Thursday, July 2, 2009

Theological Method and Apologetics: How Do We Know That Christianity is True?

Theology's Starting Point

Frequently in approaching how we do theology, the implicit (or sometimes even explicit) quest is for the appropriate starting point. Often the questions posed can ultimately be reduced to the question as to where we ought to begin: God, Scripture or reason? Are we to initially assume or philosophize some conception of God (perhaps the "god of the philosophers", or the deliverances of natural theology) and then proceed to identify the Christian Scriptures as the best candidate for His self-revelation? Alternatively, should we first assume or presuppose the Bible to be true and then form our idea of God from its pages? Or must we provide independent arguments and evidences for using Scripture as the authoritative source of divine knowledge before we are justified in doing so? How do we proceed in a way that is intellectually satisfying and avoids vicious circularity? [endnote 1]

I submit that the questions about the starting point of theology or about the foundation of theology, when posed this way, are wrongheaded in that they assume a linear way of thinking and of justifying thought when worldview considerations are much more holistic. All of this requires a bit of explanation.

Worldview Belief

A fitting place to embark on this discussion is to reflect on how people come to worldview belief. I suspect that many (if not most) adherents of the Christian worldview did not fully and/or consciously examine the evidential case for Christianity before adopting the worldview. While some—like C.S. Lewis, for example—might come to the Christian worldview down that avenue, many others find Christian worldview belief arising in them more "naturally", we might say. Perhaps they were raised in a Christian home where a sense of the reality of the Christian God was instilled in them from their parents, or perhaps at university they became part of a believing community where Christian belief was the norm (I note that circumstances like these often incorporate some sort of conversion experience). The conditions where Christian belief can be considered to have properly arisen in a person are presumably innumerable; my point is that people do not typically have control over what beliefs receive assent, and this is true even of worldview beliefs. In fact, if we think of believe in the naked sense of assent, we rarely have direct control over what we believe; usually believing is something we find just happening, not something we autonomously choose.[2]

    If we can grant this account of how many come to the Christian worldview, the objection could be raised that proponents of other worldviews can make similar or analogous appeals to their worldview naturally arising in people. The nearly unavoidable conclusion is that if Christian worldview belief arises in people in such a way that they are within their epistemic rights and it can be considered a rational, properly basic belief, then, say, the Muslim worldview can arise with much the same claim to being rational, epistemically responsible, and properly basic.[3] If several different worldviews seem to each have (roughly) equally valid claims to rationality, have we here reached a perspectival impasse?

No, we are not at an impasse, because all of the considerations on worldview belief formation offered so far are de jure issues, not de facto ones. To say that both the Christian and Muslim worldviews can be formed in a way that is epistemological responsible, rational, etc. is not to say that they both are true, or that they both might be true. Nor is it to say that we are unable to pursue the matter further and attempt to discover which worldview is in fact true. In short, we can adjudicate between conflicting truth claims made by different worldviews.

Truth and Worldview Considerations

Well enough, then how are we to adjudicate between worldviews? I contend that deciding between worldviews is to be done holistically, since worldviews are whole systems of thought. It is very much the case that the various aspects of the Christian worldview are reinforced by other aspects within the worldview, and when considering the truthfulness of the worldview, each aspect ought be considered in conjunction with other aspects and with the whole. I suggest that the Christian worldview is the most successful and satisfying when it comes to considerations like coherence, beauty, explanatory power of all the evidential data available to us, and livability.[4] Of course, a full text on apologetics would hardly even begin to support this contention, but I am confident that when all the evidence is considered and handled properly, the Christian worldview emerges as the best worldview.

To demonstrate what it means to consider worldviews holistically, we shall return to the matter of the starting point of theology. When considered holistically it turns out that God and the Scriptures are both foundational and interrelated aspects of the entire Christian worldview. These are but two of the many fundamental commitments constituting the evangelical Christian worldview (hereafter ECWV)[5]:

(a.) A triune God exists.

(b.) The Bible is God's testimony about Himself (self-disclosing witness).

Remember that both (a.) and (b.) are fundamental parts of a total package—ECWV. Given that, it is inappropriate to ask which has logical or methodological primacy. In fact, (a.) and (b.) could be easily conjoined into:

( c.) The Bible is the triune God's testimony about Himself.

It is perhaps the case that most or all other commitments of ECWV have some dependence on this one fundamental worldview commitment. If this is the case then, when considered on the whole, we might say that only a worldview based on (c.) will be true, coherent, best able to handle all the evidence we have, beautiful, livable, and intellectually and existentially satisfying.

Note that I am not demanding we make the Van Tilian move and presuppose, a priori, the entire content of the Christian worldview. I am not even suggesting we must presuppose (c.) before we begin our worldview considerations, nor am I suggesting that we cannot rightly engage in worldview considerations apart from presupposing (c.). But the postmodernist does have a point: no one is without presuppositions, and no perspective is privileged with a pristinely objective point of view. Surely the method I am proposing here involves presuppositions—what are they?

