The last time I wrote I introduced the term ‘apologetics’ and listed five ways that studying it can benefit you. I concluded with a promise to provide you with an overview of Christian apologetics to help you get a big picture understanding of the field, and today I want to take the first step toward fulfillment of that promise.
In his book Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition Christian philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre discusses three different ways to approach the study of ethics. Today I want to suggest that Christian apologetics can be approached in the same ways. I also want to recommend that we approach apologetics the same way MacIntyre recommends we approach the study of ethics: as a “tradition”. Let’s talk about each approach, starting with the so-called “genealogical” approach.
The Genealogical Approach
A genealogy traces the lineage or descent of its subject to explain where it came from.
For example, Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals attempts to provide a story that explains where the idea of morality came from. For his part Nietzsche does not believe in real moral values or duties. He thinks that human beings evolved in such a way so as to develop the idea of morality, even though morality itself doesn’t really exist. The point of his story is to discredit our idea of morality by showing that we developed this idea in response to social and cultural factors, rather than because morality is real and we are able to perceive it.
Similarly, there are people who try to provide an explanation of how and why Christians started developing rational arguments for their beliefs, sometimes as a way to argue that we do not really have good reasons for being Christians. For example, in his debate with William Lane Craig, the late Christopher Hitchens tells a story about how the discipline of Christians apologetics emerged in response to challenges from new findings in the empirical sciences. The most important thing about this story has nothing to do with whether or not it is a true story (it isn’t). The most important thing about this is that it is a story to begin with. In this case, it is an attempt to discredit an entire discipline (Christian apologetics) because of where it supposedly comes from.
There is an official name for the mistake of reasoning that Nietzsche and Hitchens make; it’s called the “genetic fallacy”. The truth is that it doesn’t matter where a belief came from or why it is held. What matters is whether the belief is, in fact, true. Even if apologetics is a new practice (it isn’t), our arguments might nevertheless be good arguments and our conclusions true conclusions. The only way to find out is to directly investigate the truth of our premises and the validity of our reasoning. Offering a genealogical account of when and why these arguments were developed does nothing to show that our premises are false or our reasoning is flawed.
But note well that this cuts both ways: Neither the truth nor the falsity of an idea can be determined with the genealogical approach.
Don’t get me wrong, genealogies (of people and ideas) can be helpful. However, in the case of Christian apologetics, the point is not to stand apart from the subject matter. The point is to engage with it. Wrestle with the questions for yourself, come up with your own ideas, and learn how to develop and articulate your own apologetic. In a word, the point of studying apologetics, for the Christian, is to become an apologist. Therefore, while we may be learning some history from time to time in future posts (something I even recommend later in this article), we will not be taking a fundamentally genealogical approach.
The Encyclopedic Approach
MacIntyre uses the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica as an example of the specific kind of “encyclopedic” approach to enquiry he has in mind. This encyclopedia attempts to present an organized deposit of the facts available to humanity at the time. It aims to deal strictly in knowledge rather than opinion. MacIntyre argues that its producers intended to create something that could, in certain ways, perform a role very similar to the role the Bible performs for Christians.
Similarly, there are Christian apologists who can tend to give the impression that they consider themselves or others to be know-it-alls, or who present a set of arguments as if they were showing off our encyclopedic deposit of firm and certain knowledge. Often when one takes a class or picks up a book that deals with apologetics, one is taught a fairly standard stock of arguments, rather than, say, tools and methods for thinking and speaking clearly and persuasively about religious subjects. Not all apologists, classes, or books are this way all the time, however Christian apologetics has developed a bit of a reputation in our culture for insensitivity, over-confidence, and the endless repetition of existing material (whether or not we entirely deserve this reputation). This, in my judgment, is due in part to the predominance of an unreflective encyclopedic approach to the field that often treats the work that has been done as conclusive.
Please don’t misunderstand me on this either. There is a way that the world really is, in and of itself, outside of our minds. There are facts. There are absolutes. There is truth. As Christians, we believe that we have come to know some of these truths and, more importantly, that we have come to personally know Jesus, The Way, The Truth, and The Life. But there is a difference between knowing the truth, and showing the truth. If you are a Christian, you already know the Truth, and now you are called to learn how to show the truth to others (1 Peter 3:15). That’s apologetics, and it’s always going to be a work in progress. We can’t pretend that the arguments Christians have developed thus far to show the truth to be the truth make up an encyclopedia of demonstrable facts and conclusive arguments. The truth is the truth. Our efforts to show it may or may not be true, and so we must be humble.
The Traditional Approach
The third possible approach to the field of Christian apologetics—the approach I propose we adopt—is to treat the discipline of apologetics like it is a tradition to be joined. A tradition of this kind is a body or pattern of existing beliefs, standards, and methods for ongoing investigation that is shared by a community, and that may change over time.
To enter into a tradition one has to become familiar with its beliefs, standards, and methods, and, ideally, with its history. How did this tradition come about? What’s so compelling about it? Why are things done in a certain way? What are the best arguments that this tradition has come up with so far? What challenges does it face?
Once one enters into a tradition one can begin participating in it—talking with peers, developing ideas and arguments of one’s own, offering and receiving constructive criticism, and ultimately helping to refine and develop even the very beliefs, standards, and methods of the tradition itself.
The genealogical approach to Christian apologetics is to stand back and look at it as an outside observer, without “buying into” it. The encyclopedic approach is to collect arguments and evidence and treat the collection as an unchanging and reliable deposit of facts and arguments that conclusively prove the truth of Christianity. The traditional approach to apologetics is to join a community of Christians who share a set of functional—but not unchangeable—beliefs, standards, and methods, who work together to investigate and present the rational grounds for Christianity.
The writers at this blog will be approaching Christian apologetics as a tradition. We won’t be standing apart from the discipline as outside observers or genealogists on the one hand, and yet on the other hand we admit that we do not know everything and neither do any other believers, and so we will not be treating the arguments developed by ourselves or others as entries in an encyclopedia to be referenced and uncritically relied upon. We might find better ways of wording things from one post to the next. We might change our minds, abandon arguments, adopt new arguments, and even disagree with one another as siblings-in-Christ operating within a common tradition as we investigate together, learning and growing and sharpening each other as we go.
For those of you who may not be familiar with apologetics, we will be summarizing many of the standard positions, methods, and arguments to help you “catch up”. For those of you who share our overall tradition of apologetics, we welcome you to critically engage, supplement, or extend the material we present here, either in the comments section or from your own blog. Finally, if you understand but oppose our tradition of apologetics, we want you to know that you are also welcome here. There will be opportunities for you to talk with us as well.