Friday, November 25, 2011


A friend of mine recently asked me to take a look at Gregory Koukl’s Tactics, an introduction to apologetic methodology from a Christian perspective. He plans to give it to his teenage brother for Christmas. I hadn’t heard of the author or book before, though I could see that both have received favorable reviews from the Christian community (link). After reading the book, I can see why. Mr. Koukl is clearly a bright and experienced philosopher (link).

As this book is designed to be accessible to all laymen, his style of writing is popular rather than scholarly. Furthermore, it isn't a defense of Christianity so much as a beginner's guide on how to think, query, and act to become someone who is confident that what he believes is true. It reminded me of the adage: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. So the focus on the fundamentals doesn’t take away from the points he makes; on the contrary, though I understand why he placed limitations on what he covered, I rather wish he had delved deeper into some issues. The prospective buyer should be aware that the book is primarily designed to teach Christians how to do defend the rationality of Christianity rather than to show its necessity. Insofar as it attempts to defend the rationality of Christianity, it purports to engage and refute claims which would undermine this. I believe Mr. Koukl expects his reader to turn elsewhere to look for an extensive explanation of the necessity of Christianity or what one might call "positive" apologetics. Nevertheless, taking all things into consideration I would give the book a 4/5 and say it is worth picking up if you know little about fancy topics like epistemology (the study of knowledge) and want to expand your mind to better equip yourself to defend the faith. Here are some thoughts:

Broad Areas of Agreement

It was very interesting to note with how much Mr. Koukl would agree with a Scripturalist like myself. He emphasized the necessity of knowledge and argumentation over shallowness and comfort. He believes faith and knowledge are “companions” rather than opposites; faith is belief, not ignorance. He even correctly defends the idea that our knowledge is univocal with God’s knowledge because, given that God is omniscient, to affirm otherwise would lead to skepticism.

This is a problem because skepticism is self-defeating. His goal to put a “stone in the shoe” of the unbeliever is meant to illustrate his focus on showing the inconsistency in another’s worldview before attempting to demonstrate the consistency of and evidence for the Christian worldview. Parenthetically, as a Calvinist, he demonstrated an understanding as to how apologetics relates to evangelism: men are responsible for communicating the truth, not soul-winning. God causes growth.

Returning to how he goes about showing a position to be inconsistent, this is to be accomplished primarily by means of reducing it to absurdity via Socratic questioning. This is excellent advice and has worked well for me, as it neatly leads a person to the logical conclusion of a statement without it being possible for him to argue that his words were being taken out of context. At worst, one is just asking questions for the sake of learning about someone else's beliefs.

He intersperses a few other examples of self-defeating positions throughout the book: logical positivism, religious pluralism, Hinduism, secular moral absolutism &c. These are the sorts of examples those who are just starting to learn about apologetics will find most interesting.

All of this points to a fundamental divide between Christian and non-Christian worldviews which needs to be addressed, and while he is confident in the supremacy of the Christian worldview, he cautions the reader against prideful behavior. At the same time, he understands sharp rebukes are sometimes necessary and explains how to deal with people who continue to heatedly disagree for personal rather than rational reasons. His last chapter provides some practical advice on how to be an “ambassador for Christ,” though I disagree with him when he says “Christian lingo” shouldn’t be used with unbelievers, as what that constitutes is rather subjective and possibly detrimental to maturity.

He suggests several neutral or inoffensive prefaces to disagreements or questions when one wishes to depart on good terms with another. He then shows how to redirect accusatory questions meant to paint an ugly picture of the Christian by addressing the underlying premises which logically led to that conclusion. He recommends finding common ground and explaining how, with respect to the two worldviews, the Christian alone can logically account for his belief.

On the other hand, the Christian can always thank someone for their thoughts and ask that time be taken for reflection if he is not able to think of a response to a particular question or argument. The individual is always in control of his side of the conversation.

Interacting with the finer points of logical analysis, he stresses the importance of examining the central thesis of an argument for factual accuracy, possible fallacies, and implications. He further provides many examples of how to question a person’s conclusions discern these. He notes that dealing with logically prior objections can undercut a present objection just as showing that two objections are incompatible cuts in half the number of arguments which need to be addressed.

In short, Mr. Koukl provides some very useful apologetic tips and does well to counsel believers not to be afraid of adverse worldviews. This is just a brief overview of the better aspects of the book. One should turn to the actual book for details and numerous examples.


1. I found it odd that Mr. Koukl, a Calvinist, would have a problem with determinism, but on pg. 128 he writes:

It always strikes me as odd when people try to advance arguments for determinism. Let me tell you why.

