The Limits of Apologetics

The term “apologetics” is typically defined as the religious discipline of defending doctrines through systematic argumentation and discourse. It has nothing to do, of course, with the common concepts apologizing or arguing. And it has an honorable tradition, in Christianity, going back at least as far as the Apostle Paul’s trial in Acts 26. But while apologetics is conceptually legitimate, there are risks. Most crucially, the apologist can assume that which needs to be proved.

Because apologetics involves systematic argumentation it certainly appears as if the activity is all about proving, not assuming. But this is not always what happens. To see that, let’s begin by considering the somewhat analogous process of a lawyer defending a client. First, ask yourself what the reasons might be for retaining legal counsel. An obvious one would be to “level the playing field”. That is, the law is complex and navigating it requires expertise. If you were charged with some crime you did not commit there would be a significant risk that your lack of legal competence could result in an unjust conviction. So you would want representation by someone who would know the law as well or better than those accusing you. Then you would also want that person to be skilled in argumentation so he or she could explain your defense better than you could. Without this expertise-leveling action a defendant might not receive a fair trial. Thus legal representation is usually necessary, and those who supply the expertise – lawyers – are engaged in an honorable activity and profession. But here too there is risk, frequently occurring in real life, that the legal profession might cross the line from the above-described role and into the task of getting their client “off” by whatever means and argumentative moves the lawyer can get away with. This would include stalling, trying to make the case too expensive for the other side to pursue, making specious arguments that, however weak, might confuse and persuade a jury, etc. Lawyer jokes and a checkered reputation are anecdotal testimony to the general belief that lawyers can indeed slide into dishonorable practices.

Now let me try and disentangle two concepts: “truth seeking” and “position defense”. Religionists implicitly, at minimum, want to believe that they are truth-seeking. And any apologetics engaged in is thus presumably in defense of historical truths, not merely positions. So, while apologetics is not really in the business of seeking new truth, it is presumably fully compatible with truth-seeking when it makes a case for some assumed existing truth(s). Similarly, legal representation might not be in the “who done it” business (truth seeking), but it presumably is in the compatible business of proving the defendant is truly innocent (position defense). But these two activities can and do become separated from each other. And position defense in apologetics also can and sometimes does leave truth behind to focus exclusively on winning the positional battle with whatever means are available. And, in this religious context, I think such separation can occur even without recognition by the apologist.

This problem was famously considered by Plato, most notably in his dialog Gorgias. The “plot” (such as it is) depicts a dinner gathering honoring a famous Sicilian sophist named Gorgias (an actual historical figure), and details a conversation between Socrates and Gorgias concerning the true definition of rhetoric. Sounds like a real yawner, I know, but bear with me. First, a couple of definitions. A sophist was a teacher for hire in ancient Greece who specifically focused on teaching rhetoric, defined as the art of persuasion. Being good at persuasion was important in ancient Greece because it was advantageous in law and politics. The complaint Socrates had, and pushed back on Gorgias in the dialog, is that rhetoric should never be, but often is, isolated from moral underpinnings. But Gorgias, and many of his contemporaries, positioned themselves as teachers of a technique, something one could learn in isolation from the purposes for which it might be employed. And it is the abuse of such technique that has caused the word “sophistry” to enter our language and mean: “the use of fallacious arguments, especially with the intent to deceive”. In the dialog, Socrates catches Gorgias in an inconsistency. Gorgias wanted to claim, on the one hand, that he was always teaching rhetoric toward honorable ends; while on the other hand, admitting that he would teach anyone who came along, without regard to the ends they might use rhetorical skill for.

So, however abstract all this might sound, the core concern is very important and universal. It applies not just in ancient Greece, but to the contemporary legal profession and also and especially – for my purposes here – to apologetics. Now, while many believers have no problem in agreeing that there exist shyster lawyers, it is more difficult – except for marginal cases[1] – to believe that religious apologists intend to deceive. And I generally have no quarrel with this. In apologetics I think that, when it slides into illegitimate territory, such boundary-crossing is typically not done deliberately. However, that is no absolution.

A potentially serious problem in religious argumentation, which is largely absent in the legal context, is when the audience for the apologetic enterprise shifts from external to internal. That is, instead of “be[ing] prepared ... to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Pet. 3:15 NIV) to a non-believer, as Paul did on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22ff), the apologetics is instead targeted toward believers – people who already agree with the conclusion(s) you are arguing for. Now I’m not suggesting that apologetics toward this audience is illegitimate, per se. But there is a substantial risk when the obvious check-and-balance of a presently-unpersuaded audience is replaced by people who already believe the position you are arguing for. And often, they provide incentive for the arguer to reach that desired conclusion[2].

