It should go without saying that apologetics includes arguments for the truth of Christian claims. That much seems obvious. But that’s not what apologetics is about. When framed in the proper biblical context, apologetics really falls under the umbrella of evangelism. The goal is to bring the person to whom we speak to Jesus, to recognize his Lordship, to savor the benefits of the God’s love in Christ, and to get them excited about what God is doing in the world through his people.
Again, don’t get me wrong. Arguments are important. We construct arguments in order to show the logic behind Christian truth claims, and to demonstrate their coherence with other things we believe to be true. We construe arguments to persuade that obedience to Christ’s lordship actually benefits humanity. But any view that asserts that apologetics is primarily about winning arguments runs the danger of engaging in a philosophical parlor game, which usually winds up taking the form of endless philosophical distinctions, qualifications, and rebuttals. There’s also the proverbial danger of winning the abstract argument and losing the person. As John Frame has said (echoing Nicholas Wolterstorff), persuasion is person variable. He writes,
We are not seeking merely to validate statements but persuade people. Justification is a person-oriented activity. In trying to justify our beliefs, we often seek to persuade others and sometimes ourselves, but there is always some persuasion being attempted… If we ignore the element of persuasion or “convincingness,”…we may find ourselves constructing perfectly valid and sound “proofs” that are of no help to anyone. (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 151, 152)
Likewise, as nearly any work on interpersonal communication will inform you, often times a person’s words are not the main thing on which to set our focus. Of course in written communication (online dialogue etc.) the clarity and cogency of arguments are crucial. I don’t want to downplay that. But in interpersonal communication, reading the person is even more important than addressing the propositions. I suspect that is why Jesus not-too-infrequently seems to respond to questions and objections in way that both get to the heart of the matter, and seemingly avoid the actual words of his objector.
This is where intuition is vital. Do the person words strike you as angry? Fearful? Disappointed? For this reason, we should “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). If you don’t listen to the issue underneath the issue, we miss an opportunity to address the underlying roadblock. “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13).
All this means, yes, we must learn the facts. Yes, we should familiarize ourselves with the arguments. But when we bring them out, how we present them, and to what degree our apologetic should take the offense is left to the wisdom that comes with listening. Get curious. Ask questions. The more they speak, the better equipped you become (if you’re truly giving them the self-denying gift of listening) to hear their heart. The better equipped you are to speak the truth in love in a way that doesn’t treat the person like an abstract philosophical position. In listening you will grow ability, and desire to see the person with whom you are commenting Christianity as a real person with hopes, fears, misunderstandings, and yes, idols.
“The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips” (Prov. 16:23)
The following is a brief discussion I had with Lisa Fields and Cam Triggs from the Jude 3 Project on the topic of apologetic methods.
Here we cover (among others) the follow questions:
- What are the different methods of apologetics and who are their models?
- Why is it important?
- What are some of the traditional arguments for God’s existence?
- How can a person utilize these arguments in everyday encounters with unbelievers?
I hope you find this beneficial.
Let’s briefly address helpful pointers in apologetics. By this I don’t mean “helpful” in terms of arguments. I’m focusing on strategy, on making a persuasive case for Christ. So often apologists focus on getting our facts straight when in reality the issue is something else, and many times it’s something much more basic.
So here are my 5 things to look out for when commending Christianity to non-Christians.
Roadblock 1: Most non-Christians do not know the story of Scripture.
Before we can “defend” our position on Christianity, we need to make sure the person to whom we speak understands what we’re talking about. The sad thing is most America evangelicals don’t understand the Bible themselves (and various studies have demonstrated this- see here, and here). 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 (God has, after all, placed them along your path). This also means we must cultivate the spiritual fruit of patience, since we there was a time when we didn’t “get” it either.
Roadblock 2: Unbelievers [normally] do not distinguish between Creation and the Fall.
As many thinkers have already noticed, the biblical plotline follows the themes of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation. Some of the things we experience this side of the fall where not a part of the original created order God declared “good.” The obvious example of this is moral rebellion (sin) against God (i.e. sin). Al Wolters writes of this distinction in terms of structure and direction.
What’s 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. The Bible distinguishes between two senses in which something could be considered “natural.”
First, something may be “natural” if it was part of God’s original creation blueprint. 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. 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.
With these distinctions in mind 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.
Roadblock 3: Arguing against Christianity based on what seems to be fitting for God, not on what Scripture actually says.
I’ve read a respectable amount of non-Christians literature against Christianity, both scholarly and at the popular level. A common problem I’ve noticed is many anti-theistic arguments fail to take into consideration 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 can’t lift?” 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.
Here’s another example that ties together points 1 and 2: In most versions of the supposed problem of evil, unbelievers tend to
- Ignore —or are ignorant of— the biblical narrative and God’s purposes in using evil for his glory and our good, and
- 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.
Roadblock 4: Not distinguishing 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 non-Christians the first objection I heard was, “But what about the crusades?” or some related question. 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 Christians with Jesus himself; 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 BC to 30 AD any more 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 able to build moral bridges 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. Our sinful bend toward rebellion, and the need for spiritual transformation and renewal is the very reason the church exists! So, we don’t need to defend all aspects of the Crusades, the passivity of the German church during WWII, the abuse scandals in which the Roman Catholic priesthood finds itself, 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 its own ranks may actually get you a hearing.
Roadblock 5: Assuming that biological/sociological explanations for an event or action makes theological explanations unnecessary.
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 roadblock 1 (ignorance of the Bible’s storyline) applies to many of us Christians. Does God control and direct all things? Yes (Eph. 1:11). But does God 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 our peers, friends, and all those with whom we associate? Again, yes. But does conceding these points undermine the existence of a universal standard of ethical behavior? Not at all!
If the Bible is true, then it would seem 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 to 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 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 I’ll wrap this up. Over the last two decades 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. Al Mohler clarifies this point with skill,
Christians must be very careful not to claim that science can never prove a biological basis for sexual orientation. We can and must insist that no scientific finding can change the basic sinfulness of all homosexual behavior. The general trend of the research points to at least some biological factors behind sexual attraction, gender identity, and sexual orientation. This does not alter God’s moral verdict on homosexual sin (or heterosexual sin, for that matter), but it does hold some promise that a deeper knowledge of homosexuality and its cause will allow for more effective ministries to those who struggle with this particular pattern of temptation. If such knowledge should ever be discovered, we should embrace it and use it for the greater good of humanity and for the greater glory of God.
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 (remember roadblock 2 above). 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. The horizontal doesn’t cancel the vertical!
So, if you’re talking with someone and this issue arises, stay alert and spot it. It can be tricky for sure, but without a working knowledge of these roadblocks an otherwise robust apologetic conversation can go sideways as you both speak past one another.
A doctrine I’ve repeatedly defended is that of biblical inerrancy. This doctrine affirms 2 things: First, that when all the facts are taken into consideration, and when the Bible is correctly interpreted, it neither 2) contradicts other known facts, or contradicts itself. Here I’d like t briefly discuss the second part of that definition- The Bible never contradicts itself. I’d like us to think through how we apply this conviction to tough cases.