Determinists claim that freedom is an illusion. Each of our choices is fixed, determined beforehand be the circumstances that precede it. All of our “choices” are inevitable results of blind physical forces beyond our control.

The problem with this view is that without freedom, rationality would have no room to operate. Arguments would not matter, since no one would be able to base beliefs on adequate reasons. One could never judge between a good idea and a bad one. One would only hold beliefs because he had been predetermined to do so.

This is, of course, a false dichotomy. Naturalistic determinism and an undefined “freedom” are not the only alternatives. Divine determinism is an option - the only option, in fact - one which I’ve repeatedly defended (link). As to his specific criticism of determinism, since beliefs can be determined on the occasion of having examined the reasons for two different positions, it is the case that one can be determined by God to point to the reasons why such and such is logical and ought to be believed.

2. In what he calls the “professor’s ploy,” Mr. Koukl suggests a student use Socratic questioning on a “superior force” such as a professor who is taking “potshots at Christianity.” In this way, the student can both learn the professor’s reasons for thinking little of Christianity and test the merits of such thinking. The “ploy” comes when he gives an example of how a professor might attempt to shift the burden of proof to the student, challenging him to disprove what has been said. This is what Mr. Koukl advises the student say in reply (pg. 67):

Professor, I actually haven’t said anything about my own view, so you’re just guessing right now. For all you know, I could be on your side. More to the point, my own view is irrelevant. It doesn’t really matter what I believe. Your ideas are on the table, not mine. I’m just a student trying to learn. I’m asking for clarification and wondering if you have good reasons. That’s all.

Now, a good way to get on a professor’s bad side is for a know-nothing student to tell him he’s guessing. A better way to get on a professor’s bad side is for the know-nothing student to tell him that he’s guessing about the student’s “own view,” when the fact is the professor has only challenged the student to refute what the professor has said. The professor didn’t guess what side the student was on and could very easily point this out. Not only does this embarrass the student, but it is out of character with the rest of Mr. Koukl’s book which preaches patience and politeness.

Actually, the student’s reply also doesn’t work because everyone has a point of view, so everyone has a burden of proof. Socratic questioning is a good apagogic tool, but it is my opinion that Mr. Koukl is more adept at refuting non-Christian worldviews than defending his own. Of course, since Mr. Koukl does the former very well, this is not to say he performs the latter with little skill. But suggesting that an apologetic “babe,” as it were, try to take on a professor in so blunt a fashion is likely to hurt the student more than give him confidence.

The point is that Mr. Koukl tries to walk a fine line between epistemic humility, inoffensiveness, and exerting effort to “win someone over” (pg. 73). He does the job better than most, but there are some lapses. There are a few examples of this throughout the book, but to take just one in keeping with what has been said the above, in the chapter following the professor’s ploy (pg. 72), Mr. Koukl writes:

Questions are your arrows. Your target will be different in different situations. Sometimes your goal will be to defeat what you think is a bad argument or a flawed point of view. Your questions will be “aimed” at that purpose. Or you may want to use questions to indirectly explain or advance your own ideas.

While I don’t disagree with any of this, when this is read just after an example in which a student chides a professor for insinuating that his questions are meant to lead to conclusions contrary to those the professor is advancing, I have to wonder just how Mr. Koukl thought the professor was supposed to correctly infer when a barrage of questions are “aimed” at gathering information, when they are “aimed” at refuting a position, and when they are “aimed” at advancing one’s own position. He never explains how one does this. Yet instead of advising that the student reply to the professor that he was only attempting to gather information – a reply certainly more in line with Mr. Koukl’s position on cordiality – the written reply basically tried to show up the professor.

3. There is distinct tension between a couple of statements Mr. Koukl makes. After citing Acts 17:2-4, he writes (pg. 35):

Simply put, you can argue someone into the kingdom. It happens all the time. But when the arguments are effective, they are not working in a vacuum.

I agree, through the phrasing is awkward. The key point is that arguments play a central role in conversion. “Argument” doesn’t refer to vehement disagreement but rather a case for the truth of a [set of] statement[s]. But on pg. 55, Mr. Koukl writes:

Most people who believe in the authority of the Bible did not come to this conviction through argument, but through encounter… I came to believe the Bible was God’s Word in the same way I suspect you did. I encountered the truth firsthand and was moved by it. If you want skeptics to believe in the Bible, don’t get into a tug-of war with them about inspiration.

