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Mapping Apologetics: Comparing Contemporary Approaches

Brian K. Morley
Published by IVP Academic in 2015

Reviewed by Holly Ordway, Apologetics, Houston Baptist University

“Apologetics? What’s that?” Chances are good that anyone who knows enough about the field to be interested in reading this review has heard that question before – perhaps many times. Sometimes it is followed by the joke, “Does that mean you’re apologizing for being a Christian? Ha, ha!” The patient and long-suffering apologist may then explain that the word “apologetics” comes from the Greek “apologia,” meaning “defense,” as in a court of law, and that it is grounded in Scripture passages such as the exhortation of 1 Peter 3:15 that Christians should always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within them. Simple enough, it would seem – but not really. For there are different ways of giving reasons for one’s faith and different approaches to defending the truth, starting from the basic distinction between positive and negative approaches. One can provide arguments for the truth of Christianity, and one can also rebut false arguments against Christianity. There are also many ways to go about both these tasks.

Brian K. Morley’s book Mapping Apologetics: Comparing Contemporary Approaches is thus a useful addition to the academic literature on apologetics. I teach apologetics at the graduate level, and I have observed that students of apologetics seldom have a methodological vocabulary, though they often have a great deal of experience in the practical workings of a variety of methodologies. A project like Morley’s is valuable in helping students clarify their understanding of the different approaches available to them, as they begin to analyze, assess, and implement those approaches. The various methodological approaches examined are presuppositionalism (represented by Cornelius Van Til, John Frame), Reformed epistemology (Alvin Plantinga), combinationalism (E. J. Carnell, Gordon Lewis, Francis Schaeffer), classical apologetics (Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, Norman Geisler), and evidentialism (John Warwick Montgomery, Gary Habermas). In the conclusion to the book, Morley helpfully summarizes the key issues that he explores for each of these methodologies: “the relationship between faith and evidence, the possibility of using induction, the relationship between fact and theory (especially whether we can reason from fact to theory), and the rational capability of the fallen mind” (351).

Readers who are interested in comparing and contrasting the work of these apologists will find Mapping Apologetics a useful volume that provides clear summaries and comparisons of the selected approaches, but this list of topics and names also serves to highlight the weaknesses of the book. The terrain covered is not nearly as comprehensive as the title would suggest. In fact, Morley maps out only a small part of the territory available to, and currently used by, apologists today—and does so in a very particular manner—overlooking large swaths of the field entirely. The book could more accurately be subtitled Comparing Contemporary Evangelical Approaches. The selection of apologists excludes not only Catholic apologists such as G. K. Chesterton and Robert Barron, but also Anglican ones such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Alister McGrath. N. T. Wright does not even appear in the index, despite his massive contribution to the evidential argument in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God (and many popular-level titles). The book also takes no account of an entire dimension of apologetics that is increasingly important in the 21st century – imagination and the arts. Cultural, imaginative, and literary apologetics have no place in this book at all, which leads to another possible revised subtitle: Comparing Contemporary Philosophical Approaches.

Morley does a good job of outlining several major philosophical apologetics approaches, but he fails to see the inherently different approach taken by apologists who embed their apologetics in an analysis of culture. Indeed, he does not engage with their work in a serious way. Morley includes Schaeffer in the chapter on “Combinationalism,” but devotes very little space to his thought, and dismissively remarks that “As a practitioner rather than a theoretician of methodologies, he is like other popular apologists: C. S. Lewis, Josh McDowell and Ravi Zacharias” (173). Morley seems here to be confusing “widely read” with “non-academic and non-rigorous,” a serious mistake when it comes to Lewis at the very least, and also to be assuming that if an apologist does not explicitly write about his methodology, he does not have one. However, cultural apologetics itself has a range of methodologies, and it would have been helpful for Morley to attend seriously to the principles undergirding the work of apologists such as Francis Schaeffer, Nancy Pearcey, and Ravi Zacharias.

Morley’s omission of Lewis points toward a more fundamental weakness of the book’s approach. Morley suggests that “in overall approach, C.S. Lewis is in the classical camp” (12), which is a shallow reading of Lewis. His approach to apologetics is much more nuanced and complex than what Morley describes as the classical approach (“Prove theism, then Christianity … using theistic proofs: cosmological argument, teleological argument, moral argument” (15). To be sure, Morley is correct in noting that Lewis uses these kinds of arguments, but Lewis incorporates other strategies, imaginative ones, and ranges far beyond the classical approach, especially in his later writings. This kind of complexity simply will not fit in the framework that Morley has set up here.

The methodologies are summarized in a chart at the beginning of the book, in which each approach is arranged on a spectrum that ranges from pure fideism (on the left of his schema) to pure rationalism (on the far right), on the basis of “increasing emphasis on objective, independently existing evidence” (14-15). It is a helpful chart insofar as it helps showcase the differences between certain apologetics views on the particular question of evidence. However, the question of how one treats “independently existing evidence” is only one aspect of apologetics, and furthermore there are ways of approaching the question of evidence that do not fit neatly into a progression from fideism to rationalism.

There is no place in this arrangement for approaches that involve apologetics through social action, personal experience, or Christian witness. Stanley Hauerwas and Myron Penner come to mind as serious Christian thinkers who approach apologetics in a way that does not fit in Morley’s framework, for instance. Whatever one thinks of postmodern or postmodern-influenced apologetics, these are perspectives worth including in a survey of the apologetics landscape. More significantly (in my view), there is no place in Morley’s schema for approaches that integrate reason and imagination or that integrate philosophical, theological, and artistic approaches. In addition to Lewis, Chesterton, and Sayers as twentieth-century apologists, a map of contemporary theoreticians of this kind in the larger field of apologetics would include, at the least, Malcolm Guite, Jeremy Begbie, and David Brown for their work on imagination, theology, and the arts.

Mapping Apologetics is clearly written, and includes in each chapter a set of comprehension / discussion questions as well as a mini-glossary of key terms and a set of suggested further readings. These features make it well suited for use in an undergraduate apologetics class. I would recommend it as a text in such a class, but not the text: if I were using the book, I would pair it with additional primary readings, or perhaps Louis Markos’ quite differently angled Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway, 2010), to fill in some of the blanks of Mapping Apologetics.

Cite this article
Holly Ordway, “Mapping Apologetics: Comparing Contemporary Approaches”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:4 , 392-394

Holly Ordway

Houston Baptist University
Holly Ordway is an author and Professor of English and faculty of the M.A. in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University.