Avoiding the Pitfalls of the Contemporary Apologetics Renaissance Outline

For those interested, here is the outline I handed out at my EMNR/ISCA conference workshop this morning.

Avoiding the Pitfalls of the Contemporary Apologetics Renaissance

Or: A Word of Exhortation to 21st Century Apologists

*Adapted from an in-progress essay

I. Surveying the Apologetics Landscape in 2014

A. Annual conferences

B. Ratio Christi

C. Apologetics degree programs

D. Social Media groups such as the Christian Apologetics Alliance

E. Success of movie, God’s Not Dead

F. Increased respectability of Christianity in the discipline of philosophy


II. Why Critique Ourselves?

 A. Tribe of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32)

–> They understood the times and knew what Israel should do.

B. Let us never praise new movements—even ones we like— without asking what we may lose in the wake

C. We must seek a standard of objective excellence in all we say and do

–> See Matt.12:36-37; James 3:1-12


III. Warnings

A. Beware of cultivated obsolescence

1. We cultivate our own obsolescence whenever we speak, write, or act in way that encourages other people to stop listening to us.

2. A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,

but only in disclosing what is on his mind. (Prov.18:2)

3. When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable,

But he who restrains his lips is wise. (Prov. 10:19)


B. Guard against stylistic homogeneity

1. When all we do is talk to each other, we begin to sound like each other

2. We each need to pursue our unique callings in our own corners of the Kingdom

3. If we only read each other’s books, articles, Facebook posts, and blogs, then we end up not only recycling each other’s points, but also spreading each other’s errors.


C. Flee from flashiness over solid content

1. Pretty PowerPoint graphics cannot save you from inadequate preparation

2. Be teachers, not mere presenters

3. You can “charm” away you ethos: Do not distract from your message with your  personality


D. Do not neglect discipleship

1. Possible over-emphasis on conversion

a. Arguments are sometimes inappropriate

b. The success of the argument is not everything

c. The Holy Spirit will work in his own way, in his own time

d. Dare to befriend a non-believer, and love him or her regardless of  apparent interest in converting

2. Possible over-emphasis on either the intellect or the character at the expense of the other:

 I assure you, so far as the university is concerned, I have no patience with piety alone—I want the most rigorous intellectual training, I want the perfection of the mind; equally, I have no patience with reason—I want the salvation of the soul, I want the fear of the Lord… (Charles Malik, “The Two Tasks,” 1980  address, transcript found in The Two Tasks of the Christian Scholar, eds. William Lane Craig and Paul M. Gould)

3. A healthy church where inter-generational discipleship thrives should be a  priority. One suggestion: Revive adult education in hermeneutics, philosophy, theology, and apologetics. This strengthens hearts and minds. (Do not buy into the lie that “millennials” have different needs. We need to live around and with non-millennials to mature.)


E. Resist the temptation to pontificate beyond our competency


F. Do not favor the “viral” over the classic


G. Fight against the pressure to respond speedily


H. Avoid turning well-known philosophers and apologists into celebrities

1. If famous apologist X says “Y,” “Y” may not be correct or wise. They are  fallible humans, too.

2. Do your own thinking, using these souls as your intellectual mentors, not as the providers of your script.

I. Do not develop an adversarial posture toward nonbelievers


J. While the apologetics movement is growing, there is still much to be done.

                        Therefore, if evangelization is the most important task, the task that comes   immediately after it—not in tenth place, nor even in third place, but in second place—is   not politics, nor economics, nor the quest for comfort and security and ease, but to find   out exactly what is happening to the mind and the spirit in the schools and universities.   And once the Christian discovers that there is a total divorce between mind and spirit in the schools and universities, between the perfection of thought and the perfection of soul and character, between intellectual sophistication and the spiritual worth of the individual human person, between reason and faith, between the pride of knowledge and the contrition of heart consequent upon being a mere creature and once he realizes that Jesus Christ will find himself less at home on the campuses of the great universities in Europe and America than almost anywhere else, he will be profoundly disturbed, and he will inquire what can be done to recapture the great universities for Jesus Christ, the   universities which would not have come into being in the first place without him. –    Charles Malik (“The Two Tasks,” 1980)


IV. Encouragement

A. We have a greater platform than ever before thanks to the work of those who have  paved the way

B. If we carry on at this rate, next generation of Christians will be more prepared to defend the faith than ever before.

