Category Archives: Apologetic Method
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.
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
One of the most helpful works in Christian apologetics on the market is Nathan Busenitz’s Reasons We Believe: 50 Lines of Evidence That Confirm the Christian Faith. In this work he tackles reasons to believe in God, the Bible, and Jesus. The strength of his work is its brevity, or as John Frame puts it in his endorsement, it is both “comprehensive and concise.” Busenitz demonstrates that we can present a compelling case for Christianity without have to present technical, and highly philosophical, arguments (though, of course, I certainly believe there’s a place for that).
Early on in the book Busenitz spells out his approach to presenting evidence for the faith within the Bible’s own framework of thought. I think he’s right on the money. In his introduction he says:
Once we have developed each reason from Scripture, we can then show how extra- Biblical evidence corresponds with, and thereby attests to, what the Bible claims. To be clear, this external evidence does not establish the truthfulness of the Christian faith. If Christianity is true, it is because there really is a God, and He has revealed Himself to us through His Son and in His Word. Nonetheless, external evidence does corroborate the claims of Christianity. Because the God of the Bible is also the God of creation, time, and truth (cf. Psalm 19:1–6; Acts 17:26–28; John 17:17)—the facts of science, history, and logic will necessarily correspond to what the Bible reveals.
Here Busenitz adds the helpful footnote:
This is not to say that science, history, or human reason should be considered of greater or equal authority to the Scriptures. Rather, we are noting that when the Bible is rightly interpreted, and when the facts of science, history, or logic are fully known, the two will not be in contradiction to each other. Rather, the general revelation of the world around us testifies to the truthfulness of the special revelation found in Scripture (cf. Psalm 19:1–11).
So the presentation of evidences “corroborate,” “confirm” and “testify” to the truth already provided in Scripture. They do not act as an independent source of authority. Returning to his line of thought:
Such evidence therefore provides wonderful confirmation for believers, because it bears witness to both the reliability of Scripture and the authenticity of Jesus Christ.
We’ll end with Busenitz’s comments on the relationship of evidence and the role of the Holy Spirit in providing the certainty of Christian conviction.
… Nonetheless, it is the Holy Spirit who ultimately makes the truth of Christianity certain in the hearts of believers (1 Corinthians 2:10–15). He gives us absolute confidence in both God’s Word and God’s Son—assuring us of our salvation and our heavenly hope (Romans 8:14–17)… But when a person becomes a Christian, the ‘assurance’ or ‘certainty’ becomes a reality. Christianity from a ‘morally certain’ standpoint becomes as undeniable as one’s own existence.” For Christians, then, the reasons surveyed in this book only confirm what they already know to be true.
With this approach to evidences, couching them in the Bible’s own “philosophy of fact” (to use Van Til’s term), I would encourage all who are interested in apologetics to pick up this book.
For those interested, here’s my article, “Between Scylla and Charybdis: Presuppositionalism, Circular Reasoning, and the Charge of Fideism” (Originally presented at the 2009 annual conference of the Evangelical Theological Society).
Perhaps the single most common argument against a presuppositional apologetic methodology is the charge of fideism. One doesn’t have to look far in the relevant literature to find Van Tillian methodology dismissed or said to hold to a position that undermines the task of Christian apologetics. Though the term “fideism” is being rehabilitated in some circles, it is still widely understood as a dogmatic proclamation of one’s view irrespective of rational argumentation. Nothing, it is believed, seems to demonstrate the fideism of the presuppositional method as well as their rejection of linear argumentation. Van Tillians are said to embrace, as a fundamental rule of their approach, circular reasoning.
The aim of this essay is twofold. First, I will show that the charge of fideism against Van Tillian presuppositionalism is both imprecise and inaccurate. This will be done by showing that while some definitions of faith and reason are incompatible, others are not. Second, we will examine the charge of presuppositionalism’s alleged embrace of begging the question. This will be done by distinguishing between vicious and virtuous circularity, arguing that presuppositionalists embrace the latter, but eschew the former as strongly as their critics.
It’s also posted on the resources page. I’d love your comments and feedback.
