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)
According to one definition, relativism is, “the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.” It starts with the observation that we do not have access to objective moral standards apart from our distinct cultural, historical, and geographical setting. After all, ethical guidelines are not learned, understood, or accepted in a vacuum; they are mediated by our consciousness, one that has been formed in a particular environment. Now, from these observations, here are two common interpretations of cultural relativism:
Because different cultures have differing ethical paradigms, all moral systems are social constructs; there aren’t any objective moral standards that apply to all people, at all times, and in all places.(moral atheism)
Regardless of whether moral absolutes exist, we cannot grasp them apart of what comes to us through our interpretive communities (cultures, sub-cultures, the circles in which we travel, etc.). (moral agnosticism)
The first statement is of a metaphysical nature, it’s a position on the nature of reality, what really exists. To know this, one would have to stand over and above all of reality to be able to authoritatively state that objective morality doesn’t exist. This assertion is what is referred to as a “universal negative,” one would have to be infinite to know that it is true.
The second proposition is much more modest; it is an epistemological statement in that it refers to our limits as finite thinkers. To say that we do not possess an unmediated view of universal behavioral guidelines, is not to say that they don’t exist. It just means that we must deal with what we have, and it implies that accessing a touchstone to govern what cultures are more “right” than others is inherently problematic (normally those that hold this position deny that God have revealed his character and will).
It is usually held that because we all are “trapped” by culturally received standards, we can’t and shouldn’t ever condemn the values and actions of other interpretive communities. This would prohibit us from judging the practices of the Nazis as “immoral”, since what we consider wrong due to our communal moral criteria was deemed justifiable according to theirs. If the thought of a whole country united in condoning the practice of pedophilia abhors us, we must realize that this is because our socially constructed ethical code labels such an activity an abomination. According to this model, who are we to impose our beliefs on people who don’t share them? After all, different cultures have different standards.
It essential to note that this conclusion (“Thou shalt not impose one’s standards on another”) does not logically follow from a position of cultural relativism. If no objective moral values exist, then how can one say that it is wrong for one group to judge others, or even to impose their beliefs on others? This moral imposition of an objective standard (“you ought not to judge others”) is in diametric opposition to their position; it is a complete contradiction. Contrary to this (culturally derived) notion of tolerance (on that is, it should be noted, smuggled in as an ethical absolute), cultural relativism provides the philosophical coherent basis for a group to say, “It is part of our belief system to impose our values on other groups, no one can say that we are objectively wrong to do so. Our cultural ethics are all that we have, so we will be obedient to them!”
Despite the common pairing of the popular notion of tolerance with relativism, cultural relativism can actually lead to obstinate close-mindedness.
Now that’s a problem.
One thing people often miss is this: Our approach to life — our committed worldview — has to do a lot of heavy lifting. In order for it to truly be a worldview it must have maximal explanatory power. . It has to explain and account for both creation and corruption, our longs for truth, good, beauty, and justice, and it has to take evil seriously. It should even account, in principle, for mystery. And it cannot deny or suppress truths we can’t not know.
I don’t feel comfortable with a view of life that compartmentalizes my life, drawing hard and fast divisions between aspects of my inner life and the external world that I experience daily as a singularity, a unity.
Ultimately, I’ve concluded that Christianity is just that worldview.
First, it validates and indeed gives grounding to my subject world, my hopes, fears, desires. It makes sense of my desire for justice, my sense of beauty, and the human longing for a world that “lives up to its potential.”
Second, I’ve found that my intellectual cravings are satisfied with the worldview presented in the Bible. No matter what objections I’ve throw at it, it stands up, none the worse for wear. It gives me a metaphysic that makes sense, and naturally flows into its own epistemology and an ethic. Of course, it’s not an exhaustive list of how to run my life, but that’s exactly because the Bible doesn’t present us human as automatons. We apply the implications of Scripture to aspects of life not directly addressed in its pages.
Whatever worldview we commit to must take all of all of human experience and make sense of it in a way that’s not radically counter-intuitive and that doesn’t make nonsense of life.
Since the initial launch of KINGDOMVIEW back in 2007, I’ve written and shared lots of material. For some it can be overwhelming locating discussions on any given topic. This is especially true for my apologetic writings. One of the problems readers may have is that much of the work provided here can appear random and possibly (though I hope not) without order, obscuring the big picture.
