The Importance of Meta Apologetics
The need to explain the meaning of Christian apologetics is not uncommon in the classroom, much less, casual conversation. When introducing the term in the classroom or Bible study, I typically begin by asking about the modern use of our word “apology” to jumpstart a conversation about the older meaning of apology from the Greek word apologia. If I am in a philosophy class this helps clarify what to expect in the reading of the Apology of Socrates by Plato; and if I am in a Bible class it is a way to elaborate on the meaning of 1 Peter 3:15 and connect it to our modern meaning of Christian apologetics. After this simple introduction I typically jump into an overview of the major pillars of Christian faith: existence of God, the inspiration of Scripture, and the deity of Christ. However, the more familiar someone becomes with topics and writers in Christian apologetics, the more relevant another kind of inquiry becomes, that is, of meta apologetics.
To explain meta apologetics let me begin with metaphysics, one of the main branches of philosophy. Metaphysics doesn’t ask about the physical laws that govern nature, but rather asks about the nature of reality itself. Physics may investigate the motion of matter, but metaphysics asks about the nature of matter in the first place. What exists? Matter, non-matter, spiritual things? We exist. Are we purely physical? Are we spiritual? If we are both physical and spiritual how are those connected? Cats, dogs, and trees seem to exist. What about God, angels, and demons? This is the realm of metaphysics - what exists and the study of existence itself. Unfortunately, I did not have the best of introductions to metaphysics in college and was ready to give it up. I remember spending a week talking about holes: What is a hole? Is it the absence of something? Is it the “hole lining” around the “hole”? I concluded that this must be what Paul was referencing in Colossians when he warned against the philosophies of men. Nevertheless, I persevered and have come to appreciate the importance of metaphysical questions in general, and in regard to Christian apologetics specifically.
Putting “meta” in front of “apologetics” is similar to putting “meta” in front of “physics”; meta apologetics asks the larger questions about the structure and approach to apologetics in the first place. It asks questions like: What is the basis for our arguments for the truth of Christianity? Is apologetics grounded in reason or faith? What is the relationship between faith and reason? Is our foundation for apologetics Scripture, philosophy, science, or history? What role does our subjective experience have in our formulations of an apologetic? This list is not exhaustive but rather gives you an idea of the kind of inquiry that happens in meta apologetics. It is an opportunity to “zoom out” on the big picture and see how we approach the fundamental pillars of Christian faith.
Although it is only recently that I have returned to a focus on meta apologetics, I read a formational handbook on apologetics years ago that is still one of my favorite books on my shelf because it clarifies these kinds of meta apologetic questions and provides a framework in which to understand the variety of approaches, and the variety of apologists, in Christian apologetics. This handbook, Faith Has Its Reasons: An Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity by Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman, provides an overview of dominant approaches to apologetics. The authors categorize these dominant approaches as: classical apologetics, evidentialist apologetics, reformed apologetics, and fideist apologetics. These are not purely arbitrary but do overlap and could be divided, or subdivided, in different ways.
Let me attempt to summarize each dominant approach in a sentence (which will neither be sufficient nor satisfying). Classical apologetics stress reason; evidentialist apologetics stress empirical and historical facts; reformed apologetics stress revelation and certain theological presuppositions; and fideist apologetics stress faith. While these may all have the same target, the approach of each is very different. Once this larger framework is in place, it can aid in understanding different apologists and why they make the arguments in the way that they do. It can also lead to more sophisticated distinctions that clarify the reasons for disagreements within Christian apologetics. With these approaches as a framework, you can clearly see how C. S. Lewis or Peter Kreeft fit into a classical apologetic that stresses logic and reason; or you can understand why Lee Strobel, as a journalist, naturally gravitated toward an evidentialist approach that stresses verifiable facts. With these approaches as a framework, you can better understand the work of John Calvin or Alvin Plantinga and the reformed presuppositions of faith that inform their work; or you can make better sense of the Christian existentialism that Kierkegaard highlights or appreciate Pascal’s Wager for what it is intended to be.
Each of these approaches has their own set of strengths and weaknesses which is why Boa and Bowman conclude their handbook with a section on integrative approaches. Integrative approaches take the best that each view has to offer and seeks to build a powerful and comprehensive apologetic. This is another important reason to give meta apologetics attention: We all come to faith in different ways and find some reasons for our faith more appealing than others. Having a view of the “big picture” questions of apologetics better informs our own journey of seeking understanding and also makes us better prepared, more versatile, and more effective in our own evangelistic efforts to share the truth with others. While there is no doubt that we must move on to the important pillars of Christian apologetics, it is worthwhile to pause and reflect o n the topic of meta apologetics so as to make us all the more effective in our defense for the hope that is within us.
Matthew Sokoloski received a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Arkansas, an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Mississippi, and a M.A. in New Testament from Freed-Hardeman University. He presently serves as assistant professor of Humanities at Faulkner University.
Boa, Kenneth D. and Robert M. Bowman Jr. Faith Has Its Reasons: An Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity. 2nd. Edition. 2006.