On the Importance of Apologetics

There are many top-notch Christian apologists on the scene today. They are doing a superb job of demonstrating the reasonableness of the Christian faith, and answering the many criticisms of the new militant atheists. One such apologist is Christian philosopher William Lane Craig.

Craig has written a number of important books on philosophy and Christian apologetics, including Reasonable Faith (Crossway Books, 1984 – now out in its third edition). He has been involved in numerous debates with atheists, and more than capably holds his own in such encounters. Indeed, he was recently in New Zealand for a two-week speaking and debating tour, and did an admirable job of taking on his critics, and encouraging believers there.

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His write-up about his recent trip is worth noting, as is a new article in the July issue of Christianity Today. As to his visit down under, it proved to be a time of showing how Christianity is both reasonable and intellectually fulfilling, and prompting believers to engage the intellectual culture instead of retreating from it.

Says Craig, “During our twelve busy days in New Zealand, I participated in a professional philosophy conference, gave a dozen public talks, had two debates, and did three interviews. As we traveled about, our various hosts constantly told us how thoroughly secular New Zealand is. At the same time, our impression is that the evangelical church in New Zealand is pietistic, insular, and culturally disengaged. There seem to be few Christians intellectually contending for the faith. So the sort of bold, public, rational defense of the Gospel which I presented was novel and met with an enthusiastic response everywhere I spoke.”

As I mentioned, Craig is a keen debater, who has taken on the best of what the secularists and atheists have to offer: “Two other highlights of the trip were the two debates on ‘Is God a Delusion?’ at the University of Auckland and in Palmerston North with Bill Cooke of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists. At the first debate students filled not only the auditorium in the University of Auckland’s Business Department building, but three overflow rooms as well! Like so many representatives of these atheist groups, Cooke was long on rhetoric but short on substance. He was clearly not prepared to really debate: he declined to address the question before us and was incapable of re-defending his points after they were criticized. He’s used to just getting a free pass on his assertions and was at a loss what to say when challenged. You can watch the debate and decide for yourself ( http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/R?i=yyJn1x6BfHjNPyLNm1c7WA ).

He was also involved in media debates. “The last highlight I want to mention was the interview on Radio New Zealand with Kim Hill. She is a tough, aggressive, secular radio personality whom some people call ‘Him Kill’ because of the way she treats her guests! She interviewed me for a full half hour without commercial break on her nationally broadcast show. We talked about arguments for God’s existence and the New Atheism. Before I left the studio, emails were already coming into the station, saying, ‘At last an intelligent discussion about religion on the radio!’”

The reason Craig can debate with such confidence is because he is a highly qualified philosopher who is well aware of where the philosophical debates are heading. And as he explains in his Christianity Today article, this is a good time to be a theist, in philosophical circles at least.

As he explains in the introduction to the article, “You might think from the recent spate of atheist best-sellers that belief in God has become intellectually indefensible for thinking people today. But a look at these books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, among others, quickly reveals that the so-called New Atheism lacks intellectual muscle. It is blissfully ignorant of the revolution that has taken place in Anglo-American philosophy. It reflects the scientism of a bygone generation rather than the contemporary intellectual scene.”

He continues, “That generation’s cultural high point came on April 8, 1966, when Time magazine carried a lead story for which the cover was completely black except for three words emblazoned in bright red letters: ‘Is God Dead?’ The story described the ‘death of God’ movement, then current in American theology. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, the news of God’s demise was premature. For at the same time theologians were writing God’s obituary, a new generation of young philosophers was rediscovering his vitality.”

His description of the revival of theistic philosophy is worth citing at length: “Back in the 1940s and ’50s, many philosophers believed that talk about God, since it is not verifiable by the five senses, is meaningless – actual nonsense. This verificationism finally collapsed, in part because philosophers realized that verificationism itself could not be verified! The collapse of verificationism was the most important philosophical event of the 20th century. Its downfall meant that philosophers were free once again to tackle traditional problems of philosophy that verificationism had suppressed. Accompanying this resurgence of interest in traditional philosophical questions came something altogether unanticipated: a renaissance of Christian philosophy.”

“The turning point probably came in 1967, with the publication of Alvin Plantinga’s God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God. In Plantinga’s train has followed a host of Christian philosophers, writing in scholarly journals and participating in professional conferences and publishing with the finest academic presses. The face of Anglo-American philosophy has been transformed as a result. Atheism, though perhaps still the dominant viewpoint at the American university, is a philosophy in retreat.”

“In a recent article, University of Western Michigan philosopher Quentin Smith laments what he calls ‘the desecularization of academia that evolved in philosophy departments since the late 1960s.’ He complains about naturalists’ passivity in the face of the wave of ‘intelligent and talented theists entering academia today.’ Smith concludes, ‘God is not “dead” in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments’.”

“The renaissance of Christian philosophy has been accompanied by a resurgence of interest in natural theology, that branch of theology that seeks to prove God’s existence apart from divine revelation. The goal of natural theology is to justify a broadly theistic worldview, one that is common among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and deists. While few would call them compelling proofs, all of the traditional arguments for God’s existence, not to mention some creative new arguments, find articulate defenders today.”

