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The Problem With Christian Apologetics

June 22, 2014     Time: 28:58
The Problem With Christian Apologetics


The new movie God's Not Dead draws criticism on the use of reason and apologetics from a Brooklyn Bishop. Dr. Craig offers some correction

Transcript The Problem With Christian Apologetics


[Clips from the movie God's Not Dead]

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, you and I need to get out a little more often. We have not seen the movie God's Not Dead. It is a movie that really shows the value of Christian apologetics. We could talk about the film, but we need to see it first. I've heard good things about it; I've also heard that it's rather contrived. The bottom line is the university student in the film confronts his atheistic teacher and it sends him to the books to study why he believes what he believes. So there is a lot to appreciate about that.

But it brings up this article from Bishop Joseph Mattera. He is Overseeing Bishop of Resurrection Church and Christ Covenant Coalition in Brooklyn, New York. He writes in “'God's Not Dead' and the Problem With Christian Apologetics,”[1]

Recently I viewed the movie God’s Not Dead, starring Kevin Sorbo as an atheistic philosophy college professor who openly challenges a Christian student to prove why his faith is scientifically true. The movie is well-written, has good acting, and is good enough to last more than a month in major movie theaters and make millions of dollars in profit.

I applaud that Christians are now infiltrating Hollywood and the cultural mountain of entertainment and making mainstream movies. This movie also was released around the same time as Noah (not a Christian movie, but a movie loosely based on the biblical narrative of Noah) and Heaven Is for Real [Kevin: we've done a podcast on that, Bill, about the little boy who claims he went to heaven[2]] and a few months after the movie blockbuster Son of God. Thank God Hollywood producers are finally realizing that movies with Bible-based themes are in high demand in the global market!

The God’s Not Dead movie was able to quickly and succinctly present typical (conceptual) but complex challenges to Christianity and the Bible regarding evolution/creation, freedom of choice, the existence of evil and reductionism. Since it was presented as a major motion picture, the apologetics were basic and had some typical Christian clichés for answers. But all in all, it can serve as an intellectual buffer for many young Christians who are challenged in their faith by higher education.

Let's stop there. He is at least giving a nod here to Christian young people who go into the university.

Dr. Craig: Right. He does seem to recognize a role for apologetics at least defensively when Christians are challenged by objections. These answers can give what he calls an intellectual buffer probably to ward off these challenges.

Kevin Harris: He says,

The problem with this movie is that it bases the defense of Christianity on the false modern (Enlightenment) assumption that human reason is the final and highest arbiter of truth, thus setting it above God’s revelation of Himself in the Scriptures. Hence, this movie illustrates how the basic assumption of contemporary apologetics is faulty, because if our faith is upheld and proven by human reason, then unlearned Christian students attempting to use the arguments in this movie are also vulnerable in the future to an atheistic professor who could easily take advantage of their scientific and philosophical ignorance and poke holes through these basic arguments.

Dr. Craig: I don't know if this is an assumption of the movie, but it certainly is not a basic assumption of contemporary Christian apologetics that human reason is the final and highest arbiter of truth.[3] As you know, Kevin, I myself am an exponent of what is called Reformed Epistemology articulated especially by Alvin Plantinga which holds that the great truths of the Gospel can be known in a properly basic way – not inferred by means of argument and evidence – in virtue of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, the testimony of God himself. But the ability to know these truths in a properly basic way doesn't in any way imply that there are not also sound arguments for the truth of Christian theism. The reviewer here moves too quickly from thinking that a person who offers what he believes are sound arguments for God's existence or the truth of Christianity to the assumption that that person is taking human reason to be the final and highest arbiter of truth. It seems to me that that is just an unwarranted assumption on his part. It is a leap which certainly doesn't apply in my case.

As for the concern that he is raising, namely that students who see the movie and who have then a superficial knowledge of apologetics can be taken apart by someone with a more sophisticated understanding of the arguments – well, that would certainly undo their apologetic but if they distinguish as I do between knowing Christianity to be true and showing Christianity to be true then the fact that the atheistic professor has taken apart their apologetics case would only mean that they have failed to show that Christianity is true. But it would not necessarily undermine their knowing Christianity to be true because the ultimate basis for one's confidence is not the arguments and evidence but rather the testimony of God himself.

I would ask him – what is his alternative? I wonder what Bishop Mattera would propose as the alternative – to have these students have no reasons for why they think Christian faith is true and no answers to the objections that they encounter? Surely not. But if he does think that we can know the truth of Christian theism in a properly basic way then what grounds does he have for thinking that God has not also given us the resources to have sound arguments?