In the first citation, we read that arguing someone into the kingdom “happens all the time.” In the second, we read that “most people” aren’t convicted of biblical authority by argumentation. The context of the latter statement makes it possible that “argument” refers to vehement disagreement, but if so, it would be different from every other time it is used in the book. At the very least I would have used different wording. Or perhaps Mr. Koukl thinks that one can be argued into believing the gospel but not argued into believing that the source by which the gospel is known, Scripture, is authoritative. That would be a strange position. Regardless, I also think he overly minimizes the issue of biblical inspiration. More on this in the next point.

4. On pg. 144, Mr. Koukl makes one of the very few positive assertions one will find in the book:

The fact is, mankind is made in the image of God and must live in the world God created.

Unfortunately, he does not elaborate much on how he knows this. This leaves the reader with a feeling that something is wanting. Let’s apply Mr. Koukl’s “Columbo” to this statement: what does Mr. Koukl mean by “God”? In what sense are we allegedly in God’s “image”? How does he know either of these? Is Scripture the ground of his claim? Why should anyone believe Scripture’s metaphysical claims? Just because some of what is in Scripture is correct would not mean all of it is correct, right? Inductive reasoning is a formal fallacy, is it not? Why would prophecy, for example, be a proof of rather than merely an evidence for Scriptural infallibility or inerrancy? Or suppose Jesus was resurrected – does that necessarily mean He died for my sin?

How might Mr. Koukl respond to these questions? Well, we get some small indication in the next two pages:

We start with guilt, then reason back to morality and a moral lawgiver. We start with evidence for design, then reason back to a designer. We start with personal worth and significance, then reason backward to the source of all meaning. We start with reality, then reason backward to a cause that makes the best sense of what people already know to be true.

As is evident, Mr. Koukl is obviously a fan of classical apologetics (cf. pgs.53-54). This is effect-to-cause reasoning, or what might be called a bottom-up process. The problem with this sort of philosophic methodology is that in the last analysis it is inferential question-begging. Mr. Koukl very early in his book affirms the importance of knowledge, but when it comes to presenting a positive apologetic or case for Christianity in particular, we have, at best, “plausibility” and “probability.” Does knowledge consist in mere plausibility or probability? No. So these sorts of arguments leave open the option for an individual to reserve the right to suspend belief in Christianity. This is evident when Mr. Koukl writes on pg. 65 that:

There are only a few exceptions to the burden-of-proof rule, and they are usually obvious. We are not obligated, for example, to prove our own existence, to defend self-evident truths (e.g., denial of square circles), or to justify the basic reliability of our senses. The way things appear to be are probably the way they actually are unless we have good reason to believe otherwise. This principle keeps us alive every day. It doesn’t need defending.

Set aside the problems with empirical epistemologies and questions such as what is the meaning of “existence,” how does one gauge how plausible or probably a claim is, and what constitutes a self-evident truth. The main point is: if these really are all self-evident and known, why does Mr. Koukl think I should believe what may not be true? If the Christian worldview is not necessary, Mr. Koukl’s entire book is for naught.

The problem with classical apologetics is that it begs questions only answerable by defending certain first principles. “If there is moral law, there must be a moral lawgiver,” “If we sense an intricate, artful universe, then it must have been intelligently designed,” and “If the universe began to exist, then it must have been created” all may or may not be valid arguments, but the more important question is how one can verify the if-statements. Such requires examining the premises upon which the if-statements are constructed. And so on with the premises of those premises until one realizes the necessity of first principles. But once one realizes this, he may as well just become a presuppositionalist.

Classical apologetics may be useful in pointing out that a person’s beliefs, if true, would require God in order to justify those beliefs; however, since in response to this all the unbeliever would have to do is change his beliefs, what needs to be challenged is the ultimate basis upon which those beliefs are purportedly derived.

So not only can a top-down epistemology, where one begins with certain presuppositions and deduces theorems from there, avoid inferential question-begging and establish the necessity of a Christian worldview, it confronts the unbeliever with a foundational choice: knowledge and Christianity or a self-defeating alternative. I’ve written about Scripturalism elsewhere on this blog (cf. the links below); my focus here is that of the focus of Tactics: to show the appropriate method of argumentation rather than the argumentation per se.

Aside from the throwaway paragraph on self-evident truths cited above, pg. 32 seems to me to be the only other place in which Mr. Koukl may have alluded to presuppositionalism:

A different thing is necessary before we can accurately know what God is saying through his Word. Yes, the Bible is first in terms of authority, but something else is first in terms of the order of knowing: We cannot grasp the authoritative teaching of God’s Word unless we use our minds properly. Therefore the mind, not the Bible, is the very first line of defense God has given us against error.