I thought now would be a great time to reorganize the work already posted on this blog in a logical order than helps the reader develop their approach to apologetics (my primary area of specialization) in a biblically faithful and philosophically sound way. The goal is this: if you read these in order you should be able to understand the flow of the arguments in favor of the Christian worldview, as well as understand the more philosophical entries.
Making Sense of out Apologetics
- Prologue to Apologetics: Part 1, 2, 3, and summary
- Three Reasons Why We Do Apologetics (off-site link to the Jude 3 Project)
- What Do Our Longings For Truth, Beauty, And Goodness All Have In Common?
- Arguments for the Existence of God: Preliminary Issues
- Arguments for the Existence of God: Transcendental Arguments
- Arguments for the Existence of God: Rationality & Logic
- Arguments for the Existence of God: Morality
- God’s Relationship to Goodness
- A Little Atheism is Good for the Soul (Part 1 and 2)
- Atheistic Compartmentalization
- The Problem with Atheism
- The Problem with Agnosticism
- The Problem with Unicorns
For the purposes of making this an ongoing resource, I’ve created a new page on the blog called Apologetic Q&A. Lord willing this be a regularly updated page. If you find these resources helpful, please do get the word out. Below are the links associated with the first edition of the page:
In line with other recent response to agnosticism, unicorns, and atheism, I’d like to raise some questions about the approach to knowledge known as empiricism. Empiricism is a tradition which teaches that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience. That is, if something is not, at least in principle, able to be tasted, touched, seen, heard, or smelled, then it does not count as a potential object of knowledge. This view of knowledge, the seeing-is-believing- approach, is fairly standard in a secularizing culture and so Christians should know a thing or two about how to respond to this claim.
So first we’ll discuss the claims and difficulties of empiricism. Then, I’ll argue, contrary to the intentions of the empiricist, empiricism can be a vital ally in apologetics, because, when consistently applied, it takes the empiricist to places they do not want to go.
Help from David Hume
The best way to understand empiricism is to learn a little about one who adhered to it with near-perfect consistency. The philosopher David Hume had a two-pronged approach to sifting through knowledge claims. Picking up what a tool of analysis from Leibniz, Hume’s “fork” (at the late Ronald Nash called it) for sifting truth claims is the “analytic/synthetic” distinction.. Analytic statements are relations of ideas, and to deny them necessarily leads to a contradiction (laws of logic, definitions such as “all bachelors are unmarried men”). These are usually what we think of as a priori truths (truths that known apart from sense experience). Hume’s (hereafter H) attack on analytic statements was that they are tautological, i.e. they add nothing new to knowledge. H believed that his rationalist philosophical counterparts (ex. continental rationalists such as Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz) were building philosophical systems in mid-air, with nothing empirical to ground their flights of fancy.
Synthetic statements are those which can be empirically explored and verified. An example of such a statement would be “Molly’s dress is green.” How can we truly “know” that this statement is true? By checking it out, it must be subject to an empirical inquiry.
In light of H’s empiricist epistemology, he uses this fork to sort out all philosophical issues. Only synthetic statements lead to true knowledge. So, H asked of the traditional questions of philosophy, are the answers given merely in the realm of relations of ideas, i.e. analytical ? If so, then they are tautological and offer us no help. But since H only accepted as worthy of study and consideration beliefs based on verifiable experience by at least one of the five sense, he lapsed into his notorious skepticism.
Here is a list of things Hume doubted because they cannot be verified by appeals to the five senses:
- The existence of God. God is a spirit, so this should be obvious.
- A continuing self through time. When was the last time you experienced your “self”? Looking into a mirror won’t help, because all you see is a body, not the “self.”
- Causation. We never actually “see” a cause. We see one event followed by another, but we cannot experience in any way the necessity of the procession of events. In philosophical terms, we “see” a succession of events-ball A moves after ball B strikes it- not causation. Remember, H is being a consistent empiricist.
- The uniformity of nature. There is no empirical –and non question begging!- reason to believe that the future will be like the past. We have had no experience of the future, and hence cannot really be sure. An anti-toxin that cures today may poison tomorrow. Of course apart from the uniformity of nature science cannot proceed.
Of course the truth is that David Hume never said that the above mentioned things do not exist, or even that he himself didn’t believe in them. His point was to demonstrate that autonomous reason has no logical reason for believing these things. Again, his point was that empiricists cannot sufficiently ground the belief in anything in the above list given their commitment to an empiricist epistemology.