- The goal of apologetics is to evoke or strengthen faith, not merely to bring intellectual persuasion. Directed toward unbelievers, it is an aspect of evangelism; toward believers, it is training in godliness. It is possible to be intellectually persuaded of a theistic world view, as were the Pharisees, without a real heart commitment to Jesus as Lord and Savior. Furthermore, everyone has the intellectual knowledge required for faith. The need of the unbeliever is not for more information, but for God’s grace motivating a heart change. It may of course be necessary for the apologist to bring factual information to the inquirer, in order to challenge him to rethink the data. But the apologist seeks above all to be a channel through whom God’s Spirit can bring repentance (including intellectual repentance) and faith.
- Apologists, therefore, must resist temptations to contentiousness or arrogance. They must avoid the feeling that they are entering into a contest to prove themselves to be righter or smarter than the inquirers they deal with. I believe that kind of pride is a besetting sin of many apologists, and we need to deal with it. 1 Peter 3:15-16 focuses, surprisingly, not on the brilliance, cogency, or eloquence of apologists, but on their character: they must answer unbelievers with “gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.” Peter here tells us that a consistent Christian life plays a major role in the work of apologetics. Christianity is not just an intellectual system, but an comprehensive way of life; and nothing is more persuasive than a concrete, consistent example of that way of life. And nothing is more detrimental to our witness than an apologist whose life betrays his message, who fails to show the gentleness and love of Jesus.
- Our apologetic should take special pains to present God as he really is: as the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, who alone saves his people from their sins. As the creator of all things and the one who directs the course of nature and history by his providence (Rm. 8:28, Eph. 1:11), God is the source of all meaning and rationality. Our argument should lead to such a God. So we should not mislead unbelievers into assuming that they can understand any fact adequately without confessing its relation to God. We should make plain that even our methods of knowledge, our standards of truth and falsity, our views of logic, our scientific methods, must be reconciled first of all with God’s revelation.
-John M. Frame, Five Views on Apologetics, 217-218. (Emphasis added)
I’m tempted to one day writing an article titled “Things no Van Tillain Presuppositionalist Believes.” There are so many misunderstandings about what Van Til taught that even some who think they follow him in his approach get it wrong. Here I noted one prominent non-presuppositionalist make the following statement, “Christians share common ground with unbelievers, who are likewise made in God’s image, which is not erased by the fall.” There I noted the irony of the statement, as if Van Til ever said anything different! Here is a snippet from John M. Frame, a former student of Van Til, and one of his leading interpreters:
Granted that the unbeliever is totally depraved, what is there in him, if anything, that is capable of receiving God’s grace? The Arminian answers, “man’s reason and free will.” Karl Barth answers, “nothing at all.” In Barth’s view, God’s grace creates his own “point of contact.” This position coheres with Barth’s views that the reception of grace has no intellectual content. Grace brings us no “propositional revelation” which the unbeliever by grace comes to understand and trust. It is rather a “bolts out of the blue,” which makes no contact at all with the finking or will of the unbeliever.
Orthodox Calvinists, however, recall that God made man in his image – an image that is marred by sin, but not destroyed. Van Til argues that part of that image is knowledge of God, which, though repressed (Rom. 1), still exists at some level of his thinking. That is the point of contact to which the apologist appeals. He does not appeal merely to the unbelievers reason and will, for his will is bound by sin and his reason the seeks to distorts, not affirm, the truth. We do not ask the unbeliever to evaluate Christianity through his reason, for he seeks to operate his reason autonomously and thus is deep in error from the outset. Rather, says Van Til, we appeal to the knowledge of God which he has (Rom. 1:21) but suppresses.
