Editor’s Note: I (“SlimJim”) am away in a family trip and this is a pre-scheduled post. It is written by our guest Ben Holloway who is a brother in Christ that is working on a PhD with Dr. Greg Welty .
The key to good apologetic strategy is knowing where to begin and where to end a debate. It requires getting at the heart of an objection and knowing what one is going to argue for in response.
The best way to find the heart of an objection is to watch out for key words or phrases. Whereas traditional apologetic methods rely on answering questions directly, presuppositional methods emphasize an indirect method, asking what would have to be the case to make the objection intelligible.
For example, take the question, “why should I believe the Bible is true?” A traditional response would be to give evidence for the trustworthiness of the documents making up the Bible. Presuppositionalists take a different tack. The issue is truth, not whether or not the Bible is true, but what would have to be the case in order for anyone to know any truth or for there to be such a thing as truth.
Knowing the key idea leads to developing a conclusion or a goal to one’s argument.
In the case in question the presuppositionalist should aim for an argument from truth to God. She might respond by arguing, “because if the Bible was not true, there would be no way to know if anything was true.” This is only the conclusion to the argument and would involve several steps to get to it, but it helps to know what one is going to argue for.
This method works as long as one spots the assumption behind the question and is able to show how such an assumption is only possible because Christianity is true.
Take another common and slightly more postmodern objection: “Christianity is a particular community’s interpretation of reality, but it is not necessarily true.” It is tempting to respond by showing that Christianity is true, but the objection is not concerned with truth (at least not in the correspondence sense). The objection focuses on the ability of human beings to interpret experience within particular linguistic communities. Consequently, the presuppositionalist may argue something like: “the interpretation of reality by communities using language is only possible because Christianity is true. Language did not emerge in human confrontation with events, but pre-existed in the intra-trinitarian language game of God. If it did not then there would be no meaning to language.” Again, there are multiple steps required to reach this conclusion, but the key is to be clear in one’s aim.
Another common objection relies on a moral assumption: “Christians have carried out many evil actions in history.” A common presuppositional response to this is: “Actions could only be judged as good or evil if Christianity is true. Human moral judgement relies on an absolute moral judgement determined by the nature of God.” It is crucial to note what that response presupposes. The objection refers to an observable event–an “evil action”–but the response refers to a conceptual framework by which one is able to asses actions. The action of kicking a soccer ball and the action of kicking a person is the same action, but what one needs in order to judge one action to be evil and the other to be good is a moral concept. Presuppositionalists do well when they show how the two are connected, in this case by the ability to judge actions according to moral concepts. Moral concepts would only arise if there is a prior standard by which human beings can discern between good and evil. And such a prior standard requires a moral judgement that is binding from God who is Holy and sets the standard of moral law.
Many objections that unbelievers have are related to what we can know from the Bible. Consequently, when asked what grounds one has for belief it is legitimate to cite one’s source. Consider the question, “what makes you think that Jesus is the only way to heaven?” This objection does not require one to show, philosophically, why it is rational for there to be only one way to heaven or to show empirically that Jesus rose from the dead thus verifying his claim to uniqueness. Rather, it requires an explanation of one’s source or grounds for believing that Jesus is the only way to heaven. In short, because the Bible tells me so. To argue that there is sufficient warrant for a belief provided by scripture is a legitimate line of response. However, one should be prepared to answer the follow up objection–“What makes you think that the Bible is true?”–to which one might respond giving the answer I gave at the top of the post.
Sometimes the word one is looking for is hidden or implied. For example, an unbeliever might suggest, “given the preponderance of evil in our world the likelihood that God exists is small.” The issue at hand is related to empirical evidence. “Likelihood” is a probability statement related to something we can observe. Therefore, one might reply that the human ability to observe, analyse and draw conclusions from empirical evidence is only possible because God exists and Christianity is true. The human ability to observe, analyze and draw conclusions relies on the predictability and intelligibility of the world and the matching human ability to assess probability and “likelihood” of the existence of certain objects. In this case the existence of a sovereign and omniscient God is the necessary condition for such a situation.
Often apologetic debate can be stifled by an objection that contains multiple starting points. In this case it is always best to seek to find out what underlying objection one’s interlocutor is wanting an answer to. Consider the objection, “aren’t all religions the same?” The objection sounds like it requires the refutation, “no, there is one true religion and many false religions.” However, it is unclear as to how one defends this answer. I have found that a conversation with someone committed to religious pluralism is difficult because there are so many lines of objection. Take the standard Hickean thesis: There are many different religions. Most people are equally rational and living in the same world. Therefore, all or most religions are equally warranted. Hick’s argument relies on several assumptions, each requiring a different response. Is the objection about justice? (It is not fair that God chooses some and not others). Is the objection about culture? (religion is a cultural product and no one chooses into which culture one is born). Many pluralist objections are rooted in epistemological skepticism. Their basic objection is that no one really knows what religion is true. Each of these objections starts with a separate (if related) assumption and it is worth exploring what is most important to one’s interlocutor.
Many apologetic debates get derailed by an inattention to what the heart of an objection is and an unclear goal in response. Perhaps you might light to practice your strategy with more common objections to the Christian faith. Try a search for “common objections to Christianity” and try to identify the key idea behind the objection and work out what you want to argue for. Then think through how you would get there.