Chesterton’s Apologetic and the World Today

G.K. Chesterton – despite his great girth – is somehow often overlooked in contemporary discussion. Yet if you should take up most any book of his and read you will find that he is still a wonderful treasure trove of insight into the world.

Chesterton was a massive influence on Christianity during the early 20th century, at least within the context of England. He was his generation’s version of C.S. Lewis, with an extra serving of wit. This made him the chief candidate for being the popular defender of Christianity during his day, and his method of defending the faith is one that we would do well to learn from today. But before we can learn from Chesterton’s methods, we must first determine what those methods were.

In undertaking this task it is helpful to first look at what types of strategies are out there, there are at least five different approaches:

  1. the Classical Method, which includes using natural theology and pure reason to establish theism, that is, a belief in God or gods
  2. the Evidential Method, which uses miracles, the historicity of Jesus, etc. to argue its case
  3. the Cumulative Case Method, which says Christianity makes the best sense of the data
  4. the Presuppositional Method, which argues that only through God can one make sense of the world and have a basis for reason and ethics, and also that the opponent’s views all end in absurdity
  5. the Reformed Epistemology Method, which tends towards fideism (that is, a stance which “refuses to offer any arguments or evidence for Christian claims”) and is mostly defensive rather than offering any real argument.

With this cursory survey given we can look at where Chesterton’s arguments fall in this schema.

Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy is perhaps his most iconic work in defense of the faith, and it is therefore ideal for discerning his method. As one reads Orthodoxy the feeling is given that Chesterton’s apologetic is one of common sense, with his chief enemy being skepticism. First Chesterton argues positively for certain evidences which may be found within Christianity, including what he calls guessing ‘illogical truths’ – truths that would be thought illogical if not for their being true – or that the division between man and animal is in need of an explanation. The view that evolution fails to account for the vast differences between man and animal can also be seen in his book The Everlasting Man, where he argues that:

A monkey does not draw clumsily and a man cleverly; a monkey does not begin the art of representation and a man carry it to perfection. A monkey does not do it at all; he does not begin to do it at all; he does not begin to begin to do it at all. A line of some kind is crossed before the first faint line can begin.

Both of these show signs of a sort of evidentialist method, where the argument is made by looking at the outside world and asking for explanations of what is seen.

But more than just presenting arguments for Christianity, Chesterton also offers many arguments against the opponents of Christianity. The opponents he primarily tackles include skepticism, materialism, and pantheism; skepticism being the view that human knowledge is impossible in some field or another, materialism the view that the material world is all that there is, and pantheism the view that everything that exists is part of God. His primary argument against these opposing views is that they result in a ‘suicide of thought’, which is  the name of the chapter in which he states “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

Through this method – similar to reductio ad absurdum – Chesterton greatly imitates the method of presuppositionalism, yet in this he has a similarity to the cumulative case method as well; on the one hand arguing that the opposing views end in absurdity, and on the other that it is only Christianity that makes sufficient sense of the data.

G.K. Chesterton employs a variety of apologetical methods in order to argue his case for Christianity. Yet apart from just looking at the arguments that he presents, we can also look at how he views the relationship between faith and reason.

This relationship forms a pivotal part of any apologetic method, for it is this relationship which determines whether the arguments presented will have any practical effect on the nonbeliever.

In looking for his view on this matter it is perhaps best to look once again back to Orthodoxy, in which he provides his arguments for Christianity and against its critics. Chesterton may be found stating here that “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith.” It might thus be concluded that Chesterton places faith above reason, for reason itself falls under the purview of faith.

The relationship between faith and reason is further expounded in Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, in which he condones Aquinas’ view where he “was willing to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths, precisely because he was sure there was only one truth.”

The point here is that for Chesterton faith and reason are two methods for arriving at the one truth. Chesterton therefore has no outright contention with science or reason (such as the proofs of Thomas Aquinas) because he is sure that if reason arrives at any truth that truth could not contradict the truth of Christianity.

This not only demonstrates Chesterton’s view of the relationship between faith and reason, but it also shows his endorsement of the classical method of apologetics through his approval of Aquinas, who formulated most of the classical proofs. Thus, it may be said that Chesterton pulls his argumentation from all of the apologetical methods combined – classical, evidentialist and presuppositional –  rather than simply relying upon one or the other.

Chesterton’s was of course greatly defined by his era, by the onset of modern liberalism – that is, the movement to make Christianity compatible with science – as well as the fact that presuppositionalism was just coming into play during his time period. Modern liberalism was just starting to take hold during Chesterton’s time, hence the attacks against it in texts such as Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism as well as Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies.

This period also saw the development of a new type of apologetic, that of Van Til’s presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalism is best known for its attack on the epistemology of the opponent, a strategy not seen before the dawn of the Twentieth Century, and therefore we may assume that Chesterton was also influenced by this trend.

Perhaps one of the greatest insights to be drawn from Chesterton is that one is not limited to any one view of apologetics, indeed, he drew from just about all of them.

Furthermore, many of the same heresies that Chesterton fought against are still prevalent. We can still see skepticism in the world today, as well as materialism, as well as pantheism. It is by analyzing how our ancestors battled untruth that we can better understand how to do it ourselves. The truth never changes, therefore it may still be truly said that “there is nothing new under the sun.”

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