According to Hume, beliefs in the uniformity of nature and the necessary relationship between cause and effect are rather grounded in our psychological make-up, a “habit of the mind.” Thus, being that Hume rejected the rationality of belief in God, causality, a sustained “self”, etc, he attributed the belief in such things to the irrational aspect of humanity. Without, for instance, a Christian conception that God creates both the world around us and our minds to understand it (being created in His image), Hume had no assurance that the objects of our knowledge and our perceptions of them cohere.
Turning the Tables: The Apologetic Benefit of Radical Empiricism
In David Hume, many philosophers believed they were witnessing the end of philosophy. Immanuel Kant stated the it was Hume that arose him from his “dogmatic slumbers” and driving him to develop his own creative epistemology. Notwithstanding Kant’s evaluation, Hume’s radical empiricism is a great help to Christian apologetics. Hume pushes empiricism to its logical[ly absurd, yet consistent] limits.
Though Hume thoroughly discredited epistemological empiricism hundreds of years ago, most outspoken forms of atheism (ala Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) are “religiously” empiricist. Likewise the average “man on the street” unbeliever functions on the basis of a “seeing is believing” epistemology. When we encounter unbelievers with this framework we should always ask the same questions and hold them to the same level of consistency.
First is the issue of consistency. Ask the empiricist unbeliever to be absolutely consistent with their theory of knowledge. Politely question them on whether they believe in true and objective moral standards, justice, laws of rationality and mathematics, human dignity, beauty, and real cause-and-effect relations. Now, surely most will. Even those who see where you’re going and attempt to deny these things (by saying, for example, that they are merely social constructs) should be reminded that their everyday actions betray that they really do believe them.
Second, we need to ask revealing questions. Empiricism as a theory of knowledge and truth largely depends on materialism and naturalism (the belief that only the physical realm exists, only matter in motion coming together in strange ways). So, here are some questions to ask the empiricist:
- Have you tasted, touched, heard, smelled, or seen a law of logic? (hereafter i’ll substitute “tasted, touched, heard, smelled, or seen” with “sensed”)
- Have you ever sensed a law of mathematics such as A2 +B2= C2?
- Have you ever sensed a number? (and here I don’t mean a numeric inscription such as 1 or I, 2 or II, but the number itself)
- Have you ever sensed “human dignity”?
- Have you ever sensed caused and effect? (I don’t mean succession-I covered in the first post-I mean causation)
- Have you ever sensed the chief empiricist principle, “all knowledge comes from sense experience”?
By asking such kinds of questions, you’re simply asking the empiricist to be consistent with their principle that all knowledge comes from the five senses. After all, the answer to all the questions above is a resounding No. The naturalist worldview denies a basis for affirming these things and hence cheats when it tried to “borrows” these concepts for it’s anti-God project. And if the empiricist approach doesn’t even provide a sound basis for it’s chief principle (the last question above), then it disqualifies itself as a serious theory of knowledge and challenge to Christianity.
Now, naturally the Christian rejects the principle of empiricism, though we do not deny the need in many cases to be empirical regarding study, research, science, etc. (cf. 1 John 1:1).
In a very real sense our culture lacks a mythology. Perhaps this is one reason why films like The 300, TV programing like professional wrestling, and comic books are so popular. Mythological stories and archetypes serve to flesh out a culture’s deepest values. Going on 40 years now, there’s been an ideological struggle in the comic book world, a crisis in worldview. In 1938, two young Jewish boys, Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, created Superman, a larger-than-life hero who would save us from all our fears. Superman reflected the ideals of both those who created him, and the larger culture into which he was born. Truth, justice, honesty, and integrity (and yes, the American way) were upheld as aspirational goals.
Heroes likes Superman, Batman, and Spider-man are classics. They’ve stood the test of time and come out better for it. These pillars of justice, contrary to the whims of Director Zack Synder, have vowed never to take human life. But not all comic book protagonists adhere to this code. For so-called anti-heroes such as Deadpool, Spawn, the Darkness, and the Punisher killing simply commons with the territory. Admittedly, the line between a Batman and a Punisher isn’t absolute.