So let me drill down into what I believe the illegitimacy consists of. It involves, at minimum:

  1. bad arguments
  2. selective use of data
  3. assuming what actually needs to be proved

This last point can occur when one is “positioned”. This is different from having a position on some topic. It means you think your position is right, and unassailably so. Thus you would resist counter-arguments instead of openly considering them, as pure truth-seeking would encourage. To state this with a mathematical term – you view your position as axiomatic. A starting point that doesn’t need to be proven. And, as this sort of positioning is considered above falsification, it is then easier to legitimate – in your own mind – questionable arguments and selective evidence. In my experience I observe people doing this both unwittingly and enthusiastically.

Now, to illustrate. And I choose this illustration with considerable trepidation because it is one of the most hotly contested topics in religious conversation today. Thus I fear many readers will become derailed from my focus and concern about the limits of apologetics, and shift into full-throated defense or attack on the topic I use here for illustration. So, what topic is this? The age of the earth.

Young Earth Creationism (YEC) is viewed by many conservative Christians – including Adventists (who have now enshrined it into SDA Fundamental Belief #6) – as necessary to preserve sound doctrine. And a widely-held view is that, if YEC falls, the gospel itself gets invalidated[3]. Adventists, in addition, have argued that without a literal 7-day creation, the Sabbath doctrine is necessarily invalidated[4]. Such presuppositions, often inferred as axiomatic, by themselves make it problematic to be fully responsive to criticism of the position apologetics is being applied to. And, when you ask who is the target audience (not to mention donor base) of such organizations as Answers In Genesis (AIG) and Institute for Creation Research (ICR), it is clear they are applying their apologetics to an inward-facing audience – people who already believe the arguments and want to continue believing. If this was not already enough cause for concern about the risk of moving into problematic apologetics, consider part of the AIG Statement of Faith (Section 2):

“The Bible is divinely inspired and inerrant throughout. Its assertions are factually true in all the original autographs. It is the supreme authority in everything it teaches. Its authority is not limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes but includes its assertions in such fields as history and science.”

Not all Christians subscribe to inerrancy (Adventists do not) and it is also controversial to peremptorily declare the Bible is the supreme authority in science. But this aside, it should be evident that axioms like this are powerful inhibitions to openly considering counter-arguments against the cherished positions. Indeed, such presuppositions violate the Scientific Method, which is a “follow the evidence” methodology. Thus the above constraints indicate there is a very severe risk that such enterprises are in the business of assuming what must be proved. And the next silent, near-unnoticeable steps would be to move into fallacious argumentation and cherry-picking of evidence.

This, I charge, is exactly what has happened to YEC. The problem in demonstrating my assertion, for those readers who haven’t studied this somewhat broad and difficult scientific discipline adequately, and are pre-disposed to favor YEC for religious reasons, is that anything I might use here to exemplify these charges can find apparent counter-arguments. And showing just why such counter-arguments are specious, demands a deeper and deeper dive into the details. Thus, in my experience, YEC organizations are engaged in a rhetorical game of “whac-a-mole”, that can be adequately satisfying to someone who wants position-reassurance but lacks geological and paleontological literacy. So upon fuller examination such argumentation would ultimately fail. Thus its apologists frequently employ illegitimate methods stated above – bad reasoning and selective evidence – to produce the desired effect: a return to being satisfied with one’s current doctrinal understandings.

Because my goal here is to demarcate the boundaries of legitimate apologetics and caution readers about the dangers of crossing that boundary[5], I will need to mostly defer backing up the charge made in the paragraph above, instead referring readers to the abundance of secondary sources. And one of the best, most accessible source, is the book: “The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah's Flood Explain the Grand Canyon?” This book goes far beyond just looking at the Grand Canyon. It deals with why YEC apologetics suffers from the problems I’ve been articulating here, and lays the case out in a highly lay-readable, scientifically-defensible approach. It is also written mostly by practicing Christians trained in the relevant disciplines. Buy it and read it. Don’t take my (or anyone’s) word – know for yourself.

Just a few more points to consider, then:

