Part 1 -

Chapter 1 - The Nature, Power, & Limitations of Apologetics

We are writing this book because we have been besieged with requests for it.

We both teach philosophy of religion at Boston College, and students often ask us where they can find a book that lists, outlines, or summarizes all the major arguments for all the major Christian teachings that are challenged by unbelievers today such as the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, the trustworthiness of Scripture, and the divinity and Resurrection of Christ and answers the strongest and commonest objections against these doctrines. We were amazed to find that no such book exists! There are thousands of books on apologetics, and some very good ones, but not one of them summarizes apologetic arguments as Aquinas summarized theological arguments in his Summa Theologiae and Summa Contra Gentiles. This book is written to begin to fill that vacuum.

We even thought of titling it Summa Apologetica, but our publisher wisely rejected that title as unmarketable. Comparison with Aquinas' Summas may seem arrogant, even ludicrous; but we mean it to refer to the genus, not the genius, of Aquinas' works.

There were many summas, or summaries in the Middle Ages, which condensed many arguments into a small space, carefully organizing and succinctly explaining them. A summa is meant to function as a digest or mini-encyclopedia. It need not be read in order from beginning to end. It can be used as a reference book or handbook. That genus is at least as useful today as it was in the Middle Ages for two reasons. For one thing, we moderns, like the medievals, respect scientific order, clarity, rationality and structure. (It is a popular but wholly indefensible myth that the medieval mind was unscientific, irrational, unquestioning, vague, or crude. If anything, it was rational to a fault. It was the mind of a librarian, positively reveling in order.)

The second reason is that we moderns are all terribly busy (though our technology should give us great leisure!) and we want time-saving devices, digests, and "bottom-line" summaries. Yet that desire is not fulfilled in modern apologetics. The contents of that noble art are usually diffused, not collected. Most apologetics books make ten points in fifty pages. This book aims to make fifty points in ten pages.

One point of comparison with a medieval summa, then, is the genus: summary. A second is that like a summa, it is written "for beginners" (as Aquinas said in the preface to his Summa Theologiae); that is, for a general audience rather than for a scholarly and specialized one. It means to bridge the gap between the scholarly and the popular which so sadly divides and weakens modern theology and philosophy. A third point of comparison with a medieval summa is the division into small, bite-sized chunks. This follows from the previous point: since we are beginners, we need (but seldom get) the aid of clear outlining, numbering, and divisions. Descartes was right in this, at least. The second step of his famous "Method" notes that a difficult problem is made much easier by analyzing it into smaller pieces and steps, and taking each one by one.

The fact that this book is so carefully outlined, however, will count against it in some people's minds. There will be some readers and reviewers who will accuse us of "black and white thinking" simply because we argue logically about religion. They will trot out epithets like "narrow", "simplistic", "cut and dried", and "rationalistic" because they mistakenly assume (1) that religion must be irrational and (2) that to write clearly is to ignore mystery.

About Reason

They probably pick up this latter assumption from reading twentieth century philosophy. Philosophy in our century is seldom both clear and profound, both respectful of reason and respectful of mystery at the same time, as medieval philosophy was. Throughout this century, the English Channel has divided two philosophical styles more deeply than did the Iron Curtain. We find clarity at the expense of profundity in most of the English analytical tradition, and profundity without clarity in most of the continental existential and phenomenological tradition. Our intent here is to bridge the channel by bridging the ages; to return to the medieval enterprise of arguing rationally about the great mysteries; to turn back a clock that is keeping bad time.

Restoring the Older Notion of Reason

To make this restoration possible, another restoration is necessary: a restoration of the older, larger notion of reason itself. This means essentially two things:

1. seeing our subjective, psychological, human processes of reasoning as participations in and reflections of an objective rational order, a logos, a "Reason" with a capital R; and

2. seeing reason not as confined to reasoning, calculating—what scholastic logic calls "the third act of the mind"—but as including "the first act of the mind": apprehension, intellectual intuition, understanding, "seeing", insight, contemplation.

Using Aristotelian Logic

These two positions we take concerning the nature of reason lie behind our use of Aristotelian logic. This is a logic of (linguistic) terms, which express (mental) concepts, which represent (real) essences, or the natures of things. (The Greek word logos has all three of these meanings.) Many modern philosophers are suspicious and skeptical of the venerable and commonsense notion of things having real essences or natures and of our ability to know them. Aristotelian logic assumes the existence of essences and our ability to know them, for its basic units are terms, which express concepts, which express essences. But modern symbolic logic does not assume what philosophers call metaphysical realism (that essences are real), but implicitly assumes instead metaphysical nominalism (that essences are only nomina, names, human labels), since its basic units are not terms but propositions. Then it relates these propositions in argumentative structures just as a computer can do: if p, then q; p; therefore q.