For some time now the outspoken atheist, and Christian apostate, Dan Baker has issued his Easter Challenge. As he plainly state it, the challenges is as follows,
The conditions of the challenge are simple and reasonable. In each of the four Gospels, begin at Easter morning and read to the end of the book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21. Also read Acts 1:3-12 and Paul’s tiny version of the story in I Corinthians 15:3-8. These 165 verses can be read in a few moments. Then, without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, write a simple, chronological narrative of the events between the resurrection and the ascension: what happened first, second, and so on; who said what, when; and where these things happened.
A number of introductory remarks are needed in responding to Mr. Barker’s Easter Challenge. Several of these thoughts are regarding what logically constitutes a contradiction between the multiple resurrection accounts, while others touch on historical and literary concerns. My goal here is not to provide a detailed harmonization (others have provided that), but address the larger idea of forced harmonizations. Parameters must be acknowledged for any responsible Christian response to challenges like Barker’s.
As a single example of what Barker wants resolved, he asks:
What time did the women visit the tomb?
- Matthew: “as it began to dawn” (28:1)
- Mark: “very early in the morning . . . at the rising of the sun” (16:2, KJV); “when the sun had risen” (NRSV); “just after sunrise” (NIV)
- Luke: “very early in the morning” (24:1, KJV) “at early dawn” (NRSV)
- John: “when it was yet dark” (20:1)
It is clear that Mr. Barker’s challenge is intended to demonstrate that the multiple resurrection accounts are convoluted and irreconcilable. Such convolution, though not directly stated but certainly implied, is a strong argument against the historicity of the event itself. If the primary eyewitnesses cannot get their facts straight and do not produce a cohesive narrative the skeptic has ample reason to reject the central claim they are making.
Difficulties arise when certain assumptions (made by those untrained in biblical interpretation, historical reconstruction, and logic) are imposed upon the texts of the Bible.
Harmonization may not be possible. First, it may very well be the case that textual reconstruction is impossible. But this is not necessarily because of any failure of the biblical authors to presents the facts “as they really were,” but rather because we fail as interpreters to do just to the unique emphases of each Gospel as a literary whole. Each Gospel approaches the story of Jesus from a distinct angle, and we therefore should not automatically expect them to line up neatly like so many Lego blocks. Matthew constructs his Gospel with the aim of demonstrating Jesus as the long-promised messianic king, while John seeks to identify Jesus as the God of Israel come in the flesh. Each Gospel has its own goal and orders, including and excluding material based on the overall point they are seeking to make. We should not muffle these voices in the violent literary attempt to cram them into our preconceived procrustean bed. This is an inherent danger that potentially awaits anyone who seeks to harmonize the resurrection accounts (including those who affirm biblical inerrancy).
Beware the monster. Second, The Gospels were not written with the intent that they would be carved up, abstracted from their original focus, and spliced together like a literary Frankenstein’s Monster. So we ask, what exactly does Mr. Barker have in mind when he writes, “The important condition to the challenge, however, is that not one single biblical detail be omitted” (emphasis his). If two Gospels says there was one angel at the empty tomb, and another says there was one, how should both these details be represented in the text, “There was/were one/two angels”? Does this kind of bare representation (without harmonization) encourage the uninitiated to claim, “See, there is a clear contradiction!” It would seem so.
Gaps and blanks. Last, following the lead of biblical scholar Bruce Waltke, we must make the distinction between literary gaps and blanks. “A gap is an intentional omission whereas a blank is an inconsequential omission” (see his An Old Testament Theology) Much of the information we would need to produce a successful harmonization is “blanked” because it was not reckoned to be essential to the narrative presented by the Gospel authors. In no way does this rule out the historicity of the accounts. It merely reminds us not to impose the foreign criteria of modern historiography on these ancient texts.
This last example raises another difficulty for Mr. Barker’s Challenge. If his goal in having people wrestle with this experiment in literary harmonization is to palpably demonstrate that the multiple resurrection accounts are convoluted and contradictory, an important question must be raised: What exactly is a contradiction?
A contradiction occurs whenever we affirm two logically irreconcilable concepts at the same time and in the same sense (A and not-A). Many objections to harmonization (and the Christian doctrine of biblical inerrancy behind it) are working off of a faulty and imprecise definition of contradiction.
Important for our purposes are the following interpretive points:
- Differences of perspective do not necessarily imply contradiction.
- Difficulties in the textual harmonization of multiple similar accounts (especially due to literary, linguistic, historical, or archeological ignorance) does not necessarily imply a contradiction
- Difficulties in harmonization do not logically mean or imply that the event to which they refer took place
To return to our earlier example of the angelic appearances at the empty tomb, we follow the lead of Norman Geisler:
Matthew does not say there was only one angel. John says there were two, and wherever there are two there is always one; it never fails! The critic has to add the word “only” to Matthew’s account in order to make it contradictory. But in this case, the problem is not with what the Bible actually says, but with what the critic adds to it. (Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992)
Matthew probably focuses on the one who spoke and “said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid’ “ (Matt. 28:5). John referred to how many angels they saw; “and she saw two angels” (John 20:12).3
As Geisler notes, the needed element to produce genuine contradiction must be provided by a hostile interpreted and does not come from the texts themselves.
This has been a brief crash course in thinking through some of the issue at handle when working through harmonization. The challenges to inspiration and inerrancy present us with the temptation to force harmonization to vindicate the Bible. We must work toward possible harmonization when possible, and admit ignorance and the need for further study when necessary. The best resources I can recommend for further study in this subject are Poythress’ Inerrancy and Worldview, and Inerrancy and the Gospels.
For more, see:
Does one need to be a Christian in order to understand the Bible? Do you need seminary training, and an advanced education to make sense out of God’s book? Or, conversely, is the Bible so clear that “even a caveman” can read and grasp it?
Some, motivated by a clear sense of the Bible’s “for everyone-ness” downplay or deny the importance of formal academic study of the Bible. Others, motivated by a clear sense of the Bible’s complexity, present Scripture as something better off left to the scholars, the new priesthood of the academy. Now, in truth, most Christians are probably willing to see some truth in both positions, yet also recognize the there are dangers in either extreme.
This is how I would, and intend, to argue.
In response to these questions, we should shy away from quick yes or no answers. A straight-forward yes or no, with no additional nuance or clarification, will distort the richness of the Bible’s teaching on this issue.
Bible Translations and Theological Language
One discussion closely tied to the issues above is that of Bible translation. Just how literal and formal should translations be? A commonly cited reason people prefer dynamic equivalent translations (like the NIV, the NLT, and others) is because some biblical words are weird, or unusual for the modern reader. Words like ‘justification,’ ‘expiation,’ and ‘propitiation’ aren’t words most people use in their everyday conversations. And for that reason some think that phrases like “sacrifice of atonement” (propitiation), made right with God (justification) and others are better inserted in contemporary Bible translations.