When it comes to testing the truthfulness of a worldview, I suggest we all should (must?) adopt a more modest set of presuppositions: we ought to make methodological presuppositions that are relatively uncontroversial and are more or less worldview neutral. These might include things like the law of non-contradiction, the idea that testimony (made by someone in who is in the appropriate position) should be considered reliable until/unless there is evidence to think otherwise, and that we should follow the evidence wherever it leads.[6] It is not my intention here to refine precisely this list of methodological presuppositions. We might very well quibble about exactly what should and should not be adopted in our methodological presuppositions. I am, however, arguing that when a modest and reasonable set of methodological presuppositions are applied, ECWV is the best conclusion.

It might seem that these methodological presuppositions are not enough to enable theistic arguments to succeed. I suspect this is true; even given these modest methodological commitments, most—if not all—of the theistic arguments have controversial premises at some point. This is problematic if we can only consider each theistic argument in isolation, but of course this is not the case. The theistic arguments should all be considered together, in conjunction with the evidential data we have that points to ECWV, in conjunction with the responses to objections that ECWV uses in her defense, in conjunction with the way it is possible to consistently live in accord with the ECWV, in conjunction with the way ECWV is existentially satisfying, in conjunction with... and so on.

Interestingly, in returning to our original question, in a trivial sense reason is our starting point in theology because the human faculties that comprise our reasoning abilities are required to even begin to think about a worldview (but ECWV is not subject to any standard of "autonomous reason," whatever that may mean). If we are not to use the cognitive faculties endowed to us, what should we use, and what would that even look like? Reason may be trivially be our starting point, but more significantly we start our reasoning with considering ECWV as a whole, and this includes an orthodox view of God, the Scriptures, and even our ability to reason.

The Method in Action

    Perhaps an example of this method in action will be enlightening, even if it is only a rough sketch that will require thorough development beyond the space available here. First, consider coherence: it seems to me that there are some worldviews other than ECWV that meet this criterion. There are many, however, that do not: Mormonism and Scientology come to mind. Examples of those that do succeed in coherence might be Islam or naturalism. I find it difficult not to come to the conclusion that particular versions of Islam avoid incorporating logical contradictions (at least any that are detectable to us); some flavors of Islam seem to succeed in this regard. I suspect that same to be true with naturalism—a naturalism that is willing to affirm the unintuitive idea 'something really can uncausedly come from nothing' seems to avoid any (again, detectable) logical contradiction. At best it seems that the criterion of coherence does not disqualify every worldview, but it does help us in narrowing the field.

    Although a very helpful consideration, coherence is not the only measure of a worldview. What about a worldview's explanatory power of all the evidential data available to us? I think we must admit that sophisticated forms of naturalism do seem to possess significant explanatory power. The naturalistic ethos in most universities readily testifies to the strength of the worldview's explanatory power. However, even the most sophisticated form of naturalism is deficient when it comes to explaining all the data; specifically I have in mind the historical data we have in regards to the person of Jesus Christ. I will not rehearse the arguments for the resurrection (and how it strongly indicates Jesus Christ's divinity), suffice to say I think the only way for the naturalist to handle this data is to adopt a historical skepticism or agnosticism that she does not consistently hold in other historical matters. If history and testimony is reliable at all, then the historical evidence for the resurrection (and all the related considerations) is very difficult for the naturalist to explain. Of course the naturalist has available to them a historical skepticism (Lessing's ditch, perhaps?), but I think that with such skepticism the naturalist cannot avoid becoming a nihilist, and there are very strong arguments that nihilism is unlivable.

A brief concession is in order: the criterion of livability is a bit slipperier than we might like. Environment and culture are factors that influence how we form our notion of livability, but I see no reason to think this to be fatal to considerations of livability. At its core, the livability criterion has two components: 1.) one must be able to consistently live life in accord with one's worldview, 2.) the life lived in accord with one's worldview must be existentially satisfying. The livability criterion is very complex, and in fairness, every worldview should be given a fighting chance to cultivate intuitions, aesthetic values, etc. that are congruent with that worldview. That said, we also should say that many false worldviews will ultimately, in varying degrees, succeed or fail in being livable in the actual world.

    The naturalist might object that the historical arguments for the resurrection (which strongly points to the Christian worldview) should not be treated like other historical evidence because of the high existential demands that come from that evidence. The naturalist might be willing to accept the historical evidence for, say, Caesar and his army crossing the Rubicon, but might be skeptical towards the historical evidence for the resurrection. The naturalist claims she is not being inconsistent in doing so because her skepticism is based on the very high existential demands that are implied be accepting the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, where no real existential demand obtains for Caesar and the Rubicon.

