Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Apologetics (Metaphysics)

This is the last part of a series of posts outlining and defining four fundamental domains of Christian knowledge: Theology, Church History, Spiritual Formation, and Apologetics. We must engage in these disciplines, if we are to develop a robust intellectual and spiritual life, a life fully dedicated to Christ.

This last post on Apologetics has itself turned into a small series, so I am going to break it into several smaller posts, in an attempt to say something more substantive about Apologetics than just “Apologetics is the defense of Christianity using arguments and evidence.” Although it is, in part, just that.

What is Apologetics?

To an audience like this one, Apologetics may be as familiar a term as “doctrine” or “salvation.” However for many Christians, Apologetics is still an unknown or obscure term, a word that suggests we are meant to say “sorry” for something we have either done, or failed to do, but of which we know nothing. For others, Apologetics is at best a futile endeavor, if not an outright detrimental one; an undertaking that never helps the skeptic to believe, and often helps the believer to become skeptical (see here for a recent example).

But, we know better than that. We know that Apologetics is something that everyone does naturally, anytime they seek to defend or clarify the claims and content of the Christian faith, or any faith really. Even Atheists do some kind of apologetics when they defend their views. We also know although the discipline of Apologetics does not cause saving faith, that apologetical arguments and evidences can be effective steps in one’s indvidual journey toward saving faith. Thus, we understand the apologetical project to be one that the human person, any human person really, does naturally when they defend their views by giving reasons for their belief. But, at the same time, we rightly restrain our expectations regarding the power of rational argumentation when it comes to attaining personal knowledge of a personal God. No argument converts the human heart, that operation is reserved for the Great Physician.

In short then, we can define Apologetics very simply: Apologetics is the rational defense of Christian truth claims using arguments and evidence. Apologetics, in this sense, is as much for the head, as our previously discussed discipline, Spiritual Formation, is for the heart, or the emotions. Still, because we also recognize that the head and heart (the “left” and “right” brain) cannot be so neatly divided, we realize that there are different strains of Apologetics that can be pressed into evangelistic use.

Some Apologetics emphasize logical rigor and abstract analytical thought, while others seek to awaken the more aesthetic side of the human person, relying on good art and compelling stories to offer an attractive view of the world. Some authors have gone on to suggest that reason itself is an extension of the human imagination, that “reason is imaginative.” (Andrew Davidson, Imaginative Apologetics, xxv). If this is the case then our apologetical defenses, or offenses, need not rely on logic alone to attract our audience, but can be fully-orbed articulations of a Gospel that speak to the whole person, albeit not at the expense of good reasoning. Apologetics can be supra-reasonable, or “above reason.”

What we need is an apologetical method that cuts deep at the base of the world’s false premises, or as John Milbank puts it:

“We need a mode of apologetics prepared to question the world’s assumptions down to their very roots and to expose how they lie within paganism, heterodoxy or else and atheism with no ground in reason and a tendency to deny the ontological reality of reason altogether.” (John Milbank, Imaginative Apologetics, xx).

That said there are two broad categories of Apologetics that most kinds of Apologetical questions fall under: philosophical and historical Apologetics.

Philosophical Apologetics

Philosophical Apologetics is itself a very broad topic, but philosophy as a discipline is indispensable to the life of the Christian disciple, especially in the structuring of Christian thought. That said, this indispensability of philosophy does not mean that philosophy, or even reason, stands above theology, or revelation. Aquinas states it this way:

“This science [sacred theology] can in a sense depend upon the philosophical sciences, not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to make its teaching clearer. For it accepts its principles not from other sciences, but immediately from God, by revelation. Therefore it does not depend upon other sciences as upon the higher, but makes use of them as of the lesser, and as handmaidens” (Summa Theologica, I.5.ii)

As a secondary intellectual discipline, or handmaiden, there can almost be a “philosophy” of any other intellectual discipline. Thus, it is now common to find all kinds of very narrow philosophical disciplines at the academic level: philosophy of science, of art, of religion, of literature, of mind, of history, of sports, etc. However, philosophy more generally has usually been understood to entail the study of four foundational areas of human experience, namely: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and logic.

But, what do these four core domains of human existence themselves entail? In order of philosophical inquiry, there is often a debate of what comes first, metaphysical inquiry, or epistemological inquiry. For sake of bypassing that discussion, and to keep this post somewhat brief, let’s assume metaphysics is the first order of inquiry. So, what does metaphysics entail?

