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What Makes Arguments for God Convincing — or Not

Is truth enough? A look at the unfulfilled promise of Christian apologetics

Mathematician and philosopher William Dembski offered an analysis of Christian apologetics (defense of Christian beliefs), “Making Apologetics an Effective Instrument for Cultural Engagement” at the Evangelical Philosophical Society meeting “Reasonable Faith in an Uncertain World” (November 19, 2021). His discussion raises broad issues around how a culture assesses and understands truth. Republished with permission in four parts. The first part is “1 The Unfulfilled Promise of Christian Apologetics” and “2 Truth Is Never Enough.”

1 The Unfulfilled Promise of Christian Apologetics

I’ve been writing professionally in the field of Christian apologetics now for over 30 years. In fact, looking at my CV, I see that one of my very first publications in apologetics (an article titled “Inconvenient Facts: Miracles and the Skeptical Inquirer”) appeared in 1990 in the Bulletin of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. That journal subsequently was rechristened Philosophia Christi.

As a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, I helped revive the Princeton Theological Review as a student-run publication advancing Christian orthodoxy. It lasted for fifteen years after I graduated, disbanding in 2011. During my time at Princeton Seminary, I helped organize a weekly seminar to present papers on Christian apologetics, the presenters being students, faculty, and local scholars. The best of these papers were published by Intervarsity in 2001 in an anthology co-edited by me and Jay Richards. The anthology was titled Unapologetic Apologetics: Meeting the Challenges of Theological Studies.

A significant aspect of my work on intelligent design can be understood as falling under Christian apologetics, arguing that the science underlying design refutes atheism and agnosticism, and thus creates room for Christian theism. Moreover, as a professor at three seminaries, I often taught courses in apologetics, some even having that word “apologetics” in the course title. The non-apologetics courses that I taught were on the philosophy of religion, the relation between science and faith, rhetoric, logic, and critical thinking, all of which were also conducive to apologetics.

With this background, you might expect me to be an avid supporter of Christian apologetics, and so I am. But I give this talk as one who is also disappointed with the impact that apologetics has had to date and think that the discipline of apologetics needs to be expanded and upgraded if it is to fulfill its promise, which is to reclaim for Christ the life of the mind (compare 2 Corinthians 10:5).

I say Christian apologetics needs to be expanded and upgraded rather than reconceptualized or reimagined. What Christian apologists have accomplished in this and the last generation has been admirable and even crucially important. Except for a John Warwick Montgomery challenging the god-is-dead theology of the 1960s, except of a Norman Geisler articulating and defending biblical inerrancy, and except for subsequent vigorous challenges by Christian apologists against the nihilism, relativism, scientism, skepticism, materialism, and the other isms ravaging the intellectual world, where would we be? Fideism, with its intellectual bankruptcy, would rule the day.

Even so, apologetics, in my view, hasn’t gone nearly far enough. Often when apologetics as an enterprise is thrown into question, it is because of a crisis of confidence concerning its very nature, as though the task of apologetics in defending and confirming the faith ought to be thoroughly abjured by right-thinking Christians. According to this view, human reason is such an ineffective instrument for understanding God and advancing Christian faith that apologetics ought to be regarded as misconceived at best, impious at worst. That’s not me.

My disappointment with apologetics has nothing to do with questioning its use of reason and evidence to support faith. My disappointment, rather, is that we’ve failed to embed apologetics within a broader cultural engagement for advancing the Christian faith. Christian apologetics has, in my view, mainly been in the business of playing defense when it needs to be playing offense. Yes, I get it that the very word “apologetics” comes from the Greek, where it denotes a reasoned defense before a court of law. But I’ve never been a fan of holding words hostage to their etymology. Christian apologetics needs to do better, and I want in this talk to explore how it can do better.

2 Truth Is Never Enough

If I had to put my finger on where I see the greatest fault in Christian apologetics as it is currently practiced—and I point the finger here also at myself—it is the naïveté that thinks truth is enough. By this I mean the wishful complacency that says if we can just state the truth clearly, explain it adequately, and argue it rigorously with compelling evidence or logically sound reasoning (or preferably both), then we’ve done our job as apologists and we can wash our hands of further responsibility. If people still don’t see the truth and embrace it, especially after we’ve bent over backwards to make it clear to them, then it’s their problem. Perhaps they’re in the grip of faulty presuppositions. Perhaps they’re fearful of what others will think if they are seen as taking Christianity seriously. Perhaps they are simply blinded by the evil one.

But the tacit assumption underlying much of Christian apologetics is that by uttering the right words in the right order, we’ll have done our job as apologists. And so, in the last decades, we’ve articulated terrific defenses of key Christian doctrines, such as Jesus’ resurrection (take the work of Gary Habermas and Mike Licona). We’ve thoroughly deconstructed non-teleological forms of cosmological and biological evolution (take the work of Guillermo Gonzalez and Douglas Axe). We’ve shown how information theory destroys materialism and entails an ultimate information source that is readily identified with God (take the work of Bob Marks and myself). And we’ve done outstanding work on the rational underpinnings of the Christian faith (take the work of Bill Craig and Al Plantinga). And yet, and yet, …

Reflections like this always call to mind for me a famous New Yorker cartoon (by J. B. Handelsman). In the cartoon, a client sits across the desk of an attorney. The attorney says, “You have a pretty good case Mr. Pitkin. How much justice can you afford?” Truth is great, but the mere utterance of truth by humans won’t get you across any finish line. Over and over I have felt that Christian apologists have the better argument. And yet, over and over, when it comes to convincing the culture, reversing negative trend lines, and bringing Christian ideas and ideals into the mainstream, it seems that we’re moving backwards rather than forwards. If you don’t believe me, think back to 2010 when the political mainstream on both sides of the aisle still regarded marriage in traditional terms as between one man and one woman — they may not have believed it, but at least they felt compelled to say it. And then ask yourself where we are now, on this and a host of other hot-button issues.

Next: 3 Giving Culture Its Due

You may also wish to read: How informational realism subverts materialism Within informational realism, what defines things is their capacity for communicating or exchanging information with other things. In substituting information for perception, informational realism is able to preserve a common-sense realism that idealism has always struggled to preserve.

William A. Dembski

Founding and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture, Distinguished Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence
A mathematician and philosopher, Bill Dembski is the author/editor of more than 25 books as well as the writer of peer-reviewed articles spanning mathematics, engineering, biology, philosophy, and theology. With doctorates in mathematics (University of Chicago) and philosophy (University of Illinois at Chicago), Bill is an active researcher in the field of intelligent design. But he is also a tech entrepreneur who builds educational software and websites, exploring how education can help to advance human freedom with the aid of technology.

What Makes Arguments for God Convincing — or Not