Kevin Harris: He says,

However, even more troubling is that even if a Christian wins a debate in apologetics, they really lost in the realm of ultimate truth, since they placed the foundation of the Bible upon modern empirical science, which means their presuppositions are actually the same as atheistic humanists. Christians who try to prove their faith by human reason have fallen into the false modern assumption that ultimate truth can be proven empirically by the five senses. Can you picture Jesus, the apostle Paul or the Old Testament prophets trying to bring conversions about by making a case for God based on contemporary human reason and science?

Dr. Craig: Uh, yeah! [laughter] I certainly can! You look at the apostle Paul, for example, and he constantly argued with unbelievers to try to show them the truth of Christian theism. He argued with Jews in the synagogues to show them that Jesus was the Messiah. As for the Old Testament prophets, think of the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal as to which is the true God. There was dramatic empirical evidence in that case. And Jesus himself said, “If you will not believe my word, believe me on the basis of the works that I do.”[4] He appealed to his miracles as grounds for the radical claims he was making. So certainly Jesus, the apostles, and the Old Testament prophets appealed to evidence and argument for the truth of the message they proclaimed.

Now does that mean that their presuppositions were the same as atheistic humanists? Obviously not. To say that you have good arguments and evidence for what you believe does not say that you are what I would call a theological rationalist or an evidentialist – that is to say, a person who believes that we cannot know the truth of Christian theism apart from argument and evidence. I am not a theological rationalist. I think there is another source of knowledge for the truth of Christian theism apart from argument and evidence, and that is through the immediate witness of God himself.[5] I think Bishop Mattera would agree with me on that. And having this dual warrant for Christianity's truth claims in no way suggests that one is operating on the basis of the presuppositions of modernism or humanism or anything of that sort.

Kevin Harris: What I keep hearing in this whole debate, Bill, especially in response to our podcasts – Myron Penner in The End of Apologetics takes a similar view as we are reading here[6] – is that knowledge of God is transcendent. It so transcends reason that if one does not acknowledge that then one is a theological rationalist whether he claims it or not. So trying to kick it upstairs to transcendence . . . well, God is transcendent, yeah, of course. But I fail to see the application.

Dr. Craig: Right. To say that we can have good arguments that God exists doesn't in any way imply that we thereby have an exhaustive knowledge of God or that we make God finite or non-transcendent; on the contrary, these arguments may lead to the concept of a being that is transcendent, beyond the universe, and so forth. But I see no reason for thinking that God needs to be something that is illogical or beyond reason. Bishop Mattera says, “All of our logic is circular since human reason is finite and subjective. (Only God is absolutely objective.)” Now, that seems to me not to follow at all. What if God is absolutely objective, as he admits, and God is logical. The Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.”[7]] Suppose logic is a reflection of the very nature and mind of God himself? In that case the objectivity of God would mean that human logic is not just subjective and circular, but it is a reflection of God himself. So I see logic as being something that magnifies the greatness of God. And to demean logic and reasoning is ultimately, I think, to demean God because you are demeaning one of his properties and part of his nature.

Kevin Harris: The Bishop continues,

The innate and creational evidence for God is so great that the Bible never even attempts to prove His existence but starts the Scriptures by saying “In the beginning, God ...” Psalm 14 says that the fool has said in his heart there is no God. Romans 1:21 teaches us that all professed unbelievers are really secret believers. The prophets of the Old Testament, along with the New Testament apostles, were able to spread faith due to the incredible power they had with God, due to earnestly seeking His face and speaking to people with prophetic power and conviction (1 Thess. 1:4-5). When Paul spoke at the Areopagus in Acts 17, he didn’t bother debating with his audience on their own philosophical grounds but assumed the biblical worldview, preached the risen Christ, and disparaged their prevailing polytheistic assumptions. Even when he quoted their poets, he quoted them in the context of the vortex of the biblical story without subsuming the biblical story to Greek philosophy!

A lot in that paragraph.

Dr. Craig: Yes, there is, and I agree with him that Paul's speech in Acts 17 on Mars Hill is not a piece of natural philosophy. It is a proclamation of Jewish monotheism. But, having said that, it is also true that Paul did think that the natural world bears witness to the reality of the transcendent God he proclaimed. The verse that he quotes from Romans 1:21 (where it says “all unbelievers are really secret believers”) is based upon the fact that God's invisible nature – namely, his eternal power and deity – have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made so that they are without excuse. Paul thinks that creation itself bears witness to God. So when Barnabas and Paul were in Lystra and the priests of the temple of Zeus came out to offer offerings to them thinking they were deities descended from heaven, Paul renounced this saying, “We are mere men. But the God who has made the world” – this is the same God proclaimed in Acts 17 on Mars Hill – “has not left himself without a witness.”[8]] And that witness is the evidence of nature, just as he says in Romans 1:21. So I think Paul was not at all against offering evidence from natural theology for the existence of God.[9] I have already commented on the Old Testament prophets such as the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Or we think of Moses' confrontation of the Egyptian priests where it was his ability to do certain miracles that were the authentication that he spoke for the true God and that therefore he needed to be listened to. So I read the Bible very, very differently than Bishop Mattera does. When I read the Scriptures, I see all through it a willingness on the part of God to provide evidence of his reality that is visible and available to those who honestly seek him.

