Avoiding Extremes in Apologetics

HERE are a number of methods for illustrating the trustfulness of the gospel and the inevitable nihilism of alternative worldviews. In my personal study of Scripture, with reflection upon various biblical passages of an apologetic nature, and in light of broader theological themes from the Bible, I fail to be convinced that the Bible regulates any particular apologetic method.

Within various methods and among various apologists, there are extremes and attitudes to be adopted, as well as, tactics and tones to be used and emulated. Thus, my approach will be to outline clear biblical parameters (in future posts) that should govern our apologetics regardless of the methodology we might employ. In this way, it is not the broader methodologies that are good or bad, per se, but specific practices that may or may not conflict with the Bible.

I want to first bookend this approach by describing polar extremes for which I find no biblical warrant: fideism and rationalism. I will offer a short description of the form of these positions that should be rejected, as their definitions can be debated and there exist nuanced, or softer forms of both positions that might not be in conflict with the Bible.

The following diagram illustrates what I hope to explain, showing a selection of methodologies along the spectrum with fideism and rationalism on either end . The allegations of fideism and rationalism are often made from one side of the spectrum against the other[1]. For example, an evidentialist might accuse a presuppositionalist of fideism, or a presuppositional apologist might accuse an evidentialist of rationalism. With the diagram I hope to illustrate that such accusations are often wrongly placed, though there could of course be cases where such charges are more or less accurate.

Alvin Plantinga offers a helpful definition of fideism as “exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth [2].” The reference to faith alone is not soteriological in nature, but epistemological [3]. It is the latter part of his definition that particularly describes the form of fideism I think that should be avoided, the “consequent disparagement of reason.” In this way, fideism pits faith against reason.

The biblical apologist should be quick to concede the limits of human reason. The Reformers properly reminded us of the noetic effects of the fall, that our cognitive faculties, along with the rest of the world, are impacted by the curse of sin [4]. Sin distorts our thinking and thus we are dependent upon Scripture and the illumination of the Spirit to properly understand God. Yet, Scripture still speaks of our use of reason in understanding God’s revelation of himself.

The prophet Isaiah says, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:13, ESV). The Apostle Paul’s preaching clearly presents a well-organized and well-reasoned presentation of the gospel. The apologist must recognize the necessity of Scripture and the work of the Spirit, but should not see faith as innately irrational or at odds with reason though there are many elements of Christian faith that are outside of our ability to comprehend.

Rationalism is on the opposite side of the spectrum, placing autonomous human reason as the chief arbiter for determining truth. This kind of hard rationalism sees little value in a dependence upon revelation. This view, like fideism, should be rejected.

The Bible gives no warrant for autonomous human reason. Though created in the image of God, and clearly possessing cognitive faculties, when functioning properly, are aimed at truth, humans are still fallen and finite beings. Moreover, even though creation reveals that God exists, we are wholly dependent upon special revelation to know God. Our reason plays a role in apprehending truth, but is not our final authority.

While avoiding the extremes of fideism and rationalism, there are a number of helpful apologetic methods that are available to the believer seeking to do apologetics with biblical fidelity. Whether using philosophical arguments for epistemology as in presuppositionalism and reformed epistemology, seeking to show the plausibility of theism through classical arguments for God’s existence, enumerating historical evidences for the resurrection as in evidentialism, or weaving together literary patterns of man’s longing for transcendence in cultural apologetics, the contemporary apologist has a diverse set of tools for sharing and defending the faith [5].

1. I have placed various methods along the spectrum where I think they are closer to or farther from the two extremes. I don’t mean to say that presuppositionalism is on the verge of fideism or that evidentialism is on the brink of rationalism. Rather, I want to contrast that each form when done poorly could trend or lead to the one extreme or the other.
2. See quotation in https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fideism/
3. In fideism, the idea of faith alone goes beyond the Reformer’s doctrine of justification by faith to include the epistemological claim that our reason is contrary to faith.
4. See Thiago Machado Silva, “John Calvin and the Limits of Natural Theology: Puritan Reformed Journal 8 (2016):33-48.
5. For a detailed summary of the major schools of apologetics see Steven B. Cowan’s Five View On Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000, or Brain Morely’s Mapping Apologetics; Comparing Contemporary Approaches, Downers Grove: IL: Intervarsity Press, 2015. For a brief summary of these methodologies see Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen’s Apologetics At the Cross, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018.
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