Generally speaking, I don’t think this is a good idea and here’s why: Biblical understanding flourishes in the soil of discipleship. Sometimes I fear people want a Bible translation to do the work of discipleship. I’ve become increasingly convinced that it is good and healthy and right for Christians both to speak the language of their native culture as well as to have a uniquely Christian dialect. Words like ‘atonement’ and ‘justification’ are ways in which God has chosen to reveal to us precious truths. These terms are the vehicles for personal transformation. Postmoderns are correct in this right; language shapes a people. Very rarely have I met one with a thick theological and biblical accent who also despises theology. Without both a knowledge and love of “theological” language I simply do not know how to grasp a passage like this from Romans 3:21-26:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26 ESV)
The same passage as it appears in The Message just doesn’t seem to me to have the same punch:
But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ. God sacrificed Jesus on the altar of the world to clear that world of sin. Having faith in him sets us in the clear. God decided on this course of action in full view of the public – to set the world in the clear with himself through the sacrifice of Jesus, finally taking care of the sins he had so patiently endured. This is not only clear, but it’s now – this is current history! God sets things right. He also makes it possible for us to live in his rightness.
To my mind, The Message has done the thinking for the Christ-disciple. As the Westminster Confession (I.VII) puts it:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
What are the “due use of ordinary means”? These means are the ordinary ways we would determine the meaning of any written document. This includes studying the words of the document itself, its intended audience, grammar, syntax, word studies, and backgrounds (cultural, theological literary, political, etc.). It means picking up a commentary written by those who have done that level of research for us. Both believer and unbeliever.
Part of Christian discipleship is doing the work of wrestling with God’s word. So is an advanced education in theological and biblical studies necessary to understand Scripture? No, though it certainly can help! God have often used long, sustained periods of reflection under the guidance and direction of godly teachers to help so many in grasping the rich unity-in-diversity of the Bible. Such study helps us to understand how doctrines were historically formulated, how the Spirit has lead his Church, and often to apply God’s word to our modern challenges.
The Role of the Church
The chief environment for this study is not the library, apart from the fellowship of other like-minded Christians. That is a helpful means of getting in the content, but not the final context for Christian discipleship. We learn truths and facts in books. But we experience their life transforming power in the laboratory of lived experience.
The truths we wrestle with in our study come to life (or, rather, bring us to life) when we “instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14), are“devoted to one another” (Rom. 12:10), honor one another (Rom. 12:10), accept one another (Rom.15:7), “Have equal concern for each other” (I Corinthians 12:25), “serve one another” (Gal. 5:13), are patient with one another (Eph. 4:2), “bear with each other…” (Col. 3:13), “encourage one another” (I Thess. 4:18, 5:11), and love another another (1 Jn. 3:11; 3:23; 4:7, 11, 12).
Ultimately, the church, in its worship and work is the place for Christian discipleship. It is the fellowship of God’s gathered people, and the context in which we learn to observe all that Jesus commanded us.
What is the relationship between love and logic? The picture many of us are used to is one of opposition. Love is warm, embracing, and personal. Logic, on the other hand, is cold, distancing, and impersonal. Christian thinkers in general, and apologists in specific, must be ready to counter this caricature. It is both biblical false and dangerous to a robust Christian discipleship of the mind.
The Example of the Gospels. Several pieces have been written clarifying specific ways in which Jesus himself employed sharp critical thinking. While our Christlikeness may mean more than this, it certainly does not mean less. Here are some examples:
- Jesus The Logician – Dallas Willard
- How Did Jesus Argue? Jesus & Logic – J. P. Moreland
- Jesus Used Logic – Dave Miller
- On Jesus, by Douglas Groothius
The Gospels often present logical reasons for their portraits of Jesus. How best should we handle passages in Matthew which say, “this was done in fulfillment of…”? The logic of these passage is as follows: “Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, and this is why you should believe it.”
The Example of Paul. If a reasoned articulation of our faith, one with the goal of persuading unbelievers, is wrong-headed how best should we handle the biblical passages in Acts that say that Paul “reasoned” with others to convince them of his message (such as Acts 18:4, 26:28, 28:24, compare also 2 Cor. 5:11)? Paul’s epistles are extended arguments in favor of certain conclusions. So, in Galatians, Paul’s argue you cannot add your good works to the atonement of Christ, and spends several chapters presenting carefully reasoned arguments to support his claim.
Christians should never separate what God has united: A heart for God and a mind for truth (The RTS motto). Our proclaiming the gospel can and should be combined with “arguing for,” and persuading people of its truth. I don’t use the word reconcile, because I don’t believe that reason, logic, and argument need to be reconciled with heart-felt faith …they aren’t at odds![i]
Unbelievers certainly misuse “logic” when they turn it against its very foundation[ii], that doesn’t mean that Christians are disqualified from utilizing this good gift of God. In fact, again, the line of reasoning that abandons things unbelievers misuse proves much too much. This would mean no longer using music as a means of conveying gospel truth because unbelievers likewise employ music to communicate false worldviews. It would also mean that Christians may no longer use theatre, poetry, or allegorical writings because they are all tactics the world (and other religions) use to convey their false belief systems. This where this line of thinking takes us.
Don’t get the impression that I’m advocating a heartless, dry intellectualism. That is simply not the case. When I seek to sharpen and improve my thinking, I seek to honor God. I believe with all my heart that Scripture is God’s word, and can therefore stand up to all supposed “intellectual” attacks made by those who oppose it. I believe that the best thinking shows, demonstrates, coheres with, and is in accordance with everything that we find in the Bible. Do I believe this because I’ve worked out all of the problems and can safely tell unbelievers that there are no challenges? No! I believe in Christ, and all that Scripture teaches because God has revealed them. I believe these things because God has opened my heart, causing me to repent of my sin, and has given me new eyes to see His world. The Holy Spirit has taken the scales off my eyes, shown me the beauty of Christ as the One in whom “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).
When applying our reasoning to apologetics, we should remember that regardless of how persuasive we are, when our words are not accompanied by love they are both 1) a misrepresentation to the unbeliever (as if Christianity is a heartless faith), and 2) displeasing to God. A faith that does not work itself out in love (Gal. 5:6) is both dead and useless (James 2:14). We should never, in personal conversation with either believer or unbeliever, advocate a heartless, loveless appeal to history or logic.
Is trying to persuade people that Christianity is true a bad thing? Not if we take our queue from the Bible. Jude tells us to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), Paul instructs Timothy to “correct opponents” (2 Tim. 2:25), that Scripture is profitable for “correction and reproof” (2 Tim. 3:16), as well as to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). Like to Titus Paul teaches that Elders must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9),” and that false teaches “must be silenced” (Titus 1:11). All of these verses in the pages of God’s word command us to, at appropriate times, contend, commend, advocate, and “argue” that the biblical understanding of God, the world, man, sin, Christ, etc. is correct. These are biblical passages that must be taken seriously.
