Apologetics 101, Part 2: Method Prevents Madness

“Proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance”

– British Army adage.

This statement is equally true on the battlefield of Christian apologetics. In part 1 we began to answer the question, “what is truth?” And in order to answer that question it is vital to lay out a proper method for investigating religious truth claims. When it comes to empirical, scientific or legal-historical research, method must precede the conclusion. Assuming is always dangerous, especially when engaging in apologetics. In order to avoid circular reasoning and begging the question, arguments must follow sound logical methods.

What are those methods? And how does one go about evaluating religious truth claims? The following three ways stand out:

1)      Classification of truth claims

2)     The empirical method

3)     The historical-legal method

Truth Claims

As we have previously discussed (see Contradictions don’t coexist), the one thing in common with all world religions is their mutually incompatibility. They say and make mutually contradictory claims to truth. Here a little logic goes a long way. The law of non-contradiction says that if x is true, then non-x cannot also be true. For example, the Muslim view of Jesus – that he was not God and did not die on the cross – and the Christian view of Jesus – that he is God and did die on the cross and rise from the dead – cannot both be true. It’s possible that they are both wrong, but they cannot both be right.

Every religious position is a worldview. And every religious position makes truth claims. “Brahma is all.” “It’s true because I feel the burning in my bosom.” “All that exists in the world is material and natural causes.” These are but a few of the religious positions in popular culture today. But how do you determine which one, if any, is true?

A helpful answer comes from the school of Analytical Philosophers in the 20th century, also known as the logical positivists. When examining assertions they discovered three basic kinds of truth claims: 1) analytic statements (those of logic and mathematics), 2) synthetic statements (those of facts and empirical methods) and 3) non-sensical or logically meaningless statements (statements that purport neither logic nor fact).

Analytical statements are necessarily true, true upon definition. For example, 2 hobbits + 2 hobbits = 4 hobbits (and a party!). Or, all unmarried men are bachelors. This is logical. But it doesn’t help determine whether something is true or not. “Logic, said the great twentieth century philosopher Wittgenstein, is the scaffolding of the world. Logic provides structure and assists you in organizing the facts of the world, but logic does not help one whit in telling you the actual “stuff” of the world.”[1] Religious truth claims do not fall into this category since there is no way of evaluating the contents of their respective assertions.

Synthetic statements are statements of fact that can be verified and/or falsified. Synthetic claims are determined to be true or false after the facts have been examined, evidence weighed, and the case deemed probable or improbable. Scientists, historians and lawyers use this method. For example, Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level; George Washington crossed the Delaware by walking on water; Pontius Pilate was the Roman Procurator in Judea in the 1st century A.D. These claims are evaluated based on known evidence and the empirical procedure. 100% certainty exists only in the world of mathematics, not the world of facts, since there is always the possibility that new evidence will come to light and overturn the claim. However, we don’t live life by possibilities, but probability. In the language of the courtroom, we operate based on the standard that evidence is shown beyond a reasonable doubt. There is only one religious claim that falls into this category, namely, Christianity. It is both verifiable and falsifiable; read 1 Corinthians 15.

All other religious positions fall into the third category, meaningless statements. These assertions cannot be verified or falsified. They are neither true nor false. In fact there is no way to test whether or not they are true or false. For example, “Blue sleeps faster than Thursday.” “The universe is expanding at a uniform rate.” “All is Brahman.” And the new atheists’ mascot, “The flying spaghetti monster.”These claims are logically meaningless, or non-sensical.

Although skeptics pigeonhole Christianity into this third category it rightfully belongs in the category of synthetic truth claims. Which leads us to the empirical and historical-legal methods.

The Empirical Method

Christianity is both verifiable and falsifiable. “If Christ is not raised, then your faith is in vain…eat, drink and be merry. But in fact, Christ is raised from the dead.” St. Paul asserts that the central claim of Christianity has both empirical and historical value and therefore is open to investigation. No wonder so many Christian apologists are lawyers.

Today, Christianity is on trial. And we have the best case possible. This is where the other tools – the empirical and historical/legal methods – are quite useful. “This method involves 1) a clear recognition and accurate statement of a problem to be solved; 2) the formulation of working hypotheses which appear to explain the problem; 3) the determination of specific methods of investigation which will yield reliable and pertinent data on the problem; 4) the accurate collection and recording of the relevant data; 5) the re-checking of the facts to establish their soundness and pertinence to the problem under investigation; and 6) the testing of the hypotheses against the data, thereby confirming or disconfirming the hypotheses in question.”[2] 

We live in a world where facts are known and knowable. Investigation of the facts is important especially for religious assertions. Christianity not only lends itself well to these methods of historical and empirical investigation, but it also has an overwhelming amount of evidence in this regard. And, as Craig Parton notes, “The empirical method is simply a roadmap that we follow to see if we can arrive at the King’s Castle and not at the local garbage dump. Just because we use a map to get to the castle does not mean we honor the map over the King or the Castle.”[3]

Every stage of the empirical method can and should be applied to the propositions made by Christianity. This method is a tool. It is useful in apologetics. But it has its limits too. Apologetics can go no further than demonstrating that the historical claims of Christianity are true and that one can ascent to this knowledge as historical fact. In classic theological terms, apologetics deals with the notitia and assensus of faith but not the fiducia, or saving faith. The creative work of instilling faith and trust in these factual events and in our factual Savior is solely the work of the Holy Spirit. The goal of apologetics is to present both a negative case against the false claims of religious and skeptical worldviews and a positive case for the veracity of the historic Christian faith using a panoply of sound methods and tactics, always giving a reason for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15).

The Historical-Legal Method

Unlike many of the world religions you don’t have to try Christianity in order to find out what’s in it. Christianity opens itself up to critical, historical investigation. Christianity is a synthetic truth claim because it hinges upon one central event as having occurred in history: Christ’s death and resurrection. And this event is open to investigation. Christianity’s claim to truth stands or falls on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christianity’s claim is unique: God entered human history in time and space as a human being. In Jesus, God is tangible. In Jesus God could be touched, heard and seen like any other historical figure (1 John 1:1-4). In other words, use a standard method of historical or legal investigation – preferably one used by people in that field – and apply it to the resurrection of Jesus. Where does the evidence lead? What are the conclusions? That is the simple goal of this tool. Lawyers and historians “re-create” the past every day using these methods. They are reliable and useful in presenting the clearest defense of the Christian faith. These are some of the very same methods used by the apostles themselves. And they are the same methods Christians need to employ today.

You may have noticed that, up until the end this article, we have not included any great assertions for the truthfulness of the Christian faith. This is intentional. We have merely been establishing the grounds upon which to investigate religious truth claims. By using objective standards the Christian relates to the common base of knowledge all people share and at the same time have demonstrated an ability to engage in an argument by avoiding logical pitfalls and biased arguments. Now that the foundation has been laid we are ready to proceed with the method. In Apologetics 101, Part 3: Christianity on Trial we will apply the same methods we have explored here to Christianity in order to equip ourselves to remain steadfast in defense.

[1] Parton, Craig. Religion on Trial. Wipf and Stock, 2008. p. 29.

[2] Montgomery, John Warwick. Tractatus Logico Theologicus, Verlag fur Kultur und Wissenschaft, 2005. p. 35-36.

[3] Parton, Craig. Religion on Trial. Wipf and Stock, 2008. p. 25.


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