Category Archives: Apologetic Tips
When we engage in apologetics the goal isn’t to show off our flashy intellectual prowess. As John Frame says:
It is important in apologetics to urge an inquirer toward a decision. That does not mean manipulating him or encouraging hypocrisy. It does mean, however, making clear to him the nature of faith. It means making clear that faith does not – indeed may not – wait on the resolution of all intellectual difficulties and that faith is expressed not only in intellectual or verbal fashion but also in all of life’s activities. If the inquirer is not ready to verbalize a confession of faith, he should nevertheless be encouraged (not discouraged, as in some circles) to seek after godliness and to make such a use of the means of grace as the church (under Scripture) will permit.
-John M. Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 357
The goal of tearing down strongholds and every lofty thought that resists the knowledge of God isn’t to show off our good we are at philosophical demolition. The goal is to lead someone to Christ, to behold his beauty, to taste the sweetness of the gospel of grace.
Greg Bahnsen was one of Van Til’s greatest expositors. His book Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith is a treasure trove of biblical instruction answering the Why and How of presuppositional apologetics. Here Bahnsen discusses the transcendental trust of the method. For those not familiar with Van Til’s approach it can be much at first, but once you “get it” you realize that you’re dealing with nuclear strength apologetics:
If the way in which people reason and interpret evidence is determined by their presupposed worldviews, and if the worldviews of the believer and unbeliever are in principle completely at odds with each other, how can the disagreement between them over the justification of Biblical claims be resolved? It might seem that all rational argumentation is precluded since appeals to evidence and logic will be controlled by the respective, conflicting worldviews of the believer and unbeliever. However this is not the case.
Differing worldviews can be compared to each other in terms of the important philosophical question about the “preconditions of intelligibility” for such important assumptions as the universality of logical laws, the uniformity of nature, and the reality of moral absolutes. We can examine a worldview and ask whether its portrayal of nature, man, knowledge, etc. provide an outlook in terms of which logic, science and ethics can make sense. It does not comport with the practices of natural science to believe that all events are random and unpredictable, for instance. It does not comport with the demand for honesty in scientific research, if no moral principle expresses anything but a personal preference or feeling. Moreover, if there are internal contradictions in a person’s worldview, it does not provide the preconditions for making sense out of man’s experience. For instance, if one’s political dogmas respect the dignity of men to make their own choices, while one’s psychological theories reject the free will of men, then there is an internal defect in that person’s worldview.
It is the Christian’s contention that all non-Christian worldviews are beset with internal contradictions, as well as with beliefs which do not render logic, science or ethics intelligible. On the other hand, the Christian worldview (taken from God’s self-revelation in Scripture) demands our intellectual commitment because it does provide the preconditions of intelligibility for man’s reasoning, experience, and dignity.
In Biblical terms, what the Christian apologist does is demonstrate to unbelievers that because of their rejection of God’s revealed truth, they have “become vain in their reasonings” (Rom. 1:21). By means of their foolish perspective they end up “opposing themselves” (2 Tim. 2:25). They follow a conception of knowledge which does not deserve the name (1 Tim. 6:20). Their philosophy and presuppositions rob one of knowledge (Col. 2:3, 8), leaving them in ignorance (Eph. 4:17-18; Acts 17:23). The aim of the apologist is to cast down their reasonings (2 Cor. 10:5) and to challenge them in the spirit of Paul: “Where is the wise? Where is the disputer of this world? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20).
In various forms, the fundamental argument advanced by the Christian apologist is that the Christian worldview is true because of the impossibility of the contrary. When the perspective of God’s revelation is rejected, then the unbeliever is left in foolish ignorance because his philosophy does not provide the preconditions of knowledge and meaningful experience. To put it another way: the proof that Christianity is true is that if it were not, we would not be able to prove anything.
What the unbeliever needs is nothing less than a radical change of mind – repentance (Acts 17:30). He needs to change his fundamental worldview and submit to the revelation of God in order for any knowledge or experience to make sense. He at the same time needs to repent of his spiritual rebellion and sin against God. Because of the condition of his heart, he cannot see the truth or know God in a saving fashion.
-Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, 121-122.
As Christ’s witnesses in this world we must remember that worldview-shifts normally don’t occur overnight. In fact, they almost never do. Some more common ways people adopt a new worldview are:
- Through a series of small changes in their thought which, in time, lead to substantial restructuring of how they view the world.
