Over the centuries, and especially in the last 150 years, Christians have developed various strategies for defending and commending Christianity. These tactics aim to consistently apply one’s view of theology (who God is, how He reveals himself, the role of the Bible, etc), philosophy (the relationship between metaphysics and epistemology) and anthropology (what we know about God, the relationship of the fall to our cognitive capabilities) to the arena of apologetics. Apologetics doesn’t stand alone. By its nature, apologetics is an integrative discipline, utilizing multiple fields of study to corroborate the claims of the Bible.
Approaches to Apologetics
The Classical Approach
The classical approach is a two-step method. It is most associated with figures such as Thomas Aquinas, William Lane Craig, R. C. Sproul, and Norman Geisler. The first step is to establish theism (the belief that God exists) through a series of philosophical arguments. These arguments include the argument for God from causation (the cosmological argument) and the impossibility of an infinite regress of moments before this one (the Kalaam cosmological argument). The classical approach would also address the demands of finely tuned and highly specified natural systems, ranging from the precision inherent in the cosmos to the fine tuning of biological machinery (the teleological argument), or the need for objective and personal grounds for moral obligations (the moral argument). Once this firm foundation of theism is laid down, and skepticism is refuted, the classical apologist moves to the second step. The second movement of this approach brings in historical arguments that narrow down theistic options, leaving only Christianity as the viable option. Here the apologist might address the challenges of religious pluralism, the reliability and preservation of the biblical text, with their centerpiece as the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Evidentialist Approach
The evidentialist approach is like the classical in many ways, with little disagreement on the substance of the arguments offered. The evidentialist approach is most associated with figures such as Josh McDowell, John Warwick Montgomery, and Gary Habermas. For the evidentialist, the suggested two step approach of the classical method is one step more than necessary. As Habermas puts it,
“Evidentialism may be characterized as the ‘one-step’ approach to this question, in that historical evidences can serve as a species of argument for God. Instead of having to prove God’s existence before moving to specific evidences (the “two-step” method), the evidentialist treats one or more historical arguments as being able both to indicate God’s existence and activity and to indicate which variety of theism is true.”
For the evidentialist, historical arguments, properly presented and supported, answer the inherent questions that arise in the classicalists’ first step. If miracles are possible, Jesus was bodily raised from the dead after making self-glorifying statements. If the Bible is reliably passed down to us through the ages, then the truth of Christianity is implied.
The Cumulative Case Approach
Distinct from both methods above is the cumulative case approach. This method is associated with figures such as Paul Feinberg, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and Douglas Groothius. Feinberg states, “Such an argument is rational but does not take the form of a proof or argument for probability in any strict sense of these words.” For this reason, the cumulative case method is a many-step approach. Logic, history, science, and philosophy all stand on equal ground. This means, according to Feinberg, that “one may start with any element of the case, and depending on the response, appeal may be made to some other element to support or reinforce the claim that Christianity is true.” Note that the goal here is not to merely argue in favor of a particular Christian belief (such as the existence of God), but rather is a defense of the entire biblical worldview.
The Presuppositional Approach
There have been several approaches to apologetics with the nickname presuppositional, including the work of Gordon Clark, Carl F. H. Henry, E. J. Carnell, and Francis Schaeffer. Though there are notable differences in the work of these apologists, they all share a common fundamental principle, namely that the presupposition of the truth of Christianity has maximal explanatory power. Only Christianity explains and accounts for both creation and corruption, our longings for truth, good, beauty, and justice, and it takes evil seriously. No strand of presuppositionalism is better known than the approach of Cornelius Van Til. For Van Til, Christianity alone is the key to unlocking human experience. Logic, beauty, the fundamental assumptions underlying modern science, morality, and human dignity are rendered meaningless unless grounded in the biblical worldview of creation-fall-redemption. Van Til himself believed this was best argued indirectly, not by direct appeals to supposedly-neutral evidence, but by showing the non-Christian that their own worldview assumptions destroyed meaning itself. This indirect approach leaves Christianity as the last man standing and the strongest proof for the faith.
Each approach (along with alternatives not mentioned here) has strengths and weaknesses. They grow from valid concerns, highlighting various biblical emphases. Yet each retains exegetical and philosophical challenges. This is not to offer any kind of methodological relativism, (For example, I have gone on the record with what I perceive to be misunderstandings of presuppositionalism) rather it is to say that we can keep learning and keep growing as we listen to one another.
For those interested in further study of the various approaches to apologetics, works such as Brian K. Morley’s Mapping Apologetics: Comparing Contemporary Approaches, James K. Beilby’s Thinking About Christian Apologetics: What It Is and Why We Do It, and Kenneth Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr’s Faith Has Its Reasons: Integrative Approaches to Defending the Christian Faith are excellent resources to have on your shelf.
The Rising Tide
Gracious Christian debates on methodology spur one another on to deeper levels of intellectual discipleship (Hebrews 10:24). The goal here is more than pragmatics and rhetoric. We seek to please God with our method, just as we seek to please God in all things. The approaches listed above are all distinct schools of thought on how to best think about and do apologetics. This focus reminds us to be self-conscious and reflective of the basis of our truth claims and the theological basis for them. What is our ultimate standard of truth? What do we believe about the non-Christian and their unbelief? Do arguments prove the truth or corroborate it? Asking yourself these questions is much better than merely picking up any apologetics book and repeating its arguments verbatim.. The ongoing discussion is needed as long as it doesn’t cause us to lose sight of the practical evangelistic function of apologetics: getting out there and sharing the gospel with people who do not know Christ.
It is worth mentioning that no apologetic method is incompatible with the winsome approach I’ve suggested elsewhere (link to first article titled, “Becoming a Winsome Apologist”). Regardless of which method one adopts, there remains a great need amongst Christian defenders to develop the apologetic “soft skills” such as listening, interpersonal communication and wise question asking. These are all tools required for a robust and well-rounded presentation of the faith. Defending the faith is the responsibility of each Christian. it should never be exclusively surrendered to those within the halls of academia. Apologetics strengthens and confirms our faith. It emboldens us for engagement with non-Christians, and it prepares us for the work of missions, evangelism, and cultural engagement.
Let’s show ourselves approved (2 Timothy 2:15), comprehending and commending the gospel with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15, NASB).
 Gary R. Habermas, “Evidential Apologetics,” Five Views on Apologetics Ed. By Steven B. Cowen (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000)., 92.
 Paul Feinberg, “Cumulative Case Apologetics,” Five Views on Apologetics Ed. By Steven B. Cowen (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000., 151.
Published September 19, 2022