An Experiential Apologetic

Quite often, we hear the claim “I came to faith through evidence” – with the conclusion being, of course, that evidentialism must be a valid form of apologetic methodology. How would you answer such a claim for yourself?

First, there is the confusion of “system” with “element.” Evidence is not evidentialism. The two are massively different things. Evidentialism is distinguishable (in some ways) from classicalism, and in a host of ways from presuppositionalism. These differences, of course, are not on the level of “which things in this world that get talked about in the process of giving a defense for the faith” – they are on the level of “how you talk about the same things in this world.” Please hear me – the differences which actually exist between these two camps and presuppositionalism are often subtle – but they are anything but merely “differences of opinion,” or merely “different tacks to take.” Take a moment and listen to how the proponents of the two major sub-camps describe their own systems.

Evidentialism:

Inductive, rather than deductive:
Essentially, it concedes that proof for Christianity cannot be indisputable, or certain – but nevertheless asserts that the case for Christianity can be reasonable. Typically, this is done by arguing from a variety of facts to a conclusion which is said to be supported by those facts. Inductive argumentation reasons that the conclusion is most probably true, given that the premises are true.

Probablistic, rather than absolutistic: “Historians, and indeed all of us, must make decisions constantly, and the only adequate guide is probability (since absolute certainty lies only in the realms of pure logic and mathematics, where, by definition, one encounters no matters of fact at all).”[1]

“to us probability is the very guide of life.”[2]

Assumption of methodological neutrality:
“Properly, we should start not with substantive, “content” presuppositions about the world (e.g., the axiom of revelation), which gratuitously prejudge the nature of what is, but with heuristic, methodological presuppositions that permit us to discover what the world is like—and (equally important) what it is not like. Such are the a prioris of empirical method, which are not only heuristic but unavoidably necessary in all of our endeavors to distinguish synthetic truth from falsity.”[3]

Minimal Facts Approach to the resurrection – “For more than 35 years, I have argued that, surrounding the end of Jesus’ life, there is a significant body of data that scholars of almost every religious and philosophical persuasion recognize as being historical. The historicity of each “fact” on the list is attested and supported by a variety of historical and other considerations.”[4] “From the outset of my studies, I argued that there were at least two major prerequisites for an occurrence to be designated as a Minimal Fact. Each event had to be established by more than adequate scholarly evidence, and usually by several critically-ascertained, independent lines of argumentation. Additionally, the vast majority of contemporary scholars in relevant fields had to acknowledge the historicity of the occurrence. Of the two criteria, I have always held that the first is by far the most crucial, especially since this initial requirement is the one that actually establishes the historicity of the event. Besides, the acclamation of scholarly opinion may be mistaken or it could change. Throughout this research, I have produced two lists of facts that have varied slightly in the numbering from publication to publication. The longer list was usually termed the “Known Historical Facts” and typically consisted of a dozen historical occurrences that more generally met the above criteria, but concerning which I was somewhat more lenient on their application. This would apply especially to the high percentages of scholarly near-unanimous agreement that I would require for the shorter list. From this longer listing, I would extrapolate a briefer line-up of from four to six events, termed the Minimal Facts.”[5]

Classical approach to the resurrection – Reliability of the New Testament – This is an older model, and related to the “courtroom” approach found in older apologetics texts. See “The Jury Returns: A Juridical Defense of Christianity,” by Montgomery, “The Tryal of the Witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus,” by Thomas Sherlock, or “The Bible under Trial. Apologetic Papers in View of Present Day Assaults on Holy Scripture”, by James Orr, for examples of this method.

Classicalism:

Generally, the “statesman” of this methodology is, of course, Thomas Aquinas.

It emphasizes the rationality of Christianity:

“One of the awesome tasks of Christian philosophers is to help turn the contemporary intellectual tide in such a way as to foster a sociocultural milieu in which Christian faith can be regarded as an intellectually credible option for thinking men and women”[6]

Offers philosophical proofs:
“This immediate perception of God is confirmed and the contents of the idea developed by a series of arguments known as the “theistic proofs.” These are derived from the necessity we are under of believing in the real existence of the infinitely perfect Being, of a sufficient cause for the contingent universe, of an intelligent author of the order and of the manifold contrivances observable in nature, and of a lawgiver and judge for dependent moral beings.”[7]
Argues from general, or “bare” theism to Christian theism.