- By persuasion through the lives of those in the worldview community that the person is ”converting” to.
- The example of godly living coupled with a godly apologetic/witness.
Each of these points is crucial. The first reminders us not to fret or worry when we do not see instant results. We speak to people, after all, not machines. Though we hold to, and defend, our faith as an organic whole (where each belief affects and is affected by every other belief) in real-life discussions we can only speak of one thing at a time. A proper understanding of the faith, along with counting the cost of discipleship (Lk.14:26-29) takes time. And It is time well spent. God may be leading that person to himself.
The second and third points place a great responsibility upon the Christian evangelist. We aren’t simply disembodied, mental beings. We are gloriously embodied creatures. Our bodies matter. How we dwell with other Christians matters. They need to see how we love one another. They need to see and experience for themselves they we, like the Master, come not to be served, but to serve (cf. Mk. 10:45). Also, the manner with which we speak to unbelievers conveys a lot. The church is Christ’s body on this earth. Do we reflect His character? Non-Christians aren’t naive. They notice insincerity and pride. We convey with our words and actions this is what God is like.
Let’s not give false testimony .
Here are some helpful resources on evangelism.
- Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace - Harvie Conn
- Heart of Evangelism - Jerram Barrs
- Learning Evangelism from Jesus- Jerram Barrs
- When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics- Paul Copan
In terms of working toward a systematic approach to large-scale evangelism and urban outreach, I can’t think of a better book than Tim Keller’s Center Church:
A close reading of 1 Corinthians 1-2 will show that it’s composed of several binaries. ‘Binaries’ is a term often used in postmodern literature to speak of pairs of concepts often described in opposing ways. Some examples would be inside/outside, knowledge/opinion, us/them, etc. Really it’s just a fancy way of speaking of two-fold distinctions (the key term is ‘bi’ meaning two). What triggered my own observation of this were: 1) a Bible study I gave on 1 Cor.1-2 in relationship to evangelism, and 2) an article I wrote on the topic of postmodernism.
Now, when we get to 1 Cor. 1-2 we find several key distinctions, binaries, that Paul asserts are crucial for understanding the difference between Christian and non-Christian thought. They effect our discipleship and should inform our evangelism. Paul speaks of “those that are perishing,” and “us that are being saved,” and the “wisdom of God” over against the “wisdom of the world,” etc. Paul claims that the Christian vision of life, presented in weakness and trembling, and highlighted in the power of the cross, is completely at odds with its “binary” of worldly (so-called) wisdom, nobility (or as I like to call it, celebrity) and power.
Christ’s kingdom is completely counter-cultural when compared with the values of unbelief. This is why Paul says, “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For in the wisdom of God, the world would not know him by it’s wisdom…” (1:18)
In evangelism, this is a huge relief. My job isn’t merely to convey information and convince the unbeliever of the gospel. In fact this will never happen because the gospel runs against the very grain of unbelief. In order to accept the gospel the non-Christian would have to renounce their view of who they are (i.e. their spiritual and moral independence from God). As Paul says in chapter 2, “The natural man does not accept the things of God, for they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). And it’s this last point that balances out what I said earlier. While I may not be able to convince the unbeliever of the truth, the Spirit of God may use my words (if I’m being faithful to present the true gospel) to grant them a spiritual appetite.
This is all the fuel I need to be gracious, loving, and patient with the non-believer, knowing that the Lord may be pleased to use me as a conduit of his grace.
Here’s a quick recap of the “Pointers” series. Click on them for the fuller entry:
And now we wrap up this series.
5. Unbelievers tend to believe that by providing a biological/sociological explanation for an event or action it is therefore unnecessary to have a theological explanation.
Unbelieving scientists, both in the supposedly “hard,” as well as the “social” sciences, have often claimed that the supernatural worldview of Christianity is simply impossible. Many have claimed people of the ancient Near East were more prone to believe in supernatural beings and occurrences because they didn’t know any better. But, so it is thought, we can’t be too harsh on those overly superstitious people, they didn’t have the wealth of scientific knowledge on how the world runs as we modern folk do. Contemporary, especially western, Christians have no excuse though. We should know better and not place our hope in such fairytales.
These people may say that we have no need to believe that God causes the plants to grow, because now we know about the laws of photosynthesis. Or, you may have heard, “We no longer believe that morality comes from God, because now we are aware of just how much society and family shapes our beliefs about right and wrong, etc.”
