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The Limits of Apologetics


The term “apologetics” is typically defined as the religious discipline of defending doctrines through systematic argumentation and discourse. It has nothing to do, of course, with the common concepts apologizing or arguing. And it has an honorable tradition, in Christianity, going back at least as far as the Apostle Paul’s trial in Acts 26. But while apologetics is conceptually legitimate, there are risks. Most crucially, the apologist can assume that which needs to be proved.

Because apologetics involves systematic argumentation it certainly appears as if the activity is all about proving, not assuming. But this is not always what happens. To see that, let’s begin by considering the somewhat analogous process of a lawyer defending a client. First, ask yourself what the reasons might be for retaining legal counsel. An obvious one would be to “level the playing field”. That is, the law is complex and navigating it requires expertise. If you were charged with some crime you did not commit there would be a significant risk that your lack of legal competence could result in an unjust conviction. So you would want representation by someone who would know the law as well or better than those accusing you. Then you would also want that person to be skilled in argumentation so he or she could explain your defense better than you could. Without this expertise-leveling action a defendant might not receive a fair trial. Thus legal representation is usually necessary, and those who supply the expertise – lawyers – are engaged in an honorable activity and profession. But here too there is risk, frequently occurring in real life, that the legal profession might cross the line from the above-described role and into the task of getting their client “off” by whatever means and argumentative moves the lawyer can get away with. This would include stalling, trying to make the case too expensive for the other side to pursue, making specious arguments that, however weak, might confuse and persuade a jury, etc. Lawyer jokes and a checkered reputation are anecdotal testimony to the general belief that lawyers can indeed slide into dishonorable practices.

Now let me try and disentangle two concepts: “truth seeking” and “position defense”. Religionists implicitly, at minimum, want to believe that they are truth-seeking. And any apologetics engaged in is thus presumably in defense of historical truths, not merely positions. So, while apologetics is not really in the business of seeking new truth, it is presumably fully compatible with truth-seeking when it makes a case for some assumed existing truth(s). Similarly, legal representation might not be in the “who done it” business (truth seeking), but it presumably is in the compatible business of proving the defendant is truly innocent (position defense). But these two activities can and do become separated from each other. And position defense in apologetics also can and sometimes does leave truth behind to focus exclusively on winning the positional battle with whatever means are available. And, in this religious context, I think such separation can occur even without recognition by the apologist.

This problem was famously considered by Plato, most notably in his dialog Gorgias. The “plot” (such as it is) depicts a dinner gathering honoring a famous Sicilian sophist named Gorgias (an actual historical figure), and details a conversation between Socrates and Gorgias concerning the true definition of rhetoric. Sounds like a real yawner, I know, but bear with me. First, a couple of definitions. A sophist was a teacher for hire in ancient Greece who specifically focused on teaching rhetoric, defined as the art of persuasion. Being good at persuasion was important in ancient Greece because it was advantageous in law and politics. The complaint Socrates had, and pushed back on Gorgias in the dialog, is that rhetoric should never be, but often is, isolated from moral underpinnings. But Gorgias, and many of his contemporaries, positioned themselves as teachers of a technique, something one could learn in isolation from the purposes for which it might be employed. And it is the abuse of such technique that has caused the word “sophistry” to enter our language and mean: “the use of fallacious arguments, especially with the intent to deceive”. In the dialog, Socrates catches Gorgias in an inconsistency. Gorgias wanted to claim, on the one hand, that he was always teaching rhetoric toward honorable ends; while on the other hand, admitting that he would teach anyone who came along, without regard to the ends they might use rhetorical skill for.

So, however abstract all this might sound, the core concern is very important and universal. It applies not just in ancient Greece, but to the contemporary legal profession and also and especially – for my purposes here – to apologetics. Now, while many believers have no problem in agreeing that there exist shyster lawyers, it is more difficult – except for marginal cases[1] – to believe that religious apologists intend to deceive. And I generally have no quarrel with this. In apologetics I think that, when it slides into illegitimate territory, such boundary-crossing is typically not done deliberately. However, that is no absolution.

