Special Report: Apologetics

Christianity may have fueled the rise of Western civilization, but it has largely lost legitimacy in American culture. In a crowded and hostile marketplace of ideas, the gospel struggles to get a fair hearing.

Paul GouldThat’s the bad news, says Paul Gould, assistant professor of philosophy and religion at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Take the front-burner issue of sexuality and gender, for example. Same-sex marriage is something 60 percent of Americans now favor, a recent Gallup poll suggests. Meanwhile, Bruce Jenner, America’s Wheaties-box hero of the 1970s, adorns news magazines as he flaunts his feminine alter ego. Jenner is cheered along the way, while those who dare suggest he needs help are scorned as bigots.

To add to the angst, a Pew Research study in May showed that Americans are growing less Christian and more boldly irreligious, especially the younger generations. Being atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular has lost its social stigma.

One might conclude the Bible has lost its gravitas. We are post-biblical.

All is not lost, however, several Christian apologists told the TEXAN. In fact, the opportunity to reclaim the beauty of a full-orbed, first-century faith that attracted idolatrous pagans to the early church may be in reach, Gould contends. 

It won’t be quick or easy. Heavy lifting is needed to lay planks along the bridge stretching from a disbelieving, postmodern culture to the cross of Christ. If we have hope, we must be able to articulate why.

Instead of going straight to the Romans Road in our witnessing, we may find ourselves beginning in Romans 1 and 2, appealing like Paul to natural revelation and “the law written on their hearts.” 

THE ‘FACT/VALUE SPLIT’

Steven CowanA significant obstacle to Christian engagement with the culture lies in something writer and apologist Nancy Pearcey calls the fact/value split, says professor and author Steven B. Cowan, general editor of the book Five Views on Apologetics and co-editor (with Terry Wilder of Southwestern Seminary) of In Defense of the Bible

Today, questions of religion, morals and ethics are restricted to the realm of “values”—a kind of second-tier mode of reality that takes a back seat to what modernist philosophers consider “facts”—those things that are known by empirical, testable data. The late Francis Schaeffer eschewed this false division, which he described as a two-story house: Downstairs held the “real knowledge” derived from empirical testing; all else—religious faith especially—was consigned to the upper story.

These “upper story” values, thusly defined, may be sincerely held and useful, but they are not considered knowledge. 

“Religion and morality are relegated to the realm of values instead of facts,” Cowan told the TEXAN, “so the authority of God’s Word, religious beliefs such as ‘God exists’ or ‘the Bible is God’s Word’ and moral beliefs such as ‘stealing is wrong’—some people might cherish or find value in them, but they are not facts—these are things we can’t legitimately know, from their viewpoint.

“I believe that not only does the advance of the gospel depend on demolishing the fact/value split, but almost all of the public discourse over the moral and ethical issues we are facing that concern the Christian community are all influenced by the fact/value split.”

Because of this, Cowan said the strategy of quoting Scripture to people who “don’t believe the Bible is a real source of knowledge” is typically futile, unless you can first demonstrate that it has authority.

So in the same-sex marriage debate, for example, claims to biblical authority carry little significance because such claims reside in the so-called upper story. 

In order to lay claim to truth, Cowan says an apologetic is needed that first convinces people, or reminds them, that religious truth is knowable. 

Cowan prefers what is termed “classical apologetics,” in which the apologist begins with natural revelation—what can be innately discerned—and builds out from there a case for Christ. Well-known apologists such as Norman Geisler have championed this method.

Gould, meanwhile, said his approach can best be described as “eclectic,” but he carries the classical approach in his toolbox.  

“The starting point we have in our culture, I think, are the universal longings for truth, goodness and beauty, so I want to play off of those with reason, conscience and imagination,” Gould said. 

Like Cowan, Gould said he begins with meeting people where they are.

Joseph WooddellAnd where they are might be all over the place, says Joe Wooddell, professor of philosophy and vice president for academic affairs at Criswell College. Wooddell, whose book The Beauty of The Faith addresses apologetics in a postmodern context, said most people live “with feet planted firmly in both worlds”—modern and postmodern.

For example, students at a typical secular university might attend biology class and use 19th- and 20th-century modern methods in their work, then go to history or English class, where postmodern philosophy will teach that no “big story” or metanarrative about the world around them is true. In the secular mind, Christianity belongs to the list of discredited big stories. 

“We live in an cafeteria-style, postmodern culture,” Wooddell said. “A little bit of Buddha, a little bit of Jesus, a little bit of Muhammad. Throw in some witchcraft and some Darwin, and you’ve got a nice little worldview. They all contradict each other But the postmodern will say, ‘That’s OK. I like it. I don’t mind my food touching.’ 

“So we need to be able to answer that.” 

MEETING THE CHALLENGE

Gould said a major part of his focus right now is developing what he calls the Christian voice, the Christian conscience and the Christian imagination. His target is what he views as masses of disenchanted people.

The Christian voice refers to the ability to gain a hearing in the culture. Alongside it, the Christian conscience points humankind toward God’s plan for human flourishing. And the Christian imagination, Gould said, is the ability to see reality as it really is—“a deeply enchanted world where everything is a gift that is supposed to point to the Giver of these gifts.”

Wooddell makes a similar appeal to beauty in his book on postmodernism.

Gould argues that voice, conscience and imagination—all victims of the modernism and rationalism of the last few centuries—must be reclaimed and recast by Christians in order to build an apologetical bridge to the emerging culture. He looks to C.S. Lewis as an exemplar on this. 

The challenge, Gould said, is that the Christian voice no longer fits within what sociologist Peter Berger calls the “plausibility structure” of culture, comprised of those things that society deems reasonable.

“We don’t see reality in its proper light,” Gould said. “Everything is mundane and familiar, and so we’ve lost a sense of meaning and mystery and deep beauty and holiness—those things Lewis talked about.” 

Void of meaning or satisfaction, idolatry emerges, Gould said. 

“The opposite of theism isn’t really atheism or the death of God; it’s idolatry. … As Calvin said, ‘Our hearts are idol factories.’”

The encouraging thing for Christians is that “reality is fundamentally religious and spiritual, even the fact that God exists,” Gould added. “You can’t rub spirituality out like grease on a pair of pants.”

Wooddell noted that traditional approaches to apologetics are still relevant to many people. Everyone brings his own bag of objections.

“But a postmodern doesn’t care a whole lot about arguments or evidence but rather what is attractive,” he added. “So if we can put the truth of Christianity on display and make it attractive while not compromising the truth, that might be a better method.”

Two things largely achieve that, Wooddell said: Christian service and Christian love. “Putting on display the gritty, authentic excellence of just living a virtuous life that lays down its life for other people—that’s attractive.”

Such a life often removes barriers leading to deeper discussions about the resurrection of Jesus, origins, the authority of Scripture, or evil and suffering.

As Cowan noted, being ready to give reasoned, biblical answers requires equipped saints. 

“We need to teach people to value the life of the mind and to take seriously the questions that unbelievers have and [the questions] that believers have,” Cowan said. “Then we need to teach theology and doctrine in our churches and articulate a Christian worldview, showing how Christian truth impacts every area of life—family, politics, education, science, whatever. That’s what we need to be spending our time on in the churches.

“Studying the Bible, yes, but studying it with a view toward articulating an entire Christian worldview and giving church members the skills to answer tough questions.”

TEXAN Correspondent
Jerry Pierce
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