forest and trees

Forest for the Trees? Keeping apologetics grounded and apologetic method

In Foundations by Steve Wilkinson1 Comment

The idiom ‘forest for the trees’ in American English is a phrase that means that one might get so caught up in the details that they miss the larger concept or the goal; they are looking at the trees so closely, they don’t recognize the forest. This can be a danger in Christian apologetics; especially for us apologists! I often get caught up in responding to news stories or current events. I can get too focused on topics which I enjoy engaging and neglect others. (1)My wife has pointed out that may be the case here at TilledSoil recently. Because of this, I’m going to focus more on core apologetic topics before indulging too much more in news items.

The end GOAL of Christian apologetics should always be to lead people to Christ – or to be more theologically accurate – to be a means through which the Holy Spirit brings people to Christ. But it is also important to step back and take a higher level view of our approach and methods. This might be a good time, then, to talk about the big picture of apologetics. I’m going to talk about this in a number of different senses (ie: topics, methods, style, tips, etc.).


I identify three classes of topics which Christian apologetics addresses. The first I would call ‘foundational.’ These are things which prepare one for apologetics, such as knowing what apologetics is, epistemology, logic, critical thinking, history, worldviews, and definitions.

The second is what I’d call ‘classical’ or ‘traditional.’ These are the topics such as the Resurrection, existence of God, or revelation and reliability of the Bible. These haven’t changed since the Apostles.

The third are ‘hot topics’ within our culture. These might seem to be peripheral, or distractions, but they usually become reasons people turn away from Christianity unless properly understood (even then, they might still turn away, but we must stand for the truth). These change over time. In the early church, they were things like atheism (Christians didn’t worship many of the gods), cannibalism (they talked of eating flesh and drinking blood), and incest (everyone was called a brother or sister, even their spouse). Today, they include the environment, sexuality, Islam, and evolution.

A Christian apologist needs to have some familiarity with all of these. We can’t know it all, but familiarity helps us at least know where to look, and to not get caught off-guard.

Action: It is good to review a list at times to check your blind-spots. For a starting point, see our training outline at TilledSoil, or this comprehensive list at Christian Apologetics Alliance.

Method and approach

There are a number of methods of going about apologetics, as well as theology and philosophy behind them. I’m not going to belabor some of the latter here, but want you to at least be aware of them and some dangers.

The first thing you will likely notice is that there is much debate over presuppositional vs evidential apologetics. This might be expected, as at their foundations, these two can’t really be reconciled philosophically or theologically. That said, I’ve rarely run into a purest, and in practice, nearly all apologists mix the techniques.

Presuppositional apologetics comes at things from the understanding that without God, arguments and knowledge fail in the first place. Since this is reality, flaws in the opponents case can be found and pointed out. Certainly, this is true on the Christian world view, and nearly every apologist uses such an approach at points. However, if woodenly applied, it starts violating the ‘with gentleness and reverence’ aspect of our 1 Peter 3:15 passage.

Evidential apologetics focuses more (exclusively?) on the person and their mind. Evidence is presented and built upon until the person is left with no choice but to see the reasonableness and weight of the Christian worldview. The critique comes in with the fall of humanity and the ‘why’ people don’t believe. Romans 1 says that people don’t believe in God, not because they lack information, but because they are hostile towards God.

There are many books on the subject, but one excellent discussion recently occurred between K Scott Oliphint and Kurt Jaros on Unbelievable? While I didn’t feel it did justice to explaining the Evidential position, it cleared up many misconceptions about the presuppositional position. Most apologists, in my experience, seem to look more like evidentialists in practice. Hopefully, though, they learn from the presuppositionalist camp in their view of humanity and knowledge. I think this view, in it’s underpinnings, is clearly Biblical, whereas a pure evidentialist view would run into theological problems.

What do some of the actual approaches look like? I’m going to list a few just in terms of flow or progression.

Existence of God -> God is best revealed in the Bible -> Jesus claimed to be God -> Resurrection validates the claim.