A potentially serious problem in religious argumentation, which is largely absent in the legal context, is when the audience for the apologetic enterprise shifts from external to internal. That is, instead of “be[ing] prepared … to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Pet. 3:15 NIV) to a non-believer, as Paul did on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22ff), the apologetics is instead targeted toward believers – people who already agree with the conclusion(s) you are arguing for. Now I’m not suggesting that apologetics toward this audience is illegitimate, per se. But there is a substantial risk when the obvious check-and-balance of a presently-unpersuaded audience is replaced by people who already believe the position you are arguing for. And often, they provide incentive for the arguer to reach that desired conclusion[2].

So let me drill down into what I believe the illegitimacy consists of. It involves, at minimum:

1) bad arguments

2) selective use of data

3) assuming what actually needs to be proved

This last point can occur when one is “positioned”. This is different from having a position on some topic. It means you think your position is right, and unassailably so. Thus you would resist counter-arguments instead of openly considering them, as pure truth-seeking would encourage. To state this with a mathematical term – you view your position as axiomatic. A starting point that doesn’t need to be proven. And, as this sort of positioning is considered above falsification, it is then easier to legitimate – in your own mind – questionable arguments and selective evidence. In my experience I observe people doing this both unwittingly and enthusiastically.

Now, to illustrate. And I choose this illustration with considerable trepidation because it is one of the most hotly contested topics in religious conversation today. Thus I fear many readers will become derailed from my focus and concern about the limits of apologetics, and shift into full-throated defense or attack on the topic I use here for illustration. So, what topic is this? The age of the earth.

Young Earth Creationism (YEC) is viewed by many conservative Christians – including Adventists (who have now enshrined it into SDA Fundamental Belief #6) – as necessary to preserve sound doctrine. And a widely-held view is that, if YEC falls, the gospel itself gets invalidated[3]. Adventists, in addition, have argued that without a literal 7-day creation, the Sabbath doctrine is necessarily invalidated[4]. Such presuppositions, often inferred as axiomatic, by themselves make it problematic to be fully responsive to criticism of the position apologetics is being applied to. And, when you ask who is the target audience (not to mention donor base) of such organizations as Answers In Genesis (AIG) and Institute for Creation Research (ICR), it is clear they are applying their apologetics to an inward-facing audience – people who already believe the arguments and want to continue believing. If this was not already enough cause for concern about the risk of moving into problematic apologetics, consider part of the AIG Statement of Faith (Section 2):

“The Bible is divinely inspired and inerrant throughout. Its assertions are factually true in all the original autographs. It is the supreme authority in everything it teaches. Its authority is not limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes but includes its assertions in such fields as history and science.”

Not all Christians subscribe to inerrancy (Adventists do not) and it is also controversial to peremptorily declare the Bible is the supreme authority in science. But this aside, it should be evident that axioms like this are powerful inhibitions to openly considering counter-arguments against the cherished positions. Indeed, such presuppositions violate the Scientific Method, which is a “follow the evidence” methodology. Thus the above constraints indicate there is a very severe risk that such enterprises are in the business of assuming what must be proved. And the next silent, near-unnoticeable steps would be to move into fallacious argumentation and cherry-picking of evidence.

This, I charge, is exactly what has happened to YEC. The problem in demonstrating my assertion, for those readers who haven’t studied this somewhat broad and difficult scientific discipline adequately, and are pre-disposed to favor YEC for religious reasons, is that anything I might use here to exemplify these charges can find apparent counter-arguments. And showing just why such counter-arguments are specious, demands a deeper and deeper dive into the details. Thus, in my experience, YEC organizations are engaged in a rhetorical game of “whac-a-mole”, that can be adequately satisfying to someone who wants position-reassurance but lacks geological and paleontological literacy. So upon fuller examination such argumentation would ultimately fail. Thus its apologists frequently employ illegitimate methods stated above – bad reasoning and selective evidence – to produce the desired effect: a return to being satisfied with one’s current doctrinal understandings.