That suppression, as we have noted, is never complete. The unbeliever would like to snuff out his knowledge of the true God, but he cannot. Indeed, it is this knowledge, however he may distort it, which enables him to go on living in God’s world. Thus, the unbeliever, contrary to his own assumptions, often says things which agree with the truth as the Christian sees it. The affect of sin upon reasoning does not mean that the Christian and the non-Christian disagree over everything, although if both were consistent with their presuppositions that would be the case. Defining the possible extent of that agreement is difficult. The Pharisees acknowledged so much of God’s truth that Jesus actually commended their teaching (Matt. 23:3), while deploring their works (Matt. 23:3). Thus, we may appeal to the unbelievers native knowledge of God, we may find him agreeing with us, at least part of the time… For the question of the point of contact boils down to this: are we accepting and thus addressing the unbelievers distorted worldview, or are we accepting and thus addressing the undistorted revelation which he holds within himself despite his distorted worldview?… Are we so impressed by unbelieving “wisdom” that we seek to gain the approval of unbelieving intellectuals based on their own criteria?… Our job is to rebuke unbelieving criteria, not affirm them. Our appeal is not to those criteria, but to that knowledge of God which the unbeliever has “deep down,” as Van Til liked to say.
-John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 82-83, 85
Van Tillian apologetics has often been charged as fideist. Fideism is the position which maintains that Christian belief is either irrational or a-rational (non-rational) and can only be “known” on blind faith. As in the case of many objection to presuppositionalism, this objection fails to do justice to the words of Van Til and his disciples. Hear these words from leading Van Tillian interpreter, the late Greg Bahnsen:
God wishes for us to be rational: to exercise and improve our reasoning ability in understanding, propounding and defending the truths of Scripture…The kind of rationality or reasoning that we will employ in defending the Christian faith involves not only study of formal logic (patterns or abstract forms of inference), but also attention to informal fallacies in ordinary language, the use of inductive reasoning, the handling of empirical evidence in history, science, linguistics, etc., and especially reflection upon the demands of an adequate worldview in terms of which all such thinking makes sense.
–Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Nacodoches: Covenant Media Press, 1996), 134-135. Emphasis in original.
No fideism there!
For more see:
- Van Til and Evidence
- Presuppositionalism and Circularity…Again?
- Clearing Up Common Misunderstandings of Van Tillian (Presuppositional) Apologetics
This is the kind of message apologists need to hear:
It is true that no method of argument for Christianity will be acceptable to the natural man. Moreover, it is true that the more consistently Christian our methodology, the less acceptable it will be to the natural man. We find something similar in the field of theology. It is precisely the Reformed Faith which, among other things, teaches the total depravity of the natural man, which is most loathsome to that natural man. But this does not prove that the Reformed Faith is not true. A patient may like a doctor who tells him that his disease can be cured by means of external applications and dislike the doctor who tells him that he needs a major internal operation. Yet the latter doctor may be right in his diagnosis. …… It is upon the power of the Holy Spirit that the Reformed preacher relies when he tells men that they are lost in sin and in need of a Savior. The Reformed preacher does not tone down his message in order that it may find acceptance with the natural man. He does not say that his message is less certainly true because of its nonacceptance by the natural man.
-Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith
One distinctive of presuppositional apologetics is the observation that worldview analysis is worldview dependent. If a Christian sets their faith on a shelf and evaluates the evidence in a so-called “neutral” way they have in fact compromised the very faith they seek to defend. No one made this point clearer than Greg Bahnsen. Here’s an excerpt from his article “Evangelism and Apologetics“:
To put aside your Christian commitments when it comes to defending the faith is willfully to steer away from the only path to wisdom and truth found in Christ. It is not the end or outcome of knowledge to fear the Lord; it is the beginning of knowledge to reverence Him (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). Paul draws to our attention the impossibility of neutrality “in order that no one delude you with crafty speech.” Instead we must, as Paul exhorts, be steadfast, confirmed, rooted, and established in the faith as we were taught (v. 7). One must be presuppositionally committed to Christ in the world of thought (rather than neutral) and firmly tied down to the faith which he has been taught, or else the persuasive argumentation of secular thought will delude him. Hence the Christian is obligated to presuppose the word of Christ in every area of knowledge; the alternative is delusion. In verse 8 of Colossians 2, Paul says, “Beware lest any man rob you by means of philosophy and vain deceit.” By attempting to be neutral in your thought you are a prime target for being robbed – robbed by “vain philosophy” of “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” which are deposited in Christ alone (v. 3). The unbeliever’s darkened mind is an expression of his need to be evangelized.