For some of you this may be a controversial statement, so let’s think about it for a moment. In order to understand the truth or the Bible accurately, our mental faculties must be intact and we must use them as God intended. We demonstrate this fact every time we disagree on an interpretation of a biblical passage and then give reasons why our view is better than another’s. Simply put, we argue for our point of view, and if we argue well, we separate wheat from chaff, truth from error.

On this basis, Mr. Koukl concludes that “[reason] is the tool we use in our observations of the world that helps us separate fact from fiction…”

At best, this section is confusing. Taking the argument in order, Mr. Koukl first states that “we cannot grasp the authoritative teaching of God’s Word unless we use our minds properly.” So far as he is describing the historical process by which we come to know a proposition is true, I agree. So far as his second paragraph is designed to support the above premise, I can agree with that as well.

His conclusion however, is that “the mind, not the Bible, is the very first line of defense God has given us against error.” Now, this seems to me to be trading on an ambiguity between the historical process by which we come to know a proposition and the justificatory process by which we come to know a proposition. The former refers to the means by which we come to know a proposition. The latter refers to the grounds by which we come to know a proposition. Both are necessary for a sound epistemology. I have explained this distinction elsewhere on this blog. See here:

…for Scripture to be the ground of knowledge also presupposes that it provides an account of the means by which one knows that which God has revealed. Deducing [from Scripture] the historical process by which one comes to accept the axiom of revelation is as important as recognizing that such a deduction cannot circularly function as a premise by which the axiom of revelation becomes, oxymoronically, a conclusion.

Or here:

Having offered his case as to why alternative first principles yield logical inconsistencies and are therefore incapable of functioning as a sound basis for an epistemic system, Clark customarily presented his own first principle for inspection; that is, “the Bible is the Word of God.” Clark’s definition of Scripture and God as well as relevant biblical texts can be found in the Westminster Confession. This comprises what might be called the ground of knowledge. The propositions contained in the Bible collectively form the content of what one is able to, at present, tenably know. Distinguishable from this is the means of knowledge, the historical process by which one gains access to Scriptural propositions. Consistent with his deterministic theology, Clark, following in the footsteps of Augustine, Malebranche, and other Christian philosophers, supported the doctrine of efficient, divine illumination. Hence, one can gain access to the so-called world of Ideas because universal propositions can be mediated to his mind from God’s. On this theory, the role of sensation or experience in knowledge acquisition is at most an occasional stimulant.

Clark submitted that anthropological considerations and linguistics explain the reason man is able to understand God’s thought. Man is the image of God, so the structure of man’s mind images that of God. Logic “is the characteristic of God’s thinking,” so that man’s thoughts may be univocal with God’s is unsurprising. Because man possesses the necessary a priori equipment in order to think logically, persons are able to communicate by knowing the idea which a given word symbolizes.

Scripture as divinely inspired (here we see the importance of biblical inspiration) comprises the extant extent of what can currently be know. Taking as our first principle the Protestant canon as God’s word provides us with an epistemic system in which knowledge is possible. What claims can be derived from Scripture are those claims which alone can justifiably be referred to as known. This is the sense in which Scripture is the ground of knowledge and the reason I would argue that it’s clearer to regard Scripture as our first line of defense against error.

I suppose in another sense our minds might be considered the first line of defense against error. After all, it is my mind which assents to the truth of Scripture. Historically, I believe the Protestant canon to be God's word because God regenerated me, and as a regenerate I hear and submit to the voice of my Shepherd. This is the “encounter” to which Mr. Koukl alluded in point 3 above. But the fact is that Scripture, since it is the ground or basis of all knowledge, is necessary to justify this historical process. If the historical process by which one comes to know a proposition is not found in Scripture, then I would be unable to demonstrate how I came to know any proposition. This would fall under the category of “practical suicide,” as Mr. Koukl would call it (pgs. 128-129). So both the historical and justificatory or means and grounds of knowledge are necessary. But the former are known by means of the latter. This satisfies the self-attestation principle Mr. Koukl seeks.

Turning for a final look at Mr. Koukl’s view, he is adamant that he is neither a rationalist (pg. 33) nor an empiricist (pg. 204). Strictly speaking, he is correct. He is not purely either but rather a mix of both. This is obvious from his list of self-evident truths. He bases faith on reason rather than reason on faith [in God’s word as one’s fundamental first principle], and for the reasons already mentioned, this doesn’t work.

Again, these points are deeper than the beginner may be wont to hear or able to understand. Every apologist began somewhere. Mr. Koukl’s book is very well written for its purpose, though I hope my reservations are well-taken.

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