But all of this is preamble to my main point. I believe there is a powerful and persuasive theological explanation for the global and time-tested popularity of Superman: Superman is a profound Christ figure, not only in his original story, but also in the hands of his successive writers. Both Superman and Christ, in an important sense, are not of this earth. Both are sent by their father, and come from a place far away. Both are saviors. Both died, taking the very wrath of doomsday it/himself upon them (for those of you who don’t know the story of Superman’s death in the early 90’s, he died saving the city of Metropolis from a creature literally named Doomsday). Both were resurrected because death could not overcome them. Lastly, in their resurrection bodies, both were transformed. Jesus was resurrected in a glorified body, never to die again. With the resurrection of Superman (perhaps the term “resuscitation” is more fitting?) a serious question is raised on whether Superman is immortal. As long as Superman is exposed to Earth’s yellow Sun it may be impossible to kill him (He is, so to speak, a solar battery).
Notice also how ‘oddly’ Superman’s dual identity strangely mirrors Christ’s dual nature. Clark reflects the lowly, servant nature of Christ, while the Man of Steel resembles the glorified, divine nature of Jesus.
|Origin: Not of this Earth||Sent from Krypton, a planet that orbited a red sun called Rao, 50 light-years from our solar system||Sent from heaven (Jn. 1: 9, 3:13), the eternal abode of God the Almighty Maker of Heaven and Earth|
|Sent by their fathers||Sent to Earth by father Jor-El||Sent to Earth by God (“El”) the Father (Jn. 5:37, 6:44, 8:16, 18, 12:49)|
|Saviors to their people||The people of Metropolis||The Church (Matt. 1:21, Jn. 10:11, Acts 20:28, Rom. 5)|
||1 Person with 2 natures (cf. Phil. 2:5-9)
|Their deaths save from the embodiment of destruction||Superman # 75, 1992
||Rom. 5:6-9, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”|
|Resurrection||“Reign of the Supermen!” storyline-1993||1 Corinthians 15|
Is this sheer coincidence? I don’t think so. The original creators of Superman may not have been Christians, but Siegel and Shuster were raised in a biblically-saturated environment. They’ve claimed that Superman was loosely based on Moses and Samson. The rocket in which Superman’s father, Jor-El (El is Hebrew for God) sends him to Earth in is a parallel to the basket through which baby Moses was saved. And, of course, Samson is the prototype for Superman’s heroic strength. This would seem to work against my claim that Superman in a Christ figure. But, both Moses (as prophet and savior of the people of Israel) and Samson (as judge and defender of the nation) are Old Testament types pointing to their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. So is it any wonder why the Last Son of Krypton bears such a striking resemblance to the Son of Man?
What the Superman/Christ connection means for culture. Insofar as Superman embodies the ideals of generations gone by as well as today’s generation, his iconic status clues of in on a couple of things. First, since humanity is created with a purpose, and history is unfolding toward God’s goal, humans cannot escape their design. We cannot help but notice that the world is not as it should be. There are wrongs in this world that demand righting. Second, We need a hero. But, we need a hero that can do what we never could. One that is like us, yet not like us. Third, this hero must stand against all that is evil, and must embody justice to the fullest. Fourth, despite the argument to the contrary we still, deep down at our God-created core, know good from evil, and desire good to triumph over evil. Fifth, we cannot save ourselves. We are helpless to bring about the change that we so desperately need.
What the Superman/ Christ connection means for the gospel. First, the gospel presents us with the true myth. Part of the conversion of C. S. Lewis was his realization that the story of Jesus is the “true myth.” There was a time, during his “B.C.” days, when he thought the parallels between the Gospels and ancient pagan mythology proved that the story of Jesus couldn’t be true. But, in his conversion (which came about as a result of long conversations with Lord of the Rings author, J. R. R. Tolkien) he had a life-changing “aha” moment. As Lewis put it in a letter written to Arthur Greeves:
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.
The similarities between the Gospels and pagan myths, rather than invalidating the story, actually proves it! God’s was guiding history, in a manner of speaking, to set the stage for Christ to walk on the stage. The belief in creation, sin, judgment, and redemption (in one form or another) are universal themes, and they strike a chord with nearly every human heart. All the highest hopes of men, and the greatest themes in all stories find their fulfillment in Christ.
Second, the story of Superman provides Christians with a cultural point of contact to share the gospel. If you live in America, then chances are on more than a number of occasions you’ve seen people wearing Superman “S” t-shirts. They’re all over the place (and Yes, I own one). The Man of Steel is probably the largest cultural icon other than Jesus in America. So, this provides us with the opportunity to turn an ordinary conversation about Big Blue into an evangelistic conversation without it seeming forced.
