Christian apologetics: is there, besides the current popular approaches, another way to “take every thought captive”?

Room for another?  Can another transcend these?
Room for another? Can another transcend these?

“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” — 2 Cor. 10:5

There are generally thought to be three approaches to Christian apologetics. Definitions will vary, but here are what I think are some good ones.

One approach is known as fideism which says that the best defense of the faith is preaching the Gospel, and that “rational evidences” have nothing to do with the process.  Faith and reason, while both having their place, are opposed to one another like oil and water.

Presuppositionalism has its roots in Calvinist theology, emphasizes the unbelievers darkened reason and the power of the Word of God to convert, and, according to John Frame, “should present the biblical God, not merely as the conclusion of an argument, but as the one who makes argument possible” (Cowan, Five Views on Apologetics, 2000, p. 220).

Evidentialism looks to engage a persons’ rational capacity and takes advantage of accepted methods of doing scientific and historical research. It examines the claims made about Jesus Christ by the eyewitnesses of the Biblical narratives, and looks to determine whether or not the claims are, as the Apostle Paul put it, “true and reasonable” (Acts 26).

What is one to make of the variety of approaches to Christian apologetics?

The 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard is usually classified as belonging to the “fideist” school of Christian apologetics, Basically, Kierkegaard says that there is something very suspect about a question like “What is the proper object of faith?”.  He says that to answer such a question is like a lover attempting to reply to the query, “Could you love another woman?”

In order to understand fideism, I think its important to “put the best construction on it”, something that presuppositonalist Alvin Plantiga seems to do (here is another well-written and intriguing post on the topic). Wikipedia has what I think is a very helpful and interesting paragraph (as of today at least) under its overview.

Kierkegaard: associated with “fideism”.
Kierkegaard: associated with “fideism”.

Alvin Plantinga defines “fideism” as “the exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth.” The fideist therefore “urges reliance on faith rather than reason, in matters philosophical and religious,” and therefore may go on to disparage the claims of reason.[5] The fideist seeks truth, above all: and affirms that reason cannot achieve certain kinds of truth, which must instead be accepted only by faith.[4] Plantinga’s definition might be revised to say that what the fideist objects to is not so much “reason” per se—it seems excessive to call Blaise Pascal anti-rational—but evidentialism: the notion that no belief should be held unless it is supported by evidence. (bold mine)

Plantiga, of course, would not consider himself a fideist.  But what does evidentialist apologist and living legend John Warwick Montgomery, commenting on the well-known 20th century Reformed theologian Gordon Clark, have to say about Plantiga’s own approach, that is presuppositionalism?:

“As with all genuinely presuppositional theologies, [Gordon] Clark’s grandiose, seemingly “rationalistic” system reduces to fideism and to what the theologians of the German Reformation called Schwarmerei…” (J.W. Montgomery, Where is History Going?, p. 178)

Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantiga has his own rather sophisticated presuppositional viewpoint
Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantiga has his own rather sophisticated presuppositional viewpoint

On the other hand, Reformed apologist and evangelist Sye Ten Bruggencate, in a rhetorically powerful speech/sermon about presuppositional apologetics (see here) says the following of Montgomery’s approach:

“Examine the evidence so you can get to God – that is evidential apologetics… we give evidence to the unbeliever so that they can use their own reason to get to God… that is just what Scripture tells us not to do.”

According to Bruggencate, with evidential apologetics one necessarily puts the king on trial instead of submitting to him.  As C.S. Lewis put it, “God is in the dock”.  Is that really the case?  Can that, with some evidential approaches and attitudes, be the case?  Of course, the good Dr. Montgomery, who has written

“…we are to render ourselves and our message historically vulnerable as did our Lord Himself when He deigned to enter fully and unreservedly into the maelstrom of human history. If we so present Him, His historical claims will assuredly prevail, for, as those who had eyewitness contact with Him declared, His manifestation in history was accompanied by many infallible proofs.’” – John Warwick Montgomery, Preface, Where is History Going?, 1969)”

…would surely take exception to that characterization!*  And interestingly, C.S. Lewis would have been the first to defend him (see picture below).

