Lessons In Apologetics, Part 1: Introduction & Agnosticism
By: Frederick Meekins
For anyone pursuing a degree in Apologetics that was given a dollar for every time they were asked “What is that, learning how to say you are sorry” upon answering the question of what it is that they study so many times, many would have financed a considerable portion of their academic pursuits. Unfortunately, such ignorance as to what exactly this theological discipline entails symbolizes the neglect the defense of the faith has fallen into in the contemporary church and is one of the reasons that everywhere the believer and student of religion turns today they find Christianity losing considerable ground both within and without its boundaries to a wide variety of opponents and adversaries. To the serious student of this field of study, one of the best tools around which to build a fundamental understanding of the discipline’s ins and outs is “Christian Apologetics” by Norman Geisler, one of the field’s foremost living practitioners.
Basic to any academic discipline is the approach or methodology which scholars and researchers apply to the subject matter. The field of Apologetics is no different. Geisler lists the methodologies to knowledge in general and about God in particular as agnosticism, rationalism, fideism, experientialism, evidentialism, pragmatism, and combinationalism. In the course of his analysis, Geisler evaluates each in terms of their epistemology regarding religious matters and how these approaches stack up under the weight of being scrutinized by their own criteria.
The first approach to knowledge of God is agnosticism. Coined by T.H. Huxley, the term agnosticism means “no knowledge” and thus contends one is unable to know anything about God (13).
Agnosticism is itself divided into two branches. The one holds that not yet enough conclusive evidence pointing in one direction or the other regarding the existence of God has been gathered. The other holds that God is not knowable.
Of the agnostics that claim God is not knowable, this claim is based upon their understanding of the nature of knowledge. Drawing upon David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and A.J. Ayers’ Language, Truth, & Logic, these agnostics have divided the tree of actual knowledge into two branches.
The first variety of valid statements are analytic statements meaning they are valid by the terms of their definitions. For example, all bachelors are unmarried. The second type of valid statements are known as synthetic and are what we would refer to as matters of fact as they are about empirically gathered data (17).
Geisler writes of the agnostic views regarding talk about God, “For the term ‘God’ is neither analytic nor synthetic; that is, it is neither offered by the theist as an empty contentless definition corresponding to nothing in reality nor is it filled with empirical content since ‘God’ is allegedly a supraempirical being. Hence, it is literally nonsense to talk about God (18).”
To the aspiring apologist hoping to present an objective case for the Christian faith beyond how warm and fuzzy Jesus makes their innards, it may seem that the agnostic methodology has struck an early and potentially crippling blow to this noble effort. However, a bit of careful reflection may even the scales once more between the agnostic and the Christian.
The lofty sounding name given to this epistemology of language is the Verification Principle. If the Christian turns the Verification Principle back on itself, one sees it is self-referentially incoherent as the concept cannot live up to its own criteria as the Verification Principle is neither purely definitional or merely a statement of fact.
Thus to remain consistent, the agnostic must admit that, since our knowledge of the empirical and metaphysical realms is limited, by definition of man’s own finitude, this understanding cannot be totally comprehensive. Of those unwilling to admit God may exist in those reaches man cannot fully fathom, Geisler writes, “And there is simply no way short of omniscience that one can make such sweeping and categorical statements about reality…Hence total agnosticism is only self-defeating. Only an omniscient mind could be totally agnostic and finite men do not possess omniscience (27).”