Anything, yes, even Superman, can be used as a springboard to Christian truth.
Here’s a tough bit of apologetic truth: Often times we give atheism too much credit. Too often we’ve allowed atheists to determine and dictate what is “rational.”
The problem of atheist rationality. Christians should not grant atheism a “get out of jail free” card. Atheism itself is not a rational position. The conversation is open and shut, in principle, if we allow (whether explicitly or implicitly) the atheist to determine rationality. Here’s a simple point, but one that’s worth noting: Atheists, when consistent, define rationality in accord with atheism. It’s all people interpret data (evidence, etc) in light of prior philosophical/religious commitments. So, what is “rational” for an atheist is determined by non-belief.
New atheists such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris may claim that rationality evolved. But at the end of the day their argumentation won’t fly. As others have argued, a justification for rationality that undermines trust in rationality is not rationality at all. According to the argument from reason, if Darwinian evolution is true, then most, if not all, of what we do and believe is directed toward survival, not truth. But if this is true— if we can be confident that that’s what driving our thinking— then what certainty do we have that we can trust our thinking? And if we have no rational for trusting our beliefs, then we don’t have any certainty that our thinking about anything is true, including our thinking about evolution. On an evolutionary account, our cognitive equipment is merely geared toward survival and procreation.
What I’m not saying. Now for clarification, lest I be misunderstood. This isn’t to say that all atheists are irrational. A great many atheists are brilliant and far more educated than Christians. Though this is exactly what we should expect if we read our Bibles (Cf. 1 Cor. 1-2, James 2). God chose the things that are reckoned low and of disrepute in order to ultimately demonstrate that “finding” him isn’t about our gifts, strengths, or achievements. Again, 1 Cor. 1 says that God structured his plan to save sinners in a such a way that “the world through its wisdom would not know Him.” So, if this is true (and it is), we shouldn’t expect thinking based on strictly atheistic assumptions to be the kind of thinking that recognizes the evidence for God in this world (at least not explicitly, cf. Rom. 1).
The apologetic point I’m making is not whether atheists are sane and healthy-minded people. The point I’m making is that so many of them are, and are so in spite of their worldview. Informing of this very worldview-disconnect is what I mean by not granting them more than atheism deserves. When modern naturalistic atheists acts as if their reason is trustworthy, then are thinking like a Christian, not an atheist.
Why? We all live our lives on the functional assumption that logic is real and objective. But what accounts for it? A Christian would say that at its root, the existence of the infinite-personal God of the Bible is the One that provides the preconditions to make the existence of objective logic standards intelligible. And unless someone can provide a workable philosophical account of the ontological existence of objective logical standards, they are the ones those philosophies disappear in a puff of smoke.
Worldview cohesion. We all have an ultimate commitment, or “centering belief,” that guides and directs the flow of our beliefs, desires, and hopes. Only when we find worldview harmony with our centering beliefs can we righted be called rational.
So, what about Christians? By the standard I’ve proposed, are we rational? Christians believe God is the creator of the universe and the ultimate reason why we can trust our sense perception of the outside world. God created both the world around me and my faculties of perception in such a fashion to be generally reliable. Our general trust in human rationality is grounded in our commitment to Christianity (just as our suspicions of human rationality are also rooted in our Christian doctrine of the noetic effects of sin).
Any view that denies this, while it may seem perfectly “rational” to the atheist, is completely foreign from my way of thinking and will be considered irrational to me. Am I being unnecessarily narrow? I don’t think so, after all, most atheists clearly believe that Christian belief is irrational when they characterize it as a fairy tale for adults.
In my last blog post I raised some problems with religious agnosticism. As a follow-up a friend asked how I would respond to the following:
How would you respond if the agnostic says, “Your objections don’t follow from my lack of belief. Just because I don’t think the evidence warrants belief in, say, unicorns, doesn’t mean I have an ‘anti-unicorn’ bias”?
My response is rather brief, but is still worth sharing for the purpose of clarification: Unicorns aren’t God, and God isn’t a unicorn.