To reject the use of rationality and reason in matters of our faith is known as fideism. Fideism presents our faith as either an irrational or non-rational. No Christian should accept Christianity based on blind faith. The kind of fideistic conviction that grounds the truth of Christianity in one’s subjectivity (i.e. because they feel strongly about it) proves too much. A Latter-day Saint may claim that they truly, truly believe Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, but simply believing it doesn’t make Mormonism true. A Muslim may claim with all their heart that they believe Mohamed was the prophet of Allah, but this doesn’t make Islam true.
The Danger of Bad Philosophy
Once again: logic is not inherently sinful. Developing one’s analytical abilities is simply the discipline of thinking clearly and avoiding mistakes in reasoning. It can, and must, be used in a God-honoring fashion. Biblical passage frequently cited to dismiss the importance of “philosophy,” like 1 Cor. 1-2, are of course, all true. Let’s avoid hollow and worldview philosophy. But let’s also look at the context of such passages. The point Paul is making in all of those verses can be reduced to a few simple points: 1) the truth of the gospel cannot be reduced or explained merely be “fancy-talking” (what Paul calls “persuasive words,” “worldly wisdom,” etc), and 2) unbelievers show their hostility to God by taking a gift that He has given them (the capacity to think) and trying to use it against Him.
Likewise, in Colossians, Paul says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). This verse, though commonly thought to rule out learning philosophy, logic, etc. altogether, actually does no such thing. What this verse does do, however, is rule out doing these things when done “not according to Christ.” So, believers should seek to sharpen their reasoning abilities precisely because they seek to honor the Lord who gave them this capacity and whose righteous thinking we are to reflect.
Paul tells Christians not be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom. 12:2). Here Paul is speaking of the great truths of sin, grace, justification, and the mystery of God’s election covered in the first 11 chapters of Romans. The Pharisees and their ilk didn’t truly reason with Christ, they tried to rationalize their legalism. Big difference. It was bad, flawed, and ungodly thinking and spiritual rebellion that caused them to oppose the sinless Son of God. If we blame it on “logic,” then let’s agree that it was logic “not according to Christ.” Logic is not something man made, but rather reflects the mind of God whose thinking is clear, unified, and without error or confusion.
In conclusion, I’m not advocating an intellectualist religion. I think both are needed, a heart for God and a mind for truth. Thinking critically is not opposed to a vibrant faith. Love and careful reasoning are both useful in testifying to Christ. They work like the two blades on a pair of scissors. The same Paul that commanded that we “speak the truth in love” also said, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” (2 Cor. 10:5).
[i] I don’t define an “argument” as a heated discussion, but rather providing clear reasons for the convictions we hold dear.
[ii] Though, as I’ve said before, I don’t think it’s the proper use of logic.
Do More Better: A Practical Guide to Producitivity is the latest release from well-known Reformed blogger and co-founder of Cruciform Press, Tim Challies. In response to the question of why he produced the book, Challies writes,
I wrote this short, fast-paced, practical guide to productivity to share what I have learned about getting things done in today’s digital world. Whether you are a student or a professional, a work-from-home dad or a stay-at-home mom, it will help you learn to structure your life to do the most good to the glory of God.
God has uniquely gifted each person with the ability, energy, calling, etc to do certain things with excellence. The quest for maximal productivity is all about recognizing, organizing, and streamlining your responsibilities in such a way as to free you up to throw yourself at the things you do best with maximum effort. “God calls you to productivity, but he calls you to the right kind of productivity. He calls you to be productive for his sake, not your own.”
After writing about stewardship and our responsibilities to God, Challies instructs his readers to reflect on all of their responsibilities in life and to aim to organize them into no more than 5 major categories (mine are personal, family, church, social, and work/influence). Within those major categories are sub-categories. So, for instance, under the major category of Personal, there are the sub-categories of spiritual development, health, finances, education, etc.), under the major category of Family there would be the sub-category of marriage, parenting, etc.)
Once you have those Areas of Responsibility determined, you can come up with a brief mission statement for each, a simple statement that gets to what you want to be doing in those areas. Challies himself believes a single mission statement for all of life can be too overwhelming to a person to put together. I would add that if we have something to spiritual it will be too vague to inform actionable steps. And that the point of the mission statement: to focus on precisely what you want to do and accomplish in a given area of responsibility in your life. Once you know what you’re shooting for, you can accept certain addition responsibilities or turn down others as they fit in with your overall vision.
The remainder of the book (thus far) is structuring three key tools to help keep yourselves organized in those major areas of responsibility. The first tool is a task management system (a scaled-up version of a to-do list), a calendar, and an information storage system (he strongly advocates Evernote). Getting these systems up and running can take a little investment, but the payoffs are huge.
Do More Better is a great read for several reasons. Challies speaks of productivity under the rubric of stewardship. This is very helpfully places time management and producitivity under biblical and theological categories. The time he spends on this isn’t much, but his foundation is helpful and solid. Likewise, at points, and I mean this in the best sense possible, the book reads like a manual, guiding the reader with concrete examples and suggestions. For someone like me who is just wadding into the ocean of literature on this subject, it was helpful to have a guide hold my hand. But, finally, Challies strong argues that the goal of productivity is not for the glorification and advancement of one’s own agenda. “Productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God.”
As I near the end of this series a few last pointers are necessary. First, I would like to present the ultimate goal of apologetics, and then note a few cautions that the apologist must be made aware of.
Our Goal. As we dialogue with unbelievers in apologetic encounters, we must remember our goal. While we cannot change the heart of the lost soul, we desire to be a tool of the Holy Spirit in granting repentance and faith in Christ. The purpose of apologetics is not simply to add additional facts to an unbeliever’s noetic structure. Indeed, many who study and “do” apologetics know this, yet often in practice this is exactly what occurs. We shouldn’t forget that repentance, both moral and intellectual, is our goal. The non-Christian has, whether consciously or not, developed a shelter, a “roof” above them in order to protect them from the objective reality of God’s lordship. Our aim is to demonstrate the epistemological futility of unbelieving thought. Another goal in pressing God’s demands upon His creatures is to close their mouths and further render them without a defense (Rom. 3:19, 1:20).
Francis A. Schaeffer spoke of “taking the roof off,” this is what happens when the Christian confronts the unbeliever with TAG. The unbeliever, now having been stripped of the argumentative weapons, is left to feel the weight of their lostness. Schaeffer keenly notes,
The more logical a man holding a non-Christian position is to his own presuppositions, the further he is from the real world; and the nearer he is to the real world, the more illogical he is to his presuppositions. (The God who is There. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1998. Pg 152. Emphasis in original)
Also, in presenting our case for the absolute truth of the Christian worldview we must avoid what Cornelius Van Til called the “block-house method.” This is a method in which we argue for general theism, then for the possibility of miracles, then for the general reliability of the gospels, then to the historicity of the resurrection, etc. Block by block, building up to a fully biblical worldview. Of course, this does not mean that each aspect of Christianity can be covered all at once. But, we must present our case in such a fashion that at each aspect of our argument every “part” of the Christian worldview presupposes other parts of the worldview. Greg L. Bahnsen states this point beautifully:
The Christian faith should not be defended one isolated belief after another isolated belief-as though a block house were being built up, one block at a time. Instead, the whole system should be presented and defended as a unit. Its epistemology should be defined in terms of its metaphysics and ethics (including anthropology and soteriology), and it’s metaphysics and ethics (including anthropology and soteriology) should be defended in terms of its epistemology. (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis)
The living God, as revealed in Scripture, is the only foundation for interpreting human experience must cause His children to maintain a humble attitude. After all, all that we have we have received as a gift. Yet, it should also be a great source of boldness in apologetics. Thus, the Christian apologist must be one characterized by humble boldness. Had not the Lord in His sovereign mercy opened our hearts and minds to His truth we would remain trapped in epistemic futility.
