The two roads of Christian apologetics

Most Christians don’t have a reason for their faith that would be credible to a nonbeliever, and that’s perfectly fine.  I expect the most common reasons for being a Christian are 1) “My parents and ancestors were Christian; they’ve given me a good culture, and who am I to question their wisdom?”, 2) “I have a personal relationship with Jesus that’s very important to me; He’s been with me through thick and thin, and it would be churlish for me to spoil our relationship by entertaining doubts”.  The conservative in me respects reason 1, and the Christian in me respects reason 2, even though I see that a nonbeliever would find them unconvincing or circular.

Some people do undertake to give Christianity an intellectual defense–the apologists.  There are two main approaches here.  The first on is historical:  argue that the Gospels can be taken as historically reliable and that no other explanation but their being true explains the “data” of what we know about first-century Christianity.  This road to Christ is necessary, at least in a negative sense.  It is important that secular Biblical scholars’ claims about disproving the Gospels are themselves refuted; we would not be warrented in our belief if our Sacred Scriptures could be shown to be manifestly false and unreliable in their primary claims.  However, while this approach is important for preventing scandal, for keeping people from being pealed away from the Church by Dan Brown-style pseudohistory, I doubt that the historical method actually makes any converts.  The records from first-century Judea will never be so complete and unquestionable that anyone will be logically compelled to accept the evangelists’ accounts as facts.  It’s a useful thing to show how implausible the main anti-Christian explanations of our faith are (e.g. that the Apostles just “felt Jesus’s presence” in their hearts after His death, and they somehow mistook this for having had extended discussions with Him in His resurrected body), but the non-Christian is not obliged to supply a counter story with no unusual elements.  Unusual things do occasionally happen, and he can always say that his wacky “the Apostles stole Jesus’ body” or whatever story is less outlandish than the idea that God became man.  For that matter, he’s not obliged to provide an explanation at all.  I disbelieve all UFO sighting stories, but that doesn’t mean I have a ready-made explanation for every one you could throw at me.  I’m just confident that I could come up with one if I had nothing better to do with my time.

Really, the only reason that people become Christian is because they find the Christian message compelling before they consider whether it is verifiable.  They come to think that the world makes more sense–the parts “click” together better, that it’s more beautiful and vivid if Christianity is true than not.  Once one sees its power as a central truth and organizing principle, then it becomes reasonable to accept it even if the evidence is inconclusive.

Therefore, the other apologetic road is to argue ahistorically that something like the Incarnation/Atonement makes sense of or beautifies the world in a particularly compelling way.  The usual strategy is to start from generic theism (for which we have compelling metaphysical arguments) and to point to some kind of incongruity in it.  Not an outright contradiction, of course; Christianity is theism plus other truth claims, and if a set of claims are flatly contradictory, adding more claims can’t save the situation.  Rather, one points to two parts of the theistic system that are both true but that one can’t hold in one’s mind at the same time; although one can’t prove that they contradict each other, one can’t imagine how the two would fit together.  Then show that Christianity resolves the conflict.  In contemplating the crucifixion of the Man-God, we see the two contrary principles fitted together perfectly without conflict or dilution.

All the really famous apologetic works are of this second sort.  There is Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, which presented the Atonement as the resolution of God’s justice and His mercy.  There is Pascal’s Pensees, which presented the Fall and Redemption as the resolution of man’s greatness and wretchedness, and of God’s simultaneous presence and absence.  There are Chesterton’s apologetic works, especially The Everlasting Man, in which the Incarnation is shown to reconcile metaphysics with mythology.  (Actually, The Everlasting Man also engages in the first sort of apologetics; it’s the full package.)  The idea of Christianity as the true myth and the truth of mythology was, as we all know, important to many English Christians of that time, including Tolkein and Lewis.  Richard Swinburne has also done some apologetic work along these lines, but I haven’t read it.

I think the greatest attacks on Christianity have been attacks on this idea of Christianity making sense of the world and vivifying it.  Attack the evidence for Christianity, and people will retreat into faith.  The internal rationale and poetry of the faith is enough to sustain a person.  To destroy faith, make it seem like something ad hoc and extra:  the universe makes perfect sense on its own, but then for no reason, we posit the spaghetti monster.

Were I to write an apologetic (and I’ve already promised that I will, not that I think anyone would care if I reneged), I would want to follow this second strategy, not just because its results are more memorable when well done, but because it’s more honest; it more accurately states the reasons I am a Christian.  It’s not that the historical case is unimportant.  My sense is that the basic Gospel record is consistent with the facts, but the latter don’t force us to accept the former.  I freely admit that this may also be the case with the narratives of other religions.  Most of the historical records of the time record miracles, omens, and the like.  In the absence of compelling proof either way, one is forced to go with whichever alternative one finds most intrinsically compelling.  Unless somebody invents a time machine, I expect this is how the situation will always be.  I find Christianity more intrinsically compelling than, say, Hellenistic polytheism.  One seems to make the universe more explicable, the other less so.

Who do you think the greatest Christian apologists were, and what line of reasoning did they use?

13 Responses

  1. Very lucid exposition.

    Another possible point is that Christian apologetics – or perhaps I mean evangelism: converting non-Christians – used to be easy for the reasons Pascal points out – Christianity is what we would *want* to be true, it covers all the points in ways that nothing else does, and there is good evidence in support.

    The question then becomes that of explaining resistance to what ought to be a quick and easy decision; and that leads into the Unseen Warfare realm – of understanding the world as a spiritual battleground.