Kevin Harris: Bill, I've always been impressed that Paul knew their philosophers, quoted their philosophers and poets (who were the rock stars of that day). That had to get their attention. He knew their material. I've always been impressed by that. Yeah, he did put it in the context. He's saying, “Here's where these guys are right. Here is where I agree.” And he pointed to creation and the resurrection and things like that. But I always thought that was a great thing.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, it is a tremendous bridge-building illustration, that speech in Acts 17 where he takes the altar with the inscription “To an unknown God” as his springboard for proclaiming to them Jewish monotheism and quotes their own poets as you say. It is a typical proclamation of Jewish monotheism over against the pagan polytheism of the surrounding Greco-Roman world.

Kevin Harris: The Bishop continues:

Furthermore, Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:21 that the world through its own wisdom cannot know God. When we, as Christians, try to borrow from modernity and science to prove our faith, we actually lose the ultimate debate even if we win the temporary debate! At the end of the day, apologetics and science are OK as long as they are limited in their scope and their purpose is to understand the language of Babylon and inform our bridge-building conversations with humanists and atheists.

Dr. Craig: I am very disappointed in what he says there. I think it is clear that in 1 Corinthians 1 that the kind of worldly wisdom that Paul disparages there is a sort of godless philosophy. I think he would have thought that the kind of philosophies of the Stoics and the Epicureans that he met in Athens is futile and will not find God. But that doesn't mean when the Christian apologist gives arguments and evidence for the existence of God that somehow he is caving in to modernity and losing the ultimate debate.

The use of apologetics and evidence is much greater than what he says here – “to understand the language of Babylon.” That is, I take it to mean, you understand the language and the way of thinking of the secular world – you understand them. And then, secondly, inform our bridge-building conversations – provide some points of contact with them. I think it does far, far more than that. It can show the unbeliever that there are actually good reasons to believe that God exists and that he has revealed himself in Christ.

Here I want to say, Kevin, that to not give such reasons, to refrain from doing this, I think is apt to bring more disrepute upon Christians than the danger that Bishop Mattera feels exists of getting in over your head in such conversations. I have found that the most angry denunciations that I have received tend to be from people who are reacting to my Reformed Epistemology. They find it just unconscionable that I think that there is a way of knowing the truth of Christian theism apart from evidence and argument. Now, they never interact with Plantinga's defense of Reformed Epistemology. They just react angrily and emotionally against it. But if you eschew arguments and evidence and you only have belief in God as properly basic, I can almost assure Bishop Mattera he is not going to be more effective in building bridges to our contemporary culture. He is going to meet with very angry resistance on the part of secularists and modernists. If he is worried about effectiveness, which he does seem to be, I think that the danger of irrelevance and appearing to be a fideist is going to be a much greater danger than the danger that neophyte apologists might get in over their heads and be beaten up in a conversation.[10]

Kevin Harris: Bishop Mattera continues,

If our faith rests upon ungodly Enlightenment presuppositions, we could be robbed of our prophetic power and could end up losing our faith since we are framing our beliefs on human reason, which assumes that logic has more weight than divine revelation.

Dr. Craig: And who is doing that? Again, I do not think that our faith rests upon ungodly Enlightenment presuppositions. I am not a theological rationalist. So here again we just see this kind of either-or thinking where you are either a theological rationalist or you are a fideist or a Reformed Epistemologist or something, but you can't have both. And I see no reason for that assumption.

Kevin Harris: He anticipates something here, Bill, because the Bishop says,

Lest anyone think I am promoting a form of fideism (faith without reason), I believe Christianity has a worldview that is the most logical and rational of all other worldviews.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, now, how can he say that? I can understand how he could say, “I am not fideistic because I believe in Reformed Epistemology; that belief in God is properly basic, it is among the deliverances of human reason because God has formed us in such a way to believe in his existence and the truths of the Gospel when we are in certain circumstances like being recipients of the witness of the Holy Spirit.” But that is not what he says. He says, “I am not a fideist because Christianity has a worldview that is the most logical and rational of all other worldviews.” Now, are you going to show that, Bishop? Are you going to give us the reason as to why you think Christianity is the most rational and logical worldview? Well, the minute you support this statement rather than merely assert it, you are going to be involved in the task of apologetics.

