Philosophy against Misosophy


Gregory Bahnsen


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Foundations of Christian Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective, edited by Gary North, Ross House Books, Vallecito, CA, 1979, 191-239.

November 2, 2011 

The Unsettled and Complex Character of Apologetics

The Basic Question of Method

The Socratic Outlook

The Christian Perspective

Paul’s Apologetic Method: Acts 17

An Overview of the History of Apologetics

The Reformation of Apologetics  

Socrates or Christ: The Reformation of Christian Apologetics

Greg Bahnsen


It is not difficult to understand the general idea of apologetics. Simply put, apologetics is the study and practice of defending the Christian faith against the array of challenges, critical attacks, and scrutinizing questions leveled contrary to it by unbelievers.  As Cornelius Van Til expresses the thought in the opening sentence of his apologetics syllabus, “Apologetics is the vindication of the Christian philosophy of life against the various forms of the non-Christian philosophy of life.”1  Consequently, to be an apologist, one simply needs “to join the struggle in defense of the faith, the faith which God entrusted to his people once and for all.”2


The Unsettled and Complex Character of Apologetics

However, while the general concept of apologetics is uncomplicated, a whole galaxy of issues and questions clusters around the exercise of that task.  For instance, in his Introduction to Christian Apologetics, J. K. S. Reid asks: What does apologetics defend?  Can it be faithful to the faith?  Against what or whom is the defense conducted?  How is the defense to be conducted?  What is the relation of apologetics to dogmatics?3

The term “apologetics” was first introduced to denominate a specific theological discipline by Planck in 1794.4  Yet this label was obviously cognate to the titles of certain second century treatises, like the Apology of Artistides, the First Apology and Second Apology of Justin Martyr, or Tertullian’s Apologeticum.  Whether one studies the church’s earliest post-apostolic confrontation with the unbelieving world or the period when apologetics was developed as an academic science, he notes that a complex of material and methodological questions has persisted in generating disputes among various schools of thought, all of which claim to be doing apologetics.

Bernard Ramm provides a convenient summary of such key issues in Varieties of Christian Apologetics.5

(1) What is the relation between philosophy and Christian theology?  Perhaps philosophy is something for which theology has no need (Tertullian), is inspired (the Alexandrians), is theology’s servant (Augustine), is an independent authority (Aquinas), is a completely separate field (Pascal), or at best a merely temporary alliance (Barth).

(2) How valuable are the theistic proofs?  They have been seen as valid (Thomists), needing to be supplemented with moral conviction (Hodge), invalid (Clark), inconsequential (Calvin), and irreligious (Kierkegaard).

(3) What should be our theory of truth?  The mark of truth might be probability (Butler), consistency (Clark), consistency and factuality (Carnell), probability and logical precision (Tennant), paradox (Kierkegaard), dialecticism (neo-orthodoxy), personal encounter (Brunner), or an epistemology of the Holy Spirit (Calvin).

(4) Are the intellectual effects of sin negligible (Pelagius), slight (Romanism), engulfing (the Reformers), of mollified by common grace (Masselink)?

(5) Should special revelation be viewed as completing natural revelation (Romanism), recovering natural revelation (the Reformers), or an event for which Scripture serves as a pointer (neo-orthodoxy)?

(6) What is the nature of Christian certainty?  It has been found in the church’s infallibility (Romanism), scientific probability (Butler, Tennant), inward certitude in the face of ambiguity (Kierkegaard), and genuine epistemic assurance in contrast to mere probability (Van Til).

(7) Is common ground created by common grace and general revelation (Carnell), found in existential pre-understanding (Bultmann), or not to be found at all (Barth)?

(8) Should faith be seen as the response to a credible authority (Augustine), in contrast to evidentially grounded conviction (Aquinas), a venturesome act of will, a response of the emotions (Kierkegaard), or the correlate to revelation?

(9) With respect to the usefulness of evidence, it has been held as the means for certifying Christianity (Montgomery), as something which can be appreciated only after the Holy Spirit’s work (Calvin), as the complement to the Holy Spirit’s work (Warfield), and as immaterial because it is evaluated in terms of one’s more basic philosophical perspective (Clark).

(10) What is the relation of reason to revelation?  Does it prepare the way for revelation, conflict with revelation, or constitute a completely separate domain?

Such questions as these have continually arisen in the history of apologetics.  Indeed, well over a century after Christian scholars inaugurated self-conscious attempts to reduce apologetics to a well-defined field of endeavor (a specific discipline), confusion still persisted with respect to the place of apologetics among the theological disciplines, its proper task and divisions, its value, and its relation to faith-as evidenced by B. B. Warfield’s 1908 article, “Apologetics,” for The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge.6  

Some attempted to distinguish apologetics from apology, but they differed among themselves respecting the principle of distinction (Düsterdieck, Kübel). Apologetics was variously classified as an exegetical discipline (Planck), historical theology (Tzschirner), theory of religion (Rübiger), philosophical theology (Schleiermacher), something distinct from polemics (Kuyper), something belonging to several departments (Tholuck, Cave), or something which had no right to exist (Nosselt).  H. B. Smith viewed apologetics as historico-philosophical dogmatics which deals with detail questions, but Kübel claimed that it properly deals only with the essence of Christianity.  Schultz went further and said that apologetics is concerned simply to defend a generally religious view of the world, but others taught that apologetics should aim to establish Christianity as the final religion (Sack, Ebrard, Lechler, Lemme).

Still others held that the task of apologetics is to present evidences for Christianity, and Warfield claimed that apologetics should seek to establish the presuppositions of theology: namely, the facts of God, religious consciousness, revelation, Christianity, and the Bible.  Accordingly he divided the discipline into philosophical apologetics, psychological apologetics, revelational apologetics, historical apologetics, and bibliological apologetics.  F. R. Beattie more simply divided the field according to philosophical, historical, and practical apologetics.  In the tradition of Aquinas, some apologists made it their goal to show Christianity to be worthy of belief for reasonable men; yet others, like Brunetiere, proclaimed that faith was most powerful as a heartfelt response apart from reason.

Therefore we observe that, while the general idea of apologetics is easy enough to grasp, it is by no means a simple project to settle upon an incisive analysis and decisive operating method for the discipline.  Amidst a maze of conflicting answers to the fundamental questions rehearsed above, settling upon a course to follow in defending the faith can be very perplexing.  Just as the church at large has not settled upon a unified doctrinal perspective, so the many-faceted and theologically oriented issues of apologetics have not been give clear and agreed upon answers.  Consequently, when one engages in defending his faith, it is requisite for him to think through complicated questions and make responsible theological judgments, for his apologetic approach will of necessity be selected from a beehive of competitors.  And no Christian wishes to be stung with a misguided, incongruous or fault-ridden line of defense.



1 Cornelius Van Til, Apologetics, class syllabus (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, reprinted 1966), p. 1.

2 Jude 3 (N.E.B.).

3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), pp. 10-14.

4 Einleitung in die Theol. Wissenschaft.

5 Baker Book House, 1961, pp. 17-27.

6 Ed. S. M. Jackson (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1908), I, 232-238.


Next: The Basic Question of Method


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