But this misses the point, and it misses it big. It also vividly demonstrates how pointer 1 (Unbelievers often don’t really know the story of the Bible) applies to many of us Christians. Does God control and direct all things? Yes (Eph. 1:11). But does He normally do this apart from “normal” or “natural” means? No. This sheds light on the case of morality above. Do we become conscious of standards of morality from our culture? Yes, we do. Do we become conscious of standards of morality from our parents? Without a doubt. Do we become conscious of standards of morality from out peers, friends, and all those with whom we associate? Again, yes. But does admitting this undermine the existence of a universal standard of ethical behavior? Not at all!
If the Bible is true, then it would seem (according to the worldview presented in it’s pages) God planned the normal, everyday means through which humans would learn standards of morality is through relationships in general and the family in particular. Now, of course, the word of God ultimately is given (among other reasons) to correct the faulty beliefs we have about ethics. But, the notion of right and wrong action, desires and motives, are dependent upon relationships. When I do something that I shouldn’t, something I ought not do, I am breaking fellowship with someone, whether it’s my mother, father, the government, my “fellow man,” etc. If the universe is ultimately impersonal, I don’t owe it good behavior. Since it’s impersonal it can make no demands (like “obey me”) at all! We don’t owe allegiance to impersonal forces like gravitation, or to impersonal objects like rocks and sand. So, just as moral obligations depend on relationships with a person, in the same way ultimate ethical obligations are depend on a relationship with an ultimate Person. The horizontal (i.e. how we come to learn things) doesn’t cancel the vertical.
One more example, and we’ll complete this series. Over the last decade or so, there has been much discussion over the possible existence of a gay gene. Are people with a homosexual orientation genetically “wired” this way? Well, at this point the jury is still out (though the evidence isn’t exactly powerful). But, what if conclusive evidence could be shown that all homosexuals share this gene, genetically predisposing them to same-sex attraction? What would we do? Should we say the Bible is wrong because it clearly states that homosexuality violates God’s original desire for human sexuality? In a nutshell, we don’t have to change a bit. We would be called to a stronger recognition that these people who have this gene struggle with a particular temptation to sin that we do not all share. But this doesn’t make it any less a deviation from God’s design. Christians believe in the Fall and original sin. We also believe that there is no part of who we are that hasn’t be touched by sin. To admit (if we had to) that a gay gene exists would simply be to acknowledge that the effects of the fall run deeper than we were initially aware of. The horizontal doesn’t cancel the vertical!
So, if you’re talking with someone and this issue arises, stay alert and spot it. It’s tricky…
Here’s another tip to keep in mind:
4) Non-Christians usually do not properly distinguish between the biblical message and the history of the Church. This is an extremely common occurrence and a very important point. I can’t recall how many times when speaking to a non-Christian evangelistically the first objection I heard was, “But what about the crusades?” or something like that. We need to draw a distinction here. When we’re commending Jesus to someone, we’re not commending all the mistakes and blunders of the church as well. Please don’t confuse us for Jesus, He’s much better than us!
Now, are they connected questions? Very much so! The church is the community that claims to be people transformed by Jesus Himself who spiritually inhabits us through the Holy Spirit. We’re His “body” (cf. 1 Cor. 12).
But none of this should detract from the plain fact that we’re claiming that the Bible records historical, space-time events. So, the wrongs inflicted by self-proclaimed Christians in the 1600′s (for instance) doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t live in Israel roughly from 3 B.C. to 30 A.D. anymore than to say that because we discover that one of our elementary schools teachers was a pedophile, the mathematics that you learned from him or her is invalidated. That’s sloppy thinking.
Another important strength to making this distinction between “Bible-history” and Church history is that when we do we’re free to develop some common talking points with non-Christians. We shouldn’t feel constrained to defend everything the church has done. The church is made up of broken, fallen people who need a Savior, which is the very reason why they’re in the church! So, we don’t need to defend the crusades and the wrongs they did, the passivity of the German church during WWII, the abuses that the Roman Catholic priesthood currently finds itself in, etc. Those are wrong, and should be acknowledged, by both saint and sinner, as wrong. Believe it or not, seeing that Christians aren’t “blind” to these moral blemishes within it’s own family may actually get you a hearing.