In response we point out that in worldview reasoning, which is holistic, at some point every worldview will have high existential demands. Many Eastern religions call for a lifetime of meditation that is crucial if the worldview is true but would at best be largely a waste if the worldview is false—a high existential price tag indeed. Or consider naturalism: if the universe is ultimately devoid of meaning apart from that which we arbitrarily impose, if rape, murder and infanticide are not objectively wrong but rather are only disfavored by our society by some evolutionary accident, if interpersonal love is mere biochemistry that is genetically cultivated because it is (or was at some point) advantageous for species survival, if everything is truly reducible to matter and energy—if naturalism and all its implications are true, then the existential demands are of such are enormous. How can nihilistic despair be avoided on such a picture? Surely the naturalist would cry foul if we discounted some piece of evidence offered in support of naturalistic evolution, stating that we are doing so not on the basis of considering the evidence itself but because accepting it would bring about the troubling implication that life has no purpose apart from propagating the human species. If the naturalist has a valid complaint, we ask the same courtesy be given to the evidence for the resurrection.

As this exercise demonstrates, worldview considerations are holistic and the criteria do not operate modularly or independently of one another. As I suggested, the maneuver naturalism must make to avoid the evidential force of the resurrection results in a view of history and of the reliability of testimony that is unlivable (and is dubious, no less).

Christianity Is More Than a Worldview

If I am not misguided with all I have been arguing about worldview considerations, one might wonder why the Christian worldview seems to have limited success in winning adherents. It certainly is not a fringe or obscure worldview, but it is far from being the majority and even seems to attract more than a few detractors. If the Christian worldview is true, why is it not much more successful?

This is a significant question that leads to something very important: accepting Christianity is not merely to adopt a worldview. Embracing Christianity is to take up a relationship—a binding one at that—with the living God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is to say that Christianity, while more than a worldview, is not less than one. Adopting the Christian worldview means taking up Christian belief as true, and at the heart of Christian belief is a God who is personal and relational. One cannot hold to the worldview without having the relationship, and vice versa.

Many reject the Christian worldview not because they find the evidence for it inconclusive or lacking but because they are unwilling to accept the existential demands the worldviews entails. As G.K. Chesterton rightly observed, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."[7] Contra Bertrand Russell, the problem is not insufficient evidence but rather a stubborn will.

    If the primary obstacle in coming to the Christian faith and the Christian worldview is a stubborn will, it might lead us to be pessimistic about the apologetic enterprise. However, I consider this a mistake, because we are not left entirely to our own devices in worldview considerations. The Christian tradition has rightly insisted that no one is able to adopt the Christian worldview and enter into a relationship with God apart from the divine activity of the Holy Spirit, and there is no reason to think this work of the Holy Spirit is divorced from worldview considerations as outlined above and from the apologetic task in general. In answering the question, "How do we know the Bible is the triune God's testimony about Himself?" we must holistically weigh the Christian worldview with reliance on the witness of the Holy Spirit who testifies to the Truth (John 14:6).


[1] Of course, in the discipline of Christian theology it is not invalid to simply move past this issue in its entirety and assume both some (orthodox) Christian theism and the Scriptures as authoritative, moving on to doing theology and leaving the apologist to her task.

[2] As an aside, I should say that when what we mean by believe goes beyond assent to trust, then we have crossed over into areas of free will and moral accountability, and it is in this latter sense that the Scriptures command us to believe; not merely to assent to the Lordship of Christ—the demons do that, and tremble—but going further, to personal trust.

[3] If a person were to encounter a "defeater" argument to her worldview belief, and this defeater was unanswerable, she would not be rational in continuing to hold that worldview. While controversial, it is fair to say that the Christian worldview can answer all the defeater arguments and evidences that have been raised against it so far. I also suspect the same to be true for some other worldviews, with the result that there are many worldviews we should deem rational and epistemically responsible to hold.

[4] This is not intended to be an exhaustive list but should serve as minimal set of considerations.

[5] Readers will note that I have made the qualification evangelical in order to exclude worldviews that claim to be "Christian" of some sort but in profession and/or in practice fail to adequately regard the Scriptures as authoritative divine disclosure. While I do not have the space to defend this qualification, I make it because I am convinced this point is at the heart of the Christian worldview's strength as a worldview. This is not to say that a particular doctrine of Scripture is a salvific requirement but rather is to say that without this foundational belief it is difficult to see how a worldview can consistently be significantly Christian.

[6] I would add my suspicion that, once we have detailed what our methodological presuppositions ought to be, it will likely be the case that rejecting any of these will cause one's worldview to fail on one of more of the worldview considerations.

[7] G.K. Chesterton, G. K. Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World? (London: Cassell, 1910). Chapter 5, paragraph 3.