The problem with Christ-free (or non Christ-centred) apologetics

Krauss v Lane Craig round 2 happened in Sydney last night. The head to head is producing interesting conversations around the traps – and these are a good thing.

The conversation I’m keen to keep pursuing is the nature of properly Christian apologetics.

Here’s something William Lane Craig said in a pre-round 2 preview in Eternity

“E: Some Christians would say that if you don’t get the gospel out, or talk about Jesus in these discussions, then you lose. What do you think?

Oh, you won’t hear a gospel presentation tonight. It has nothing to do with Christianity per se tonight. We as Christians share with Jews, Muslims and even deists a common commitment to the existence of a creator and designer of the universe, who is the ultimate reality and from which everything else derives, and that’s what I’m defending tonight. This is a broad, theistic claim in opposition to Dr Krauss’ atheism.”

Since that question pretty much articulates the objection I raised in my previous post, I thought I might bash out this response.

I think the Apostle Paul would be horrified with this methodology.

I think this reconstruction of Paul’s feelings matters when thinking about how we defend our faith because I think Paul is perhaps the most effective Christian apologist of all time, and apart from Jesus, the best model for Christian engagement with the world and the intellectual defence of Christian belief (I won’t argue it here – read my project). Or read Acts 17 and Paul’s appearance before the Areopagus. Or try to account for Christianity still existing today without Paul’s contribution to Christianity today…

This statement means William Lane Craig went into a debate, deliberately limited by the title of the debate, and resolved NOT to know Jesus and him crucified. 

I can’t imagine Paul ever doing this. I can’t imagine any Christian apologist doing this – let me clarify. I think William Lane Craig is a Christian. And I think he’s an apologist. I think it’s just clear the “Christian” doesn’t qualify the “apologist” function.

I wonder if part of the problem is that in order to “give an account” for the hope that we have, we’ve tried to answer every objection people who don’t know Jesus might have when it comes to Christianity. That seems to be Craig’s modus operandi – convince people to be a theist and that will naturally lead them to Christianity – but Paul seems to pretty consistently aim to present the resurrection of the dead – particularly the resurrection of Jesus – because that is the absolute basis – the ground zero – of intellectual objection to Christianity.

It’s the point at which Christianity is falsifiable, and the point Christianity hangs on in terms of all the claims it makes about our status before God.

“16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” – 1 Corinthians 15

23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. – Romans 4

The intellectual offence Christianity presents is not that we believe in God – if we think it is, we’re giving far too much ground to the New Atheists.

Using a platform where you’re speaking to thousands of people who are interested in the relative truth claims made by Christianity and atheism to deliberately not articulate the core of Christianity – Jesus, his incarnation as revelation, his crucifixion and resurrection from the dead – is negligent at best.

That is where most objections to Christianity come from. That is where the offence is. The crucifixion. The resurrection. It has been since day one. The crucifixion has become such a core part of our cultural narrative – count the crosses you see in the average day – that the offence of the cross has been lost a bit.

But it was offensive. Here’s what Cicero said about 70 years before Jesus.

“Even if death be threatened, we may die free men; but the executioner, and the veiling of the head, and the mere name of the cross, should be far removed, not only from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears. For not only the actual fact and endurance of all these things, but the bare possibility of being exposed to them,—the expectation, the mere mention of them even,—is unworthy of a Roman citizen and of a free man…”

It was equally offensive to Paul’s Jewish audience. Here’s what Moses said in Deuteronomy 21.

22 If someone guilty of a capital offence is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, 23 you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.

The Cross was – and still should be – an incredible impediment to apologetics, but it should also, I think, shape our approach to apologetics (see my earlier thoughts on Lawrence Krauss v WLC).

Apart from the Christians – who were actually accused of atheism in the Roman Empire – the Stoics were the closest thing to atheists going round in the first century. They were driven by rationality. They pursued decision making free from emotions. They were idealists. There’s something incredibly appealing about the Stoic framework. They certainly didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead.

And this is where Paul goes in Athens. When he’s speaking to a Stoic audience – he doesn’t argue from cosmology – and in some sense the Stoics did with nature what the New Atheists do with science. Or present a sort of abstract monotheism – even though he’s talking to people who are potentially pantheistic, if not atheistic (though you couldn’t really get away with atheism in Rome). Here’s what the Stoic founding fathers believed.