Caution. And now a word of caution. This boldness should never make us arrogant. If we’re consistent in our approach, we’ll confess and treat the unbeliever as one created in the image of God. The moment we come off sounding intellectually arrogant, we have compromised our position. Not only should our method of argument be explicitly Christian, but the manner in which we present it must display our piety as well.
Being that Man is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) what they do and who they are is of great significance. They are of great significance even in their rebellion against God. In the eternal punishment of the wicked, God demonstrates the true worth of his creature’s moral actions, both in deeds and in thought. If the presentation of our transcendental argument must be marked by piety, then our approach to the unbeliever must be marked by love.
The unbeliever is double minded, unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). Within the noetic structure of the non-Christian a dynamic tension exists. In one sense, they do know God, but in a very important sense, they do not. They do not know God, in the intimate, saving fashion commended in Scripture. In this series, I have focused on the unbeliever’s suppressed knowledge of God. While they profess that the biblical God does not, indeed cannot, exist, their unguarded everyday actions betray their profession. How can they get on with their everyday lives, without living in a dream world?
God has written His Law on the heart of the unbeliever. They have an immediate, non-derivative, knowledge of God’s existence and lordship. As Paul speaks of in Romans chapter 1, God has made Himself known to His creation so that they are without excuse. Unbelieving scientists argue against Christianity because supposedly Christianity, with its miracles, violates the laws of science. But, how could “laws” of science exist apart from the infinite-personal God of Scripture? They desire to refute Christianity by decrying that Christianity violates the laws of logic (The deductive problem of evil, the Trinity, etc.). Yet, logic presupposes the mind of God impressing itself upon His creation. Ultimately, we argue for the truth of the Christian worldview from the impossibility of the contrary. Thus, all non-Christian worldviews fail in their attempt to muffle God’s voice. God will not be shut out from His creation.
The Christian apologist must press God’s claims upon the unregenerate, thus demonstrating that person’s rebellion to the God who is there. Our ultimate desire is to show the unbeliever that they have no recourse but to turn to God in Jesus Christ for salvation, both intellectually and eternally. Piety, and humble boldness must mark the apologist’s approach. But, most importantly our presentation is to be characterized by the loving manner in which we speak to those who oppose the truth.
We ought not to be deterred by the rejection of our apologetic by the unbeliever. Only God is the One who can soften the heart of the would-be autonomous sinner.
May it please the Lord to glorify Himself in the faithful presentation of His truth claims.
One thing I’ve long admired about Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention) is his winsome example of what a Christ-centered, gospel-saturated Christian looks like when they enter the public square. In his latest book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, defining our calling to one of engaged alienated.
Our call is to an engaged alienation, a Christianity that preserves the distinctiveness of our gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors, friends, and citizens.
This means our priority is a theological vision of what it means to be the church in the world, of what it means to be human in the cosmos. We must put priority where Jesus put it, on the kingdom of God. But while we are a citizens Kingdom First people, we are not a Kingdom Only people. Jesus told us to seek both the kingdom of God “and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). We pursue justice and mercy and well being for those around us, including the social and political arenas. This means that we will be considered “culture warriors.” Maybe so, but let’s be Christ-shaped culture warriors. Let’s be those who contend for culture, but not those who are at war with the culture. We will see ourselves in a much deeper, much more intractable, much more ancient war not against flesh and blood or even against cultural forces, but against unseen principalities and powers in the heavenly places.
We will recognize the necessity of engagement in social and political action, even as we see the limits of such action, this side of the New but Jerusalem. But we will engage not with the end goal of winning with the end goal of reconciliation. This means that morality and social justice, while good, are not enough. We witness to a gospel that seeks nor only to reconcile people to one another but to God, by doing away with the obstacle to such communion: our sin and our guilt. hat comes not by voter blocs or by policy papers but by a bloody cross and an empty tomb.
Over the past century or so, the “culture wars” could be categorized as disputes over human dignity (the pro-life movement, for example), family stability (the sexual and marriage and child-rearing debates, for example) and religious liberty. The intuitions of American Christians on these fronts have often been right, I believe, even if too often unanchored from a larger gospel vision and from a larger framework of justice. We should learn from the best impulses of such engagement, and use our articulation of our views at these points as part of an even bigger argument. These should point us back to a vision of kingdom, of culture, and of mission, rooted in the gospel and in church, even as we work with those who disagree with us in the many ways toward an approximation of justice in the public arena. As we do this, we shouldn’t be ashamed of Jesus, and we shouldn’t be afraid to be out of step with America. We are marching onward, toward a different kind of reign.
In our present cultural moment, Moore’s presentation is exciting and needs to find a wide hearing.
In response to the problems I find in the standard apologetic strategy, I propose another approach. The strategy I propose is a transcendental approach to demonstrating the existence of God (hereafter TAG). This is by no means a new solution, nor original to myself. I am greatly indebted to those in the presuppositional camp of apologetics, such as Cornelius Van Til, John M. Frame, Greg L. Bahnsen, and many others. Transcendental argumentation was first introduced to philosophical discussion by Immanuel Kant. Briefly stated, “[a] transcendental argument, as Kant used the term, is an argument for a reality based on that reality’s being the very conditions even of the denial of that reality.” (William Lane Craig, Five Views on Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000. Pg. 233.) For instance, transcendental reasoning asking, “what are the necessary conditions for an event to occur?”
A simple illustration is provided for clarity: When I throw my brother a pair of keys that he’s misplaced and that I’ve just recently found, what am I assuming when I perform this action? The philosophical way of stating this is, “what are the preconditions of my assumption?” Well, for one I was assuming that my Brother is able to catch the keys! More importantly I am assuming (even if, and usually so [!], I do not consciously acknowledge my assumption.) that gravity works and that when the pair of keys is at the apex of it’s upward thrust that suddenly it will not remain frozen, in mid-air. When we inquire into something, what are we assuming regarding the nature of reality, acts of knowing, and morals?
TAG argues in this manner: We as creatures of God have a built-in knowledge of our Creator. Yet, we stuff back this truth in an attempt to rid ourselves of our inborn knowledge of God (Rom. 1:18). Though many people profess a disbelief in God, their unguarded everyday actions actually prove that they do know the God of the Bible. In my next post, I’ll discuss how the existence of the Triune God and the truth of the Christian worldview is needed to rationally explain the world we live in.
