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Positive v. Negative Apologetics: A Brief Reflection & Evaluation
January 23, 2014 D.J. Clark

Positive v. Negative Apologetics: A Brief Reflection & Evaluation

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Positive v. Negative Apologetics: A Brief Reflection & Evaluation

A distinction has often been pointed out between positive and negative apologetics. Negative apologetics is the “defensive” side of the coin; the goal is to go after arguments that have been lodged against the Christian faith; to show, perhaps, that the argument is invalid, or that some premise is faulty, or that the conclusion is implausible or impossible. Positive apologetics is more “offensive” in nature; it is concerned with giving reasons for the Christian faith. In a courtroom scenario it would be akin to the difference between, on the one hand, the prosecution making the case that some evidence of the defendant’s (perhaps an alibi) be dismissed from the trial, and on the other, the prosecution presenting some evidence which demonstrates that the defendant was in fact present at the scene of the crime.
Negative apologetics is a rich and busy field. Apologists are up to their eyeballs in arguments against the Christian faith, or “problems” for the Christian faith. There are the perennial problems that are special enough to earn a definite article: The Problem of Evil, The Problem of Silence, The Problem of Unbelief. There are historical arguments which are made against the reliability of Scripture or against the plausibility of a historical resurrection. There are philosophical arguments to the effect that the concept of God is incoherent or a priori implausible. There are psychological arguments against the Christian faith; arguments that often turn on non-theistic explanations of theistic belief. There are arguments against the internal coherence of the Christian faith: e.g. arguments that the teachings of Christ contradict the teachings of the apostle Paul. There are arguments against the scientific presuppositions or scientific claims of the Christian faith; or arguments which attempt to show the incompatibility of Christianity with well-supported scientific theories. There are arguments-against-Christianity galore.
And many of these arguments are forceful for a great many people. There are many who testify that these arguments are the reason(s) why they reject or do not accept Christianity; and they are often, I believe, the reason(s) for doubt or worry or confusion amongst those who do accept Christianity. In as much as the rejection or non-acceptance of Christianity is a bad thing, and in as much as the doubt, worry, and confusion these arguments cause is a bad thing, the project of negative apologetics is a good thing. At the very least, we can say that the influence of these “anti-Christianity” arguments makes the project of negative apologetics an important one — its precise value, I suppose, depends largely on how well this enterprise is practiced.
But negative apologetics, as necessary a project as it is, is not sufficient. It is not sufficient to meet the intellectual and dialectical needs of the church and the world. Perhaps it would be sufficient if the mere absence of “evidence against” the reasonableness/rightness of the Christian Way were enough to justify the Christian way; but, for many of us, the mere absence of “evidence against” is not enough. Many of us do not presume theism, much less the Christian Way. Perhaps there are those who do presume theism. Perhaps there was a time when many presumed theism. But we do not live in that time, and there are many of us who are perfectly content to be agnostic even if there are no knock-down arguments against the reasonableness/rightness of the Christian Way. The beliefs and attitudes and practices of the Christian Way strike most people as bearing some sort of burden of proof. Thus, the need for some sort of positive apologetic.

Comments (9)

  1. Chris Schorah

    I agree with the need for positive apologetics. There are a number of areas where arguments can be formulated.
    •The historical reliability of the essential message at the heart of the New Testament. In spite of 200 years of intense critical attack it’s the techniques and dismissive conclusions of the liberal critics that have been found wanting.
    •The logic and rationality of the core message of Christianity.
    •The perception of millions of Christians to a personal relationship with the living God often experienced through spiritual encounters which defy neurological, psychological or psychiatric explanations.
    •The continuing failure of persistent and intense attempts to dismiss the faith as untrue, irrational and dehumanising.

  2. Author
    4 years ago

    Hi Chris,

    Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you sooner. Your response gave me occasion to think about the enterprise of positive apologetics as it is presently practiced. I had too many thoughts to put into a comment, so I just set about writing an entirely new post. Expect it tomorrow night.

    Thanks again for the feedback!

    Todd 4 years ago

    Speaking as an “entry level” Christian, it seems to me that the 200 years of intense academic criticism of the NT have had an irreversible effect. Doubts have been raised that will never, I think, go away. Even though there are arguments for the traditionally attributed authorship of the gospels, there are certainly respectable arguments against. The authorship of half of Paul’s letters is disputed, and not only by those who would be considered extreme liberals or skeptics. The effect of all this is that educated people who know about these controversies will always ask themselves, “Do I really know who wrote this? Do I really know that it’s reliable? Do I really understand it?” Skeptical arguments don’t have to disprove traditional views of the NT; they merely have to raise reasonable doubts, and those doubts will ripple out into the rest of a person’s thinking about the Christian message. In my opinion, those doubts have been raised and the intellectual setting in which Christianity exists is permanently altered.

    Another point is the sheer diversity of beliefs among Christians. In another post here, Edward Babinski made the point that Christians are their own best, or worst, debunkers. Take a doctrine such as hell, and it is easy to find committed Christians who hold radically different, and incompatible, positions on it. Anyone who is looking in from outside, so to speak, can’t fail to notice this and be confused by it. This has been so for a long time, of course, but our Internet age makes the internal cacophony of Christianity much more obvious, and I think this too has a permanent effect.

    Negative apologetics tend to unify Christians. Positive apologetics tend to divide them, as soon as the line of the merest Christianity is crossed.