The substance of God is declared by Zeno to be the whole world and the heaven, as well as by Chrysippus in his first book Of the Gods, and by Posidonius in his first book with the same title. Again, Antipater in the seventh book of his work On the Cosmos says that the substance of God is akin to air, while Boëthus in his work On Nature speaks of the sphere of the fixed stars as the substance of God. Now the term Nature is used by them to mean sometimes that which holds the world together, sometimes that which causes terrestrial things to spring up. Nature is defined as a force moving of itself, producing and preserving in being its offspring in accordance with seminal principles within definite periods, and effecting results homogeneous with their sources

“God is one and the same with Reason, Fate, and Zeus ; he is also called by many other names. In the beginning he was by himself” – Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Here’s what the poetic account of the founding of Athens declares about the resurrection…

Oh, monsters utterly loathed and detested by the gods! Zeus could undo fetters, there is a remedy for that, and many means of release. But when the dust has drawn up the blood of a man, once he is dead, there is no return to life. – Aeschylus, The Eumenides

So Paul is facing an essentially pantheistic/polytheistic audience who build and certify gods for every cause – and rather than providing evidence for a monotheistic God that the Deists would be happy with – he simply asserts that God exists and created the world on the way to getting to the real offence of the gospel.

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

I think part of the problem I have with WLC is that we seem to have a profoundly different answer to the following question.

PB: What is your best evidence there is no God, and what’s the best evidence there is a God?

Well, I would say that the best evidence that there is a God is that the hypothesis that God exists explains a wide range of the data of human experience that’s very diverse. So it’s an extremely powerful hypothesis. It gives you things like an explanation of the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, of intelligent life. But also the presence of mind in the cosmos, an objective foundation for moral values and duties, and things of that sort—it’s a wide range of data that makes sense on a theistic worldview.

The best evidence there is God is the historical Jesus. The creator entering the creation and revealing himself through his word made flesh. God became man and changed the world. That’s the best evidence for God. It’s also got to be the basis of our apologetics or we’re getting the foundations all wrong.

15 thoughts on “The problem with Christ-free (or non Christ-centred) apologetics”

  1. As well as all of the above, it’s plain bad debating to let your opponent dictate the terms. By taking the side of theism (monotheism, more specifically) all he’s doing is setting himself up to counter Krauss’ s claims (rather than assert his own) and end up on the back foot, as happened in the first debate.

  2. Hey Nathan

    Just wanted to push back quickly on some things here…

    Craig’s objective in these discussions is to address the question at hand. Opening addresses are usually prefaced by ‘the question before us tonight is…. In order to answer this question I will defend x points… In order for my opponent to refute these claims he has to show….’ I think its clear from the rest of the interview that WLC is going up against Krauss published work. With many Krauss fans in the audience and others waiting with baited breath for the audio, this is a great opportunity to lay out a case against Krauss theory.

     “I think it’s just clear the “Christian” doesn’t qualify the “apologist” function.”

    This is bordering on outlandish… The sweep of evidence from Craig’s other debates with atheists, Muslims, the Ehrmanns, defenders podcast, Christian doctrine series, books, articles, a PhD on the resurrection. I believe Craig himself said in Sydney that he is a Christian because he was captivated by the story of Jesus Christ,  I’m sure he’s the first to suggest, as he does in other debates, that people need to respond and listen to Gods call on our lives. See his debate with Christopher Hitchens for example.

    In his book Mere Apolgetics, Alister McGrath says the apologists work is to prepare the ground into which the Gospel can be preached and received. People use Krauss & Dawkins arguments, I’ve come across them in my workplace, and even some Christians use the same definitions of faith as the new atheists for example, they don’t push back on these specific arguments which supposedly make it impossible to believe Christianity. There is a clear need for this type of apologetic, to come back against these claims with clarity. The CBF also wanted to raise these issues, bring them up onto the agenda for discussion beyond the night. For some people Krauss work and supposedly the scientific institution is a barrier. These are the issues that Reasonable Faith seeks to address and defend against. And I have benefited greatly from these materials and have used them in my conversations… Statements like the above, and your title, run the risk of causing Christians particularly in your sphere of influence, to dismiss his valuable work and important tools Craig brings to the public and academic discourse.

    Anyway it’s a helpful reminder for us to be arguing towards the Gospel, and we need to be equipped to respond to objections along the way, but it might be better to say it was a missed opportunity rather than almost dismiss a whole ministry in a single statement (judging by some of the responses in the fb thread; I’m sure that wasn’t your intention).

    Would you tweet your article to Reasonable Faith for their consideration, to perhaps challenge or dialogue on the methodology? 