Picking up where we left off, I’ll now touch on the major points a transcendental approach seeks to get across. The main point is that without a biblical conception of God, and for that matter, an entire Christian worldview, life, at the deepest level, makes no sense.
Logic. The infinite personal God of Scripture is the only logical and coherent ground for laws of thought. How so? They reflect His thinking and character. The Biblical God’s character is that of truth, therefore to violate the law of non-contradiction (“Something cannot be both A and non-A at the same time, in the same respect”) would effect be to lie.
Science. The uniformity of nature, which is the very heart and soul of the scientific method, needs God to stabilize the world in order for science to make reliable inductive hypotheses. Strict empiricism cannot account for the law of cause and effect (as argued by philosopher David Hume), and if the world really is left to chance then to say that we can expect tomorrow to be like today would be to make a groundless statement. We cannot experience casual connections between 2 events. Thus, a nonbeliever has no reason to believe that cause and effect actually exists. The uniformity of nature must be assumed in order for any rational inquiry to proceed.
Human dignity. We are created in the image of God (imago dei), thus the worth of humanity is directly related to the worth of the One whose image we reflect.
Ethics. According to Francis Schaeffer:
With the Christian answer it is now possible to understand that there are true moral absolutes. There is no law behind God, because God is the furthest thing back. The moral absolutes rest upon God’s character. The creation as he originally made it conformed to his character. The moral commandments he has given are an expression of his character. Men created in his image are created to live by choice on the basis of what God is. The standards of morality are determined by what conforms to his character, while those things which do not conform are immoral.- Francis A. Schaeffer, The God who is There (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1998), 133.
The non-believer’s assumptions about the nature of reality must be challenged. Any epistemology that does not presuppose the truth of God’s word in Scripture will render any form of true knowledge nonsense, and unintelligible. This does not mean that the unbeliever can know nothing, rather is means that they cannot give a sound account of what they believe. The non-Christian is not only spiritually lost, but epistemologically hopeless as well.
Biblical support. On the other hand, the God revealed in the Bible provides the necessary conditions for making sense of human experience. Without this particular God, there would be no such things as “facts” “laws” at all. God is the final reference point for all things, His nature and plan for the universe is what give structure and provides rationale for our lives. Scripture teaches that God is self-existent (Ex.3:14, Jn. 5:26, Gal. 4:8-9), eternal (Ps.90:2), unchangeable (Mal. 3:6), omnipresent (Ps. 139:7-10), created all things out of nothing (Col. 1:16-17, Heb.11:3), designed the world in wisdom (Ps. 104:24, Isa. 40:28), determines all things (Eph.1:11), preserves all things (Neh. 9:6), governs all things (Ps.103:19), predetermines the nature and course of all things, thus being able to work miracles (Ps. 72:18), and ordains historical events (Isa. 46:10, Acts 2:3, Eph. 3:9-11).
This Christian view of reality (metaphysic) accounts for all of life. The Christian is not left to figure out reality apart from God’s revelation in Scripture. Any attempt to argue against Christianity’s concept of God already presupposes something (whether it be laws of thought, science, morals) that could not be made sense of apart from the very God they desire to argue against! And if this is true, then no conflicting “evidence” can be offered to rebut the Christian worldview.
No other non-Christian worldview can consistently make sense of the above-mentioned conditions for rationality. No other worldview or theory of knowledge can provide us will the necessary preconditions of intelligibility. Many, if not all, objections to the Christian metaphysic will involve question-begging, double standards, arbitrariness, and inconsistencies in argumentation. And, depending of one’s worldview we would have to apply TAG a bit differently.
If anything speaks to the confusion of our age it’s the poem Creed, written in 1993 by English poet and music journalist Steve Turner. (The postscript, called Chance, was Turner’s follow-up).
Creed by Steve Turner
We believe in Marxfreudanddarwin
We believe everything is OK
as long as you don’t hurt anyone
to the best of your definition of hurt,
and to the best of your knowledge.
We believe in sex before, during, and
We believe in the therapy of sin.
We believe that adultery is fun.
We believe that sodomy’s OK.
We believe that taboos are taboo.
We believe that everything’s getting better
despite evidence to the contrary.
The evidence must be investigated
And you can prove anything with evidence.
We believe there’s something in horoscopes
UFO’s and bent spoons.
Jesus was a good man just like Buddha,
Mohammed, and ourselves.
He was a good moral teacher though we think
His good morals were bad.
We believe that all religions are basically the same-
at least the one that we read was.
They all believe in love and goodness.
They only differ on matters of creation,
sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.
We believe that after death comes the Nothing
Because when you ask the dead what happens
they say nothing.
If death is not the end, if the dead have lied, then it’s compulsory heaven for all
Hitler, Stalin, and Genghis Kahn
We believe in Masters and Johnson
What’s selected is average.
What’s average is normal.
What’s normal is good.
We believe in total disarmament.
We believe there are direct links between warfare and bloodshed.
Americans should beat their guns into tractors
and the Russians would be sure to follow.
We believe that man is essentially good.
It’s only his behavior that lets him down.
This is the fault of society.
Society is the fault of conditions.
Conditions are the fault of society.
We believe that each man must find the truth that
is right for him.
Reality will adapt accordingly.
The universe will readjust.
History will alter.
We believe that there is no absolute truth
excepting the truth
that there is no absolute truth.
We believe in the rejection of creeds,
And the flowering of individual thought.
If chance be
the Father of all flesh,
disaster is his rainbow in the sky
and when you hear:
State of Emergency!
Sniper Kills Ten!
Troops on Rampage!
Whites go Looting!
It is but the sound of man
worshipping his maker.
The Bible seems to teach two apparently contradictory things. On the one hand we are told to defend the faith and evangelize the lost (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15, Matt. 28), and on the other hand we are told that the unbeliever is hostile to God and will not turn to him (Rom. 8:7-8). The problem that this series seeks to address is how one should approach apologetics when those to whom we speak are what the Bible calls “spiritually dead,” or totally depraved
Definitions. Let’s start with an important definition. What is mean by the theological doctrine of total depravity? According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, in the chapter “On free will,” it states:
Man fell into a state of sin by his disobedience and so completely lost his ability to will any spiritual good involving salvation. Consequently fallen man is by nature completely opposed to spiritual good, is dead in sin, and is unable to by his own strength either to convert himself or to prepare himself to conversion.
This is the intended definition of total depravity that I seek to defend here. It’s also the definition that I hope to harmonize with a biblical defense of the faith. According to the above definition of total depravity, due to his sinful nature man is spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1) and hostile to God in all aspects of life (Rom. 8:7-8).
Biblical support. There’s only one hope for the spiritually dead sinner, the liberation of their will from its corruption by union with Jesus Christ. Scripture states that mankind is evil from its youth (Gen.8:21), has a heart that is deceitful above all things (Jer.17:9), and loves darkness rather than light (John 3:19). We also find that their minds and consciences are corrupted (Titus 1:15), they are by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3), of their father the devil (1 John 3:10), and sons of disobedience (Eph.2:1).