  1. The overwhelming majority of working geologists and paleontologists believe in an old earth. Why is that? Is this an atheistic conspiracy, as has sometimes been alleged by Christians?[6] In fact, I think you would be very hard-pressed to find any so-called experts who believed in YEC who were not also driven by their religious convictions. And, given the above quote from AIG’s Statement of Faith as an example, such ones evidently have accepted the necessity to constrain any scientific conclusions by religious presuppositions. Now, given that the world is a big place, I wouldn’t be surprised if there might be some scientist(s) somewhere who was YEC and also declared they were not religious and thus their scientific conclusions were not informed by religious doctrinal necessity. But I would ask – where are they? And, if the YEC apologists knew of them, wouldn’t you expect them to be put “on parade” as this would buttress the claim that YEC is scientifically demonstrable? The point is, this evident vacuum of YEC-belief without religious presupposition ought to give the honest observer pause – whatever positions he or she might hold or would prefer to hold. It should be worrisome circumstantial evidence that YEC might be making its ostensible scientific case on cherry-picked evidence. They position their websites as being scientific. But only those who are willing to preemptively trump science with a faith-based viewpoint are in agreement with the positions argued for.
  2. This truncated examination has been exemplified, within Adventism, in the various recent “Faith and Science” conferences, hosted by the GC, notably led by President Wilson and supported by his friend and ideological compatriot – E. Edward Zinke. These conferences have pressed the YEC position with hardly a reference to the abundant problems that any broader (and fairer) presentation would try to address. Thus it exemplifies my above concern about selective use of data. And the audience is largely composed of administrators, ministers and teachers, who almost universally lack adequate literacy in the relevant scientific disciplines. Such exercises are apologetics gone bad. Like lawyering with the sole aim of client-defense, truth-seeking is at risk because the truth of YEC is considered axiomatic. But in the world-at-large, it’s quite another story. And some (perhaps many) of the attendees of these conferences have realized this, and felt that they were being propagandized. There are severe, unintended consequences for the integrity of Adventism, when you engage in such activities.

Finally, I would hope even the most ardent YEC-defender could disambiguate my concern for legitimate apologetics from their disagreement with my example. To me, YEC is an egregious and blatant misuse of apologetics. But I use it as an example. So, even if I am terribly mistaken about YEC, and thus my example is also misguided, hopefully we can agree on the legitimacy of Plato’s concern that separating truth-seeking from position-defense is dangerous. And in religion this happens when apologetics is misused, with “Gorgian” techniques employed to advocate for positions that could not otherwise be sustained if a deeper probe was to be undertaken. If we believers really are truth-seekers (a hard-enough question for self-examination) then, while in the short-run we might have some personal confusion and ambiguity, it is too high a price to pay when bad apologetics results in false security by believing too strongly in that which is either mistaken or needs revision.

[1] Usually violent examples, like Jim Jones or David Koresh come to mind. But more typically unethical religious persuasion is used to get money from the faithful. Some recognizable Christian examples in recent memory include Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Harold Camping. But less recent and non-Christian examples include Gugu Maharj Ji and the Beatles’ famous spiritual advisor – Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

[2] Notably monetary reward and affirmation. Within denominations, it’s typically not a great career move to critique orthodoxy. So the critic risks losing employment or at least marginalization. Conversely, providing argumentative affirmation for a cherished religious position can make you popular with the faithful.

[3] See, for example: https://answersingenesis.org/creationism/young-earth/does-the-gospel-depend-on-a-young-earth/?utm_source=facebook-aig&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=facebook-aig

[4] See, for example: https://www.adventistreview.org/2011-1513-16

[5] Not to mention space constraints.

[6] See, for example, the 2008 self-proclaimed documentary: “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum columns by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/rich-hannon

Image Credit: Unsplash.com


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9819

Apologetics is problematic for the theologian who is engaged in discovery about God because apologetics assumes:

  1. The truth is already known
  2. The truth must be defended by hindering the voyage of discovery of the theologian
  3. God has chosen the apologist to defend him.

For example, while the theologian may seek to know what color tie God wears, the apologist already knows, resents the theologians questioning of it, and makes sure everyone conforms in understanding to what God is wearing.

7 Likes

Good essay. I’m deeply troubled by the GC/Ted Wilson/Ed Zinke creation conferences being held throughout the world. Your use of the descriptor “propagandized” is on the mark. Before Wilson’s era, the scientists and theologians in our denomination used to have open discussions regarding science and faith, but those regular meetings have long been shut down. Open, honest dialogue is now deemed dangerous by the powers that be.

Sadly, some of the church’s scientists have been complicit in this–which is shameful. These individuals know who they are, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually read this remark. You know I’m speaking to you. My plea to you: Follow your conscience. Make truth rather than apologetics your modus operandi. Grow a spine. Advocate for change. Do the right thing. Truth has nothing to fear.

10 Likes

Can you tell us more, Rich, about the Grand Canyon book? Why did you single it out?

Because the book is very “lay accessible”, speaks to both the geology and YEC, is written by people who have relevant expertise and are Christian. I was steered initially to the book by one of my best friends, who is a PhD geologist, and he said this book was such a help to him, as it laid out the case for an old earth - validly - and somewhat relieved him of the burden of trying to start from scratch in dialoging with people who have a religious commitment to YEC but lack scientific literacy, yet are open to considering evidence/arguments. So I bought it, read it, and have the very same opinion. There are other, earlier books out there. Notably “The Bible, Rocks and Time”, and “Christianity and the Age of the Earth”, but this one is recent, heavily illustrated and used the Grand Canyon as illustrative, not as a limit of focus. Unfortunately it is not really cheap (somewhere in the $20 range) but it’s cheap for what you get.