The author of this book, on Montgomery's 1963 essay "Jesus Christ and History": "Your lectures did me good and I shall constantly find them useful...I don't think it could be bettered." (Appendix B in "Where is History Going?")
The author of this book, on Montgomery’s 1963 essay “Jesus Christ and History”: “Your lectures did me good and I shall constantly find them useful…I don’t think it could be bettered.” (Appendix B in “Where is History Going?”)

How can this divide amongst various Christian apologetical approaches be overcome? Andrew Clover, who blogs with me over at Reformation 500, recently said to me in an email (bold mine):

I have often wondered if there isn’t a presuppositional way to argue from evidence. The reason most evidential argumentation falls flat is because the underlying assumptions of the unbeliever’s worldview are rarely challenged. So even though the evidence presented is often very solid, the unbeliever reinterprets it through his own grid. [Presuppositional apologetics] seeks to challenge those assumptions, whatever they may be in particular cases.

It seems to me that it should be possible, at least in theory, to make a holistic apologetic that both challenges the assumptions of atheists and even other religions on a philosophical level, while simultaneously showing how the evidence all points to the biblical worldview being correct. Of course, none of that means anything without the gospel; but we both know that already.

This is what we are going to be looking at more closely. For a preview of some of the content of that discussion, check out this very interesting post at the Brothers of John the Steadfast blog by Sam Schuldheisz, titled “Lutheran and Reformed Apologetics: An Overview”.  I also recommend reading the comments as I think a very productive discussion – involving both Dr. John Warwick Montgomery and Dr. Rod Rosenbladt! – took place there.

I’ll leave you with a quote from a man named Jim Pierce who participated in that conversation:

I think there is a third way and that is plainly speaking the Gospel truth to all and defending one’s own faith from the Scriptures. Furthermore, we should use whatever else we can adopt from both evidential and presuppositional apologetics while we confess the truth of Christ
…as Lutherans who don’t believe, teach, and confess that we can come to faith through reason, we shouldn’t be so concerned about using what we can from presuppositional apologetics as we confess our faith in Christ (or, we shouldn’t reject the whole of presuppositional apologetics out of hand). In other words, it is the Holy Spirit doing the converting, so let’s use all the tools we can which will not conflict with our confession of faith

I think Jim is making some real sense here, and in the coming series (which I will be posting on my own blog theology like a child – I may do a summary post here), I will do my best to clarify how this might be done – starting with my own deep appreciation for evidential apologetics and John Warwick Montgomery.  I hope that you will find it helpful, and I invite you to offer me help as well in this process.


UPDATE: That upcoming series will be called: “Strengthening Montgomery’s Case?: Beyond the Evidentialism-Presuppositionalism-Fideism Debate Towards a Stronger Christian Apologetics”



*Montgomery’s point about Christ making Himself vulnerable goes hand in hand with the Lutheran emphasis on God using humble, simple, and weak things so as not to terrify us utterly with His power and holiness.  Working through the Word and Sacrament, God makes Himself able to be resisted.

12 thoughts on “Christian apologetics: is there, besides the current popular approaches, another way to “take every thought captive”?

  1. An excellent and thorough book (655 total pages) which presents the various apologetic methodologies (showing their perceived strengths and weaknesses) and then advocates for “integrative approaches” is “Faith Has Its Reasons” by Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman Jr.


  2. Steve,

    That does look worth a look. I have not read that one Steve – but its now been requested via our library. Thanks.



    1. As someone with an MA in Christian Apologetics, I would say “Faith Has Its Reasons” is perhaps the most important book on apologetics method I have encountered. Take the time to read and absorb it; it is fantastic!


  3. Nathan, I think there is a lot more to Plantinga’s “presuppositional” argument than what you’ve presented here. And, in fact, this use-everything-at-our-disposal approach that you desire is endorsed by Plantinga, to a degree. See his response to Richard Swinburne found here titled “Rationality and Public Evidence” (link is below). He writes:

    “On my view, Christians can quite properly offer any arguments for the truth of Christian belief they think are appropriate. I doubt that these arguments are sufficient to warrant the firmness of belief involved in faith (as traditionally understood) but it doesn’t follow that they have no use at all. On the contrary; they can be extremely useful, and in at least four different ways. They can confirm and support belief reached in other ways; they may move fence-sitters closer to Christian belief; they can function as defeater-defeaters; and they can reveal interesting and important connections. My main claim here is only that such arguments are not necessary for justified, rational and warranted Christian belief” (217).