Here we see the clarity of Jesus’ words in John 3, “That which is born of flesh is flesh” (v. 6). The natural, unregenerate, rebellious sinner absolutely cannot, nor wills to become a regenerate, spiritual, servant of a holy God. True, those words are harsh indeed. But, we shouldn’t shy away from proclaiming the revealed truth in God’s word. All Christians have a divine mandate to uphold the truth. The instrumental reason that any person has ever had saving faith in, and love for, Christ is because of the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of God’s people. To state it in biblical terms, God’s removes the unrepentant sinner’s heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26).
This isn’t an obscure doctrine of Christianity. Everywhere Scripture teaches this, places such as Gen. 6:5, 8:21, Job. 14:4, Ps. 51:5, 58:3, Ecc. 9:3, Is. 53:6, 65:6, Jer. 13:23, 17:9, Mt. 7:16-18, Mk. 7:21-23, Jn 3:19, 6:44, 65, 8:34, 44, Rom. 8:7-8, 1 Cor. 2:14, Eph. 2:1-3, 4:17-19, Col. 2:13, 2 Tim. 2:25-26, Titus 1:15, click here to read all these passages together.), Furthermore,
In Romans 1:18-20 Paul teaches that man knows enough about God to be held accountable. Why? God has done the revealing, and it is flawless and effectual. Verse 21 states, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Due to man’s utter rejection of God’s truth, his very thoughts become futile, worthless, and groundless. But man’s knowledge of God should never be reduced to mere facts about God. In this passage, we find that unbelievers actually know God personally, though as an enemy.
After two chapters explaining why the righteousness of God must be revealed apart from the Law of God (do to man’s moral inabilities), the nail in the coffin is driven in Romans chapter 3. Paul cites various passages from the Old Testament, primarily from the Psalms, with the intention of demonstrating that his anthropological pessimism was justified in light of the Old Covenant Scriptures. His diagnosis was plainly foreshadowed in the Old Testament. Starting with verse 9 Paul teaches:
What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, They have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.”“ The poison of vipers is on their lips.” “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Rom. 3:9-18)
These are tough words to accept, even for most Christians. Paul lays out briefly, though not exhaustively, on what it is that sin does to its prey, namely, humankind. First, Paul speaks of throats being open graves, with tongues practicing deceit. He then moves on to speak of lips, mouths, and feet. He tops off his denunciation of the sinful heart by claiming that, apart from redemption in Christ, we understand God’s truth. Though it would seem to be a hopeless endeavor (speaking to those who are in rank rebellion against their Creator), nevertheless, Scripture commands followers of Christ to make disciples from all nations (Matt. 28:19-20). How should we go about this task?
Approaching the Unbeliever
God calls us to know what we believe and be prepared to speak about it with others. Unfortunately many Christians feel this is an impractical task, one better off left to the scholars. But this is a command of Scripture (1 Pet. 3:15), not a suggestion. This may make others feel a bit uneasy, but the truth is that to disobey this clear command from the word of God is in the same broad category as lying, cheating, and murder. And that broad category is simply this: sin. Just as we long to obey God by praying, reading the Scriptures, and faithfully attending a local body of believers, so should we seek to sharpen our intellect in order to provide a defense of our faith to everyone who asks it of us.
The aim of most methods in apologetics is to bring the unbeliever to a true knowledge of God by reasoning from common experience to saving faith in Jesus. Of course, this is a biblical and noble goal. But I have a difficulty with techniques in apologetics that only present “evidence” (as good as evidence is) without raising the question of how the non-Christian is interpreting the evidence. The chief objection that I have with this approach is that Scripture is quite clear that the unbeliever already has a knowledge of God (Rom. 1:21). For sure, it may not be a saving knowledge of God, but nonetheless it is a true knowledge. Because of this knowledge, the unbeliever really does know that God does exist, and that He makes certain moral demands upon His creatures (Rom. 1:32).
As we saw in Romans 1, mankind, through general revelation in nature and conscience, knows of God’s eternal power and divine nature (Rom. 1:20), and knows of the righteous demands of God for them (v. 32). Approaches to apologetics that do not deal adequately deal with these verses, or in practice ignore them, subvert the scriptural fact that the unbeliever’s refusal to believe in God is not a strictly intellectual issue. It stems from moral hostility toward God. As R. C. Sproul put it:
Now what Paul is really saying here [in Roman 1], and this can be inflammatory if you’re not a theist, but at least listen. You can disagree with Paul if you want to – I don’t think you can with impunity – but if – you’re not accountable to me. But the point is that what the apostle is saying is that in the final analysis your problem with the existence of God is not intellectual. It’s not because there’s insufficient information. It’s not because that God’s manifestation of Himself has been obscure. Your problem is not intellectual. It’s moral. Your problem is not that you can’t know God. Your problem is that you don’t want God. That’s what the charge is, at least, from the apostle, and this is where he lays it out in the first chapter of Romans when he says in Romans 18, ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. (R. C. Sproul, Defending Your Faith, lesson 25, “The Psychology of Atheism, 11:33- 12:38)
Biblically speaking, the whole world is divided into two camps, those who love God, and those who do not. Neutral ground does not exist. To seek it would be a vain, sinful attempt. Once a sinner has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, their ultimate heart allegiance is to God. Those in union with the risen Lord know that in Christ are found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col.2:3). Christ Himself is both the power of God, and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24).
As one continues to grow in the grace of our Lord they confirm their conviction that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning [not the end] of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7, emphasis added.). To those who are in spiritual opposition to God, the principle of human autonomy is what guides their every thought. God, if their autonomy is to remain, must never be thought of as Lord over every area of life, especially over the thought life! Frame states:
The lordship of Christ is not only ultimate and unquestionable, not only above and beyond all other authorities, but also over all areas of human life. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 we read, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (cf. Rom.14:23; 2 Cor. 10:5; Col. 3:17,23; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Our Lord’s demand upon us is comprehensive. In all that we do, we must seek to please him no area of human life is neutral. (Ibid., pg 7)
An ultimate presupposition is not something that can be tested like other beliefs; they establish the very criterion by which all other beliefs are to be tested. The unbeliever’s presupposition of human autonomy is the lens through which all theistic arguments will be evaluated.
A presupposition is a belief that takes precedence over another and therefore serves as a criterion for another. An ultimate presupposition is a belief over which no other takes precedence. For a Christian, the content of Scripture must serve as his ultimate presupposition. This doctrine is merely the outworking of the lordship of God in the area of human thought. It merely applies the doctrine of scriptural infallibility to the realm of knowing. (Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994. Pg. 75)
Unless this issue is addressed at some point, we are neglecting the central issue, the human heart. God is not known simply at the end of a syllogism. If the Bible is the word of God, then every fact of the universe points to Him.