C. Learn to listen well

1. The best apologists are prophetic when the need arises. Prophets must be listeners in order to understand the times.

2. Listen to popular culture

3. Listen to the academy

4. Listen to individuals right in front of you

5. Listen to the Church

D. Upgrade your core beliefs into knowledge (justified, true belief). Use whatever knowledge you have, and never stop studying

E. Seek faithfulness over effectiveness

“Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”

1 Cor. 4:2

F. Do not fear! The truth will prevail, and God is in control.


Recommended Reading:

 Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind, (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1978).

William Lane Craig and Paul M. Gould, eds., The Two Tasks of the Christian Scholar (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007).

Andreas Kostenberger, Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).

Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2001).

N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2010).

Upcoming Event: ISCA/EMNR Apologetics Conference

ISCA-EMNR Conference


I am excited to be giving a workshop at this conference (April 4-5, at Calvary Chapel South Denver), which includes Douglas Groothuis, Winfried Corduan, John Stonestreet, and Norman Geisler. My talk has just been scheduled for 9am on Saturday, and the title of the workshop is Avoiding the Pitfalls of the Contemporary Apologetics Renaissance.

Session Overview 

Guided by a paper I have been writing this spring, I plan to walk the session attendees through the contemporary landscape of the Christian apologetics movement by discussing the key areas where apologetics is increasing in prominence (social media, Hollywood, college campuses, etc.). Then, I will discuss the benefits and challenges Christian apologists face in each of these areas. Finally, I will offer suggestions for developing and maintaining a standard of biblical excellence in the midst of apologetics’s newly elevated platform. The goal is to challenge the apologetics community to evaluate our recent successes and shortcomings in order to increase our faithfulness to God and our effectiveness for His Kingdom. A time for discussion will follow.

Session Abstract

The discipline of Christian apologetics is undergoing a renaissance. Apologetics clubs such as Ratio Christi are springing up on college campuses across the United States. Annual worldview and apologetics conferences are increasing in number, as are apologetics college and graduate degree programs. The defense of the Christian faith has even hit Hollywood with an apologetics-themed movie, God is Not Dead, playing in mainstream theaters. Debates over the existence of God spread like wildfire through social media, exciting and electrifying Christians who watch together and discuss the event afterward. Christian thinkers like Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, and J.P. Moreland are household names among the swelling ranks of apologetics enthusiasts. While it may seem obvious that the growing popularity of apologetics holds enormous potential to advance the Kingdom of God through persuasion, potential dangers also lurk. This newly accelerated movement incubates temptations such as Christian celebrity-worship, insensitive argumentation, relational atrophy due to over-use of social media, seeking academic shortcuts, and fostering an adversarial disposition toward non-believers. The broader our reach, the farther the Gospel can travel. But on the other hand, the broader our reach, the more souls we can harm. The stakes are too high not to be on our guard against the dangers within this simultaneously encouraging apologetics resurgence.

Christianity and “Autonomous Reason:” Drawing an Important Distinction

thethinkerThe secular philosophy textbook from which I teach Intro classes proclaims that philosophy exercises rational autonomy. “You need to learn to think critically; think for yourself,” nascent philosophers are often told. Some think that this embrace of autonomy is a locus of conflict between philosophy and Christianity. Christians believe that we are created by God, redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus, and we now belong to him rather than to the darkness. We are not our own; we were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20). Is Christian faith not then the very antithesis of autonomous reason? If philosophy is, in essence, an exercise in autonomous reason, but the Christian worldview proclaims that we are not autonomous, then how could Christians, in good conscience, be philosophers?

When reading Christian theology, philosophy, and apologetics literature, it is common to see warnings against or critiques of autonomous reason. Some of the most extraordinary minds in recent memory caution against such independent cognition. For example, in his relatively new and brilliant The Doctrine of God, John Frame argues:

And in fact nothing at all can be validated from autonomous reason…such reasoning leads to a rationalist-irrationalist dialectic, which destroys all knowledge. For that pottage, much of the church has forsaken its birthright, God’s personal word (20).***