    And *that* – plus the extreme difficulty of apologetics in some situations – leads to the sense that the side of evil has the upper hand in some times and places (and we can see some of these described in the Bible).


    What drives my own attempts at writing about Christianity (I think) is trying to understand the way in which the very framework of modern life serves to prevent the Good News from getting through to people; compounded by the way in which the framework distorts the Good News itself (especially by filtering Christianity down to a typically modernist excess focus on ethics and legalism).


    wrt examples of apologetics: I think much of the heavy-lifting of conversion nowadays is done by a multitude of un-famous evangelical Protestants, who get people ‘across the line’ – often by their personal example of simplicity, goodness and devoutness – after which some people may (more or less quickly) move towards the (small c) catholic denominations or styles.

    For me, this is a strong implicit argument for Mere Christianity and the mystical unity of all (small o) orthodox Christians.


  2. All an apologist can really do is remove intellectual obstacles to faith. But if a person does not have decently strong religious intuitions, they aren’t going to have a reason to actually become religious, so trying to argue them into it isn’t going to work.

  3. I take your point – but in the past apparently almost everybody (except maybe a few highly abstract intellectuals) had decently strong religious intuitions. What happened to change this?

  4. I know this will sound kind of retrograde, but I think you may be overlooking it, and I mean it literally: people convert because of their encounter with the Holy Spirit. For some, it happens in a dream, for some in a semi-conscious vision, for some it happens fully awake.

    I think the endeavor of apologetics begins and ends in trying to make sense of that experience.

  5. Pascal was less sanguine than you suggest: “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next, make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good”

  6. It is very unfortunate that Pascal’s famous “The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which knows God, and not the reason. This, then, is absolute faith: God felt in the heart,” has been so often misunderstood by those who, quite simply, do not understand 17th century French usage.

    Pascal’s real meaning can be seen from the following passage: –

    “We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them. The sceptics [Les pyrrhoniens], who have only this for their object, labour to no purpose. We know that we are not dreaming, and, however impossible it is for us to prove it by reason, this inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, but not, as they [the sceptics] affirm, the uncertainty of all our knowledge. For the knowledge of first principles, as space, time, motion, number, is as sure as any of those we get from reasoning. And reason must trust this knowledge of the heart and of instinct, and must base every argument on them. The heart senses that there are three dimensions in space and that the numbers are infinite, and reason then shows that there are no two square numbers one of which is double of the other. Principles are intuited [Les principes se sentent], propositions are inferred, all with certainty, though in different ways. “

    This is very close to the meaning of “cordatus,” in Latin, meaning a sensible person.

    Pascal must be one of the greatest apologists, barring his great distrust of metaphysics; hence, the weight he attached to historical proofs: the fulfilment of prophecy and miracles.

  7. You know the answers: safety, prosperity, comfort and predictability.

    “Minimize the outputs from the reflexive mind. For example, if HADD tends to go into overdrive because of concerns about safety at the hands of other agents, avoid a life where you are at others peoples’ mercy so that you become habituated toward not being on alert for them, or at least concerned about their actions. The modern Western life, where even government welfare is sufficient to induce obesity, is an example of this, as dangers from interpersonal relationships (vendettas, retribution against your clan, etc.) are minimal, and from wild animals are non-existent.”

    “What it sounds to me Wright and Baril are saying is that the liberal setting is the one we tend toward when our defenses are down. That is, liberal morality [highly correlated with low levels of religiosity – my comment] is the morality of comfortable security.”

  8. The Bible became exposed as the hogwash that it is over the last two centuries.

    Good riddance. That thing is a piece of trash.

  9. This approach was famously developed by the Abbé Bremond, who wrote, “In the course of the normal development of man‘there occur moments in which the discursive reason gives place to a higher activity, imperfectly understood and indeed at first disquieting…”

    This was an idea he developed in In his monumental works, like “Prière et Poésie”and “Introduction à la Philosophie de la Prière.” His work on poetry, symbolism and romanticism earned him election to the Académie française and a eulogy from the French Symbolist poet, Paul Valéry.

    He had a great influence on the Catholic philosophers Maurice Blondel and Edouard LeRoy.

  10. How about the empirical evidence? Judging Christianity by its fruits.

    On a societal level it is clear Christianity has produced the greatest societies (Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, English Empire etc) from which the world has been bequeathed the greatest art, the greatest literature, the greatest music, the greatest science and the greatest philosphers. Christianity gave us the university, the hospital, and made the greatest strides towards ending slavery and tyranny around the world.

    On an individual level it is also clear that Christianity has the greatest benefit to a person’s mental and spiritual health. The story of a person living a terrible life and then “finding Jesus” and changing their life around has become a cliche because it is common. What other religion or philosophy can claim anywhere near the same track record in restoring lives, providing meaning and creating saints? Nothing comes close.

    Also, there is the record of miracles. Does any other religion claim anywhere near the number of miracles Christianity claims. How can thousands upon thousands of people be lying or hallucinating when they claim to have witnessed miracles. Lucid, trustworthy, devout people time and time again report miracles, visions, and stigmata. To deny Christianity is to call so many of the world’s best people over time liars or insane.

  11. […] Read Full Article- Click Here Christian Spirituality Headlines Excerpts from This entry was posted […]

  12. Thought you might find this interesting:

  13. The author of that piece has a blog here:

    He’s funny when he tries to psychoanalyze us.

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