Why Christians Should Stop Doing Apologetics And Start Doing Real Scholarship

It is trivially easy to convince somebody that she was right all along. I am afraid that this mindset is one of the dangers of Christian apologetics. Obviously on a site called Therefore, God Exists, I am in favor of apologetics. But it is very easy for overzealous apologists to be exposed to the arguments and start crusading. They might focus more on their conclusions than learning anything new. A possible resolution to this problem is to start doing real scholarship. Here is why Christians should stop doing apologetics: the very word apologetics refers to a defensive measure. You are defending a theological conclusion.

While defending a theological conclusion might seem like an act of piety, it is not a very rigorous intellectual approach. We need to be careful about how we run the arguments and watch our state of mind. Think about your desires. If your desire is to win converts, we can certainly applaud you for the desire to keep the Great Commission. But if your desire to win converts supersedes your desire to understand the scholarship, that could lead to distortions. There needs to be a compatibility of desires. Apologists need to be driven by [1] the fortitude to understand the scholarship and [2] the desire to win converts to Christ or help people overcome their doubts.

The Task of Scholarship

On page 37 of Ancient Near Eastern Thought And The Old Testament, (and in several other places) Dr. John Walton pointed out one of the problems that has arisen with ANE scholarship. Many theologians and apologists took the data as an opportunity to prove that the biblical text is correct. As far as I can tell, this is more or less a useless approach to ancient studies. The data emerging from the ancient world can inform our interpretation of certain passages of Scripture, but for us to actively search for proofs of the biblical text is wrongheaded. It will hastily lead to misunderstandings and contrived arguments.

A more scientific approach to the data would be warranted. The scientific method would begin by developing a hypothesis that explains a set of data. It makes predictions and endures testing. If it proves to be useless or inconsistent with the data, it is discarded in favor of a more robust hypothesis. I want to point out that “The Bible is true” is not this sort of hypothesis. We might be able to test a hypothesis such as “The Israelites crossed the Red Sea,” but it would have to be treated like any other ancient hypothesis. But again, if we are agenda-driven in that we want to prove that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, that is not a scholarly approach. True scholarship will ask, “What does the data suggest?” and allow the data to drive their conclusions.

We can relate this scientific methodology to the classical arguments for the existence of God. A worthy piece of advice might be to tell young apologists to try to refute their own arguments. Read what experts in the relevant fields have to say. If you are talking about the fine-tuning or the cosmological arguments, you are probably relying heavily on what experts have to say, since you are not personally educated in these disciplines. But it goes a little beyond that. My fundamental point is that we should let data drive our conclusions.

Take Criticisms Seriously

The internet is a powerful resource. A problem with it is that the average person cannot tell the difference between a peer-reviewed article and a third-tier blogpost. The difference is the peer-review process. When a scholar publishes an article in an academic journal, it will be scrutinized by other scholars. If it prevails, it will be printed in the journal. On a blog such as mine, I do not have a committee of scholars assessing everything I say. I can write whatever I want and will rely on those on social media to give feedback. So if I, or any blogger, wants to transition from blogging to scholarship, we will have to take the opposing side seriously.

Another problem with the internet (and generally with communicating complex ideas) is that people tend to overlook careful nuances of what is being said. So if I hear a criticism of the Kalam Cosmological argument, for example, I might resort to my collection of one-liners to answer the challenge. The issue with that is that I am making an assumption about what this person is saying rather than taking it seriously. So the first step is to ensure that you understand the objection. Second, you should test it against the data. Think about how the objection can be revised and strengthened.

Typically, people who recite an objection are drawing from some scholarly source (even if they are not aware of it). Try to find scholarship defending an objection. That scholarship will likely represent the objection better than some random person. As far as I am concerned, you are not even doing apologetics at this point. You are asking yourself if your argument actually does stand up to criticism. That sort of scrutiny is what real scholarship is, and it is a preliminary task to apologetics. Think for a moment about the depth of the topics covered by Christian apologetics. There is cosmology, cosmogony, astrophysics, ethics, epistemology, ancient history, and much more. If you make sweeping, generalized statements about these disciplines without the scholarship to back it up (beyond a few quotes), then you will join the rank of hacks who oversimplify complex topics.

