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#175 Irrelevant Scholarship

August 23, 2010

Dear Dr. Craig,

I read the sample chapter of your book On Guard and it raised some questions I have about the efficacy of apologetics.

On p. 17 you write: “For a person who is thoroughly secularized, you may as well tell him to believe in fairies or leprechauns as in Jesus Christ! That’s how absurd the message of Christ will seem to him.”

I agree that culture largely determines what beliefs we will find plausible. You say that one of the main reasons for apologetics is to shape the culture so that the claims of the gospel will sound plausible. This is good as far as it goes, but how specifically does one do that? All of the cosmological arguments in the world aren’t going to move people if they find God no more plausible than a celestial teapot or flying spaghetti monster. The fact that some Christian apologists have felt the need to respond seriously to these caricatures, doesn’t make Christianity seem any more plausible. And that’s only when it comes to God’s existence, much less the more particular claims of Christianity.

I used to have high hopes for the efficacy of apologetics, but over the years that hope has waned. And I can’t necessarily blame my secular interlocutors, because I’m equally dismissive of the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who occasionally come to my door.

Although you recount a few anecdotes where apologetics has been effective, you also say on p. 22 “we should expect that most unbelievers will remain unconvinced by our apologetic arguments.” If this is the case largely because Christianity seems prima facie implausible to secular people, there doesn’t seem to be much point making logically tight arguments or assembling evidence for the resurrection. Those arguments are not going to overcome the initial implausibility of the claim.

I haven’t been current on the apologetic literature for awhile. The rise of New Atheism and the ‘conversion’ of Antony Flew got me thinking and reading about the subject again. But I just can’t shake the feeling that the arguments I once placed a lot of weight on, just don’t seem very convincing anymore. How optimistic are you that this culture will change any time soon, or are apologetic arguments destined to be heard against this presumption of implausibility?



When considering the contemporary landscape of issues troubling believers and unbelievers alike; why should Craig focus on subjects like “divine temporality” or “molinism” (where less than 0.01% of lay-folk will benefit from Craig’s insight) instead of matters like biblical inerrancy, OEC versus YEC, and the Origins debate where Craig has spent very little time? As one the world’s great Christian thinkers, should Craig not be redirecting his efforts?  Yes I know he covers other topics in his works (still secondary in relevance IMO to the above topics); and I do not believe these battleground areas are not being addressed by those of Craig’s caliber.

(Please note: I have the utmost respect for Dr. Craig and have read nearly everything he has written [some of his books two and three times]  lest anyone think I am raising this question with any motive other than sincere concern for what people are really struggling with out there.)


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Dr. craig’s response


Oh, my goodness, Dan, I was talking about preserving the climate of plausibility that still exists in the United States regarding Christianity! If you think it’s bad here, you should try living in a culture like that of Belgium or of Turkey—or even of Canada. You have no idea of how positively disposed American culture still is toward theism and even toward Christianity.

Ever since biblical Christianity slipped into the intellectual closets of Fundamentalism, we’ve been losing ground in American culture. Not that the Fundamentalists believed the wrong things; rather it was their withdrawal from mainstream culture and institutions that proved so damaging to the cause of Christ. We let the mainline denominations and seminaries drift away and left the secular universities in order to separate into our own institutions. What you’re sensing now about the drift of American culture away from Christian faith is in part the product of decades of neglect on the part of the American church. The problem is not that rigorous apologetics was tried and failed; the problem is that it was not tried. Back in the 1950s what apologetic literature was available for the training of the church? Carnell, Van Til, Clark—that was about it!

Read the works of the New Atheists. These people are interacting with a form of Christianity that is almost bereft of any apologetic argumentation. I recall Christopher Hitchens’ amazement once he began to confront intellectually engaged Christians who could give arguments for faith and answer his objections. He thought this was something new, a hitherto untried form of Christianity! The New Atheism is the bitter fruit of an intellectually unengaged Christianity that was dominant for decades in American culture.

Now that is changing. The current renaissance of interest in apologetics is in large part the trickle-down effect of the revolution in Christian philosophy that has been going on since the late 1960s. The impact of this revolution is just beginning to be felt in the church through the works of those who can popularize the thought of Christian scholars like Alvin Plantinga and others. Its impact on culture as a whole has yet to be felt. So don’t despair and give up too soon! If you do, then you will have a culture on your hands in this country like that which prevails throughout Europe: an entrenched secularism.

So how do we impact culture via apologetics? As I have repeatedly emphasized, not through popular level apologetics but through Christian scholarship. We need to help students see that becoming university faculty is a calling from the Lord to be salt and light in a sometimes hostile environment. If Christian scholars show that they deserve a place at the table in our top universities, then their colleagues will treat their beliefs with greater respect in the classroom and the perception of Christianity among students will change. The university is the most important institution shaping Western culture, and so the university must be the arena in which we bear witness to Christ by the caliber of our Christian scholarship.

Now this conclusion relates to your question, Brian. In my work as a Christian scholar, I determined to publish in the best professional journals of philosophy and theology that I could and with non-evangelical, academic presses. Doing first rate philosophy from a Christian perspective is perhaps the most important way a Christian philosopher like myself can impact his discipline favorably for Christ. In my work I have focused on the two central pillars of the Christian faith: the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus. Contending for these two truths is foundational to everything else we do. The issues you mention are almost irrelevancies compared to these and of little significance for culture at large, however important they may seem in the insulated evangelical subculture.

When I became a philosopher, I had to decide on an area of specialization. I chose the Doctrine of God, specifically a philosophical analysis of the principal attributes of God. I never dreamt it would be such a wide-ranging inquiry! So far I’ve written on divine omniscience and divine eternity and am currently engaged in research on divine aseity. I chose topics that I am passionately interested in, not “relevant” topics, because I wanted my work to be a labor of love rather than drudgery and because I wanted my contribution to outlive me. The irony is that over and over again, I find in my Q&A times with students that questions come up which I can answer precisely because I have studied intensely the nature of time or theories of divine knowledge like Molinism or philosophy of mathematics. I just have to laugh at how the Lord has used my study of these “irrelevant” topics to impact the lives of others for Christ.

Take, for example, Frédéric’s question last week. He is a French Christian, a very rare breed. He’s thinking about questions concerning the nature of time and space. He needs to know that there are Christian thinkers who have engaged themselves seriously with such questions in their work and sought to integrate the answers into a defensible Christian worldview. Shall I redirect my efforts and leave Frédéric to twist in the wind? Never!

Finally, Dan, your points about the relative ineffectiveness of apologetics in evangelism confuses two different roles I laid out for apologetics: shaping culture and evangelizing unbelievers. Success in the second is NOT a precondition of the first! We shape culture so that when people hear a Gospel presentation they can respond to it with a clear conscience intellectually. Relatively few may come to faith because of the arguments, but the arguments have helped to shape a cultural milieu in which the Gospel can be heard as a real option. Apologetics has, as it were, given them permission to believe when their hearts are moved.

Of course, as I said, some people do come to Christ through apologetic arguments (look at some of the testimonials we receive!). Christ loves them and died for them, too, and so we mustn’t ignore them. Moreover, as I explained, these people’s numbers belie their significance because they are often the movers and shakers in American culture. So winning these persons may have a great impact for the Kingdom.

I thank God every day for this incredible calling which I have the privilege to fulfill.

- William Lane Craig