Thirty years ago popular Christian apologetics (henceforth PCA) was thin on the ground: Josh McDowell, John Warwick Montgomery, Norman Geisler, and a smattering of others largely carried the field. But these days the field of PCA is crowded with luminaries ranging from distinguished academics (e.g. William Lane Craig; Gary Habermas; Timothy McGrew) to lay church leaders (e.g. Ravi Zacharias; Lee Strobel).
The result has been an explosion of apologetics on the ground in the local church. And it is at this point that I find the current state of affairs decidedly more mixed. With an abundance of William Lane Craig debates, podcasts at Unbelievable and articles at Apologetics 315, the material available for the autodidactic (i.e. self-taught) apologist (henceforth AA) is endless.
And that’s the problem.
With no curation of sources, no external guidance in one’s self study, one ends up merely following through points of self-interest. And the result is a series of massive gaps in education.
For example, the AA might invest extensive time developing arguments to defend biblical inerrancy and intelligent design theory because that reflects his/her needs and interests. As a result, the individual ends up knowing a fair amount about how theologically conservative apologists have developed arguments to defend these claims. (Cynically put, they are adept at reproducing a long list of talking points to establish their case and offer counter rebuttals.)
However, despite the surface patina of intellectual seriousness, the actual case is seriously weak.
The defense of inerrancy is hampered critically by the fact that this person has never studied hermeneutics (i.e. the methods of interpretation). Nor does that individual have any acquaintance with various nuanced theological models of inspiration, models which are essential for providing a meaningful and defensible definition of inerrancy in the first place. Nor has the person studied epistemology, and the extent to which particular modernist epistemologies (e.g. strong foundationalism; evidentialism) have led Christians in the modern era to tying biblical inspiration and authority to some woolly conception of “inerrancy”.
The gaps are equally evident in that defense of intelligent design theory. Here too, the lack of any background in hermeneutics hampers one’s engagement with the biblical text. His/her lack of formal theological study leaves him/her wholly unaware of various models of divine action. Not surprisingly, the individual tends to be unable to appreciate the nuanced difficulties with the God-of-the-gaps problem. One’s lack of formal study in epistemology and philosophy of science leaves him/her unclear on how to engage various theories and models from falsificationism to methodological naturalism.
Sadly, I don’t see the situation changing any time soon. And the responsibility must be borne, at least in part, by the luminaries of this PCA themselves, at least to the extent that they have encouraged the notion that a substantive defense of Christianity can be undertaken whilst bypassing the formal study in fields like biblical studies, theology, and philosophy. To that end, I submit that we present PCA with a serious and sober caveat, one that was famously stated by Alexander Pope:
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.
One more thing: all that I have said applies equally to popular atheistic apologetics. Folks, if you want to critique Christianity, please invest some time studying hermeneutics, biblical studies, and theological studies (not to mention philosophy). By all means, critique Christianity, but do so from the perspective of one who is familiar with the intellectually sophisticated forms of Christian belief. Too many atheists treat their atheistic apologetic enterprise simply as a tortured means of exorcising the fundamentalist demons of their Christian past.