The Art of Bracketing in Apologetics: Switching Ground Without Losing Ground

In my long career in philosophy, I have developed various knacks or skills (or in jazz lingo, chops) that make rational arguments more fruitful and enjoyable. I lay claim to none of these, but have picked them up through my academic education and personal study and teaching. One of the most significant skills in argument is bracketing—or knowing what to insist on and what to put aside in a rational conversation. This skill aids all argumentation, but I will center on bracketing in Christian apologetics.

Apologists contend for the truth, rationality, and pertinence of the Christian worldview, so that men and women name Jesus Christ as Lord. Christianity is not a worldview, but it has a worldview. Christianity is a belief-system that ushers repentant sinners into the hands of a faithful Savior, the living Christ. That belief system is true, and that truth is what sets us free from the penalty of sin now, from much of the power of sin, and from the presence of sin in the world to come (John 8:31-32).

Being an apologist comes with being a Christian, since God is an apologetics God, the Bible is an apologetics book, Christ is an apologetics Christ, and the church is an apologetics church. The saving truth of the Gospel of God must be made known to an ignorant and needy world. Apologetics is essential to this magnificent mission. The apologist needs to know the Bible, how to be filled with the Holy Spirit in witness, and the arguments for the objective truth of Christianity. But she also needs to offer these arguments in real-time situations with a number of different kinds of people—people who are usually unwilling to hear a lecture; rather, they want to discuss. Bracketing is essential for this.

Bracketing means to hold something in abeyance for the sake of the case one is making. To bracket an issue is not to make a judgment about its truth or falsity, but to put it to the side for the time being in order to still win the argument or at least to keep afloat a profitable discussion. To bracket wisely requires the skill of intellectual discernment regarding what matters in an argument. Some illustrations highlight this.

Someone claims that Christianity is untrue because it was behind the injustices of the crusades. Any religion that justifies the cruelty and oppression of the crusades is a religion to be rejected. Those who so accuse are usually ignorant about the crusades of history, but wax indignant about what they know little of. In fact, the crusades is a thought-stopper. These two words can substitute for the possession of any knowledge of history or religion! I cannot take it up here, but the original crusade was instigated to help Jews and Christians in Palestine who were being persecuted by Muslims, who had conquered the area and take it from Christians many years earlier. Most of the crusaders were not out for money or power, but on pilgrimage to defend the victims of Muslims. They did so at great expense and at great risk. The Muslim element is always left out of popular comments about the crusades. One could go on, but please read Rodney Stark’s, God’s Battalions, or Robert Spencer’s The Truth About Islam and the Crusades in order to set the record straight.

The apologist may make this case to show that Christianity has been falsely charged concerning the motivations and results of the crusades. But perhaps one’s interlocutor will not budge, claiming that the crusades were a signature evil in Western history. This claim is palpably and demonstrably false—even silly; but if one wants to continue the discussion, the matter may be bracketed without the apologist suffering any intellectual loss. He may say:

I disagree about your take on the historical reality of the crusades, but let’s bracket that. Even if your claim is true, it does not count against the truth of Christianity. This is because the Bible does not endorse violence of this sort. Whatever bad came out of the crusades cannot be attributed to Christianity proper, but only to the false teachings of the church at a point in time.

By bracketing one issue—since the unbeliever could not be convinced otherwise—another issue may be engaged, and one that is profoundly important. Or consider another example.

In a discussion about biology and the possibly of design in nature, an unbeliever says:

You Christians think the world was created in six days and that the universe is only about ten thousand years old. You also claim that the first human was created without an ancestor. That is ridiculous. I don’t care what you say about detecting design through fine-tuning or molecular machines, since your creationism is unsupportable.

To this, the apologist says:

Some Christians believe in a young earth and young universe and denying humans a common ancestor. Some believe in an old earth and universe and deny a common ancestor. Some believe in an old earth and universe and affirm a common ancestor. That is matter of biblical interpretation and the evidence of good science. But let’s bracket that question for now. The deeper question is: Is there solid and scientific evidence of design in nature? Let us look at that first and then consider biblical teaching and theological possibilities concerning the other questions.

To bracket an issue slows down the pace of an argument and allows the conversation partners to avoid unnecessary entanglements. In the case of the crusades, it would be unwise for the apologist at this time to focus on the historical crusades as opposed to the crusades of popular imagination. He should rather switch ground without yielding ground. The savvy apologist must master the art of bracketing.

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

3 thoughts

  1. I’ve never heard it called “bracketing” before, but it’s an apt label for it. My wife and I often talk about choosing our battles, but it’s basically the same thing. It’s helpful for focusing the conversation on what is important to establish first, or next, so that a case may be built understandably without getting sidetracked. Also, it’s helpful to keep from following red herrings. Many people will obfuscate by throwing a large number of issues into the ring that can all be answered, but not answered effectively in bulk. The nice thing is that in so doing, they play the shallow parts of their hand all at once and affords you the opportunity to add a depth to the conversation that they may not have. If you can give them pause on just one issue by going meaningfully deeper than they have considered before, they are more likely to eventually be open to hearing you on the rest.

    I did this with a Muslim apologist once. He led out with the typical barrage of shallow contentions. I picked the topic of the Trinity to focus on. By the time we had discussed through the Father and the Son to the Holy Spirit, he argued that Allah was simple and a Trinity is complex. I responded that complexity has no bearing on the truth. He hesitated, apparently not having considered that. Then he asked how I could know these things. I responded with something that’s generally not epistemologically satisfying, but in the right context can be compelling: “I’m indwelt by the Holy Spirit and he opens me to knowing the truth.” (I didn’t get into the fact that the truth of the Trinity is found in the Scriptures. I sensed it wasn’t time for that subject yet.)

    It turned out to be compelling enough that he paused for a couple of moments and responded, a bit weakly, with, “I don’t have the Holy Spirit, so I can only think with my mind.” The expression on his face indicated that he wasn’t satisfied with his answer to me.

    Just then, a disciple of his who hadn’t been involved with our conversation happened to notice the lull. He approached and jumped in with the same typical salvo of common contentions. The apologist looked up at me, held his hand up to his disciple to quiet him, and told him, “No. Respect this man.”

  2. I always enjoy reading your posts – they make me think ! ….. but I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you what a great blessing your writing has been to me (I have just finished Christian Apologetics), but also I wanted to express what a great blessing Rebecca’s articles have been to me, as well as the book she edited on the issue of men and women in the church …. I really cannot find the words to express what a difference you have both made, but I thank God for you, and pray for you.

  3. I’ve been curious whether the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 was asking about which mountain to worship on because she had a sincere desire for truth, because she wanted to pick a fight with a Jew out of habit, or if she was using it as a red herring to take the focus away from her personal responsibility towards God. Jesus seemed to do some bracketing; he moved away from which mountain had the most historical significance and authenticity, and moved the conversation to a new Kingdom which would supersede all earthly mountaintops.

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