Category Archives: Apologetics
One of the strongest arguments for the existence of God is the transcendental argument. I’ve covered elsewhere (see links below), but this all-encompassing argument claims that to deny the existence of the Christian God is to uncut the very meaningfulness of the most important everyday realities we take for granted.
This is all bold and exciting stuff, but so often it can seem distant from the central truths of the Christian faith. It can feel like a far cry from the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But is this true?
I suggest that once we move past that initial sentiment, and reflect among what’s being taught in the transcendental argument, we’ll see that a proper handling of the argument actually creates a bridge, not a hindrance, to the gospel.
So let’s reevaluate the claims of the transcendental argument and see what it tells us about God and man.
What the argument tells us about God. The argument clearly communicates God as the one with whom we have to do. God is there, and he is not silent. In knowing anything about the world we, in fact, know the one true and living God.
Furthermore, we learn…
- only God accounts for the causation of the universe. This means he has the power to accomplish all that he wants to.
- God is the very standard of good and righteous behavior mean that he is not passive in evaluating our behavior (whether expressed in thought, word, or deed), and stands against our unrighteousness.
- God’s existence accounts for rationality and the laws of thought. This means that in our moments of intellectual clarity we reflect God, and when we reason against him we are turning his good gift against him.
What the argument tells us about humanity. But the argument goes further. Not only does it tell about who God is, but it tells us who we are.
- Man receives God’s revelation of himself through the things God has made.
- Man suppresses that revelation of God because of his hostility toward God
- Those who search (in vain) for alternate groundings for the laws of thought are not running toward rationality and logic, but running in the exact opposite direction.
And so if the argument is sound, it pulls back the curtain and reveals what is really going on. God, the true God, is revealed everywhere, in and through every created thing, to every human being. The unbeliever is ultimately not a Christian because they lack information, or require superior rational arguments. They have a deep-seated hostility toward the true God.
This is why the transcendental argument is an incredibly powerful tool in the apologist’s toolbox. It is a multifaceted argument, one that not only argues for the existence of God, but reveals man’s sin, and naturally leads to a biblical solution to the problem: the gospel.
Whereas the revealation of God in the created order is sufficient only to condemn us for our sin, the gospel reveals that the final Judge is also gracious and merciful. The gospel reveals the character of God as generous and forgiving, something the philosopher will search for in vain in their “first principles.” The gospel reveals that God can grant the power to overcome humanity’s rebellion and by the Spirit give him the ability to think God’s thoughts after him.
For more, see
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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).