Fitch’s Case Against Apologetics (4)

WAYM2In a fascinating exchange (Mar 8/14) on Julie Roy’s Up For Debate program on Moody Radio, David Fitch, Professor of Theology at Northern Seminary (Chicago), squared off against Nancy Pearcey, Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist, on the question “Do Apologetics Help or Hurt Our Witness?” (see here). We’ve previously discussed (and found wanting) Prof. Fitch’s postmodern complaints against evidential apologetics: that it relies on the authority of a biased form of science, is guilty of being presumptuous and disingenuous, and undermines a person’s confidence in their own conversion. Bold claims, to be sure, but not properly established.

In the debate with Nancy Pearcey, we can discern a final, somewhat different complaint. Apologetics makes us defensive, and (as we all know) that’s not good for all sorts of reasons. As Fitch puts it,

What I’d like to get us to think about is the way apologetics trains us into a posture of defensiveness; it trains us to defend – not on the basis of someone saying, “Wow, what’s going on in your life? What accounts for this? It trains us to defend on the basis of attacks that are coming from places that maybe aren’t coming at us. And I don’t think we should do that. I think that we should not assume, and we should enter humbly, vulnerably into culture, and be ready to answer (1).

“My Life” Apologetics

Now this reasoning seems to me to betray confusion. There is an enormous difference between defending a truth claim and being defensive while doing so. Fitch seems to think that the former leads inevitably to the latter. But why so? The issue (for him) is connected with the basis on which one’s claim is defended. One basis—the one Fitch favours—consists in our answering

Question: “What accounts for what I see going on in your life?”

when it’s asked of us. If we restrict ourselves to doing that, all will be well. As Fitch says later in the interview,

In a world that is post-Christendom, we need to start by building communities that can witness to the way of life made possible in Christ, and let that speak to the world, and then the questions come and the witness is made possible. That’s my whole emphasis (2).

We might call this “My Life” Apologetics—an approach initially centering attention on my life, which allegedly avoids a “posture of defensiveness,” and clears the way for a humble and vulnerable entry into culture.

The other basis for doing apologetics, says Fitch, is wholly misguided. It trains believers to defend “on the basis of attacks that are coming from places that maybe aren’t coming at us.” Thus, for example, Christians are routinely told that the concept of God is incoherent because if God were all-powerful, he could create a stone too heavy to lift, which is impossible. Well, let’s say I show you (in advance) how to respond. According to Fitch, I’ve just trained you “into a posture of defensiveness”—a character and relational failing by all accounts. For now when you approach our imagined critic, it will be out of “fear” and “from a place of intimidation.”

“My Life” Problems

There are many things one could say here. Let me just note the most obvious. First, it’s interesting that Fitch favours “My Life” Apologetics (MLA). One of his central criticisms of evidence-based apologetics (see here) is that it “trains us to think we have the answers before listening to the questions” (2). But presumably, training in MLA involves encouraging Christians to answer ‘Question’ before ‘Question’ is asked. Indeed, many churches—Fitch’s own, perhaps—actually equip people to give a personal testimony, which, if you think about it, sets out one’s answer to ‘Question’. But on Fitch’s logic, this is “disingenuous” because then I’m coming “to a new cultural situation armed with an already prepared apologetic” (3)—namely, Fitch’s “My Life” Apologetic.

Second, Fitch presents us with a false dilemma. It’s not either “My Life” Apologetics or apologetics based on attacks from without. The apologist’s defense of a truth claim can proceed in the absence of “attack” altogether. One way to defend (e.g.) the claim that God exists (G) is for me to present undercutting defeaters to your argument that he does not. Thus I might attempt to show that the premises in your argument are false, unreasonable, or in some way lacking in support. Or I might note that the conclusion of your argument, not-G, doesn’t follow appropriately from your premises. This is an example of what Plantinga calls negative apologetics, “where the aim is to defend Christianity against attacks from its detractors” (4).