  4. Chris Schorah

    Thanks for your response Todd. I agree that positive apologetics can highlight differences within the Christian community, but far less so if we focus on the clear essentials of the faith that are at the heart of scripture. Taking an example from the issues you raise, authorship is no longer an important problem for the reliability of the Gospels. In the last 200 years evidence has indicated that they are the earliest accounts we have (60-100AD) and are most probably the reports of eye witnesses, or those who knew them. They don’t disagree on the essentials of Jesus ministry and manuscript criticism has indicated that the copies we have reflect well what was originally written. Historical-critical analysis is also indicating that the Gospels have many features that suggest they are historically reliable.
    With regard to Paul, all the earliest letters are credited to him by almost all scholars. These are consistent with the teachings in the rest of the NT and arguments for a different accreditation of the others are weak.
    This brings me to what I believe is a crucial point. You will always find sceptics who argue about the trustworthiness of the NT. But the important thing is that, compared with 60 years ago, the ‘scholarship’ that supports the views of the sceptics is now in serious decline. The reliability of their techniques have been challenged and many of the findings discredited (I can provide much more detail on this if you’re interested).
    So overall we can say that the essentials of the Christian faith, as found in the NT, are increasingly being shown to be historically reliable and can be trusted to give a reasonably accurate account of the essential teaching and events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
    It’s true that Christians may continue to debate matters that, in scripture, are more unclear, like the one you mention, the nature of hell. The future state for those who reject Christ is variously described as: separation, destruction, punishment, second death, burning up, disgrace etc. So it’s not surprising we argue about the details. But what is accepted by almost all Christians is that there will be a judgment and the way of passing from that is to have accepted Jesus as your Lord, saviour and advocate by following Him and dying to ourselves in this life: from a self-focus to a God-focus. The NT is much more interested in what we do now than where we are going.
    The great thing about Christianity is that at its heart it’s a simple faith with only a few beliefs that are essential to its basic practice. These are increasingly recognized to be reliably portrayed in scripture and to make a logical and rational story. This can not only be relied upon but can be tested by inviting Jesus into our lives and so experiencing a close relationship with our Heavenly Father.

    Todd 4 years ago

    Thank you for the reply, Chris. I’m not sure I agree about the simplicity of Christianity, but that’s a topic for another day. As somebody fairly new to all this, the diversity of opinions about just about any statement pertaining to scripture is extremely confusing. But I’m reading an interesting book, Biblical Criticism on Trial, by Eta Linnemann, in which some of the historical-critical views are carefully critiqued. Maybe I’ll have some more informed questions when I’ve finished reading it.

  6. Chris Schorah

    Great, it will be good to hear your views and comments on Linnemann’s book. She’s an author I haven’t read. Get back to me about the heart of Christianity being a simple faith (with of course mind boggling implications) when you’re ready.

  7. Chris Schorah

    Sorry for another post Todd, but a quick glance at an abstract of Linnemann’s book suggests to me that what she calls historical-critical methodology I’m calling literary-critical. My term historical-critical, sometimes called ‘open historical-critical’, refers to techniques used by scholars like Eddy and Boyd, PS Williams, NT Wright, R Bauckham and GR Habermas. It has come to the for in 20 odd years since Linnemann wrote her opus. Confusing isn’t it!! Much more confusing than the Christian faith I’m afraid. Still, from the abstract I read, I think I’m going to agree with most of what Linnemann says.

    Todd 4 years ago

    Chris, I’m not acquainted with the terminology of critical schools and methodologies. I’m about 30% of the way through the book now, and she has offered a detailed critique of the Q theory. The critique gets at the methodological flaws involved in the Q theory, as well as the theological assumptions that motivate them. It’s very interesting. I’m currently in the section where she addresses the issues about the authorship of Paul’s that I mentioned above. She uses the same statistical methodologies of those whom she claims have misused them.

  9. Author
    4 years ago

    @Todd. “Negative apologetics tend to unify Christians. Positive apologetics tend to divide them, as soon as the line of the merest Christianity is crossed.” I disagree with this statement. Negative apologetics can cross the line of “mere Christianity” just as easily as positive apologetics, and can create just as much disunity. Think of the sort of negative apologetics that circles around the issue of Darwinism. There are Christians with all sorts of different attitudes towards Darwinism – from staunch opposition, to mild unease, to lukewarm apathy, to support. So when those in staunch opposition to Darwinism go on the attack, or when those in support of Darwinism make a case for its compatibility with Christianity, you can be sure that the result is not unity in the Christian community, but disunity. I don’t think the unity/disunity line has anything to do with the negative apologetics/positive apologetics line; I think it has more to do with the nature of the propositions being argued for or against, and the particular arguments that are employed in the arguing.

    But I do find myself leaning more towards you, Todd – and less towards Chris – on this question of the clarity of “mere Christianity”. I do not think that the heart of Christianity is easily discernible. I don’t think it is easily discernible from Scripture, nor do I think it is easily discernible from Scripture combined with Church tradition (though I do think it is *more* discernible via the latter than the former). Even if all that we mean by “mere Christianity” is “historical overlap in the various Christian traditions”, then we still have a slog to discern just what this historical overlap amounts to (lots of study of historical theology and church history), and I doubt that we could find much of a consensus in the Christian community as to what this historical overlap amount to. And if by “mere Christianity” we mean “the heart of Christianity” or “the essentials of the faith” – as I think Chris means to use the term -, I think the outlook is just as dim. The fact of so much disagreement as to the “heart of Christianity” amongst genuinely-seeking, epistemically-virtuous Christians suggests as much.

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