The human mind is indeed a computer—we do compute, after all—but it is much more than that. We can also "see" or understand. Behind our use of Aristotelian logic is our hope that all our arguing will begin and end with seeing, with insight. Thus, we usually begin by defining terms and end by trying to bring the reader to the point of seeing objective reality as it is.

Faith and Reason Are Allies

We do not believe reason should usurp the primacy of faith, hope, and love.

We agree with classical Christian orthodoxy as expressed in medieval formulas like fides quaerens intellectum ("faith seeking understanding") and credo ut intelligam ("I believe in order that I may understand"). That is to say, that when faith comes first, understanding follows, and is vastly aided by faith's tutelage. But we also agree with the classical position's contention that many of the things God has revealed to us to be believed, such as His own existence and some of His attributes, can also be proved by human reason, properly used. We could not have written this book if we did not believe that. After we believe, we can and should "be ready to make [a] defense" for our faith (1 Pet. 3:15).

Objective vs. Subjective Reason

However, we must not naively identify objective rationality with subjective rationality. (See Chap. 16 on objective truth.) Truth is objective, but people usually aren't! We are obviously living in a fallen world, not a perfect world, one where people's exercise of reason is expressed in various forms of irrationality. An argument that is in itself perfectly rational and valid will often fall on ears deafened by prejudice, passion, ignorance, misunderstanding, incomprehension, or ideology.

The last of these seems especially dangerous today. Usually, people seem to choose what to believe not by looking at the evidence but by looking at ideological labels, especially "liberal" or "conservative", or by asking which group of people they want to be associated with, or by vague feelings and associations evoked by an idea within their consciousness, rather than by looking at the idea itself and at the reality it points to outside their consciousness.

We need not and should not employ any of these substitutes for reason in order to "make contact with" or "be relevant to" those who are doing so. We make contact and relevance not by changing rationality into irrationality but by changing irrationality into rationality. That is what education is. That is the goal of this book.

Nonrational Arguments Are Not Irrational

However, the nonrational is broader than the irrational, and often extremely important, even in arguments. For instance, arguments have an aesthetic dimension too, and the beauty of an argument can move us more powerfully than we realize.

A good argument is effective partly because it is like a diamond. Like a diamond, its light is beautiful and reflects the light of day, of objective reality. Like a diamond, it cannot originate light, only reflect it from its source in reality. Like a diamond, it is precious. Like a diamond, it is hard, not easily cut, not easily refuted; it cuts through other, softer materials, refuting and conquering error.

Reason as Friend

Reason is the friend of all other ways of knowing which are not irrational but nonrational. These nonrational ways of knowing must be distinguished from their irrational counterfeits:

1. Reason is the friend of divine authority, which can neither deceive nor be deceived, but not necessarily of human authority, fads, and fashions.

2. Reason is the friend of faith in this divine authority, but not of naiveté. Thus, reason leads to the faith and away from the cults.

3. Reason is the friend of hope, but not of human wishful thinking.

4. Reason is the friend of agapē (love) but not of eros (selfish passion).

5. Reason is the friend and complement to imagery, symbol, and myth, which also reveal truth, but not to impossible imaginings, esoteric fantasies, or misty pseudomysticisms.

A Minilesson in Logic

The inherent structure of human reason manifests itself in three acts of the mind: (1) understanding, (2) judging and (3) reasoning. These three acts of the mind are expressed in (1) terms, (2) propositions and (3) arguments. Terms are either clear or unclear. Propositions are either true or untrue. Arguments are either logically valid or invalid.

A term is clear if it is intelligible and unambiguous. A proposition is true if it corresponds to reality, if it says what is. An argument is valid if the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises. If all the terms in an argument are clear, and if all the premises are true, and if the argument is free from logical fallacy, then the conclusion must be true.

These are the essential rules of reason, in apologetics and in any other field of argument. They are not rules of a game that we invented and can change. They are rules of reality.

Not only reason but even language is more than a "game" (Wittgenstein's influential but misleading term); it has an inherent structure, for it is an expression of reason, which has an inherent structure. (In Greek, the same word, logos, means "objective intelligible structure", "reason as revealing that structure", and "word or speech as expressing reason".)

We write in terms, propositions, and arguments because we think in concepts, judgments and reasoning; and we do this because the reality we think about includes essences, facts and causes. Terms express concepts which express essences. Propositions express judgments which express facts. And arguments express reasoning which expresses causes, real "becauses" and "whys".

Arguments are like eyes: they see reality. The arguments in this book demonstrate that the essential Christian doctrines are true, unless they are bad arguments; that is, ambiguous, false or fallacious. To disagree with the conclusion of any argument, it must be shown that either an ambiguous term or false premise or a logical fallacy exists in that argument. Otherwise, to say "I still disagree" is to say "You have proved your conclusion true, but I am so stubborn and foolish that I will not accept this truth. I insist on living in a false world, not the true one."