Because my goal here is to demarcate the boundaries of legitimate apologetics and caution readers about the dangers of crossing that boundary[5], I will need to mostly defer backing up the charge made in the paragraph above, instead referring readers to the abundance of secondary sources. And one of the best, most accessible source, is the book: “The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah's Flood Explain the Grand Canyon?” This book goes far beyond just looking at the Grand Canyon. It deals with why YEC apologetics suffers from the problems I’ve been articulating here, and lays the case out in a highly lay-readable, scientifically-defensible approach. It is also written mostly by practicing Christians trained in the relevant disciplines. Buy it and read it. Don’t take my (or anyone’s) word – know for yourself.

Just a few more points to consider, then:

1) The overwhelming majority of working geologists and paleontologists believe in an old earth. Why is that? Is this an atheistic conspiracy, as has sometimes been alleged by Christians?[6] In fact, I think you would be very hard-pressed to find any so-called experts who believed in YEC who were not also driven by their religious convictions. And, given the above quote from AIG’s Statement of Faith as an example, such ones evidently have accepted the necessity to constrain any scientific conclusions by religious presuppositions. Now, given that the world is a big place, I wouldn’t be surprised if there might be some scientist(s) somewhere who was YEC and also declared they were not religious and thus their scientific conclusions were not informed by religious doctrinal necessity. But I would ask – where are they? And, if the YEC apologists knew of them, wouldn’t you expect them to be put “on parade” as this would buttress the claim that YEC is scientifically demonstrable? The point is, this evident vacuum of YEC-belief without religious presupposition ought to give the honest observer pause – whatever positions he or she might hold or would prefer to hold.  It should be worrisome circumstantial evidence that YEC might be making its ostensiblly scientific case on cherry-picked evidence. They position their websites as being scientific. But only those who are willing to preemptively trump science with a faith-based viewpoint are in agreement with the positions argued for.

2) This truncated examination has been exemplified, within Adventism, in the various recent “Faith and Science” conferences, hosted by the GC, notably led by President Wilson and supported by his friend and ideological compatriot – E. Edward Zinke. These conferences have pressed the YEC position with hardly a reference to the abundant problems that any broader (and fairer) presentation would try to address. Thus it exemplifies my above concern about selective use of data. And the audience is largely composed of administrators, ministers and teachers, who almost universally lack adequate literacy in the relevant scientific disciplines. Such exercises are apologetics gone bad. Like lawyering with the sole aim of client-defense, truth-seeking is at risk because the truth of YEC is considered axiomatic. But in the world-at-large, it’s quite another story. And some (perhaps many) of the attendees of these conferences have realized this, and felt that they were being propagandized. There are severe, unintended consequences for the integrity of Adventism, when you engage in such activities.

Finally, I would hope even the most ardent YEC-defender could disambiguate my concern for legitimate apologetics from their disagreement with my example. To me, YEC is an egregious and blatant misuse of apologetics. But I use it as an example. So, even if I am terribly mistaken about YEC, and thus my example is also misguided, hopefully we can agree on the legitimacy of Plato’s concern that separating truth-seeking from position-defense is dangerous. And in religion this happens when apologetics is misused, with “Gorgian” techniques employed to advocate for positions that could not otherwise be sustained if a deeper probe was to be undertaken. If we believers really are truth-seekers (a hard-enough question for self-examination) then, while in the short-run we might have some personal confusion and ambiguity, it is too high a price to pay when bad apologetics results in false security by believing too strongly in that which is either mistaken or needs revision.

[1] Usually violent examples, like Jim Jones or David Koresh come to mind. But more typically unethical religious persuasion is used to get money from the faithful. Some recognizable Christian examples in recent memory include Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Harold Camping. But less recent and non-Christian examples include Gugu Maharj Ji and the Beatles’ famous spiritual advisor – Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

[2] Notably monetary reward and affirmation. Within denominations, it’s typically not a great career move to critique orthodoxy. So the critic risks losing employment or at least marginalization. Conversely, providing argumentative affirmation for a cherished religious position can make you popular with the faithful.

[5] Not to mention space constraints.

[6] See, for example, the 2008 self-proclaimed documentary: “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.


Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for

Previous Spectrum columns by Rich Hannon can be found at:

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