The defense of biblical faith
Writing a Westminster apologetics paper teaches you to engage a non-Christian position from a Christian presuppositional approach. You are required to represent the opposing viewpoint fairly and charitably, to expose the problems and incompatibilities within the opposing viewpoint, and to demonstrate how the Christian faith resolves those problems and incompatibilities.
Apologetics is the reasoned defense and commendation of the faith. It is grounded in the Apostle Peter’s exhortation to the early Christian community:
“Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense [apologia] to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15 ESV).
Apologetics makes a variety of arguments, including direct appeals to Scripture, dismantling of unbelief on its own grounds, and the witness of history, all within a worldview rooted in God’s nature and revelation.
The world is a complex of connections. No portion of reality exists in abstraction but is always joined to the rest of the whole. This interconnectedness of reality means that consideration of a portion of reality always entails assumptions about the nature of reality as a whole.
A presuppositional (or transcendental) approach to apologetics seeks to uncover the assumptions upon which a person’s arguments rest and asks whether that person’s assumptions have a legitimate foundation. This approach seeks to evaluate the compatibility between a stated position and the outworking of that position, either philosophically or experientially. It asks,
Every argument against the Christian worldview entails basic assumptions that can only be grounded in the Christian position (“borrowed capital”). A presuppositional approach seeks to demonstrate this incongruity and to use it to commend the truthfulness of the Christian position.
For more on the presuppositional approach to apologetics, listen to Dr. K. Scott Oliphint’s lecture “What Is Presuppositional Apologetics?” or consult the apologetics resources listed below. The other pages in this section give you the tools to begin writing an apologetics paper.
The first step to writing a successful apologetics paper is to select a topic. The topic will usually be a non-Christian position or a position within Christianity that you believe is inconsistent and wish to dispute.
It is usually easier to write this type of paper if you select a position that is far removed from the Christian worldview, rather than one in which differences between your position and your “opponent” are more difficult to recognize. Choose a topic that interests you, one that you already know something about, or one that represents a position that is gaining popularity today.
Regardless of your choice, you would normally narrow your focus to a specific representative text you want to engage. For example, the topic of atheism is too broad to engage in a single essay. As a more specific alternative, you might interact with the atheism by discussing a chapter in Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great. Selection of a narrow topic will make your reading, research, and writing much more manageable.
Your primary responsibility is to understand your opponent’s basic concerns with sympathy and with accuracy. Your strong disagreement with the opposing view will become a hindrance if you are unable to suppress your personal feelings, with the result that you will be unlikely to truly understand him. As you read, you also want to discern what sources of truth your opponent values and does not value.
You should spend the majority of your research time carefully listening to and analyzing this primary text.
Only when you have carefully read through your primary text should you consult secondary material. As you consider how to engage the opposing view, you may find it helpful to read how others have done so, but be careful not to allow secondary research to substitute for your own thoughtful engagement!
You can find helpful material in books, journal articles, or book reviews. Because the apologetics paper is primarily a conversation between you and the opposing view, you will not normally need a large number of secondary sources.
Your research will often turn up many points on which you will disagree with the opposing view (historical facts, logical implications, interpretations of the Bible, and so on).
However, you must resist the urge to get distracted by peripheral details and focus instead upon the most foundational, most basic points of disagreement. Often these points have to do with the opposing author’s approach to knowledge (epistemology).
Your goal should be to discern the basic worldview of the opposing author and to understand the epistemological implications of that worldview. Your argumentation will follow from this foundational understanding of the opposing view.
The basic structure of a transcendental (presuppositional) argument is as follows:
1. For the sake of argument, assume the opposing view to be true. Ask whether the implications of that worldview are consistently worked out by the author you are reading.
Effectively, you are saying to the author, “Given your view of the world, here are the standards that must govern your thinking. Those standards do not allow you to affirm what you want to affirm.” You are seeking to show that the epistemological implications of the unbelieving position’s presuppositions are in conflict with the affirmations of the position itself.
2. Having shown how the opposing view is inconsistent with its own assumptions, demonstrate how the Christian position resolves the contradiction inherent in the unbelieving view.
Specifically, if the opposing view has assumed or advocated things which can only be grounded in the Christian worldview, show how the Christian worldview successfully integrates those assumptions and concerns. In thus unfolding the worth of the biblical worldview, you invite the unbeliever to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).
