Epistemological Issues in Christian Apologetics – Part 1/3

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Introduction

Christian apologetics can be defined as ”that branch of Christian theology which seeks to provide rational justification for the truth claims of the Christian faith”.[1] Epistemology, on the other hand, is ”the branch of philosophy that tries to make sense out of knowledge, rationality and justified or unjustified beliefs”.[2] The overlap between these two fields of inquiry is considerable. This is evident even on the basis of the brief definitions given above, but it seems to be even more evident when one delves deeper into the complexities of both of these fields of inquiry. In this paper, my purpose is to examine some of the most significant epistemological issues that arise in the context of Christian apologetics. The apologetic methodologies of presuppositionalism and evidentialism will be contrasted, and the Theism / Atheism debate will be used as a test case.

The Definition and Contrast Between Evidential and Presuppositional Apologetics

The exact definitions of classical apologetics and evidential apologetics are not a totally agreed-upon issues. The definition of presuppositional apologetics may be even more open to debate.[3] However, for my purposes, it is not necessary enter the debate concerning these definitional issues. I will use the term ”evidential apologetics” as a general characterization of those types of apologetical efforts in favor of Christian theism, which follow the tradition of presenting arguments for the truth of some aspects of Christian theism by starting from premises which are taken to be at least plausibly true, and which are considered to be knowable in some way apart from presupposing the truth of Christian theism[4]. Presuppositional apologetics, on the other hand, will be defined as the method of Christian apologetics that self-consciously identifies its epistemological pre-commitments to Christian theism, and beginning from this starting-point, tries to demonstrate the irrationality of non-Christian worldviews, while maintaining the rationality of Christian theism.

The Debate Between Christianity vs. Philosophical Naturalism / Atheism as a Test Case

While Christian theism and philosophical naturalism or atheism[5] are certainly not the only worldviews that compete for the allegiance of people in the contemporary world, it may be plausibly said that these two views are the main rivals in the Western academic world. While Postmodernism also has its adherents, I will mostly ignore it for the purposes of my paper.[6] My paper will thus focus on the theism vs. atheism debate as the central context within which the epistemological issues in Christian apologetics are assessed.

Christian Apologetics, Epistemological Foundations, and the Appeal to Evidence

Many (perhaps even most) of the contemporary atheists put great emphasis on evidence. In the broad epistemological sense, they are evidentialists. This will help the evidentially focused apologetic presentation to gain a hearing by the atheist. Typically, such apologetic encounters proceed under the assumption of the existence of a significant amount common ground between the participants, and often this results in a complete bypassing of the underlying foundational issues of epistemology. From the practical perspective, this is often perceived as a great advantage by the evidentialist. The discussion will not get sidetracked into some obscure philosophical debate, which so often seems ultimately unresolvable. Rather, the discussion can be focused on the facts and evidence.

However, the presuppositionalist may rightly point out at this point that by failing to challenge the epistemological foundations of the atheist, the evidential apologist has laid aside some of the best weapons that are available for the defender of Christian theism. Furthermore, any truly rigorous debate between the evidentialist apologist and the atheist has to deal with the underlying epistemological issues at some point, as the perceived neutral ground tends to dissolve upon closer inspection. Therefore, the presuppositionalist may well be right in insisting that it is best to be explicit about these issues right at the beginning.

Epistemological Problems and their Relationship to Apologetics

It is well known that contemporary epistemologists are having a difficult time in finding agreement on even some relatively basic questions. The classical definition of knowledge as justified true belief has been challenged by Edmund Gettier, whose counterexamples are not easy to dismiss.[7] Furthermore, not only classical foundationalism as such, but even the foundationalistic-type structure of beliefs, is being challenged by the relativists and the coherentists. While a lengthy discussion of these topics would fall outside the scope of this paper, it is worth noting that the situation in epistemology is very different from the type of naive trust in the ability of the human mind to discover truth by simply gathering ”the evidence” and arriving at ”the facts” in a very straightforward manner, which often seems to be presupposed by some evidentialist apologists and many empirically-minded atheists alike. Again, this tends to highlight the correctness of the presuppositionalistic insistence on being epistemologically self-conscious as a much-needed prerequisite for any meaningful discussion of the apologetic issues.

Notes to Part 1
1. Craig, 1994, xi.
2. Moreland & Craig, 2003, 71.
3. One can think, for example, of all the differences between Van Tillian and Clarkian schools of thought within Presuppositionalism, and the Clarkian charge of Van Tillian fideism.
4. Therefore, while classical apologetics and evidential apologetics are often distinguished as different apologetic methodologies, they will be treated together as “evidential apologetics” in my discussion.
5. I will use these terms interchangeably. For a discussion on the issue of defining Atheism and Philosophical Naturalism, see the article ”Atheism and Agnosticism ” in the online version of Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as well as the article “Naturalism ” on Ibid.
6. This is warranted simply on the basis of the necessity for limited scope on a relatively short paper. But just as importantly, I consider the incoherence and unintelligibility of Postmodernism as a worldview to be evident enough, so that ignoring it is exactly the treatment that it deserves.
7.  See the section on ”The Gettier Problem” in the article ”The Analysis of Knowledge ” in the online version of Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Also, in Plantinga’s account of what constitutes knowledge, the role of warrant is to distinguish knowledge and mere justified true belief. This seems to be partly motivated by Gettier-type counterexamples. Plantinga’s thought on the matter is presented in his Warranted Christian Belief.

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