Doing apologetics requires some level of logical argumentation. Groothuis explains that “apologetics means philosophical engagement, and philosophy trades in logic.” Though logic and argumentation may be difficult for some Christians, apologetics without arguments quickly reduces to assertions and becomes a denial of Peter’s command to “be ready to give a defense” (1 Pet. 3:15). Is there, though, a preferred style of argumentation for apologetics, especially apologetic preaching? While I think that all forms of valid argumentation could have a place in apologetics at some point, it is in abductive argumentation that apologetic preaching may find its greatest ally.
What is Abductive Argumentation?
Simply stated, abductive argumentation hopes to arrive at an inference to the best explanation without claiming a standard of certainty usually associated with other types of logical arguments (e.g., deduction or induction). This is not to deny any Christian’s testimony and the certainty they possess based on the coming together of reason and faith in their minds and heart. Rather, abduction seeks to point toward certainty without “demanding it” based on the outcome of a particular logical construct. Admittedly, discussions of argumentation can quickly get to a pretty heady level, and that is certainly not the goal of using abduction in apologetic preaching. However, preachers will make some type of argument, so the matter is really how they will argue, not if they will. Here’s an example of how abduction might be stated in the form of premises and conclusion related to a moral argument for God’s existence.
P1: Most of us recognize that some things are morally good, and some are bad.
P2: We applaud the child on the playground who stands up to the bully. We boo the bully for picking on others.
P3: If the bully changes his ways, we praise him for becoming a better boy. If the bully reverts to his bullying, we consider him to have started acting badly again.
P4: Why do we conclude that standing up to the bully is good, or that bullying another is bad? We do so because we have a standard of what is good and bad by which to assess what we and others do.
P5: The Christian claims that this standard is based on who God is, and that our sense of good and evil relates to our being made in God’s image.
C: Thus, Christianity provides a reasonable explanation—possibly the best explanation—for the human experience of good and evil.
The goal of making an abductive case like this is to let it build in a cumulative manner that moves intentionally toward the goal of offering—not necessarily demanding—that the Christian conclusion is reasonable and may be the best answer. In preaching particularly this type of abductive approach provides a couple of important benefits.
A Couple of Reasons Abduction Helps in Apologetic Preaching
First, because it claims to come to an inference to the best explanation, abduction offers a manner of apologetic reasoning in preaching that avoids being overly dogmatic. As Baggett and Baggett explain, “the procedure of abduction goes like this: we come across something that needs to be explained, then we identify a range of possible explanations, and then we narrow the list down to the best one.” Some apologists might chafe at this approach, claiming that the apologetic enterprise should insist on certainty, and that apologetic preaching, especially, should prefer more than an inference to the best explanation as an outcome. However, there is a sense in which claims to absolute certainty may lack explanatory power when it comes to how faith forms around what is “hoped for...[and] unseen” (Heb. 11:1-2). Is the Christian worldview compelling? Absolutely. Is there evidence worthy of consideration? Of course. However, the ideas of certainty associated with argumentation are not something found in the pages of the Bible, but in the later developments of modern thought, which has a decided bias against the idea of biblical faith. Abduction is a way to keep the apologist in check against the temptation to overconfidence in the power of his arguments, and to help him remember that there is more involved in coming to faith than syllogisms and rationality.
Second, abduction can help preachers avoid oversimplification. This is an error that apologists fall into when they think a simple syllogism is all that is needed to make the case for some aspect of Christian truth. Rather than accepting that one cannot with absolute epistemic certainty prove the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, apologists may assume that their personal convictions are equivalent to philosophical standards of truth and certainty. They assume that belief is simply a matter of following the premises to the logical conclusion and expect that their hearers only need to follow the logic of an argument to come to belief in God or some other Christian claim. Yet, conversion is ordinarily a process that takes time and possibly numerous conversations, and it is only the exception that finds a person coming to Christ after hearing only one argument. Like Paul in Athens sharing the gospel on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-34), the abductive argument in the hands of the apologetic preacher offers a reasonable explanation of the audience’s circumstances while presenting the Christian worldview. Some may scoff, some may decide to hear more, and some may believe—whatever the outcome may be, the cumulative abductive case for faith has been made.
There is certainly much more that could be said about abduction in apologetic preaching, but I trust its conduciveness to humility and avoiding oversimplification are somewhat clear. In the next installment I will present a model for developing apologetic messages.
T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.