Probable Arguments and Converging Clues

In this book we have set ourselves the double task of (1) negative refutation by exposing at least one of these three possible mistakes in each of the most important objections we are aware of to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, and (2) providing positive arguments for these doctrines, either probable or demonstrative, that are free from these three mistakes.

We have included some arguments which we regard as probable but not certain, for these also count as significant clues, especially when considered cumulatively. Ten converging clues are almost as convincing as one demonstrative argument in most areas of life (e.g., in court, at war, or in love). Even where we believe there are some demonstrative arguments available, we have added many such "clue" arguments, especially for the two key issues of the existence of God and life after death in order to present a more complete case, to "cover the waterfront".

Questions About Arguments

We need to distinguish three related questions about arguments, since understanding what these questions involve will help you to understand our procedure in this book.

1. Is this argument probable or demonstratively certain?

Sometimes we can draw a conclusion not from premises known with certainty to an equally certain conclusion, but from various convergent clues to a reasonable (or probable) conclusion. Juries do this all the time. They decide that someone is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; they weigh the evidence with scrupulous care; but still a wrong verdict is conceivable. Drawing a probable or reasonable conclusion is not like doing logic or mathematics. Plato said long ago that most of our knowledge is "right opinion". And in this life it couldn't really be otherwise.

2. Is the certainty of a demonstrative argument merely psychological? Or is another kind of certainty meant?

Psychological certainty is what we call certitude: a feeling of certainty. And this is not what we mean by the certainty that belongs to a solid demonstrative argument. Instead, we mean that the premises are known to be true, that the conclusion really does follow from these premises, and that the conclusion is therefore true and equally known to be true. Obviously, not all arguments that produce a feeling of certitude are demonstratively certain. Nor do all demonstratively certain arguments in fact produce a feeling of certitude. Most of us have had the experience of approaching an argument with great feelings of skepticism, and only later, after much painful thought, coming to see that its premises are certainly true and its conclusion certainly follows from them. Our feelings of certitude can shift in a way that real certainties cannot.

3. Is empirical demonstration the only kind possible? Or is there another kind?

There must be another kind; for there can't be an empirical demonstration that the only kind of demonstration is empirical. Philosophy claims to have proofs—proofs giving us certain knowledge—that are not empirical or experimental. In fact, what counts today as the scientific method doesn't even claim to deliver what we mean by certain knowledge.

What about the arguments in this book? There are many probable arguments, arguments from converging clues. We can only hope our readers will find them as reasonable and persuasive as we do. There are other arguments whose conclusions, we claim, are known with certainty. This certainty may not produce in you immediate feelings of certitude. But this by itself says more about you than about these arguments; it does not show that they fail to demonstrate their conclusions (though it might spur you on to demonstrate that failure!). At the very least you need to ponder these arguments, and your reaction to them, with great care. Finally, it goes without saying that our demonstrative proofs are not empirical or experimental; they proceed by methods proper to philosophy. To those who prefer the methods of natural science we say: Then be scientific! Read the proofs! Look at them carefully! See whether they work!

A Summa-Style Format

We make no apology for the "rationalistic" format. In fact, we apologize for not adhering to it more strenuously. We believe that the wise old saying "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing well" is true of reasoning too.

Ideally, the complete format for a good argument includes the following parts, and we have attempted to follow this format as much as possible.

A. The whole science or study (apologetics) is divided into important issues, one for each chapter. (These correspond to the "questions" in the Summa.)

B. Each chapter is divided into a number of distinct, specific controversial questions which have two possible answers, or sides. (These questions correspond to the "articles" in the Summa.) Sometimes a chapter will have only one such question, such as: Does God exist?

C. Each question can be further divided into seven parts. These seven things must be done in order to settle an argument completely.

1. Definition of terms and the meaning of the question

2. The importance of the question, the difference it makes

3. Objections to the Christian answer to the question

4. Answers to each of these objections

5. Arguments for the Christian answer from premises accepted by the unbeliever as well as by the believer

6. Objections to these arguments

7. Answers to each of these objections

We must answer both our opponents' own arguments in step (4) and their objections to our arguments in step (7). Their arguments against Christianity come in step (3) and we must show each of these to contain ambiguities, falsehoods, or fallacies. Their criticisms of our arguments in step (6) take the form of their claiming to find ambiguities, falsehoods or fallacies in our arguments.

A very demanding reader will fault us for not insisting on all parts of this format for each question. Most readers will be a bit put out that we come so close to it—much more so than any other nontechnical book in the field today. We attempt to bridge the gap between the popular and the technical, the amateur and the professional, so we compromise a bit of the ideal format for easier readability.

—Handbook of Christian Apologetics