Find A Niche, Master It, And Contribute Something To It

There is a sense in which apologetics itself can be a niche, but you would have to be very well-rounded. You will need to speak competently in several different academic disciplines, from mathematics to theology. That is why the most efficient apologists are professors of philosophy. If you look at someone such as William Lane Craig, you will see a depth of knowledge far beyond a few one-liners. He has published massive, intricate volumes on his field of philosophy and has written peer-reviewed work in scientific journals. If you want the general field of apologetics to be your niche, I think you will have that to look forward to. You will need to be sift through different fields and speak competently about them.

On the other hand, many apologists choose a niche relevant to one argument. Either way, choosing a niche will likely involve education. There are two reasons for this. First, people will respect you and listen to you if you have the credentials to testify to your argument. Second, you will be less likely to oversimplify a complex field. Of course, education might not be an option for some people just because of where you are in your life, and that is okay. But if you are representing arguments, I strongly recommend reading and listening to lectures within the relevant fields.

A pet peeve of mine is when apologists parrot what scholars have to say. I understand that the Christian church has a long, intellectual history, and there is hardly anything that has not already been said. I also understand that a strong argument will be re-communicated to each generation. But those who re-communicate it are those who have a foundation of scholarship. I am not saying that you should keep your mouth shut if you do not have a degree. I am saying that you should read a variety of scholars and think about things from your own perspective, with your own mind. Contribute something unique to the field.

Consider These Areas of Study

It might surprise you to learn that there are actually a few areas of study that have room for new thinkers and new ideas. That is not to say that others do not, but these disciplines have not been thoroughly covered in the last 2000 years.

Ancient Near Eastern Studies: Most undergraduate students of theology are familiar with the historical-grammatical method of biblical interpretation. This means that there are two factors that drive our understanding of the Bible. There is the actual text and then the surrounding culture. The way idioms are used or the beliefs of the culture can change how we understand the Bible. Since we are always learning more about the ancient Near East, this is a worthy avenue where you can contribute something unique to theology.

Philosophy of The Mind: While philosophers have been active for thousands of years, the interplay between philosophy and science is a relatively new angle. If you think about neuroscience and how that impacts what we believe about the mind, there is a significant challenge. There are certainly interesting models, but this is a field that needs more philosophers. However, I want to emphasize again that this is not to say that you should get into the field to prove that Christians were right all along. You should get into the field to see where the data and philosophical reflection lead you.

Anything In Science: CS Lewis once wrote, “I could never go far in any of the sciences, because in all of them, the giant of mathematics awaits.” I can resonate with this sentiment. But there are still others who are naturally more disposed to mathematics and scientific thinking. What is interesting about science is that as we learn more, other doors open. As the old saying goes, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.”

How Does Scholarship Impact Our Piety?

I can imagine that some might dislike the idea of applying scholarly principles to the faith or even to the arguments for the existence of God. They might suggest that we are putting God on trial. But think about what the apostle Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 9:22-23. “I have become all things to all people so that by all means, I might save some.” If we think about this in the context of our culture, what will we become? As children of Descartes, we will become scientifically minded people who put our arguments through the scrutiny of scholarship. We will be more willing to change our arguments or conclusions when the evidence warrants it. That is not to say that we have to surrender our belief in Christ. But it does mean that we should transition from apologetics to real scholarship.

Why Christians Should Stop Doing Apologetics And Start Doing Real Scholarship

What I am saying is not as controversial as it might seem. We should be careful with our arguments and be willing to change them. Think about what others have to say and let the data drive your conclusions. If you are worried that the data could drive people away from Christ, then you might not have as strong of faith as you think. If you are thinking about it purely from a practical perspective, you are likely to get blindsided by an atheist if you are not practicing the habits mandated by real scholarship.

Recommended Reading:
Do Classical Apologetics Postulate A Probabilistic God?
What Presuppositionalists Can Learn From Classical Apologetics