Typically people envision the difference between the Christian and the Non-Christian worldviews as one where one (i.e. the Christian worldview) believes more things. For instance, both believers and non-believers subscribe to the laws of logic, the scientific method (hypothesis by repeated observation) and the fact that certain behavior is truly wrong. The situation could be liken to a circle in which both believer and non-believer have beliefs A, B and C, but the believer hold to a few more D, E, and F (the unique deity of Jesus Christ, and the Trinity, and the existence of the spirit realm for example).
The aim of apologetics, or so it has been thought, is to argue over this disputed points and demonstrate that Christianity is rationally justified in believing such things. As mentioned earlier though, unfortunately the method by which a non-believer judges the validity of those disagreed upon beliefs is determined by the worldview that person holds. What is necessary is to discuss the seeming agreements shared between the two parties. Can a non-Christian worldview make sense of concepts such as moral absolutes, immaterial realities such as the laws of logic, and the laws of science?
Next we’ll look at what I have found to be a better way of doing apologetics in light of Scripture.
 When we use the word “total” in total depravity, it doesn’t mean that the unbeliever is as bad as he could possibly be. Instead, the term is used to mean that all (“total”) aspects of man have been tainted by sin. Not only are his actions tainted by sin, but also his will, and his thoughts
A major doctrine for Christians looking to understand the world in which they live is the doctrine of common grace. This doctrine is firmly embedded in the Reformed tradition, but ultimate is found in the pages of Scripture itself. To unpack this doctrine we’ll look at it from several angles. First, I’d like to define what the doctrine is. Second, I’ll briefly provide biblical support for this doctrine. Third, I will cite some helpful clarifications on the doctrine. And last, we want to share some thought s on a controversy over the doctrine of common grace.
Defining common grace. Dutch Reformed theologian Louis Bekhof defines God’s common grace as “those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted.” Furthermore, he adds, that common grace includes “those general blessings which God imparts to all men without any distinction as He sees fit” (see his Summary of Christian Doctrine). Likewise, Dutch theologian Cornelius Van Til (one of the founding faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary) said common grace is God’s “favor to sinners by which they are kept from working out to the full the principle of sin within them and thereby are enabled to show some measure of involuntary respect and appreciation for the law of God that speaks to them even through their own constitution, as well as through the facts of the world outside” (see his An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 55)
This is exactly what the great Reformer John Calvin affirmed when he warned:
Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole foundation of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, I 2.2.15)
Last, the well respect scholar of the Post-Reformation Era, Richard Muller, in his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, under the entry gratia communis, “common grace” wrote,
a nonsaving, universal grace according to which God in his goodness bestows his favor upon all creation in the general blessings of physical sustenance and moral influence for the good. Thus, rain falls on the just and the unjust, and all men have the law engraved on their hearts. Gratia communis is therefore contrasted by the Reformed with particular or special grace.
Biblical Support. Sin has infected our every faculty. Nevertheless, God is gracious and has restrained it from doing its worst (Gen. 20:6). God also displays lovingkindness to both believers and non-believers in the unfolding of history (Matt. 5:45, Acts 14:16-17). God does use unbelievers to make true pronouncements (Num. 23:18-24, cf. Gen. 49: 9), even when speaking God’s truth was not their intention (Jn 11:47-51, Acts 5:34-39). Whether on the lips of faithful friend or fiercest foe, Calvin notes that truth should be acknowledged as coming from the Spirit of God, who is the “sole foundation of truth.”
Clarifications. Some clarifications are in order. R. C. Sproul, the founder of Ligonier Ministries, writes in his book, Everyone’s a Theologian, makes a very helpful distinction between common grace and special grace.
Another important distinction is between common grace and special grace. Special grace involves the redemption that God gives to the saved. By contrast, common grace is called “common” because it is virtually universal. It is the grace that God gives to all people indiscriminately. Common grace is the mercy and kindness that God extends to the human race. The Bible says that God in His providence sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matt. 5: 45), and this is an example of common grace. There may be two farmers in the same town, one devout and committed to the things of God, and the other as pagan as he can possibly be. Both need the rain for their crops, and God in His goodness waters the earth, so both profit from the showers. Neither farmer deserves the rain to nurture his crops, but God’s rain falls upon both, not just the devout man.
God’s common grace extends far beyond rain. People who are not in fellowship with God enjoy many favors from Him. Changes in the human standard of living over time— quality of life, improved health, and better safety— trace the progress of God’s grace through history. Of course, not everyone enjoys an equal standard of living, and certainly the basic standard of living in America is much greater than that in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, even in those areas, life expectancy and quality of life tend to be significantly better than in centuries past. Life has become easier.
Many simply attribute these improvements to science or education, but we must also factor in the influence of the Christian church over the past two thousand years. Orphanages were begun by the Christian community, as were hospitals and schools. Christians even drove the development of science in many ways. Believers have taken seriously their God-given responsibility to be good stewards of the planet. If we chart the history of the influence of the church on many different spheres, we see that, contrary to those who decry the impact of religion on the world, the general quality of life on earth has been vastly improved by the influence of Christianity.
Final thoughts. Finally, some thoughts on the controversy. I know that the Protestant Reformed Church has a long history of rejecting the doctrine (stemming from Reformed theologian Herman Hoeksema), but it must be noted that even at the mere numerical level, they are in the vast minority of Reformed denominations and institutions. I fear that there is a biblical unwarranted move from acknowledging that God elects some for salvation (and leaves the reprobate to their just punishment), to believing that God has no good will towards the reprobate. In one sense, that would seem to make sense in a logical sequence. How, it could be asked, could God love those who he has eternally decreed he would allow to suffer the punishment for their sin? But here we must not go beyond Scripture itself which says, “The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145.9). Likewise, Jesus directly addresses this when he tells us to love our enemies:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
Christ’s point was that when we love our enemies we are acting like God. Now it could be said, yes, but Christians are enemies of God before their conversion (Rom. 5:10), and that’s certainly true. But Jesus explicitly speaking of both the righteous and the unrighteous. We must not be afraid to speak the way the Bible speaks, and the Bible speak of God’s love even for unbelievers. Of course, it is not the unconditional love which God bestows on his elect children, but it is genuine love.
Apologetics is about giving a credible witness to the wisdom of God. To do this best, the apologist studies three things,
- God’s word
- The questions and objections of non-Christians
- How to communicate the truth persuasively and in love.
The danger that the title refers to is the danger that in the process of explaining and defending the faith, we give the impression that if the non-Christian just thought a little more, was only a little more moral and/or philosophically consistent they would walk right into the kingdom. This, of course, is not the case.
And in fact, if we give this impression, we undermine our kingdom testimony.
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe… (1 Cor. 1:21)
Christianity may have maximal explanatory power, but part of those things it explains is the obstinate, recalcitrant, and indifferent attitude of non-Christians toward the truth. This heart-rebellion is the very reason that one’s full intellectual acceptance of Christianity is nothing less than a miraculous work of God’s Spirit. Full intellectual acceptance of Christianity means more than the acceptance of propositions (though, certainly not less). It means accepting God’s word for what it is, the word of God, and not the word of men (1 Thes. 2:13).
Only the God of the miraculous, the One in the beginning who said “Let there be light” shine “in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6)