Christian Apologetics: Who Needs It?
I am honored and deeply humbled by the privilege of being invited to give the Stob Lectures this year. Indeed, I’m a bit embarrassed by all the fuss you’ve made. There’s a temptation to try to justify one’s selection as the Stob lecturer by giving some hopefully impressive, scholarly pair of lectures. But a phone call from President Plantinga made it quite clear to me that such was consistent with neither the intended purpose nor the audience of these lectures. I had thought to speak on some key topics in Christian philosophical theology. But President Plantinga encouraged me instead to address the question of Christian apologetics, a topic apparently dear to the heart of Henry Stob but somewhat neglected in recent years. He encouraged me to draw upon my years of experience as a Christian apologist to share some very practical thoughts on this discipline. So that is what I’ve decided to do.
Tonight we ask ourselves the fundamental question: Christian apologetics—who needs it?
To begin with, I think we ought to distinguish between apologetics’ necessity and utility. The distinction is important. For even if apologetics should turn out not to be absolutely necessary, it doesn’t follow that it is therefore useless. For example, it’s not necessary to know how to type in order to use a computer—you can hunt and peck, as I do—, but nevertheless typing skills are very useful in using a computer. Or again, it’s not necessary to maintain your bicycle in order to go cycling, but it can be a real benefit to maintain a well-oiled machine. In the same way Christian apologetics can be of great utility even if it’s not necessary for some end. Thus we need to ask concerning Christian apologetics not only, “Who needs it?” but also “What is it good for?”
Christian apologetics may be defined as that branch of Christian theology which seeks to provide rational warrant for Christianity’s truth claims. Those who treat apologetics dismissively tend to measure apologetics’ worth by focusing upon its alleged necessity in warranting Christian belief. Some thinkers, particularly in the Dutch Reformed tradition, see this role as unnecessary and sometimes even misguided.
Now I agree wholeheartedly with contemporary, so-called Reformed epistemologists like Alvin Plantinga that apologetic arguments and evidence are not necessary in order for Christian belief to be warranted for any person. The contention of theological rationalists (or evidentialists, as they are misleadingly called today) that Christian faith is irrational in the absence of positive evidence is difficult to square with Scripture, which seems to teach that faith in Christ can be immediately grounded by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit ( Rom. 8.14-16 ; 1 Jn. 2.27; 5.6-10 ), so that argument and evidence become unnecessary.
I have elsewhere characterized the witness of the Holy Spirit as self‑authenticating, and by that notion I mean:
(1) that the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for the one who has it and attends to it;
(2) that such a person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God;
(3) that such experience does not function in this case as a premise in any argument from religious experience to God, but rather is the immediate experiencing of God himself;
(4) that in certain contexts the experience of the Holy Spirit will imply the apprehension of certain truths of the Christian religion, such as “God exists,” “I am reconciled to God,” “Christ lives in me,” and so forth;
(5) that such an experience provides one not only with a subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and
(6) that arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for the one who attends fully to it.
Christian evidentialists might insist that even if Christian belief can be warranted in the absence of positive apologetic arguments, still one must have at least the defensive apologetic resources to defeat the various objections with which one is confronted. But even that more modest claim is hasty, for if the witness of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life is sufficiently powerful (as it should be), then it will simply overwhelm the objections brought against that person’s Christian beliefs, thus obviating the need even for defensive apologetics. A believer who is too uninformed or ill‑equipped to refute anti‑Christian arguments is warranted in believing on the grounds of the witness of the Spirit even in the face of such unrefuted objections. Even a person confronted with what are for him unanswerable objections to Christian theism is, because of the work of the Holy Spirit, within his epistemic rights—nay, under epistemic obligation—to believe in God. Since beliefs grounded in the objective, veridical witness of the Spirit are part of the undefeated deliverances of reason, the believer’s faith is warranted even if he is wholly bereft of apologetic arguments (as is the case with most Christians today and throughout the history of the Church).