Paul tells us in Ephesians 4 that to follow the methods dictated by the intellectual outlook of those who are outside of a saving relationship to God is to have a vain mind and darkened understanding (vv. 17-18). Neutralist thinking, then, is characterized by intellectual futility and ignorance. In God’s light, we are able to see light (cf. Ps. 36:9). To turn away from intellectual dependence upon the light of God, the truth about and from God, is to turn away from knowledge to the darkness of ignorance. Thus, if a Christian wishes to begin his scholarly endeavors from a position of neutrality he would, in actuality, be willing to begin his thinking in the dark. He would not allow God’s word to be a light unto his path (cf. Ps. 119:105). To walk on in neutrality, he would be stumbling along in darkness. God is certainly not honored by such thought as he should be, and consequently God makes such reasoning vain (Rom. 1:21b). Neutrality amounts to vanity in God’s sight.
-Greg H. Bahnsen, “Evangelism and Apologetics”, Synapse III (Fall, 1974)
Greg Bahnsen was one of Van Til’s greatest expositors. His book Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith is a treasure trove of biblical instruction answering the Why and How of presuppositional apologetics. Here Bahnsen discusses the transcendental trust of the method. For those not familiar with Van Til’s approach it can be much at first, but once you “get it” you realize that you’re dealing with nuclear strength apologetics:
If the way in which people reason and interpret evidence is determined by their presupposed worldviews, and if the worldviews of the believer and unbeliever are in principle completely at odds with each other, how can the disagreement between them over the justification of Biblical claims be resolved? It might seem that all rational argumentation is precluded since appeals to evidence and logic will be controlled by the respective, conflicting worldviews of the believer and unbeliever. However this is not the case.
Differing worldviews can be compared to each other in terms of the important philosophical question about the “preconditions of intelligibility” for such important assumptions as the universality of logical laws, the uniformity of nature, and the reality of moral absolutes. We can examine a worldview and ask whether its portrayal of nature, man, knowledge, etc. provide an outlook in terms of which logic, science and ethics can make sense. It does not comport with the practices of natural science to believe that all events are random and unpredictable, for instance. It does not comport with the demand for honesty in scientific research, if no moral principle expresses anything but a personal preference or feeling. Moreover, if there are internal contradictions in a person’s worldview, it does not provide the preconditions for making sense out of man’s experience. For instance, if one’s political dogmas respect the dignity of men to make their own choices, while one’s psychological theories reject the free will of men, then there is an internal defect in that person’s worldview.
It is the Christian’s contention that all non-Christian worldviews are beset with internal contradictions, as well as with beliefs which do not render logic, science or ethics intelligible. On the other hand, the Christian worldview (taken from God’s self-revelation in Scripture) demands our intellectual commitment because it does provide the preconditions of intelligibility for man’s reasoning, experience, and dignity.
In Biblical terms, what the Christian apologist does is demonstrate to unbelievers that because of their rejection of God’s revealed truth, they have “become vain in their reasonings” (Rom. 1:21). By means of their foolish perspective they end up “opposing themselves” (2 Tim. 2:25). They follow a conception of knowledge which does not deserve the name (1 Tim. 6:20). Their philosophy and presuppositions rob one of knowledge (Col. 2:3, 8), leaving them in ignorance (Eph. 4:17-18; Acts 17:23). The aim of the apologist is to cast down their reasonings (2 Cor. 10:5) and to challenge them in the spirit of Paul: “Where is the wise? Where is the disputer of this world? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20).
In various forms, the fundamental argument advanced by the Christian apologist is that the Christian worldview is true because of the impossibility of the contrary. When the perspective of God’s revelation is rejected, then the unbeliever is left in foolish ignorance because his philosophy does not provide the preconditions of knowledge and meaningful experience. To put it another way: the proof that Christianity is true is that if it were not, we would not be able to prove anything.