Scripture as inspired and authoritative is, typically, the conclusion of their argument:
There are a variety of modern examplars, including R.C. Sproul, who is oft-quoted on this site. Why? Because his quotes illuminate the difference between our methodology, and the traditional methodology quite clearly. “From an uninspired Bible we are arguing for miracles, and from miracles we are arguing from an inspired Bible.” This quote comes from pg. 144 of Classical Apologetics, hthe work co-authored with Gerstner. Again, on page 149; “Apologetics cannot begin with the inspired Bible or even with a divine Christ.”

There is a similarity to the Classical and Evidential school; both of them start with the Bible as if it were uninspired – they treat it as a historical document only – in their apologetic methodology. The difference between them lies in whether to argue a) Primarily deductively, beginning with logic or b) Primarily inductively, beginning with facts which “speak for themselves[8]“, to cite Montgomery.

But let us make something quite clear. Covenantal, or Presuppositional apologetics does not reject the use of, discussion of, or presentation of facts. This is a common objection, but it is indisputably false. Van Til has an entire book discussing the use of evidence. Notaro has a book on the proper use of evidence. Bahnsen discusses the proper use of evidence. Bahnsen presents evidence in his debate with Stein. James White presents evidence in his first debate with Dan Barker – and with every one of the opponents from the incredibly disparate groups he engages in debate with. The question at hand is not whether we are to use evidence. The use of evidence is often to be taken as prima facie evidence for evidentialism – but those who do so, in my experience, almost never define what it is evidentialism is, while so claiming. A classicalist does not argue for the “greater probability of the existence of a god” – but neither does a Covenantal apologist. An evidentialist, however, does so. A classicalist, on the other hand, will argue for theism – or “bare theism” – as a stop on the way. The terminology is different – as is the argumentation used to arrive at that point – but it’s the same basic principle. One of incrementalism.

What the “Rodney Kings” of methodology try to tell us is that there is a way to syncretise these approaches. What they typically don’t tell the folks they are pitching this to is that Van Til’s entire point was that both evidentialism and classicalism were wrong. Further, that his critiques were not on the level of “preference” – but were on the level of doctrinal, scriptural, and methodological rejection – a rejection that can be, and is, compared to the rejection of the doctrines and practices of Rome. In other words, it was intended, by the “father of presuppositionalism,” to be a “Reformation” – in the historic sense – not merely a reform, in the modern sense. He addresses both approaches in general terms – but both evidentialism and classicalism can be clearly seen in his critiques. This is not something you are typically informed of, when these syncretist models are set forth. It must, however, be addressed plainly by those advocating for covenantal apologetics as “one of several” methodologies. It was never intended to be such – and in the very heart of what it teaches is a fundamental rejection of what both classicalism and evidentialism present as the common ground between believer and unbeliever – the mind. It is presented with plenty of caveats, to be sure – but despite the caveats, the arguments themselves belie the qualifications made about them – and about the nature of evidence, as presented by the arguments. Luther couldn’t “get along” with the Pope as long as he taught what the Roman church teaches. Calvin couldn’t “get along” with Jacopo Sadoleto, either. Van Til cannot “get along” with Joseph Butler or Thomas Aquinas, either. For almost identical reasons. What we are after is a Reformation of apologetic – not merely a syncretism which will necessarily gut the system we teach. What would a syncretism of Calvin and Aquinas get you? Well, Plantinga showed that fairly clearly, didn’t he? Here’s a hint; It didn’t end up looking much like Calvin. It did, however, bear a striking resemblance to Aquinas.

  1. [1]Montgomery, History and Christianity, 79
  2. [2]Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Course and Constitution of Nature
  3. [3]Montgomery, “Clark’s Philosophy of History,” in Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark, edited by Nash, 388
  4. [4]Habermas, The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity; Southeastern Theological Review 3/1 (Summer 2012), 15
  5. [5]Habermas, The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity; Southeastern Theological Review 3/1 (Summer 2012), 16
  6. [6]Moreland, Craig; Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 2
  7. [7]Warfield, “God,” in Shorter Writings, 1:70
  8. [8]“The Jury Returns: A Juridical Defense of Christianity,” in Evidence for Faith, 335

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