Is Apologetics a Discipline?

Apologetics booksBrian Huffling, a philosopher of religion at Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES), wrote a provocative essay on his blog in March 2018 entitled “Why Christian Apologetics Is Not a Discipline.” This interesting think piece was brought to my attention today on Facebook. I would recommend reading Huffling’s piece before going further here. My own response to his argument is in the form of sic et non (yes and no).

Let me first summarize the essay. Huffling quotes with approval Winfried Corduan’s comment that “apologetics is not a discipline, it’s a practice.” He echoes Gary Habermas’s recommendation that individuals interested in apologetics pursue a degree “in a discipline, like history, and then do apologetics from that field.” Huffling goes so far as to assert, “Being an expert just in apologetics is to not be an expert in anything.” Apologetics is not itself a discipline, but it is something one does in a particular discipline, as when one does “historical apologetics, scientific apologetics, or philosophical apologetics.” He worries that Christians who pursue apologetics in and of itself will be sloppy, inaccurate, or oversimplistic in their work. No one can be a specialist in every subject area, but a good apologist will be a specialist in some specific area. Huffling advises students at SES who want to do apologetics to major in philosophy because “most apologetic issues are inherently philosophical.”

I do agree in general with Huffling’s advice about specializing in some specific discipline. Indeed, I have often made the same basic point when people have asked me about “going into apologetics.” I always urge people who want to make a serious contribution to the defense of the faith to become thoroughly educated in a discipline such as biblical studies, history, or astronomy. I want to see more biologists, psychologists, film critics, etc., who are Christians pursuing their work from a sound Christian worldview perspective. To use myself as an example, I am an apologist with specialized formal training in biblical studies.

It might prove useful to consider the course offerings in “apologetics” at SES as found in the school’s current catalog (see pp. 62–67). There are courses on world religions and new religious movements; these are essentially courses in religious studies (and indeed are cross-referenced as such). There are courses on science issues and biblical issues (hermeneutics, Jesus’ resurrection, etc.) that can be taken by apologetics students. There are also courses in logic, ethics, God’s relation to time, etc.; these are courses in philosophy, and indeed students can take many different philosophy courses as part of their apologetics program. Philosophy looms large in apologetics as taught at SES, as Huffling’s recommendation to students to study philosophy illustrates. This is not surprising, since SES was founded by a Christian philosopher, Norman Geisler. Not counting Geisler, three of the ten full-time faculty members listed in the catalog are philosophers (pp. 82–83).

One problem with the science-related courses at SES of relevance to Huffling’s concern is that they are not intended to enable the student to become proficient in any scientific discipline. There is an apologetics course surveying science-related issues and four courses on “scientific apologetics” instructing students in intelligent design theory and objections to evolutionary theory. By no means am I criticizing these courses; my point is that if Huffling is correct, these courses are inadequate to prepare students to become good apologists. The only subject areas other than apologetics with course offerings sufficiently robust at SES to make students proficient in those areas are biblical studies and philosophy.

On the other hand, SES has a number of courses in apologetics per se—perhaps more than any other seminary. These include surveys touching on multiple disciplines but also courses on apologetic methods, the history of apologetics, and so on. These courses are not about nothing. A pastor or evangelist or missionary who takes a variety of these courses might indeed be well prepared to do their ministry better. Some of Huffling’s critics on Facebook made this point, and I think it is a reasonable one, though it is not directly germane to his concern regarding those seeking to be full-time apologists.

My main disagreement with Huffling has to do with his assertion that apologetics is not a discipline. Ironically, I would put apologetics in the same category as philosophy, which Huffling views as a legitimate discipline. In my view, apologetics and philosophy are both second-order disciplines. A first-order discipline concerns subject areas of human knowledge such as the sciences, the arts, and theology. A second-order discipline has as its subject or subjects other disciplines, especially first-order disciplines. For example, in philosophy one is studying philosophy of science, philosophy of language, philosophical ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophical theology, and the like. I admit here that I am coming down on the side of the analytic tradition in philosophy, according to which, as Ken Boa and I stated in our apologetics textbook Faith Has Its Reasons, “the task of philosophy is to clarify the meaning of knowledge claims and to assess the rationality of those claims.”[1] Similarly, in apologetics one is studying scientific apologetics, biblical apologetics, and the like. Philosophy and apologetics can even involve the study of one another: much of philosophy of religion examines apologetic arguments for specific religious beliefs, and philosophical apologetics is itself a type of apologetics. One might describe such ventures as third-order subdisciplines, but I don’t know that we need to get that fine-grained. My point is that philosophy and apologetics are both disciplines in their own right that study how to think about knowledge claims in other, more specific disciplines.

It is true, as Huffling points out, that most universities and other schools have teaching positions in philosophy but not in apologetics. This fact might be a good pragmatic reason not to pursue a major in apologetics per se, if one’s goal is an appointment to a full-time faculty position somewhere. However, it is not a good argument against recognizing apologetics as a discipline. Like most if not all disciplines, apologetics is both a discipline and a practice. If I may be permitted to quote again from Faith Has Its Reasons:

What might be called the science of apologetics is the branch of theology that studies matters relating to apologetics and develops apologetic arguments…. The art or practice of apologetics applies what is learned in the science of apologetics.[2]

 

NOTES

[1] Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr., Faith Has Its Reasons: Integrative Approaches to Defending the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 168.

[2] Ibid., 495.

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3 Responses to Is Apologetics a Discipline?

  1. Tamra says:

    His points made sense, and then yours did. Coming out of the Apologetics program at Talbot, anyone who asked about PhD programs was told to pick a specialization. One professor would regularly warn his students that they would most likely never find a job in Apologetics. I knew this going in and was not really looking to join the academic world so an Apologetics Master makes sense for me. I know if I want to continue in academia that I will have to go back to school and pick a specialization. Honestly a big part of why I am not working towards that now is because I wouldn’t be able to decide which direction to go! So now I do apologetics lay ministry, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Apologetics Bonus Links 10/28-10/3 | Apologetics315

  3. Pingback: Is Apologetics A Discipline? A Conversation with Robert Bowman | J. Brian Huffling, Ph.D.

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