An important part of apologetic research and writing involves recognizing, avoiding, and challenging logical fallacies. A logical fallacy is an error in reasoning. Errors in reasoning are not always evident, so it is important to study the rules of logic in order to be able to recognize fallacious arguments.
Structure of an Argument
In arguments, one proposition is supposed to follow logically and to be supported or established by the others. Arguments must consist of more than one proposition, but an argument is not simply a collection of loosely related propositions. An argument must have at least one premise and one conclusion. The conclusion is the central or leading claim or thesis, and the premises are the support for that claim. These may appear within a single sentence, or as separate sentences. A given proposition may serve as a premise or a conclusion, depending on how it functions in an argument. In the arguments below, “All men are mortal” serves first as a premise and then as a conclusion.
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
All living creatures are mortal.
All men are living creatures.
Therefore, all men are mortal.
The relationship between premises and conclusion is called inference. Inference is the process by which the conclusion is arrived at and affirmed on the basis of supporting premises.
Validity and Soundness
Logicians differentiate between the validity and the soundness of an argument. An argument is said to be valid if the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises. For an argument to be sound, however, it must both be valid in its structure and rest on true premises. For example, consider the following argument:
If there is no justice on earth, then God cannot exist.
There is no justice on earth.
Therefore, God does not exist.
The argument is formally valid but is unsound because it rests on false premises. (It is not true that absence of earthly justice entails the nonexistence of God. Nor is it true that there is no justice on earth.)
Consider the following argument:
If God exists, then moral absolutes exist.
Moral absolutes exist.
Therefore, God exists.
This argument, as it is here structured, is fallacious (not valid), regardless of the truth value of its premises. The first premise does not state that the existence of God is the only sufficient condition for the existence of moral absolutes. Given the first premise, then, the existence of moral absolutes does not require that God exist. There may, in terms of the structure of the argument, be other conditions under which moral absolutes would exist. This is the common fallacy of “affirming the consequent.”
It is normal for apologetics papers to take the form of an essay written in the third person. However, it is acceptable to use other useful formats, such as a dialog or a personal letter addressed to your interlocutor.
Your paper should include a fair and careful summary of the opposing position and incorporate the two basic elements of the transcendental argument. These two basic elements can be worked out in a variety of ways.
One way is to carry out a point-by-point refutation of the opposing view, demonstrating inconsistencies. Or you might engage the opposing view by empathizing with that view’s concerns and showing how only Christian presuppositions can uphold and satisfy these concerns.
Whatever you do, you want to present the gospel in a way that will address the specific concerns of the opposing position. Consult your syllabus and your professor to determine what particular approach is most appropriate for your topic. It is also important at the outset to think of your intended audience. The audience is usually defined for you by the professor. However the audience is defined, this is a piece of persuasive writing. Your aim is to persuade the reader that your position is correct and consistent with biblical truth.
Unfortunately, apologists are often so absorbed in the argument that their writing fails to exhibit Christian humility and grace. The tone of your writing should be peaceable, friendly, and winsome, assuming the best of anyone with whom you disagree and taking pains to avoid sarcasm and other arrogant comments.
Because your primary goal is to present Christ, an unchristian tone or attitude would discredit your presentation. Instead, you must maintain humility before God, before the difficulties of theological and philosophical questions, and before the author to whom you are responding.
For an abbreviated synopsis of the transcendental approach, see Building an Argument. For a fuller description of the transcendental approach, see Apologetics Resources.
One must always be careful to represent opposing arguments accurately and charitably. Accurate representation of an opposing argument is important both to the soundness of your own arguments and to your power to persuade your reader.
A good test to see whether you have fairly represented the opposing view is to ask, “Would a person who holds this position agree with the way I have presented it?” If the answer is no, then you have failed to represent the position adequately. Your representation should be clear and unmixed with critique or argument.
Because the presuppositional approach involves assessing the implications and presuppositions of ideas, analysis entails an inferential movement of thought from what a given writer says to the implications of what is said. Such inference is necessary, but it involves two dangers.
1. The inference may be wrongly assessed.
2. The inference may be correctly assessed, but the implication is treated as if it had been directly stated by the author. If this error is made, you may assign to the author ideas, beliefs, or motives that are foreign to the author’s mind.
For example, you may think that an atheistic worldview fails to provide the ethical grounding for human rights. To charge the atheist author with not caring about human rights may be not only a distortion of his position but an uncharitable personal attack.
Your writing should therefore evidence a clear distinction between what an author explicitly says and what you believe must be the implications of your opponent’s ideas.
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