Four down, one to go…
Here’s our third point:
3) Unbelievers tend to develop arguments against Christianity based on what seems (to them) to be fitting for God, not on what Scripture actually says. I’ve done a pretty decent amount of reading stuff that’s written by non-Christians, both scholarly and at the popular level. A common problem I’ve noticed is that many of these arguments fail to take into account the actual accounts of God’s nature and attributes in the Bible (see point 1), i.e. they argue against a no-frills type of God. Examples like this abound, “Can God created a rock so large he cannot lift it?” From a Biblical perspective, that’s a nonsense question that shouldn’t be tolerated as a serious problem for the Christian doctrine of God. It’s like asking if God can make a squared circle. God doesn’t “do” logical absurdities (or windows!).
Here’s another example that ties together points 1 and 2: In most versions of the supposed problem of evil, unbelievers tend to
1) ignore -or are ignorant of- the biblical narrative and God’s purposes in using evil for His glory and our good, and
2) base their arguments on various assumptions on what a good God would never allow (babies to go hungry, etc.)
The point here? We need to fight the temptation to defend a conception of God not taught in scripture. In my earlier series titled Prologue to Apologetics, I made the point that we defend no other God than the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, we should join hands to topple rival conceptions of God. So, if the “god” that our unbelieving friend is arguing against isn’t what we recognize as the Biblical God (and don’t let their usage of the word “God” fool you), kindly respond that you’re not commending “that” god to them, and get back on track. Of course, this may make things harder to speak about (after all, Yahweh has allowed children to suffer, etc.), but our goal should be to winsomely recommend the truth, not merely what the non-Christian will accept.
Three down, two to go…
Here’s our second pointer for apologetics:
2) Unbelievers [normally] do not distinguish between Creation and the Fall. As many thinkers have already noticed, the biblical mega-narrative (and for those of you who are familiar with the term “meta-narrative”please note that I’m intentionally not using it) follows the themes of creation-fall-redemption. Some of the things we experience this side of the fall where not a part of the original created order God declared “good.” Of course, the easiest example of this is moral rebellion (sin) against our Creator (i.e. sin)
What is worth noting is often what is considered natural by the non-Christian (ex: sexual lust), we may (and probably do) attribute to the Fall. We should bring to the attention of our non-Christian friends that not everything we find today is the way it ought to be. Christians (or, at least the Bible) make a distinction between two senses in which something could be considered “natural.” First, something could be considered “natural” if it was part of the original created plan of God. In this sense, marriage, heterosexual monogamy, and loving obedience and submission to God and His word are all natural. The second usage of the term “natural” has the opposite meaning. Yeah, I know, it’s confusing! According to this usage “natural” is contrasted with spiritual (or [Holy]Spirit-lead, cf. 1 Cor. 2:14, James 3:15). So, sexual deviation is perfectly “natural” in this sense, it “gels” well with our fallen condition. In some Bible versions, the term natural is more pointedly translated “carnal.” I think that gets my point across.
So, as we keep in mind these biblical usages of the word “natural,” we should be aware that unbelievers often blur or do not properly distinguish between Creation and Fall. So, when if they say, “what’s wrong with ____? After all, it’s natural.” We need to patiently point out that ____ (given it’s a sinful goal, motive, and/or standard) is not natural in the first sense (which is what Christian ethics is geared toward developing), but instead is natural in the second.
Two down, three to go…
In this series, I plan to quickly address (and seriously, I mean quickly!) what I have found to be helpful pointers in apologetics. Now, by this I do not mean “helpful” in terms of arguments. I’m focusing on strategy, on making a persuasive case for Christ. This is essentially a “hit and run” series, I’ll make my points quickly, and leave you to your business. Here’s something to keep in mind regarding the average non-Christian:
1) Most contemporary non-Christians do not know the story of Scripture well. So, before we can “defend” our position on Christianity, we need to make sure they understanding what we’re talking about. Now, the sad thing is that most America evangelical Christians don’t understand the Bible (and various polls have demonstrated this). Now, this is not to say they don’t “get” Jesus. They do, but often not well enough to deal with tough objections to the faith. After all, Jesus isn’t the only person teaching us in Scripture. There’s Paul, John, Peter, James, Moses, David, Solomon, Isaiah, and on and on…
So, be prepared to do some explaining. The non-Christian may be hostile to something that’s not taught in Scripture. Help them out. This should lead to a strong sense of responsibility to the person you’re speaking to (since apparently God has placed them in your path), and a great amount of patience. After all, for most of us, there was a time when we didn’t “get” it either.
One point down, four to go…