    So Plantinga affirms that evidential arguments (or arguments from “public evidence,” as I discuss below) are perfectly legitimate. But, on his account, public evidence cannot produce the type of “firm” belief associated with Christianity. Later in the article he questions the success of evidential apologetics: “In fact, these arguments don’t even show that Christian belief is more probable than not with respect to that evidence; they show, at most, that such belief is not wholly improbable with respect to it. Accordingly, if I’m right, the best arguments for the public rationality
    of Christian belief are not particularly successful – at any rate they don’t show that Christian belief is likely with respect to public evidence” (219-20). Still, Plantinga, as he stated above, leaves room for this in Christian apologetics.

    Furthermore, Plantinga is not fideist. Montgomery is quite mistaken. In fact, Plantagina affirms that a “firm” belief in Christianity is possible based on evidence alone. But this evidence is “private” evidence. It is evidence received only by people with properly functioning cognitive faculties. In other words, one “sees” the firm and sufficient evidence of God as Creator and Redeemer only after his ability to see such evidence is restored by God’s grace; and this evidence is sufficient for firm belief. He writes in “The Analytic Theist”: “Basic beliefs are not, or are not necessarily, groundless beliefs.” He continues on by quoting Calvin: “Calvin holds that God ‘reveals and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe’ and the divine art ‘reveals itself in the innumerable and yet distinct and well-ordered variety of the heavenly host.’ God has so created us that we have a tendency or disposition to see his hand in the world about us” (154). He also says: “My claim is that belief in God is properly basic; it does not follow, however, that it is groundless” (152).

    My point is this: Plantinga’s argument is evidential in a presuppositional sort of way. The evidence is private, or, to put it differently, the evidence is public yet only received as evidence by one who has been given the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

    I made a similar case for this in Section III of my post “Roman Catholicism on Trial.”

    Plantinga’s apologetic is the best, in my opinion; and it seems to permit the use of evidence that you want to include in your view of apologetics.



  4. Stephen,

    Thanks so much for your thoughts. I did not mean to completely lay out Plantiga’s argument but to provide what I thought was a responsible “teaser” post. I appreciate your laying out his views more fully (which do not surprise me – I have not read much Plantiga but I think know his views enough for this to not surprise).

    Here is another question that leads into my series: what should we think about Acts 17 as a whole, Acts 17:31 in particular, and the success rate noted in Acts 17:32?

    I will talk about that in my series.



    1. As for Acts 17:31, the resurrection is evidence for faith in Christ. The question is whether an unregenerate would see it as evidence, and even if he saw it as sufficient evidence, would he merely assent to it or would he make it the content of faith.

      I see presuppositional apologetics as basically a legitimate method of question-begging. What I mean is that the presuppositionalist uses evidence that is publicly apparent (for those renewed to see it) yet exclusively received by the elect (for only the elect have the renewed disposition to see it). So the presuppositionalist presents arguments with premises that the nonbeliever must actively suppress and ultimately reject. When someone says to a crowd “REPENT!”, he is assuming a lot of Christian premises rejected by his audience. But the Christian has warrant for this question begging because these prior premises are public in the sense that people in their right (spiritual) mind would see them. The presuppositionalist refuses to except the starting point of the nonbeliever. He presents the sufficient evidence of God as Creator (nature) and Redeemer (scripture) hoping that God will give them eyes to see and ears to hear. The traditional evidentialist must enter into the perspective of the unregenerate to persuade the person to accept and put faith in evidence that only the regenerate can see.

      It seems to me that Paul is being a consistent presuppositionalist in Acts 17:31.


  5. Stephen,

    Thanks for your additional unpacking here. I think I am following what you are saying and think that it makes some sense… I am wondering if you could say a bit more about what you are saying here:

    “The traditional evidentialist must enter into the perspective of the unregenerate to persuade the person to accept and put faith in evidence that only the regenerate can see.”

    Thanks again,



    Good and helpful info. I will incorporate some of the ideas from those papers into my posts (set to launch either later today or tomorrow morning – still awaiting some critique-wisdom from others….)



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