A New Model for Apologetics

Norman Geisler reviews the arguments against miracles from David Hume and Antony Flew in Geisler’s essay “Miracles & the Modern Mind”.[1] Both Hume and Flew’s arguments have the common characteristic of moving from common or uniform experience to incredulity against exceptions to that experience.  In short they argue that we have never experienced a miracle, therefore we should not expect to experience a miracle and we should be skeptical of miraculous claims.

Geisler points out that this sort of thinking fails in a number of ways. One of Geisler’s strongest critiques was to point out that this thinking is circular.  Hume and Flew are essentially arguing that we should not believe in miracles because we already do not believe in miracles.  Geisler also points out that this approach proves too much and undermines a number of things that Hume and Flew did believe.  Geisler also points out that there are past events (geological, historical, biological, and cosmic) that cannot (or at least have not) been repeated.  If Hume and Flew were to apply their method consistently, then they would have to deny generally accepted past events simply because they are singular in occurrence.

These critiques from Hume and Flew provide good reason for developing a “combinationalist” approach, as described by Brian Morley.[2] This approach, which Morley credits to E. J. Carnell, acknowledges that the critic of Christianity has a worldview that is biased against Christian claims, and tries to shift the focus from the evidence itself to the worldview responsible for that bias. The combinationalist does not try to prove the worldview by appeal to the evidence, but rather to demonstrate that the Christian worldview lines up consistently with objective features of our world whereas competing worldviews do not.  “So rather than begin with nothing but the senses and build up to Christianity as a conclusion (as an empiricist apologetic would do), Carnell proposed that we begin with Christianity and test it.” [3]

This approach may be more successful than trying to prove to the critic that their worldview is wrong using evidence. As Del Ratzsch put it in Science and Its Limits, “In general what we perceive to be evidence and what we take it to be evidence for is relative to the background theories we accept.” [4] In other words, it is often our worldview that determines what counts for evidence rather than the evidence which determines our worldview.  We might imagine a court case where the judge is asked to admit exhibits into evidence.  We can bring as many exhibits to the atheist as we may like (from morality, to the beginning of the universe, to fine tuning), but in each case it will do no good if the atheist refuses to admit it into evidence.  From the atheistic perspective, whatever the evidence may point to, it cannot point to God, for there is no God to point to.

This seems to be how Flew and Hume approach miracles. Whatever the evidence may be, the evidence cannot favor the occurrence of miracles because there are no miracles to favor.  We may be more successful with such skeptics in shifting the focus to the failures of their own worldview rather than attempting to prove a competing worldview using evidence.

For example, we can point out that atheistic naturalism fails to account for the beginning of the universe. In fact, when it comes to a cosmic beginning it seems atheistic naturalism is backed into an irrational corner.  It cannot allow that everything came into existence out of nothing (since that is absurd), but it cannot deny that this is what happened.  This is one instance in which the worldview of atheistic naturalism breaks down, and such a failure of that worldview should at least cause some suspicion that the worldview may not provide an accurate picture of reality.  We can survey similar breakdowns when it comes to the existence of contingent objects (Leibniz cosmological argument), the existence of objective moral values and duties (the moral argument), the radical improbability of fine-tuning (the teleological argument), and so on.  As the failures of atheistic naturalism begin to mount, should we not consider the worldview to have failed?

[1] Norman Geisler, in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, by Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 73-85.

[2] Brian Morley, Mapping Apologetics: Comparing Contemporary Approaches (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015).

[3] ibid., 154.

[4] Del Ratzsch, Science & Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective – Kindle Edition (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006).