Hermes, Ritschl, Kaftan).  Some apologists resorted to arguing that Christianity fosters social order, welfare, and progress as a reason for accepting it (Cortes, Newman, Brownson, Hecker, Luthardt, Weiss).  Since apologists had surrendered the battle at the presuppositional level already, it is no surprise that we find them accommodating to the methods of idealistic philosophy (Orr), higher criticism (Lightfoot, Harnack, A. B. Bruce), and Darwinian science (Mivart, Drummond).205  The same arguments which appeared throughout the history of the church were again rehashed, with all of the ensuing defects of the Socratic outlook thwarting their success.

By taking as its starting point an agreement with apostate thought and presuppositions, Christian apologetics has throughout its history ended up in captivity behind enemy lines.  Having said “yes” to unbelieving epistemology or interpretation at the outset, the later attempt to say “but” and correct the conclusions of non-Christian thinking has been manifestly unsuccessful.  In this we see again the justice of J. T. Forbes’s comment to the effect that the progress of the human mind has been with Socrates.  A striking illustration of the dreadful outcome fostered by taking a Socratic approach to apologetics is afforded by Alec R. Vidler in his book, Twentieth Century Defenders of the Faith.206  The seed of autonomous (Socratic) thinking was planted within Christian apologetics in the second century; it is finally harvested in the twentieth century in the fact that not one of the “apologists” discussed by Vidler holds to the faith once for all delivered to the saints!  Vidler takes as the key defenders of the faith in this century: Harnack, Reville, R. J. Campbell, Loisy, Tyrrell, Le Roy, Figgis, Quick, Spens, Rawlinson, Barth, Brunner, Hoskyns, Niebuhr, Davies, Robinson, and Van Buren-that is, the proponents of liberalism, modernism, neo-orthodoxy, and radicalism.

While Socratic apologists will not be impressed by the following fact (given their Socratic presuppositions), consistently biblical apologists should remind themselves from time to time that Socrates lost his case before his own Athenian peers.  If the logical armor of Socrates resulted in a belly full of hemlock tea, it would seem reasonable for Christians to put on a different kind of armor—specifically the “whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:13-17).  Socrates came to his own, and his own received him not.  The same is the general experience of autonomous apologists in speaking to autonomous unbelievers.  When the commitment of “Athenians” is tested, they will be found to tolerate the presence of Socrates only because they prefer Socrates to Jesus Christ.  In hell, there are no Socratic dialogues.  And in their hearts all Athenians know this to be true; the whole of their lives is spent in a systematic attempt to suppress this truth.  The sinner will use any means at his disposal to evade the claims of Christ, and the autonomy of Socratic apologetics is just one such means.

The principial implication and ultimate outcome of a Socratic apologetic for Christianity is a grotesque transformation of the orthodox faith and a failure to challenge the unbeliever to renounce his autonomy for the gospel of Christ.  Nevertheless, the influence of Socrates continues to be influential in Christian apologetics.  It is seen in the non-evangelical, Richard Kroner, who held that Socrates demonstrated the ability of the human mind by its own effort to approach the truth revealed in the Bible.207  And it is seen in the popular evangelical, C. S. Lewis, who wrote in “The Founding of the Oxford Socratic Club”: “Socrates had exhorted men to ‘follow the argument wherever it led them’: the club came into existence to apply his principle to one particular subject-matter—the pros and cons of the Christian religion.’’208  The proper evaluation of such an autonomous and neutralistic approach was expressed in the title of Willard L. Sperry’s critique of compromising defenses of the faith: “Yes, But” The Bankruptcy of Apologetics.209



204 Theological Resources Series, ed. J. P. Whalen and J. Pelikan (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), pp. xvi-xvii.

205 The foregoing abridged history of apologetics is indebted to the works of Dulles, Ramm, and Reid cited previously; their works can be profitably consulted for an expansion and filling out of the history.  See also Van Til’s three-volume syllabus, “Christianity in Conflict.”

206 (New York: Seabury Press, 1965).

207 Speculation in Pre-Christian Philosophy; cited by Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics, p. 218.

208 God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 126.

209 (New York, 1931).


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