The Nature, Power & Limitations of ApologeticsPETER KREEFT & RONALD K. TACELLI
We are writing this book because we have been besieged with requests for it.
The Nature, Power & Limitations of Apologetics
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's Summas may seem arrogant, even ludicrous; but we mean it to refer to the genus, not the genius, of Aquinas's 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.
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:
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.
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).
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.
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 matenals, refuting and conquering error.
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:
A Mini-lesson 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."
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.
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.
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.
Answers to Objections to Doing Apologetics
Most people scorn or ignore apologetics because it seems very intellectual, abstract and rational. They contend that life and love and morality and sanctity are much more important than reason.
Those who reason this way are right; they just don't notice that they are reasoning. We can't avoid doing it, we can only avoid doing it well. Further, reason is a friend, not an enemy, to faith (see chap. 2) and to sanctity, for it is a road to truth, and sanctity means loving God, who is Truth.
Not only does apologetic reasoning lead to faith and sanctity, but faith and sanctity also lead to apologetic reasoning. For sanctity means loving God, and loving God means obeying God's will, and God's will is for us to know him and to be "ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet 3:15).
Finally, the fact that apologetics is not nearly as important as love does not mean it is not very, very important The fact that health is not as important as wisdom does not mean health is not very important—much more important than money, for instance.
All the arguments in this book, and in all the books on apologetics ever written, are worth less in the eyes of God than a single act of love to him or to your neighbor. But if even one of these arguments is a good one, it alone is worth more than the price in dollars that you paid for this whole book.
Another, deeper reason why some people scorn apologetic reasoning is that they decide whether to believe or not with their hearts much more than with their heads. Even the most perfect argument does not move people as much as emotion, desire and concrete experience. Most of us know that our heart is our center, not our head. But apologetics gets at the heart through the head. The head is important precisely because it is a gate to the heart. We can love only what we know.
Further, reason at least has veto power. We can't believe what we know to be untrue, and we can't love what we believe to be unreal. Arguments may not bring you to faith, but they can certainly keep you away from faith. Therefore we must join the battle of arguments.
Arguments can bring you to faith in the same sense as a car can bring you to the sea. The car can't swim; you have to jump in to do that. But you can't jump in from a hundred miles inland. You need a car first to bring you to the point where you can make a leap of faith into the sea. Faith is a leap, but a leap in the light, not in the dark.
The head is like the navigator. The heart is like the captain. (What Scripture means by "heart" is closer to ''will'' than "feelings.") Both are indispensable. Each obeys the other in a different way.
The first reason, for the Christian, is out of obedience to God's will, announced in his Word. Refusal to give a reason for faith is disobedience to God. There are also at least two practical reasons for doing apologetics: to convince unbelievers and to instruct and build up believers.
Even if there were no unbelievers to persuade, we should still give reasons for faith, for faith does not remain alone but produces reasons just as it produces good works. Faith educates reason and reason explores the treasure of the "faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3).
Furthermore, faith for a Christian is faith in a God who is himself love, our lover and our beloved; and the more our hearts love someone the more our minds want to know about our beloved. Faith naturally leads to reason through the agency of love. So faith leads to reason, and reason leads to faith—that is what this book tries to show. Thus reason and faith are friends, companions, wedded partners, allies.
Apologetics is also like war, for the two friends, faith and reason, have common enemies. Apologetic arguments are like military hardware. Note how Paul describes the spiritual warfare of which apologetics is a part:
In this warfare we defend reason as well as faith, for reason is the friend of truth, and unfaith is untrue. In defending the faith we take back territory of the mind that is rightfully ours, or rather God's. All territory is God's. As Arthur Holmes said, "All truth is God's truth."
But the warfare is against unbelief, not unbelievers, just as insulin is against diabetes, not diabetics. The goal of apologetics is not victory but truth. Both sides win. Abraham Lincoln's saying also applies to apologetic arguments: "The best way to conquer your enemy is to make him your friend."
We invite critics, skeptics, unbelievers and believers in other religions to dialogue with us and to write to us—for the sake of our mutual pursuit of truth, and for the (much less important) sake of improving future editions of this book. One of the few things in life that cannot possibly do harm, in the end, is the honest pursuit of the truth.
An introduction to apologetics usually deals with methodology. We do not. We believe that nowadays second-order questions of method often distract attention from first-order questions of truth. Our intent is to get "back to basics." We have no particular methodological axe to grind. We try to use commonsense standards of rationality and universally agreed principles of logic in all our arguing. We collect and sharpen arguments like gem collectors collecting and polishing gems; readers can set them into various settings of their own.
