Ellipsis Omnibus

Disillusioned but not disenchanted…

Chesterton’s Apologetic & The World Today

In this paper I will analyze G.K. Chesterton’s theological contributions to the church. I will specifically focus on his apologetical method, which combines a variety of different methods and demonstrate how it is just as relevant today as it was in his. This analysis is to include where his method falls into the general schema of apologetics and how he approached his opponents. Chesterton’s apologetic deserves research because it has a continued applicability in the church today and as well as in our interactions with non-Christians. The questions to be addressed must include what type of apologetic Chesterton most exemplifies; what his main tactic in defending the faith is; how the context of his era defined his apologetic; and what the greatest relevance regarding his contributions are today. This will be accomplished through analysis of G.K. Chesterton’s primary works – to include Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, St Thomas Aquinas, & his Autobiography – in order to discern his method, with the aid of the text Five Views on Apologetics which gives a sample idea of what the primary methods are that are in use today and during Chesterton’s period.

In discovering which apologetical method Chesterton exemplifies we must first look at what types of arguments are out there. Through the book Five Views on Apologetics it can be seen that the major tactics include:

  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”[1]) and is mostly defensive rather than offering any real argument.[2]

With this cursory survey given, we must now analyze what arguments Chesterton directs towards his opponents.

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. This includes what he calls guessing ‘illogical truths’[3] – 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.[4] This 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.  (Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 46)

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,[5] materialism the view that the material world is all that there is,[6] and pantheism the view that everything that exists is part of God.[7] 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.”[8] Through this method – similar to “reductio ad absurdum” – Chesterton greatly imitates the method of presuppositionalism, yet he also has a 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.

It is thus seen that 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 must also look at how he views the relationship between faith and reason, which 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. One area in which Chesterton’s provides both a defense of and an argument for Christianity is on the matter of the relationship between faith and reason. In Orthodoxy he may be found stating that “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith.”[9] 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 the view of Aquinas’ 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.”[10] The point here is that 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.

It is also important to note that Chesterton’s apologetic was greatly defined by his era, by the onset of modern liberalism – that is, the movement to make Christianity compatible with science[11] – as well as the fact that presuppositionalism (which has been defined above as the fourth of the five views on apologetics) was just coming into play during his time period.[12] 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 –that is, the theory of knowledge[13] – 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.[14] While being defined by his era, Chesterton was also defined by his Catholic faith, hence his praise and use of Aquinas.[15]

In light of all of this Chesterton has a great relevance regarding Christianity today, and  Chesterton’s method is just as useful today. 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.”[16]

I have argued that Chesterton most exemplifies an apologetical method that is a mix between almost all of the methods presented in the book Five Views on Apologetics. Although Chesterton’s apologetic was greatly defined by his era it still has great relevance for our current era; there same heresies are still around, and these same errors may still be corrected with the same truths. Further research may be done into what the biggest apologetical concern of the church should be today, and whether Chesterton’s method is capable of confronting it. Chesterton is relevant today because his apologetical method is one which may still affect our interactions with non-Christians and how we defend our faith.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Chesterton, G.K. Orthodxy. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 1994.

Chesterton, G.K. Saint Thomas Aquinas. New York: Image Books, 1956.

Chesterton, G.K. The Everlasting Man. New York: Image Books, 1955.

Cowan, Steven. Five Views on Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.

Earle, William James. Introduction to Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hills, 1992.

Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

McGrath, Alister. Christian Theology. Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2011.


[1] Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 100.

[2] Cowan, Steven B. Five Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 15.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2001), 119.

[4] Ibid, 43.

[5] Earle, William James. Introduction to Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992), 47.

[6] Ibid, 95.

[7] Ibid, 109.

[8] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 41.

[9] Ibid, 40.

[10] G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Image Books, 1956), 93.

[11] McGrath, Alister, Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Pub, 2011), 82.

[12] Frame, John, Cornelius Van Til (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub, 1995), 22.

[13] Earle, 15.

[14] Cowen, 236.

[15] G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, 93.

[16] Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NIV)


This essay has been republished on Chestertonian.

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"The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man."--G.K.Chesterton

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"This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle; wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more, to whosoever will think of it... It is by not thinking that we cease to wonder at it."--Thomas Carlyle, 'On Heroes & Hero Worship'
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