Unicorns aren’t God. First, yes, of course. The agnostic certainly could say that. But that’s not the same as saying that it’s an adequate response to my objections. We need to remind this person that the metaphysical status of unicorns is not the same as the status of God as understood by Scripture. The religious claims called into question are the following:
- The biblical God has revealed himself to all people
- All people suppress their knowledge of God in unrighteousness
- The God of the Bible creates, upholds, and sustains all things
- The God of the Bible is only rational foundation of being, and his revelation (both in nature and in his written word the Bible) is the only rational foundation for knowledge.
These are very specific claims. Whether or not unicorns exist does not affect the very preconditions of intelligibility. To live one’s life as it these claims aren’t true is, biblically speaking, to deny these truth claims. To deny these truth claims is anti-Christian.
God isn’t a unicorn. Evidence for God is quite different from evidence for unicorns. The Christian God cannot be treated as simply another fact. Van Til writes:
We cannot prove the existence of beams underneath a floor if by proof we mean that they must be ascertainable in the way that we can see the chairs and tables of the room. But the very idea of a floor as the support of tables and chairs requires the idea of beams that are underneath. But there would be no floor if no beams were underneath. Thus there is absolutely certain proof for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism. Even non-Christians presuppose its truth while they verbally reject it. They need to presuppose the truth of Christian theism in order to account for their own accomplishments. (see his The Defense of the Faith)
The appropriate method of proof must depend on the nature of the thing being proved. God (“a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it ) cannot be discovered like so many cookies in a pantry….or unicorns in an enchanted forest.
You’ve likely experienced this. You speak to someone and it becomes apparent that you’re a Christian and they are not. Instantly you’re viewed as strange and maybe even backwoods in light of their enlightened secularism. Now, they probably won’t put themselves out there and say, “I don’t believe in God,” or “God doesn’t exist.” They live as atheists, but they prefer to identify as agnostics.
What is agnosticism? An agnostic is one who claims they don’t know about God’s existence, or the truth of any religious claims, whether true or false. Agnosticism can come with a religious veneer (“spiritual but not religious”), but is usually tied pretty close to a secularist and naturalistic worldview. For this type of person it is self-evident that religious claims, and usually specifically Christian claims, are absurd and Christians hold to magical or childish views of the universe. Christians can often feel frustrated speaking to folks like this because it is always they who are on the defense. The agnostic isn’t claiming anything, so it is believed. In fact their views are just natural. It’s simply what any rational person should hold.
The truth is agnosticism is in fact a view of the universe. It does reflect a worldview, and that worldview, whatever its stripe, is anti-Christian and should be shown to be so. But there are some important tactics we should remember when engaging these kind of agnostics. First, we ask clarifying questions, questions that agnostic may not have thought of themselves.
Ask, “What kind of agnostic are you?” There are essentially two kinds of agnostics, hard and soft. Hard agnostics believe that we cannot know religious truths. It is not within the ability of man to pierce through the veil of metaphysics. This is clarified when contrasting them with soft agnostics. A soft agnostic does not claim we cannot truth religious truths, only that they themselves have not come to know religious or metaphysical truths. Hard agnosticism is an epistemological claim about what is true for everyone. Soft agnosticism is merely a statement of where the person is at that moment.
Make the agnostic aware of this distinction. This distinction gets you out of the hot seat, stuck defensively answering all questions, turning the tables on any potential secularist superiority complex. Depending on their answer, we can move the conversation in an apologetic direction.
Hard agnostics. Hard agnostics are actually committed to truths about the nature of reality. They are married to views, whether self-consciously or not, of what is possible and impossible. For them, the religious cannot be known to be true, so whatever reality is like, we cannot know if God exists, whether he is Trinitarian, whether man is morally opposed to him, etc. etc. But this is in fact a denial that God is as the Bible portrays him. The Bible depicts God as a speaking God, a God who isn’t hidden. The Biblical God is one who is revealed in every fact of creation. To deny this by a universal appeal to mystery or ignorance does not change the fact that it is an anti-Christian bias.
To draw out the hard agnostic, ask questions. What about our knowledge makes them believe that we simply cannot know religious or metaphysical truths? In answering your questions, you will help draw out their actual beliefs. Don’t necessarily call them on their consistency (starting with an appeal to ignorance at first, only to divulge their beliefs upon questioning), at least not yet. If you’ve got them talking this is good enough.
Soft agnostics. Again, ask a question: When you admit ignorance about religious truth claims, are you open to seeking the truth? Would you say there’s a chance Christianity is in fact true, even if you don’t have certainty just yet? Again, draw them out. Hostility or aggression is a surefire way to kill dialogue. Ask them: When it comes to religious claims, you say you don’t know. Would you like to know?