But we must say one thing about method: how not to use this book.
We have said that apologetic arguments are like military hardware. That is a dangerous metaphor, for they are never to be used to hit people over the head. Argumentation is a human enterprise that is embedded in a larger social and psychological context. This context includes (1) the total psyches of the two persons engaged in dialogue, (2) the relationship between the two persons, (3) the immediate situation in which they find themselves, and (4) the larger social, cultural and historical situation surrounding them. Even national, political, racial and sexual factors influence the apologetic situation. One should not use the same arguments in discussion with a Muslim woman from Tehran that one would use with an African-American teenager from Los Angeles.
In other words, though arguments are weapons, they are more like swords than bombs. Bombs are rather indiscriminate in their targets. It also matters little who drops a bomb. But it matters enormously who wields a sword, for a sword is an extension of the swordsman. Thus, an argument in apologetics, when actually used in dialogue, is an extension of the arguer. The arguer's tone, sincerity, care, concern, listening and respect matter as much as his or her logic—probably more. The world was won for Christ not by arguments but by sanctity: "What you are speaks so loud, I can hardly hear what you say."
The Need for Apologetics Today
Apologetics is especially needed today, when the world stands at a triple crossroads and crisis.
This book tries to be a road map in the search for truth about God. Road maps are useful at any time, but especially in this time when the landscape seems to have changed so radically that many wander around lost, and when the old maps have been scorned, mutilated or discarded.
We confine ourselves in this book to the core beliefs common to all orthodox Christians—what C. S. Lewis called "mere Christianity." By mere we do not mean some abstract "lowest common denominator," but the heart or essence of the faith, as summarized in the Apostles' Creed. This ancient and unchanging core unites diverse believers with each other and against unbelievers within many churches and denominations as well as without. Liberal (or modernist or demythologist or revisionist) theologians will not like this book, especially its arguments for miracles, the reliability of Scripture, the reality of the resurrection, the divinity of Christ and the reality of heaven and hell. We invite them to join the self-confessed unbelievers in trying to refute these arguments. We also invite them to begin practicing more accurate "truth in labeling" in describing their own position.
Liberal readers may stigmatize this book as "conservative" or "right-wing." Neither term is accurate or appropriate.
"Conservative," as opposed to "progressive," refers to something in time and history; not eternal truths, but opinions or ways of the past as against the future. What is "progressive" at one time becomes "conservative" at another. Whether God, heaven or miracles exist is a question not about time-bound opinions, but about unchanging realities.
"Right-wing" refers to a post-French-Revolution political orientation, as opposed to "left-wing" (more or less socialistic), which has nothing to do with Christian apologetics. The truth or falsity of socialism in politics does not follow from the existence or nonexistence of God.
The correct theological term for many who label themselves "liberal" or "left-wing" or "progressive" theologians is "heretics." By definition, a heretic is one who dissents from an essential doctrine (from the Greek haireomai, "to pick out for oneself'). Since most heretics today no longer believe in the very idea of essential doctrines, they do not accept the label.
They also have a strong case in the press because the church still smells from the smoke of the Inquisition, when it made the very same mistake contemporary liberals make: confusing heresies with heretics. The Spanish Inquisition wrongly destroyed heretics in order rightly to destroy heresies; modern "liberals" wrongly love heresies in order rightly to love heretics.
Apologetics defends orthodox Christianity. Dissenters don't believe in apologetics for orthodox Christianity because they do not believe in orthodox Christianity. They believe in apologizing for it, not apologetics for it.
Some of the conclusions we argue for are proper to Christianity alone (e.g., the divinity of Christ). Some are also taught by other theistic religions, especially Judaism and Islam (e.g., a Creator-God). Some are taught by all or nearly all the world's religions (e.g., life after death). One of them is even shared by theists and clear-minded, honest atheists, but widely denied today: the existence of objective truth. Logically, this should be our first topic. But since it is the most abstract of all our topics, we have placed it in the last chapter so that readers would not be daunted.
Peter Kreeft & Ronald K. Tacelli. "The Nature, Power & Limitations of Apologetics." chapter 1 from Handbook of Christian Apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial Questions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994) 11-26.
Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.
He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Father Ronald K. Tacelli, S.J., was a graduate student when this book was written. He is now an associate professor of philosphy at Boston College . See his Curriculum Vitae here.
Copyright © 1994 Peter Kreeft & Ronald K. Tacelli
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.