Comparative Apologetic Anatomy

(By Steve Hays)

The ongoing debate over meta-apologetics seems often to have degenerated into a sterile form of genre criticism. ‘Traditional’ apologetics becomes an invidious catch-all category for almost all pre-Van Tilian apologetics and contemporary variations thereof. The San Diego Circle of progressive Van Tilians (led by Frame) has objected that ‘traditional’ apologetics is not all of a kind and not all bad. The Irvine Circle of classic Van Tilians (led by the late Bahnsen) has replied that the differences between traditional varieties are unimportant insofar as they all suffer from the same fatal flaw – being guilty of autonomous reasoning. The San Diego Circle counters that that sweeping indictment is precisely the point at issue since it doesn't appear that the presuppositional and traditional methods fall so neatly along either side of the autonomous dividing line.

The purpose of this ‘Comparative Anatomy of Apologetics,’ is not to level out the differences but to lay out the differences so that we can go behind the simplistic genre criticism and at least identify some of the vital organs and organ-systems which make up a body of apologetics, and so that we can further distinguish one apologetic organism from another. That way the student will be better prepared to render an informed diagnosis as to which organs are viable candidates for transplant – based on degrees of affinity – and which would be rejected due to the incompatibilities involved in trans-species organ sharing. It must also be kept in mind that this is only an introduction to comparative apologetic anatomy, and not a substitute for advanced study. Any classification system will over-simplify the data, classing together certain items based on the application of a particular unifying principle, while applying a different principle would considerably rearrange the distribution patterns.


  1. The role of apologetics
    1. Apologetics is worthless due to the noetic effects of sin (Reformed pietism; D. M. Lloyd-Jones)
    2. Apologetics is impious since a God whom we could prove wouldn’t be God (Hoeksema)
    3. Apologetics is prolegomenal to theology (Warfield)
    4. Apologetics is the fruit, not the root of faith (Bavinck)

  2. The goal of apologetics
    1. Apologetics renders the conclusions of faith probable (evidentialism)
    2. Apologetics aims at certainty, and while our arguments may never achieve certainty, the evidence for Christian theism is dogmatically certain (Van Til; Frame)
    3. Apologetics aims at certitude, not certainty – persuasion, not proof (fideism)
    4. Apologetics achieves certainty in principle (Bahnsen)
    5. Apologetics is an exercise in intellectual therapy (Wittgenstein)

  3. The starting-point:
    1. God as the origin of meaning (Dooyeweerd)
    2. God as the precondition of intelligibility (Van Til; Bahnsen)
    3. God as the foundation of reason – since ‘if all being were contingent, there would be no ground for the necessity of thought’ (W. Young)
    4. The possible (Scotus)
    5. The actual (Aquinas)
    6. The necessary (Augustine; Anselm)
    7. Apologetics has multiple starting-points (Frame; Carnell)

  4. Methodology
    1. Reason a priori (Augustine; Anselm; Descartes)
    2. Reason a posteriori (Aquinas)
    3. Reason from the actual (concrete or potential being) to the necessary (being-in-general or pure act) (Aquinas)
    4. Reason from the possible to the actual and necessary (Scotus)
    5. Reason from the impossibility of the contrary (Bahnsen)
    6. Reason from the preconditions of intelligibility (Van Til; Bahnsen)
    7. Stage a hierarchical argument (Aquinas; Locke; Warfield; Montgomery)
    8. Defend the faith en bloc and oppose its rivals en bloc (Orr; Van Til; Bahnsen)

  5. Criteria
    1. Factual correspondence (Montgomery)
    2. Coherence and completeness (Clark)
    3. Liveability (Schaeffer)
    4. The Bible is its own criterion and the highest criterion (orthodox Protestantism)
    5. Christian theism as a whole since facts don’t point apart from a philosophy of fact (Van Til)
    6. Criteria are person-variable since rival truth-claims are weighed in the scales of our voluntary ‘control-beliefs’ or ‘belief-policies’ (Wolterstorff; Helm)

  6. The role of proof
    1. To demonstrate how we know what we know (realism/rationalism; depth psychology)
    2. To promote belief to knowledge (empiricism/evidentialism)
    3. To render the unbeliever inexcusable (Bahnsen)

  7. The range of proof
    1. We can only attain ‘moral certainty’ (Newman; Warfield; B. Mitchell)
    2. The Christian worldview is proved in principle (Bahnsen)
    3. Proof is the goal of apologetics (Frame)
    4. There can be no compelling proofs since that would violate the free exercise of the will, thus destroying the role of faith (Kant; Arminianism)
    5. Worldviews rest on indemonstrable first principles or postulates, although one can still apply standards of consistency and completeness (Clark)
    6. Worldviews rest on directly indemonstrable presuppositions, but these admit indirect methods of proof or refutation (Van Til; Bahnsen)

