Is Relational Evangelism Enough?
In pursuing a personalized form of apologetics, Alister McGrath may be downplaying the power of old-fashioned logical demonstrations.
by Mark Coppenger
Fewer and fewer Christian apologists believe in “proofs” for God’s existence, and in Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Skeptics Find Faith, Alister McGrath explains why this is a good thing. Distancing himself from promises of certainty, he instead grounds his case in the more modest principle of “inference to the best explanation.” In the absence of “knockdown” arguments, we’re left with “abduction,” the project of making the best sense we can make out of all the data—the “‘meteoric shower of facts'” raining from the sky “like threads that need to be woven into a tapestry” (to quote McGrath, who’s quoting the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay).
There is much wise counsel in these pages. Citing Peter’s message at Pentecost, Paul’s remarks on Mars Hill, and Paul’s legal trial before the Roman procurator Felix, McGrath shows how it’s important to tailor one’s remarks to the audience. Recalling Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon River, he reminds us that establishing facts without providing the larger significance is pointless. He discusses a variety of launch sites for apologetic engagement, including evidence of a fine-tuned universe, “a homing instinct for God,” and “the intuition of hope.” And he both urges and demonstrates the use of personal testimony in apologetics.
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Along the way, McGrath plays off a host of thinkers (e.g., Søren Kierkegaard, Thomas Aquinas, Anthony Flew, Frederick Coplestone, Austin Farrer, Alisdair MacIntyre, Kevin Vanhoozer), and his own language is often dexterous. (An example: “Apologetics aims to convert believers into thinkers, and thinkers into believers.”) He is comfortable appropriating images old and new, whether Plato’s cave or the bar in TV’s Cheers. And he provides fresh ways to look at familiar things, such as when he places C. S. Lewis’s writings on three apologetic paths—”appeal to reason” (Mere Christianity and Miracles); response to “human longing” (The Pilgrim’s Regress and Surprised by Joy); and “appeals to the imagination as the gateway to the human soul” (the Narnia novels).
Though McGrath says that we need to appreciate and appropriate the arguments of traditional apologetics, his heart seems elsewhere. Curiously, he never employs the terms ontological, teleological, or cosmological (preferring to speak, for instance, of “the argument from origination”), though they’ve been mainstays of apologetical discourse for centuries. One wonders why he doesn’t at least tip his hat to these terms, or even to William Paley’s watchmaker analogy…
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