Although he draws a very different conclusion, James K.A. Smith also warns against autonomous reason (Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, 65). In these sorts of appraisals, autonomous reason is usually understood to mean that the reasoner is operating without consideration for God’s revelation. Human reason, for the rationally autonomous, is assumed to function just fine without appealing to God or to his Word. Because thoughts about God are largely absent from this person’s cognitive processes, the thinker is said to place reason metaphysically prior to God. In other words, the rationally autonomous individual assumes that he or she is more important, or central, than God. To help clarify this concept of metaphysical priority, we can think of the relationship between a ship and a ship-builder. If a ship is to have any success at sea, the ship-builder needs to have carefully built it to be buoyant and watertight. Furthermore, the ship owes not just its seafaring success, but its very existence to the ship-builder. Therefore, the ship-builder is metaphysically prior to the ship. The ship-builder must exist before the ship can exist. Since God is our creator, he is metaphysically prior and more centrally important than we are.

If rational autonomy entails a denial of the centrality of God, then the intellectually autonomous individual is doing something just as absurd as if a ship (if it could do such a thing) were to claim that it could have built or repaired itself without a ship-builder. When God is either not present or not needed, human reason is seen as the ultimate authority. In opposition to this brazen, secular approach, the comparatively pious alternative must be something like reason that consciously recognizes and submits to divine revelation.

But something is quite wrong with this discussion. A thinker can be rationally autonomous in two important senses. The first sense is metaphysical. An individual who was created by God can nevertheless deny this truth and live as though his or her reason reigns supreme in the universe. So, this person holds that he or she has ultimate autonomy. The second sense is epistemological; it relates to how humans come to know. It is a claim to functional, or local autonomy. To understand the difference, consider two individuals, who both were created by God: Person A, who acknowledges this truth, and Person B, who denies this truth. Person A and Person B can each draw the same conclusion about a given math problem, using the same reasoning processes independently. Person A did not have to invoke or even think about God to do so, and person B did not go off the cognitive rails due to failure to acknowledge his metaphysical dependency on God. It seems that both Persons A and B engaged in what could be termed functionally autonomous reasoning. I call this epistemic autonomy. In other words, both individuals simply thought for themselves, without the aid of any other human or without appealing to God. At no point did either person need to contemplate her own origin, or determine to whom she owes her ability to solve math problems. The autonomy in this case is not necessarily autonomy from God, but is certainly autonomy from other people. It is simply independent thinking. An exercise in epistemic autonomy does not equal or entail an exercise in metaphysical autonomy.

So, complaints about “rational autonomy” or “autonomous reason” tend to conflate two vitally distinct issues, metaphysical and epistemic autonomy. Metaphysical autonomy is simply untrue, given the case for God’s existence. We do owe our existence and ability to function to our Creator. Not even the most Enlightenment-friendly theist would adhere to metaphysical autonomy, because it makes no sense to say both “God reigns supreme” and “My reason reigns supreme” in the same sense of supremacy. The theist by definition believes in the former, so the latter cannot be true. Metaphysical autonomy is simply a non-issue among Christians. There is no debate here.

Now we turn to epistemic autonomy. Rather than stating that “My reason reigns supreme,” the Christian engaging in epistemic autonomy could say instead, “I am exercising my God-given critical faculties in order to gain knowledge.” Autonomous reason in this sense addresses reasoning processes (epistemology), not the origin of that reason (metaphysics). In order to think well to the glory of God, the Christian philosopher should have no problem with functionally autonomous reasoning, or epistemic autonomy. After all, this is how we test Christianity’s truthfulness, as well as any other worldview or proposition. Given my distinction, then, one can be convinced of his metaphysical dependence on God, while harmoniously engaged in the task of epistemic autonomy. The metaphysical claims of Christianity are thus perfectly compatible with the rational nature of philosophy.

Furthermore, there should be no discomfort present when a Christian professor encourages her students to pursue epistemic autonomy in their studies. All this means is that the students are to be encouraged to think well, critically, and to attain their own justification for their beliefs. There are simply some things, like logic or our own mental states, we can come to know “on our own” in the local rather than the ultimate sense. If rational autonomy necessarily entails the denial that God gave us our rational abilities, then Christians sin each time we balance our checkbooks, teach a child the difference between a square and a triangle, or report to a family member about how we feel at the moment. But this is thankfully untrue. All humans are rational beings, made in the image of a rational God (Isaiah 1:18). Let us use that rationality to buttress our faith with justification for the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15). Praise be to God for the ability to think for ourselves.


***I highly recommend John Frame’s thinking and work in general, even though I do not agree with him on everything.