  8. What counts as proof?
    1. Truths of reason (Augustine; Anselm; Descartes; Berkeley; Clark)
    2. Truths of fact (Aquinas; Locke; Butler; Montgomery; Swinburne)
    3. A montage of irrecoverable impressions (Newman; B. Mitchell)
    4. Everything is grist for the evidential mill (Calvin; Pascal; Carnell; Frame)
    5. Proof is person-variable (Mavrodes; Wolterstorff)

  9. God’s Knowability
    1. God’s existence is neither evident nor self-evident (Aquinas)
    2. God is knowable only indirectly in terms of what he is not like (Aquinas)
    3. We (can) have an analogical knowledge of God (Aquinas; Van Til)
    4. We (can) have a univocal knowledge of God (Scotus; Alston)
    5. The knowledge of God is natural or innate (Calvin; Plantinga)
    6. The knowledge of God is introspectively derivable (Augustine; Anselm; Descartes; Kuyper)

  10. The theistic proofs
    1. The a posteriori proofs are invalid (Clark)
    2. Traditional theistic proofs are invalid (Hume; Kant)
    3. Traditional theistic proofs are, with due modifications, sound if updated or recast in more rigorous form or made more presuppositionally transparent (Plantinga; Swinburne; Frame; W. Young; W. L. Craig)
    4. All theistic proofs are impious since a God whom we could prove… (Hoeksema)
    5. Traditional theistic proofs are illicit since our categories cannot be extended beyond the ‘temporal horizon’ (Dooyeweerd)
    6. Traditional theistic proofs can be rendered sound by explicitly grounding the meaning of their key concepts in the fullness of the Christian God (Van Til)

  11. Faith and reason
    1. Faith and reason are opposed (Tertullian; Luther; Kierkegaard)
    2. Faith and reason occupy separate compartments (Ockham)
    3. Faith is the foundation of reason (Augustine; Anselm; Bonaventure)
    4. Reason is the foundation of faith (Aquinas; Locke)
    5. Faith is a hypothesis (Carnell; Swinburne)

  12. The role of paradox
    1. Apologetics should shun paradox (Clark; Dooyeweerd; W. Young)
    2. Apologetics should exploit paradox (Kroner; Van Til)
    3. Apologetics should reinterpret paradoxes of the faith in perspectival terms (Frame)

  13. The point of contact
    1. Common ground beliefs and standards (no one school in particular)
    2. Consensus beliefs and standards (mediating theology)
    3. Lowest common denominator beliefs and standards (C. S. Lewis)
    4. The point of conflict is the point of contact (P. E. Hughes)
    5. Natural revelation and common grace (Frame)

  14. What faculty should apologetics target?
    1. The intellect (Clark)
    2. The will (W. James; Kierkegaard; Arminianism)
    3. The emotions (Pascal; J. Edwards)
    4. The imagination (C. S. Lewis)
    5. The intuition (Pascal)
    6. The aesthetic sense (Denis of Suger; Chateauoriand; Urs von Balthasar)
    7. The conscience (Kant; Newman; C. S. Lewis; Frame)
    8. The whole persona (Pascal; Edwards; Kierkegaard; Carnell; Frame)

  15. Doxastic warrant
    1. A factual foundation, since factual correspondence is the acid test of truth (Montgomery)
    2. A theoretical foundation, since the principle of warrant is ultimately a theoretical value (W. Young)
    3. Accredited testimony (Warfield)
    4. Belief proportionate tot he evidence (Butler; Hume; Clifford)
    5. Groundless beliefs, although these are subject to defeaters or overriders (Plantinga; Wolterstorff)
    6. The autopista of Scriptures and witness of the Spirit (Calvin)
    7. The witness of the Spirit (pietism)
    8. Knowing how we know (M. Butler)
    9. Immediate knowledge and mediate beliefs thus derived (foundationalism)
    10. Beliefs generated by a reliable belief-forming mechanism (Plantinga)
    11. Knowledge is self-warranting, and regenerate faith in revealed propositions equals knowledge (S. Hays)

  16. Verification/falsification
    1. Christian faith is logically falsifiable at a local but not global level inasmuch as the rules of a religious language game are internal to itself, and such games are incommensurable (Wittgensteinian fideism)
    2. Christian faith is both logically and possibly falsifiable (B. Mitchell)
    3. The Christian worldview is hypothetically falsifiable inasmuch as it makes factual claims which would be falsified if that state of affairs did not obtain, but it is not possibly falsifiable inasmuch as the satisfaction of those claims is itself an article of faith (Frame)
    4. The Christian worldview is logically falsifiable at a local level inasmuch as it advances claims whose assertoric force negates contrary propositions, but it is not logically falsifiable at a global level inasmuch as denial of the Christian worldview would undermine the truth-conditions of any affirmation or negation (Frame; Bahnsen)
    5. The Christian worldview is globally verifiable – via circularities of confirmation – and logically but not globally falsifiable (Frame; Bahnsen)