Bible as God’s revelation -> Jesus -> Resurrection

Cumulative evidence from many disciplines -> Plausibility and web of arguments -> abductive reasoning (inference to the best explanation) -> Christian worldview -> Bible -> Jesus -> Resurrection

God -> man -> Jesus -> Cross -> final resurrection (2)H/T: Greg Koukl

Meaning of life? -> Does God exist? -> Do all religions lead to God? -> Why is there evil? -> Is there life after death? -> Gospel message (3)H/T: Andy Steiger cf. Thinking Series or Apologetics’s Canada podcasts #9-14. An interesting new approach by my friend’s at Apologetics Canada which I hope to review soon.

These are presented just to give you an idea how some different apologists ‘flow’ or progress through conversation towards the goal.

Action: Familiarize yourself with some of the advantages and dangers of different approaches, and what the Bible says (theologically) and provides as an example. This will help you avoid pitfalls, keep the big picture in mind, and forge a path to get there. In the above progressions, are there aspects you are weak on or missing?

Tips and style

I will refer you to another article I wrote specifically on this topic. However, I want to highlight and add some here.

Build relationships and listen! I’m not sure I have to explain these too much, as they are part of the art of conversation and persuasion, but also crucial to really caring about someone. Unfortunately, they are really easy to forget in the moment.

Definitions are crucial to discussion. You might seem like a stickler at points for trying to pin them down, but if they are not, people just talk past one another and get frustrated. And watch the ‘inside language’ or terms which have meaning within Christianity, but are confusing or points of contention to unbelievers. ‘Faith’ is a great example, consider substituting trust.

Don’t go for the home-run. The Holy Spirit controls the heart and we just need to faithfully play our part. Every conversation doesn’t need an altar-call at the end. As Greg Koukl often points out, it might be best to just to ‘put a stone in their shoe.’ (Meaning something to ponder that will challenge their view.)

Specialize in some area (so you can contribute to the discipline), but remain broad enough to converse with anyone.

Apologetic arguments and worldview are like chain mail (armor), not a chain. (4)H/T: William Lane Craig If someone knocks out one of your arguments (or seems to), the whole system usually doesn’t crumble. Likewise, this is probably true of their worldview as well. (5)There are exceptions, of course. If Jesus didn’t resurrect, Christianity is finished. If the universe isn’t eternally existent, materialism fails.

Don’t let such conversations be a one-way interrogation. Both you and the person you are conversing with should have to answer the tough questions, as well as provide a positive case.

Watch out for the ‘pseudo-postmodern two-step’ as John Stackhouse calls it. “This is the rhetorical device of, first, using postmodernist criticism to de-privilege elites and then, second, asserting that the views of one’s own group are better than anyone else’s.” (6)John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (Oxford University Press, 2002), 33-4.

Try to determine the underlying hopes and fears driving the person. (7)H/T Dr. John Stackhouse, Jr. If you meet an environmentalist (hostile to Christianity), you might find they have similar hopes about the world and their fears are a distortion of Christianity.

Are you debating? Being conversational? Being an ambassador? Different situations call for different approaches, but are we being appropriate to the situation? Do we look more like a combatant or an ambassador?

Action: Keep these kinds of tips in mind and review them often. Even if you do, being Christ’s ambassador will still be challenging. Constant practice is the key.

I remember one of my seminary professors saying that all Christians are theologians. The question is whether we’re good or bad ones. I would add apologists to that list. We are all called to ‘give a reason for the hope that we have in Christ’ during our lives. Will we do a good job in presenting that reason? In other words, will we be good apologists or bad ones? The Bible says we are to be prepared to do so… to be good apologists. (8)1 Peter 3:15 NASB – “but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with … Continue reading

I’ll take this one step further. I often hear a debate between ‘Christian living’ and ‘life of the mind’ when it comes to Christian witness. The two go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other and be effective. Let me illustrate: If I have the best answers and can defeat any idea brought against Christianity, yet don’t reflect Christianity in my life, most will reject my witness. Yet, if I live a flawless Christian life (at least as far as my fellow humans can see), but fail to give a proper reason when asked about it, I’m of little more benefit to witness than the Buddhist or New Age follower who might match my good behavior. In Christianity, the life and mind are inseparable.

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