October 26, 2016

Philosophy of Religion versus Apologetics

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, October 27, 2016

Philosophy of Religion versus Apologetics

For Christians who think deeply about their faith, it's helpful to distinguish between the intellectual disciplines of (a) philosophy of religion and (b) apologetics.

According to philosopher C. Stephen Evans, philosophy of religion is “The branch of philosophy that seeks to understand and critically evaluate the beliefs and practices of religions.”

Questions asked are as follows: Is the concept of God logically coherent? What about the concept of Incarnation? What is the relationship between faith and reason? Is the idea of God a mere social construct, or is the idea that God is a mere social construct a mere social construct?

Is there public evidence for God's existence, or is private subjective experience the only “evidence” for God? Is faith to be understood wholly without propositions, or do propositions that describe God accurately (as God has revealed God to us) ensure our faith is grounded in reality and our works of obedience/ love reflect the requirements of this reality?

Does evil show that a good God doesn't exist, or does the reality of evil require God as a ground of value? How do we arbitrate between competing religious truth-claims? Is there good evidence for believing Jesus' resurrection actually occurred and thus serves as a public sign that He is the God described in the Bible?

Apologetics, on the other hand, involves the rational defence of the faith.  The word apologetics comes from the Greek apologia, which means “speaking in defence of or “justification. An apology is a carefully reasoned defence of a view. (Think of Plato's Apology, Plato's reasoned defence of Socrates' innocence in a court of law.)

1 Peter 3:15 uses the word apologia: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer [apologia] to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”

Evans again: Historically, apologetic arguments of various types have been given: philosophical arguments for the existence of God; arguments that the existence of God is compatible with suffering and evil; historical arguments, such as arguments from miracles and fulfilled prophecies; and arguments from religious experience, including mystical experience....

Evans adds: “Some distinguish positive apologetics, which attempts to argue for the truth of Christianity, from negative apologetics, which merely attempts to remove barriers to faith by responding to critical attacks.

Professor of religion John G. Stackhouse, Jr. understand apologetics more broadly: anything that helps people take Christianity more seriously than they did before, anything that helps defend and commend it, properly counts as apologetics.... This includes art, music, and life well lived.

There is much overlap between philosophy of religion and apologetics, i.e., they focus on many of the same topics. But there are some important differences, too. These differences have to do with purpose, chronological order, and epistemological order.

Purpose: The goal of philosophy of religion is sense making and truth seeking concerning religious claims, whereas the goal of apologetics is to defend/commend the sense and truth of the religious beliefs one holds.

Chronological order: Doing the philosophy of religion comes before apologetics in time. Temporally, one first tries to make sense and discern the truth of religious claims and then one shares them, i.e., one subsequently defends/ commends them (because one thinks they are sensible and true).

Epistemological order: Doing the philosophy of religion also comes before apologetics epistemologically. In terms of order of knowing, one first tries to make sense and discern the truth of religious claims (which includes submission of one's will to discern and know truth) and then one shares those claims, i.e., one subsequently defends/ commends them (because one thinks/ knows they are sensible and true).

Although philosophy of religion and apologetics do much the same intellectual work, philosophy of religion (whether done consciously or not) is foundational for apologetics. Discern, then share.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College. Hendrik will teach Philosophy of Religion this winter and Apologetics in spring.)

Suggested resources:

  • William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd edition (Crossway 2008).
  • William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Cook 2010).
  • C. Stephen Evans & R. Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking about Faith, 2nd edition (IVP Academic 2009).
  • John S. Feinberg, Can You Believe It's True? Christian Apologetics in a Modern and Postmodern Era (Crossway 2013).
  • Paul M. Gould & Richard B. Davis, editors, Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy (Zondervan 2016).
  • Douglas Groothuis, On Jesus (Thomson/ Wadsworth 2003).
  • Brian K. Morely, Mapping Apologetics: Comparing Contemporary Approaches (IVP Academic 2015).
  • Ronald H. Nash, Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas (Zondervan 1992).
  • Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach & David Basinger, Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, 5th edition (Oxford University Press 2013).

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