    1. Nathan Campbell

      Hi Matt,

      I’ll respond more substantively shortly – but I’m fairly convinced that the argument that something is “helpful” doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the “best” way of doing things. And I realise I’m having a tilt at a pretty sacred cow here.

      I’m not sure that I need to go back to Reasonable Faith because I suspect my post was part of the impetus behind the question Craig was asked in the Eternity piece. They’re not unaware of the concern I’m expressing here – they just methodologically disagree with it.

    2. Nathan Campbell

      I’d also suggest that there is no relevant question of apologetics that has no relationship with the Gospel.

  3. The thing is.. WLC has done and can very powerfully and systematically defend the historicity of the resurrection.. should he do that in every debate, especially one with a scientist where the topic is ‘has science buried God?’ As much I want to present Christ, and perhaps there are creative ways to get to that point from such a topic, one of the big criticisms of Krauss was that he didn’t stick to the topic, wasn’t it?

    1. “one of the big criticisms of Krauss was that he didn’t stick to the topic, wasn’t it?”

      Yes. And my criticism of WLC is that he stuck to the topic while Krauss didn’t. Any victory he scored debate wise was a pyrrhic victory.

      One of Krauss’ strengths as a communicator is that he is always on message. He isn’t constrained by debate titles, but uses the platform he’s given to present the message he wants to present.

      I can’t criticise the ACL on the one hand, for not speaking of Jesus when they talk about morality from a theistic framework, and then not apply the same standard to Christian philosophy or apologetics.

      1. Also – this article from Bruce Winter on the Areopagus has been pretty influential on my thinking – it’s worth a look.

        As is the nature of “apologetics” through history, from the Apostles to guys like Tertullian and Justin Martyr. I can’t Imagine Paul, Tertullian, or Justin Martyr ever saying:

        “Oh, you won’t hear a gospel presentation tonight. It has nothing to do with Christianity per se tonight. We as Christians share with Jews, Muslims and even deists a common commitment to the existence of a creator and designer of the universe, who is the ultimate reality and from which everything else derives, and that’s what I’m defending tonight.”

        1. So what is the minimum content required to give a satisfactory gospel presentation so that an apologetic presentation could validly be called “Christian” in your opinion?

          1. Nathan Campbell

            Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

            Give me a specific topic and I’ll give you what I believe is a more satisfactory answer.

            I’m happy for people to do their best at presenting the gospel, but not manage to get there. That’s fine. I’m not happy with:

            “Oh, you won’t hear a gospel presentation tonight. It has nothing to do with Christianity per se tonight.”

            As a deliberate approach to apologetics.

          2. So is your deliberate approach in every conversation with a non-Christian to preach Christ and him crucified? Is that what you try to do with everyone, no matter where they are at, how long you have etc? Was Paul in Act 17:22-31 ok because he wanted to get to the cross even though he didn’t really get there, or was it ok because since he talked about death and resurrection, that’s close enough?

          3. Nathan Campbell

            “So is your deliberate approach in every conversation with a non-Christian to preach Christ and him crucified?”

            No. This is not an assessment of how WLC talks to his non-Christian friends, or his non-Christian shop assistant.

            I would hope that my conversations in such circumstances aren’t contradicting the gospel, and that my actions – or ethos – are adorning the gospel and “being wise in the way I act towards outsiders.”

            “Is that what you try to do with everyone, no matter where they are at, how long you have etc?”

            No. But it is what I hope I will try to do whenever I am given a platform to make a defence of my beliefs, and the Christian faith, in a room full of people who want to hear what I have to say.

            “Was Paul in Act 17:22-31 ok because he wanted to get to the cross even though he didn’t really get there, or was it ok because since he talked about death and resurrection, that’s close enough?”

            I’m not sure we can say Paul didn’t get to the cross given that Luke most probably supplies a summary of Paul’s speech, which probably, according to convention, went for quite a while. But I would say Jesus being the man appointed to judge the earth by his resurrection is a satisfactory account of the gospel as I understand it – which is to say the preaching the gospel is the proclamation of the kingship/lordship of Jesus over creation – the ramifications of the gospel will be different based on the context – in some cases it’ll be the resulting impact on an individual’s standing before God should they put their faith in Jesus, but I don’t think you need to articulate penal substitutionary atonement in order to have presented the Gospel. I’m not suggesting Craig should have flipped out a Way of the Master tract. I’m simply suggesting that personally I think that to resolve to not know Christ and him crucified in a public forum like this is problematic.