On the other half, a person might self-identify as a soft agnostic, only to be revealed as a hard agnostic upon questioning. Again, ask questions. Once you shift the burden of proof back on to the agnostic by asking about the hard/soft agnostic question, you have placed them in the position they so often what you to be: The hot seat.
Always keep in mind that you aren’t the only one who needs to account for what you believe.
Both in my personal life and related to apologetics, I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of hearing and listening to people. A mark of God-pleasing thinking is our willingness to cultivate Christian listening. This means non-aggressively hearing them and even welcoming their potential insights. Here I’d like to suggest some practical steps toward better listening. But first, unpack the Christian in Christian listening.
Why Christian Listening?
I call this the art of Christian listening for two reasons.
First, it is an art. Listening is a skill to be developed because it doesn’t come naturally. In fact, since we’re sinful creatures with the natural tendency toward intellectual and moral laziness, we’ll most likely struggle with this for the rest of our lives. That’s simply to say that listening well is part of our sanctification.
But there’s good news. The struggle can get easier. As we make the effort to apply ourselves in listening, we develop an internal sense of what we’re doing— even when we’re not conscious of it. This internalization of a skill is something with which artists are quite familiar. I’ve been cartooning since I was a child, and I couldn’t tell you what in the world I’m doing when I draw…I just draw. Shapes, lines, shadow, etc. These things are no second nature to me because I’ve developed a discipline by drawing for many, many years.
Secondly, this kind of listening is Christian because it is uniquely undergirded and supported by theological resources unique to the Christian worldview.
Here are some practical tips for becoming a better listener, supported by scripture. Nearly everyone will probably agree with these general guidelines, but only the Christian worldview provides us with a consistent theological foundation for these attitudes and actions. But before we jump into the positive, let’s address a major road block for Christian/ Non-Christian communication.
A Big Listening “Don’t”
A typical knee-jerk of many Christians is to dismiss all non-Christian thought as foolishness. This tendency usually stems from the biblical teaching (especially clear in 1 Cor. 1) that there’s a radical (from the Latin radix, meaning root) opposition between the deepest heart commitments of Christians and those of non-Christians. In principle, an absolute antithesis exists between the Christian worldview and all others. So, I can sympathize with the impulse behind the “knee-jerk reactions.” Christians take biblical passages such as 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5 seriously.
And this is true… but it’s not the whole story.
Reactionary positions do not reflect a robust understanding of God’s “common grace.” I plan on posting something about this very soon but for now we note that doctrine of common grace teaches us that though all people are sinners, God nevertheless prevents sin from making us as bad (or stupid) as we could be. Tim Keller nicely summarizes it by saying, “Because unbelievers are created in the image of God, they are far better than their wrong views should make them. But, Christians, because they are sinners, are far worse than their right views should make them.”
Non-Christians do utter truths, and frequently God grants them greater insights into his world than his children. It simply isn’t biblical to reject genuine insights from unbelievers. Nor is it good reasoning (it’s called the genetic fallacy, i.e. dismissing a view because of its origin). Arguments must be accepted or rejected based on their own merits, not their source. Referring to the insights, gifts, and skills that God graciously bestows upon unbelievers, John Calvin said:
If the Lord willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and the other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths.
Christian charity, sound scholarship, and winsome apologetics demand we closely and patiently evaluate non-Christian thought, both for the purposes of exposing its departure from Christ-centered principles as well as to gather from the Spirit’s gift of common grace.
So please, don’t just disagree with someone, look for their strong points, things you can agree with and build on. If you hear that Person X is wrong about something, look it up, listen to them, and even read some of their writing.
Show respect. The purpose of evangelism, and apologetics, and dialogue with others is not to have a shouting match. We all grant that much (I hope!). But too often apologists can come off as smug, not granting the unbeliever a fair hearing. But that very unbeliever is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), imbued with dignity and honor. Also, 1 Peter 3:15 commands us to be ready to not only to defend the faith, but also to be ready to do so with “gentleness and respect.” God commands that we respect even those that may potentially harm us (cf. vs. 14, 17). We do this to in order to “[keep] a clear conscience” that testifies to God’s wisdom (v. 16).