Kevin Harris: Everything in here the Bishop would have to support, right?

Dr. Craig: Yes. If he really thinks that all of our logic is circular and subjective then how can he justify the inferences that he has made in this article? He has presented an argument against the use of positive evidence and arguments for Christianity's truth. He undoes his own case if he impugns logic and human reason as just inherently circular and subjective.

Kevin Harris: He says,

In spite of this, at the end of the day, all of our logic is circular since human reasoning is finite and subjective. (Only God is absolutely objective.) Thus, no one can prove or disprove the existence of God.

Dr. Craig: Now notice there the “thus.” See, that is an inference he's made. He has made an inference here. “All of our logic is circular since human reason is finite and subjective. . . Thus, no one can prove or disprove the existence of God.” Really? Now, why does that conclusion follow from that premise if logic is just subjective and circular? You see, Kevin, how he is immediately caught in the trap. He is using logic to try to undo logic. So he is trying to give us an argument here against proving or disproving God's existence, but that will presuppose then the validity of the logic which he is impugning.

Kevin Harris: He says,

Thus, no one can prove or disprove the existence of God; the best a Christian can do is show probabilities. (God cannot be proved empirically. However the arguments for design and the supernatural make Christianity’s teachings the most likely to be true of all competing religions and humanistic beliefs.)

Dr. Craig: Now what more could the Christian apologist ask for? Here he not only says that Christianity is the most logical and rational of all other worldviews, but he says that the argument for design and the supernatural make Christianity the most likely to be true of all competing religions and humanistic beliefs. Now, no Christian apologist could ask for more than that. That is an enormous endorsement of the value of these arguments. So, it seems to me there is just a deep contradiction in the article. He wants to have his cake and eat it, too.

Kevin Harris: He says,

At the end of the day, if a person can be talked into becoming a Christian by clever logic-based apologetics, then someone else (e.g., an atheist) with more knowledge and skill in logic could come along and talk the new Christian out of their faith.

Dr. Craig: Well, that would only be true if the only reason that Christian has for believing in Christianity are those arguments and evidence. But if, as I say, there is a distinction between knowing your faith to be true and showing your faith to be true, then a Christian whose apologetic case is undermined by someone with more knowledge and skill might have an incentive thereby to beef up his case, to go study, and do better.[11] I can say personally, I remember when I was in seminary, I was chatting with one of my classmates and I said to him, “How do you know Christianity is true?” And he said, “Well, I guess I really don't know how I know that Christianity is true.” And I thought, “Well, how do I know it is true?” I remember being able to offer some sort of woolly, ambiguous arguments based upon the historical credibility of the book of Acts, but I was ashamed of myself. I thought, “Here I am a graduate of Christian college, studying in seminary, and I really can't even give a good answer to that question, 'How do you know Christianity is true?'” For me that didn't undermine my belief in Christian truth. Rather, it made me embarrassed and spurred me on to study so that I would be able to give an answer for the hope that is in me to anybody who would ask me for such a reason. So the response that he gives here is not the only response of the Christian who has a superficial knowledge of arguments and finds himself bested in a conversation. On the contrary, I think that this can be a real incentive to deeper study and better discipleship.

Kevin Harris: Bill, in conclusion today, some of this I see that we confronted lately on our podcast (this opposition to apologetics), some of it may just be a backlash at the popularity and the renaissance of Christian philosophy and apologetics. Something that becomes this popular, it becomes this huge target.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, maybe, Kevin, but it seems to me that what we have in this case and in other cases we've talked about is an equation between Christian apologetics and what I call theological rationalism or evidentialism. I think these people quite rightly sense that, as Christians, our confidence in the truth of our faith is not ultimately based in human arguments and evidence. We have a deeper source of the warrant of our Christian truth claims that is grounded in the Word of God himself mediated to us by the Holy Spirit. We have the testimony of God living within us that this is true. So I think they have a sense of that quite rightly, but then this is misexpressed by this false dichotomy that you either know something in that sort of immediate, properly basic way, or else you know it through inference from argument and evidence, but you can't have both. And that is just a false dichotomy.To Bishop Mattera, I would want to ask again, what is your alternative to having good arguments and evidence when you confront the non-believer? If you simply confront the non-believer with your properly basic belief in the truth of Christianity, I doubt that that will be very impressive to the unbeliever and will be any more effective. The confidence of the Christian might well be undermined by hearing arguments and evidence against the faith that he can't answer. So I want to affirm with him that Christianity is the most logical and rational of all of the other worldviews and say that we can argue for that conclusion.[12]