Metaphysics & Christian Faith

Metaphysics is the most fundamental kind of philosophical knowledge if we are to understand with clarity and coherence the Christian worldview. Metaphysics (literally “after the physics”) is called such because Aristotle, or some compiler of Aristotle, placed his discussion of non-physical realities after his discussion of the natural world. These realities came after the physical things, or “after the physics.” Metaphysics explores two broad areas of human experience: existence and causation. In doing so, metaphysical investigation deals with ontology (what exists), and causality (how things change states or modes of being), to include derivative areas of inquiry like questions about identity, and time.

Metaphysics attempts to determine if there are things like essences, or substances, of both naturally occurring objects (e.g. iron, zinc, leptons), human artifacts (chairs, vases), living things (dogs, you and me), and, if they exist, abstract objects (the number “2”), and even immaterial concrete objects (God or gods, angels, human souls). Metaphysics also tries to understand the chain of causality, or how things that might exist go from one mode of existence to another mode of existence spanning across time. Finally, notions of possibility and necessity, or what are possible states of affairs versus necessary ones, or contingent beings versus necessary Ones, are also explored in the realm of Metaphysics.

Since the rise of Darwinian evolution and post-Newtonian theories in physics however, there has been a dominant paradigm in Western culture, which has sought to reduce all of reality down to only the natural world and its scientifically verifiable properties. From about the second half of the 19th century, to roughly the 1950’s there was a strong push to ditch metaphysics as a serious academic discipline altogether, replacing it with pure science (even though metaphysical reductionism goes further back to the likes of Scottish philosopher, and naturalist, David Hume).

The height of this philosophical trend toward scientific reductionism hit in the 1940’s and 1950’s with the short rise of logical positivism, a philosophical movement that sought to dismiss any question about non-physical realities as inherently meaningless, since they could not be empirically verified, or logically demonstrated. Therefore, religious claims about non-physical realities were also regarded prima facie as unintelligible, in that they could not be positively confirmed or verified through standard scientific methods. Fortunately this theory died a relatively quick death and by the 1960’s and 70’s there was a resurgence of metaphysical work that helped to reinvigorate the philosophy of religion, which, while broader than just Christian Apologetics, is where most of the scholarly work that underlies popular apologetical writing occurs.

Today, there is an abundance of contemporary metaphysical work being done across the Western academic world, and much of it is related to religious claims about reality. Thus, there has been a renaissance of philosophy of religion, and Christian truth claims are once again taken seriously in the philosophy departments in the West (well, at least some of them).

Some top contemporary Metaphysical thinkers of the last 50 or 60 years are: David Lewis (non-theist), David Armstrong (non-theist), W.V.O. Quine (non-theist), Saul Kripke (theist, Jewish), and David Chalmers (non-theist), and L.A. Paul. Paul especially has been working in the area of religious experience as transformative experience.

Among Christians who have contributed to Metaphysics in recent years are well known names like William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Alexander Pruss, Robert Koons, J.P. Moreland, Peter van Inwagen, Elanore Stump, Robert Adams, Brian Leftow, Marilyn McCord Adams, Ed Feser, and Timothy Pickavance.

Thomistic and non-Thomistic Metaphysics

With regard to Christian Metaphysics, there are two main lines of Christian metaphysical though: Thomism (following Thomas Aquinas), and non-Thomistic Analytical Philosophy of Religion. Some famous Thomistic philosophers are Norman Geisler (Evangelical), Ed Feser (Catholic), Peter Geach (Catholic), Elanore Stump, and Robert Koons (Evangelical).

Non-Thomists are scholars like Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, William Lane Craig, Alexander Pruss, Brian Leftow, and Willam Alston. However, much of St. Thomas’ writings and philosophy is appropriated by many Christian philosophers today, even those who do not buy into Thomism wholesale. So there is much overlap among Christian philosophers in this area, as many continue to profit from the works of the great Thomas Aquinas.

Special Areas of Apologetical Interest

Some particularly interesting areas of metaphysics for Christian Apologists are Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Time, and the Philosophy of Science. In particular metaphysical questions about mind-body interaction, the persistence of personal identity over time, God’s relation to time, free will and determinism, and the role and limits of the scientific method, are all very relevant to our theological reasoning, and defense of the Christian faith. Metaphysics, along with Epistemology, are perhaps the most important areas of philosophy for a Christian to understand, as they allow us to best articulate what it is we believe, and why we think it to be true.

In the next post, I will break down the philosophical discipline of Epistemology.

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