2 Likes

I cannot find the thread of any principled argument you’re making, Rich, if you’re making one. You seem to be arguing that you know the “truth” about Earth’s history, and those of us who argue against what you “know” are making bad arguments, or are cherry-picking, or are assuming what needs to be proved.

I would gently suggest that none of us knows the truth about origins, and each of us must make a faith decision regarding what we believe, and then do our apologetics accordingly. I have no trouble accepting what Scripture and Ellen White teach about Earth history, and constructing my apologetics to defend what those inspired sources teach. Which is not to say that I’m trying to “prove” anything; my faith is just that–faith. In my apologetics I’m only trying to show that what, by faith, I believe is also consistent with evidence and reason.

4 Likes

Thank you Dave for demonstrating exactly what Rich Hannon was talking about.

6 Likes

DC, would you say that you are “positioned” on this subject? Which by the definition above could make you a non-truth seeker. Why seek truth when you already know it, right? However, if your statement below is really what you think, why wouldn’t you be an open minded truth seeker?

If none of us, including you and me, does not know the truth about origins, why wouldn’t we be open to new possibilities? Does apologetics get in the way of that endeavor?

1 Like

What you are saying is entirely consistent with his description of the problem. Can you say that if you are resisting fact, you really want to quit?

I would recommend that you buy a used copy of The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood by David R. Montgomery–and give it a chance. (About five bucks plus postage, on line at Amazon. It doesn’t talk down to you.)

Incidentally, does your faith require you to believe that the serpent in Genesis 3 was able to talk because of his intrinsic intelligence, as the Bible says, or was it a trick, as EGW says?

Do you accept Gen 3:'s declaration that the heavens and the earth were created, in a single day, “the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens”? (Genesis 2)

1 Like

So its a quandary about the age of the earth. The Bible puts no dates on the creation of the earth, but strongly implies that is is young in several places. None of us was there when it was created, and every scientific dating methodology known at this time makes assumptions which may or may not be founded; if a given dating methodology is unfounded then we can’t trust the dates it gives us. EGW says in many places that the earth is around 6000 years old. So it seems like the prophetic gift/authority is at stake when we argue about this.

@dcread

If you guys would please note, this (YEC) topic is not what is being discussed here. It’s only an illustration of a point being made. Rich H. knew (highly suspected) that the discussion would devolve into a defense of YEC. So, my question to the both of you - do you understand what is actually under discussion? Hint - it’s not about the age of the earth.

After about two decades of joining the SDA church, I decided to “nail down” its unique beliefs I had accepted at 16. In those two decades I had been to college and even minored in religion, but I decided to lay aside all the books and “apologetics” tried to tackle the Bible - alone. Interesting experience. Like someone once said - “it’s not for the faint of heart”.

6 Likes

@Sirje, I have taken the same journey. You’re right - its not easy. The Bible’s main thrust is to preach Jesus Christ and the kingdom of Heaven, not do apologetics or measure the age of the earth.

4 Likes

The age of the earth is not so important as who made it and what He did to reclaim ownership of the earth and all that dwell in it.

4 Likes

The question is Who, not when. There is a conflict between chaos and design. But that is preceded by conflict over Who. So the Word became flesh and dwelt among us that belief in Him Who is able to restore, even as He could lay down His life and pick it up again at the call of His Father. We now have a High Priest Who was tested and won. So our confidence is in Who not when.

4 Likes

Only if one ascribes inerrancy to EGW, which I don’t believe she did herself.

4 Likes

Back in those days EVERYONE was going by Ussher’s Chronology of the World.
THAT was Before all those preacher in Scandinavia and Swiss began looking
at rocks and streams. Finding weird things that should NOT be there.
Knowing Latin, they could converse with each other all over Europe.
In the US, Latin was little known, so letters back and forth across the Atlantic
Did Not Happen.
SDAs were really Very Late in learning about all the years of conversation in
Europe about rock finds.

2 Likes

Genesis 1
Is it a SONG?
Is it a History?

@pierrepaul - What do YOU mean by “inerrancy?” I know how the dictionary defines it.

Thank you for the article. If every SDA were to take a critical thinking course, much of our dogma would melt away. We should all strive to be as open minded as Anthony Flew, who renounced atheism when confronted with DNA code.

But, unfortunately many SDA feel a sense of safety with their protective hedge of “truth” - whatever that may be (creation, only sda’s saved, etc.). Let’s face it, it can be a bit unsettling when admitting there may not be clear evidence, biblically or scientifically, for reaching grounded conclusions.

7 Likes

The prophetic gift/authority is not at stake. It’s the claim that’s at stake.

3 Likes