  17. The role of Scripture
    1. The Bible is the only source of genuine knowledge (Clark)
    2. The Bible is the supreme source and standard of knowledge (orthodox Protestantism)
    3. The Bible is the rule of faith in doctrine and morals only (mainline Protestantism)
    4. The Bible is a supplement to reason (Aquinas; Locke)
    5. The Bible is a corrective to fallen reason (Calvin)
    6. The Bible (=special revelation) is a necessary medium of divine/human communication irrespective of the fall (Vos)
    7. The Bible (=special revelation) supplies the norms which we apply to general revelation (Frame)

  18. The warrant of Scripture
    1. The Bible is self-warranting (Calvin; WCF; Owen; Dabney; Murray)
    2. The Bible must be warranted by a neutral authority (rationalism; empiricism)
    3. Bible criticism is value-laden and therefore unamenable to neutral investigation (A. Schlatter)

  19. Natural theology
    1. Natural theology is unchristian due to the Christocentric character of revelation (Barth)
    2. Natural theology verifies or falsifies special revelation-claims (Locke)
    3. To claim warrant for natural theology in natural revelation is viciously circular since appeal to ‘revelation’ already assumes a divine revealer (Bahnsen)
    4. To formulate theistic proofs on the basis of natural revelation apart from special revelation is to lapse into autonomous reasoning (Van Til)
    5. Natural theology doesn’t necessary lapse into autonomous reasoning so long as Scripture remains the ultimate norm (Frame)
    6. The future of theology and hopes of a world theology now lie with natural theology, based on modern science (Whitehead; Hartshorne; R. B. Fuller; Paul Davies; A. Peacocke; Ian Barbour; J. Polkinghorne; F. Tipler; Toulmin)

  20. Science and Scripture
    1. Since scientific theories are nothing more than useful fictions, science always takes a backseat to Scripture (Clark; J. Byl)
    2. By asserting the non-cognitive character of science one thereby denies the revelatory character of nature (Van Til)
    3. Propositional (=special) revelation enjoys an interpretative right of way over non-propositional (=general) revelation (Poythress)
    4. Scientific evidence, rightly interpreted, squares with the literal sense of Scripture (scientific creationism)
    5. Scientific theories are useful analogies, and in terms of their interpretative and predictive power they hold true in large measure, but since they’re still rooted in analogy we can never be sure just how far the analogy holds (Poythress)
    6. Scientific explanation operates on the principle of the indefinite linear extension – in time and space – of its mathematical and mechanistic models, but such extrapolations fail to take into account the freedom of God (Poythress)
    7. Due to the principle of sphere sovereignty, science and theology occupy mutually autonomous domains of inquiry, with independent standards and methods relative to each other (Dooyeweerd)
    8. The creation days belong to ‘faith-time,’ not real time, since one cannot literally apply to God such temporal categories as rest on the seventh day (Dooyeweerd).
    9. Science is a value-laden enterprise, ruled by religious presuppositions (Frame)
    10. The Bible must be interpreted by internal (grammatico-historical) principles, and not by extraneous pressures (M. Stuart; Dabney)
    11. Nature runs in cyclical processes, so that creation ex nihilo entails that God instantiated the world at some point already into the cycle (Gosse; Dabney)
    12. Science is a primary source of apologetic arguments (Jaki; H. Ross; Swinburne; W. L. Craig)
    13. Science enjoys interpretative right of way over Scripture (Origen; Augustine; Philoponus; Galileo; Osiander; J. McCosh; Barth; Bultmann; Rahner; Rocoeur; Pannenberg; Swinburne; Don Page; T. Torrance; D. MacKay; D. Young; H. Van Till; M. Poole; A. Peacocke; J. Polkinghorne; A. McGrath)
    14. ‘[the author of Genesis] undoubtedly wants to depict faithfully the factual course of events in the coming-to-be of the world – he wants to give a cosmogonic theory. Anyone who denies that is confusing the value of the story for us with the intention of the author’ (Wellhausen)
    15. Christians should observe a containment-strategy with respect to science and theology, allowing each its distinctive area of input (Warfield; Carnell; Hackett; Kline; W. Edgar; Dooyeweerd)

© 1999 Steve Hays

Last Revised: 20 August 1999