But there is also positive apologetics, whose audience “is those who are outside the faith, together with those who are looking, together with the unbelieving aspect of every believer” (5). Here I simply offer a positive theistic proof for G. It needn’t be that I’m defending against a not-G attack on G. Rather, by offering supporting reasons for G, I defend my claim that G is true. But clearly, I might do this even if my only audience is myself. So there is a third way between the horns of Fitch’s false dilemma. And since it doesn’t (necessarily) involve defending against an attack, the issue of defensiveness doesn’t so much as arise.

Third, a proper understanding of 1 Peter 3:15 reveals that defending a claim doesn’t entail being defensive. The former is an epistemic matter (harnessing the relevant evidence); the latter involves the separate issue of my character in doing so. Consider, then, Peter’s words. He says to

Honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense (apologia) to anyone who asks you for a reason (logos) for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (ESV).

Here the defense is given in response to a request for a reason. But notice how Peter is careful to add that this defense must be given “with gentleness and respect.” If making a defense entailed being defensive (which, we may assume, involves a failure of gentleness or respect), there would have been no need for Peter to add his “yet” clause. For in that case, it wouldn’t have been possible to be non-defensive while making a defense; in which case, if being defensive is a mark of carnality, what Peter should have told his readers is this: “Don’t make a defense because I want you to be gentle and respectful. But that’s not possible if you make a defense. So don’t.”

Now here, I suspect, Fitch will demur. He has a very different reading of 1 Peter 3:15. According to Fitch, this verse teaches us:

Don’t fear. Don’t come from a place of intimidation. But be ready to – and I don’t think that word should be translated ‘defense’ – be ready to give an account [to] anyone who asks you to account for the hope that is within you, that you are displaying with your life. That’s the posture, I think, of witness (6).

But that doesn’t seem quite right, does it? The passage can’t be saying I’m to give an account to everyone who asks for an account. For the relevant words—the one’s I’ve underlined—aren’t the same in the original. Peter says to give an apologia to those who request a logos—not to give a logos when asked for a logos.

Further, apologia just means “verbal defense” or “speech in defense” (see here). This raises the question: what is it that I’m to defend? On Fitch’s “My Life” Apologetics, the answer can only be “My Life”—roughly, what people admire about me, my character traits, love for others, etc. But then, clearly, MLA misses the mark. For surely I’m not called to defend myself against the charge of good behavior. Nor is my good behavior something for which I need to offer a supporting reason, as though it were a truth claim.

But let’s suppose Fitch is right. Let’s say the incoming request is for an account (logos can be translated that way (7)). Still, it’s important to ask: what kind of account? Well, if you look at how logos is used elsewhere in Peter’s letter, you’ll see that he has in mind a rational or legal justification. Compare, e.g., 1 Peter 4:5 – “but they will give account (logos) to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (8). In any event, what’s obviously not in view is a causal account of how “My Life” came to be so striking. One has the sneaking suspicion, in all of this, that it’s Fitch’s a priori commitment to postmodernism (and the attendant “My Life” Apologetic) that’s driving the strained interpretation here.

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3 comments on “Fitch’s Case Against Apologetics (4)

  1. […] Does Apologetics Make us Defensive? [ link […]

  2. Rich Davis says:

    I think this is a deep insight, Paul. I had not seen this implication. Living an attractive life is a very poor test for truth. It’s a strange Christian apologetic indeed that can provide no basis for favoring Christianity over other religions.

  3. Great post! I think there’s a fourth problem with the “My Life” approach to apologetics. It seems it cannot fully account for the exclusive nature of Christianity. It’s certainly true that the Christian believer’s lifestyle should be attractive to nonbelievers. When others look at how we live, they should be attracted to it. No one is going to contest that! However, given his disdain for evidentiary-based apologetics, it seems that all Fitch is left with is living an attractive life. But surely this can’t be all there is to Christianity because (as Brian McLaren likes to regularly point out) there are a lot of non-Christians who also live in such a way that is attractive to others. If all we have is “My Life” apologetics, then there’s no way to say that Christianity is true and Islam, for example, is not. For surely there are Muslims who also have attractive lifestyles. In order to give reasons for thinking Christianity is true but Islam is false, we have to move beyond My Life apologetics and into evidentiary-based apologetics.

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