Sympathetically listen to other points of view. We’ve heard the criticism: Christian truth-claims breed dogmatism and arrogance. Is this true? Well, for some it certainly can be. Here’s another truth claim: arrogance does not grow in the soil of the genuine gospel of Christ. Arrogance grows in the absence of the gospel! According to the biblical vision of divine grace teaches us we’re not delivered because we’re wiser, more spiritual, or more ethical than others. We are Christians solely by grace, and not by our superior ethical life or intellect, we should expect others to frequently see things and know things we do not.
Follow the other person’s argument. Since we’re created in the image of God, we are rational beings. We have an uneasy relationship with the idea of believing things willy-nilly, devoid of some kind of reason. We need some rationale, some reason for committing ourselves to a worldview, cause, or ideology. In a real-life apologetic discussion do pay close attention to the other person’s rationale for their beliefs. Think through their major claims, minor claims, throw-away arguments (arguments that only “preach to the choir”), evidence, etc. Often others have not thought through these issues self-consciously. It’s our job to help them do so.
Assess claims. Now that you’ve heard and listened carefully to their points, assess them. Are they true? Are they false? Are they completely false, or is there some good to be built upon? What are the underlying assumptions of what they’re saying?
Ask questions. Doing this will both clear up anything that’s still fuzzy in your mind about what they said, as well as create an opportunity for the person you’re speaking to refine their beliefs in light of your questions and objections. All throughout the gospels, Jesus asks insightful questions both to make points and to clarify the positions held by others. We’d do well to follow His example.
When necessary, admit ignorance. It’s happened to all who try to seriously provide answers to skeptics. And it’s one of the hardest things an apologist can do (akin to a professional scholar saying, “I was wrong.”). These three words are difficult, but often times necessary, to say. Here they are: I don’t know.
These three simple words can signal either defeat or something else. I propose that ending a conversation at this point isn’t the death of apologetics, but can in fact be the birth of long term dialogue with a non-Christian friend. Here are a common of reasons that I think this is the case.
First, admitting ignorance reinforces a spirit of dialogue, rather than confrontation. After all, we aren’t gurus. We aren’t the source of truth, we only point the way. And often times, we need others to help us get there as well. Second, our knowledge of God, Scripture, etc., should be a natural development in the process of our sanctification. As we grow in our love and devotion toward God, so our knowledge of him and his ways will also grow. This growth in grace will not end in this lifetime, so neither is the process of learning. Lastly, admitting ignorance may serve to honor the fact that Christianity is lived by faith (a living trust in a personal God). Our trust in God isn’t an achievement unlocked only after solving all “riddles” and questions. The moment we reduce “true” faith to intellectual sophistication, we’ve sold the farm to the Gnostics (and that’s bad news).
We must reject truth divorced from charity. And we should embrace faith —trust in God’s word— working through love—taking the time to understand what others are saying (Gal. 5:6).
The following are some excellent tips for increased reading productivity from the article “How to Read a Book a Week” by Peter Bregman, published at the Harvard Business Review:
Here’s Professor Jimenez’s advice on reading nonfiction, with a few additions of my own:
- Start with the author. Who wrote the book? Read his or her bio. If you can find a brief interview or article online about the author, read that quickly. It will give you a sense of the person’s bias and perspective.
- Read the title, the subtitle, the front flap, and the table of contents. What’s the big-picture argument of the book? How is that argument laid out? By now, you could probably describe the main idea of the book to someone who hasn’t read it.
- Read the introduction and the conclusion. The author makes their case in the opening and closing argument of the book. Read these two sections word for word but quickly. You already have a general sense of where the author is going, and these sections will tell you how they plan to get there (introduction) and what they hope you got out of it (conclusion).
- Read/skim each chapter. Read the title and anywhere from the first few paragraphs to the first few pages of the chapter to figure out how the author is using this chapter and where it fits into the argument of the book. Then skim through the headings and subheadings (if there are any) to get a feel for the flow. Read the first sentence of each paragraph and the last. If you get the meaning, move on. Otherwise, you may want to read the whole paragraph. Once you’ve gotten an understanding of the chapter, you may be able to skim over whole pages, as the argument may be clear to you and also may repeat itself.
- End with the table of contents again. Once you’ve finished the book, return to the table of contents and summarize it in your head. Take a few moments to relive the flow of the book, the arguments you considered, the stories you remember, the journey you went on with the author.