What the unbeliever needs is nothing less than a radical change of mind – repentance (Acts 17:30). He needs to change his fundamental worldview and submit to the revelation of God in order for any knowledge or experience to make sense. He at the same time needs to repent of his spiritual rebellion and sin against God. Because of the condition of his heart, he cannot see the truth or know God in a saving fashion.
-Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, 121-122.
In apologetics proof and persuasion are two related, essential, and yet distinct concepts. Some believe persuasion isn’t vital and others think that persuasion is everything. Frame brings much balance to the discussion:
I do think that persuasion is an important concept, but I do not agree that it should be incorporated in the concept of proof. That would limit our proofs to those which actually persuade people. But, in fact, Scripture teaches that good proofs do not always persuade, for unbelievers repress the truth. This repression is not always successful; sometimes I’m believers recognize truth, even truths about God. But it is nearly impossible to predict what a given unbeliever will suppress and what he will admit in spite of himself. Ultimately, the only cure for repression is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, as we construct arguments, we have a little idea of what sort of argument will be persuasive to any particular individual or audience. There is no argument guaranteed to be persuasive to all people. Not even arguments from Scripture alone are guaranteed in that way, though we know from the above discussion that they are pleasing to God. To have such a guarantee, we would have to be able to predict both the devious process of suppression and the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit.
-John M. Frame, Apologetics, to the Glory of God: An Introduction, 62
And yet in his exposition of proof in his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, Frame focuses on persuasion as an essential element of “justifying” our beliefs. Let his words there act as a word of caution.
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
Partisans of apologetic methods would have you believe that ‘presuppositional apologetics’ is antithetical to the ‘traditional’ or ‘classical’ approach. As always, John Frame mediates between various forms of the “movement mentality.”
It may no longer be possible to distinguish presuppositional apologetics from traditional apologetics merely by externals – for the form of argument, the explicit claim of certainty or probability, etc. Perhaps presuppositionalism is more in attitude of the heart, a spiritual condition, than an easily describable, empirical phenomenon. To call it “spiritual” is certainly not to say that it is unimportant – quite the contrary. Our biggest need in apologetics (as in all other areas of life) has always been spiritual at the core. And our “presuppositionalism of the heart” is not something vague and indefinable. The presuppositionalism we are talking about is (1) a clear headed understanding of where our loyalties lie and how those loyalties of fact our epistemology, (2) a determination above all to present the full teaching of Scripture in our apologetic without compromise, in its full winsomeness and it’s full offensiveness, (3) especially a determination to present God as fully sovereign, as the source of all meaning, intelligibility, and rationality, as the ultimate authority for all human thought, and (4) an understanding of the unbelievers knowledge of God and rebellion against God, particularly (though not exclusively) as it affects his thinking. And if there are some apologists who maintain these understandings and attitudes without wanting to be called Van Tillians or presuppositionalists, I am happy to join hands with them.
-John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction, 87-88.
Frame is fully committed to the essentials of Van Til’s vision of an approach to apologetics consistent with Reformed theology, and yet concludes that Van Til, sometimes, too quickly reduced the differences between groups to methodology rather than issues of the heart. On some issues I might take issue with parts of Frame’s analysis, but overall I think he’s on the mark.
In his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (DKG), John Frame distinguishes between 3 perspectives on knowledge: the normative, situtational, and existential perspectives. A few years later in his book on apologetics, Apologetics to the Glory of God (AGG), Frame divided the task of Christian apologetics into 3 categories: Proof, Offense, and Defense. Readers of Frame’s work know there’s a link between the triad of knowledge in DKG and the 3 pronged approach set out in AGG, but may not be clear what that link is. Here’s my attempt to bring out the connection between the two.
One of the trickiest parts of learning Frame’s perspectival approach is avoiding the temptation to make them 3 separate and distinct ‘parts’. As Frame says, they are all necessary and in fact are really three approaches or facets of learning about any one thing. You cannot know one perspective without knowing (or making assumptions) about another perspective. So all talk of “this perspective means…” is a matter of emphasis and not absolute difference (I develop this point more in chapter 5 of Speaking the Truth in Love: The Theology of John Frame).