  4. Hi Nathan. Good on you for exploring these issues. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure about your criticism of Dr Craig. It seems to me very important that we, as Christians, deeply engage in reason, the intellectual tradition in which we live, philosophy, science and other areas of knowledge. I think there are many great problems which exist today because us Christians have not adequately continued to intellectually engage with the world in the various areas of knowledge. Your approach sounds a bit like you are abandoning these philosophical and intellectual battlegrounds. Anyway they are my thoughts. Cheers.

    1. Nathan Campbell

      Hi Big Fella,

      My suggestion is not that we abandon these disciplines – by no means – it is that we integrate them with the gospel of Jesus. WLC seems to suggest that belongs in the too hard basket.

      What you’re suggesting is exactly what I think Paul does at the Areopagus. But I think he does what I’m suggesting too…

  5. Yeah, I don’t know. I just think the ACL and WLC are worlds apart in terms of what they’re trying to achieve, so they’re not really comparable. The ACL are a lobby group. They exist to persuade secular politicians on matters of policy, and aren’t really there to convert people. They merely have to convince politicians of what Christian voters want, regardless of the reasons for why they want those things.

    I’ve thought previously that the fact that they speak publicly on issues is, regardless of what we may think about the way they end up speaking, actually a Christian feature of their work – they want to persuade people of their worldview, because their faith drives them not only to interact with the powers that be, but also to win people at the grassroots. That is not true of all, or perhaps even most, political lobbyists and lobby groups, whose interactions are almost exclusively with the pollies.

    Craig, however, is not lobbying government. He is attempting to convince people that Christianity is credible intellectually. In debates with the likes of Krauss, I would say he doesn’t attempt to do much more than that. Now, I think there are perhaps two things that shape his approach. One, he engages not on his terms, but on the terms of his opposition. Hence the amount of time devoted to metaphysics and origins in his time with Krauss, even though those two things only form a part of WLC’s total work as an apologist. In a way, this is something of an analogue to Acts 17.

    However, I think the other factor is that debates such as these are simply not good platforms for evangelism. Sydney Town Hall is not the same place as the Areopagus. It is not philosophical-intellectual discovery, but contest. I remember when Lennox ended with the historicity of Christ as his big claim in a debate with Dawkins a while back, Dawkins pretty much laughed in his face. Now, while he was a moron for simply doing so, ignoring any weight the argument brought, the reality is many in the audience would have laughed with him.

    History is not the domain of Dawkins, or of Krauss, or many atheists that would go to see them speak. It is an inferior science, simply because it is only a record of what backward primitive people believed (and I have had atheist friends explicitly say that in discussions with me). That is the heart of it. When you put that (incredibly chronologically arrogant) belief in the atmosphere of a heated debate, I genuinely think you run the risk of losing all credibility, which ultimately is the bridge the likes of WLC and others are trying to create.

    So I think the solution is to not treat debates as the battleground. Precious few people will ever be saved by watching one, regardless of who is speaking. We must follow Paul’s lead, and say just enough truth to have someone say ‘I want to hear you again on this subject.’ And then the people of God, not just WLC, must speak.

  6. WLC is a great apologist and a great teacher. He is not familiar with the hoops that you are required to jump through by reform ministers in Australia in order to maintain credibility as someone who is Christ centered.

    Dallas Willard advocated the kind of answers that WLC gave. And in a sense thoughtful rhetoric that doesn’t demean and look to score points is a form of submission to the Gospel message. They will help those who are thoughtfully searching. In the long run, I’m not sure quips and going off topic in a debate format are helpful. These debates live on long after the night on you tube, etc.

    I would argue that his apologetics is his vocation and as such is as Christ Centered as someone else who might be a scientist or a philosopher or economist. He is part of the body, but only a part. I think it is more important that our lives (and the lives of our leaders) be Christ centered rather than adhering to a formulaic speaking style where each of us land every public speaking opportunity at the foot of the cross. In certain leadership circles in the Australian church the latter outweighs the former and so many very Christ centered teachers and pastors are marginalized. It makes for a deformed body.

    On a slightly different note, we are in a different age. A pastor can speak for three hours on a topic now (as Paul did) he just needs to divide it over several weeks. Podcasts now allow people to catch a missed sermon, send them to others, etc. someone may take a few weeks to reveal the cross centered nature of his argument, but pastors are no longer bound by 30 min. Sitcom style preaches. They can do mini-series. I think WLC appropriately answered the moderator concerning the hope that he had in Sydney.

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