Craig then looks at these arguments – the cosmological, teleological, ontological and moral – in some detail, noting how new life has been breathed into these old arguments. He then concludes with these words: “Properly understanding our culture is important because the gospel is never heard in isolation. It is always heard against the background of the current cultural milieu. A person raised in a cultural milieu in which Christianity is still seen as an intellectually viable option will display an openness to the gospel. But you may as well tell the secularist to believe in fairies or leprechauns as in Jesus Christ!”

“Christians who depreciate natural theology because ‘no one comes to faith through intellectual arguments’ are therefore tragically shortsighted. For the value of natural theology extends far beyond one’s immediate evangelistic contacts. It is the broader task of Christian apologetics, including natural theology, to help create and sustain a cultural milieu in which the gospel can be heard as an intellectually viable option for thinking men and women. It thereby gives people the intellectual permission to believe when their hearts are moved. As we progress further into the 21st century, I anticipate that natural theology will be an increasingly relevant and vital preparation for people to receive the gospel.”

Since all truth is God’s truth, it is not surprising that these classic arguments have stood the test of time. And it is encouraging to see great Christian minds enlisted for the defence of the faith. Would that Australia and New Zealand raise up more people like Craig to stand up for Christian truth claims.


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8 Replies to “On the Importance of Apologetics”

  1. You may be already aware of this site, Bill.


    It’s the UCCF Apologetics site. Features articles and talks/sermons from folk such as; William Lane Craig, Michael Ramsden, Andrew Fellows, Don Carson, Alistair McGrath (to name a small few). It has a stack of material, and its an excellent resource. Lots L’abri stuff too. A bit of Shaeffer. Definitely worth a thorough investigation.

    Simon Kennedy, VIC

  2. Thanks Bill for the interesting article. Thanks too for the link Simon.

    For those of you who may be interested, I have been reviewing a number of atheist books – so far posted an extended look at Dawkins, yet to post my reviews of Hitchens Harris, Onfray and Dennett. Posted reviews of Lennox, God’s Undertaker (Centre for Public Christianity have Lennox in Sydney next month), John F Haught God and the new atheism, Keith Ward’s is God dangerous?, David Marshall’s the truth behind the new atheism and a very insightful book, David Stove’s Darwinian fairytales. I am just finishing David Berlinski’s The devil’s delusion.

    The reviews may be found on the thread, http://www.sydneyanglicans.net/forums/viewthread/3078/

    David Palmer

  3. Bill, and other correspondents here, a question from an amateur in the area of philosophy & apologetics:

    Is this reference to ‘natural theology’ the same as reference to traditional Roman Catholic doctrine of natural theology, which is interpreted to allow a ‘middle ground’ for mankind to make an uncorrupted decision of the will in favour of, or against, sin?

    If I am asking two separate questions, I would appreciate being straightened out 🙂

    John Angelico

  4. Thanks John

    Natural theology, in relation to apologetics, is no small subject. Let me give just a brief outline. It has to do with using general revelation – as opposed to special revelation – to argue for God’s existence. It especially rose to prominence under Aquinas and Anselm, and tends to be more popular in Catholic circles than Protestant. Some Protestants reject it altogether, such as Barth. Indeed, Barth would have no time for apologetics either.

    But a helpful understanding of apologetics and natural theology is simply to see them as types of pre-evangelism. They do not offer enough information to bring about saving faith, but they do deal with objections, clear up misunderstandings, lay the groundwork for evangelism, and so on.

    Paul certainly seems to use this approach in various places, including Acts 15 and Romans 1-2. Indeed, in the latter text, Paul seems to argue that natural theology (in this case, in the form of the created order and man’s moral nature) is enough to condemn all of us. Not enough to save, but enough to condemn. People still need special revelation (Christ and Scripture) to complete what general revelation and natural theology have begun.

    All this is related to, but slightly different from, the issues of how much unregenerate man can contribute to his own salvation, and how fallen the human will is when it comes to choosing Christ or reaching out to God. This brings up the old Pelagian/Augustinian debate, or later, the Calvin/Arminius debate. And Protestants have differing views on these sorts of issues as well.

    So yes, there are some areas of difference between Catholics and Protestants on all this, but some common ground as well. And Protestants themselves will also differ on some of these issues.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. A fairly well known example of natural theology is creation evangelism. And to a lesser extent Intelligent Design.
    Michael Mifsud

  6. Thanks for the article Bill! (and Bill for visiting NZ)

    We are in the process of building an apologetics network in NZ. However times are tough and some of us are really feeling the pinch. I don’t like to over-spiritualize, but it could seem as if the enemy is having a nice time making our lives/marriages/incomes and so on rather difficult. Please pray for us. And pray for a new generation of academically gifted people who will learn and do apologetics. Thanks.

    Apologetics New Zealand

  7. Thanks guys

    I have bent my rules and allowed you to remain anonymous, knowing the attacks one does face in this sort of work. Yes we will keep you in our prayers. Keep up the good work.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. I’ve found a goldmine! (thanks to your article of course) Through checking out the debate with William Lane Craig, I discovered the ‘Reasonable Faith’ website. As some of you may already know, Craig has hundreds of incredibly insightful talks, debates and interviews all freely available on his website.

    ‘Reasonable Faith’ now sits right next to the Culture Watch weblink on my favourites toolbar. Thanks again Bill.

    Annette Nestor

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