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
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.
A few months ago Reformed pastor and theologian Jeffrey Johnson released his latest work, The Absurdity of Unbelief: A Worldview Apologetic of the Christian Faith. Jeff was kind enough to send me an early edition for an honest review. What I found was a wonderful introduction to worldview apologetics in general and presuppositional thinking more specifically. As I wrote in my published endorsement for the book:
A major strength of Jeffrey Johnson’s Absurdity of Unbelief is its step-by-step systematic approach. He explains what faith is (and is not), what factors drive us to adopt our beliefs, how to test them, fatal difficulties on all systems of thought not built on the foundation of Christ, grounds for holding to Christian theism, and a passionate call to faith in Jesus. Along the way he examines Christian and non-Christian thinkers and movements both ancient and contemporary, demonstrating that the principles underlying a biblical apologetic equally apply to all forms of unbelief. I plan on coming back to this book again and again.
For those interested in its content, I’ve also included the table of contents below.
For a limited time you can purchase the digital edition of The Absurdity of Unbelief for a mere $0.99! Don’t miss out on this work.
I’ve had several projects on my plate as of late. That’s why I haven’t had much time to post new material. Here are the latest links that I’ve found particularly useful over the past two weeks:
- I am afraid of this indisputable pro-choice argument– Matt Walsh
- Symbols of Christ in the Wilderness– Nick Batzig
- We Won’t Solve Biblical Literacy with Bible Trivia– Marc Cortez
- Is Tim Keller Weak on Wrath?– Tony Reinke
- K. Scott Oliphint speaks on Covenantal Apologetics at ETS
What I’ve been reading:
Description: In his recent book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher From Galilee historian Bart Ehrman explores a claim that resides at the heart of the Christian faith— that Jesus of Nazareth was, and is, God. According to Ehrman, though, this is not what the earliest disciples believed, nor what Jesus claimed about himself. The first response book to this latest challenge to Christianity from Ehrman, How God Became Jesus features the work of five internationally recognized biblical scholars. While subjecting his claims to critical scrutiny, they offer a better, historically informed account of why the Galilean preacher from Nazareth came to be hailed as ‘the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Namely, they contend, the exalted place of Jesus in belief and worship is clearly evident in the earliest Christian sources, shortly following his death, and was not simply the invention of the church centuries later. (From the back cover)
What is the big claim made by the transcendental argument? No one puts it better than Cornelius Van Til himself:
Only the Christian theory of knowledge, based as it is upon the absolute authority of the word of God speaking in Scripture, makes communication of any sort possible anywhere between men. Without this presupposition man would have no integrated selves and the world would be a vacuum. Without this presupposition of the Christian theory of being there would be no defensible position with respect to the relation of men and things. Neither man nor things would have discernible identity. There would be no science and no philosophy or theology, for there would be no order. History would be utterly unintelligible. Finally, without the presupposition of the Christian theory of morality there would be no intelligible view of the difference between good and evil. Why should any action be thought to be better than any other except on the supposition that it is or it is not what God approves or disapproves? Except on the Christian basis there is no intelligible distinction between good and evil.
-Cornelius Van Til, The Doctrine of Scripture, 61-62
We’ve looked at the transcendental necessity of God to ground the truths of logic so now let’s turn to laws of morality.
I believe in a Real Right and a Real Wrong. Now we turn to the issue of objective morality or ethics (I’m using them interchangeably here). Have you ever wondered whether our outrage at the evil in this world is an expression of personal distaste? Whether the recent Virginia Tech shootings were objectively evil? I ask this because I’m of the view that without the God of the Christian faith (i.e. the God revealed in the Old and New Testaments) the underpinnings of ethics are destroyed, and the moral motions that we feel every day of our lives are rendered non-sensical.
Now here’s an important note to take into consideration. I’m not saying that only Christians are moral people. On the flip side, neither am I saying that all non-Christians are horrible, evil people. What I’m talking about here is what are the fundamental foundations our assumption about reality that underlie our beliefs about morality, right and wrong. Richard Dawkins may very well be a nicer, kinder, and more law abidding citizen than I am. That’s not in question. The question is whether, on a worldview that rejects the existence of God, are those basic pillars that support our common everyday assumptions about ethics there? I don’t think that they are. Without the infinite-personal God of the Bible, how do we define good and evil, right and wrong? I’m convinced that we can boil down the matter to only left two alternatives: either 1) an individual subjectivist response, and 2) a collective subjectivist response. For the sake of handling the various possible replies, I have distinguished the alternatives. However, as we will soon see, both alternatives reduce to subjectivism and skepticism.
Individual subjectivist responses. This is the view that a given acts our behavior is good or bad because I have chosen it. If I commit myself to a given path, it is good. If I am made to do something I chose not to do, it’s bad. If the non-Christian claims moral justification (that which makes a good acts good, and a bad act bad) is found in what one chooses to do, we are left with no standard whatsoever by which we can condemn the worst types of behavior. Pedophilia, rape, incest, bestiality, and murder, are all morally acceptable. Why? Because for those that commit such acts, they were the products of active volition. This view can be quickly be placed to one side.
Collective subjectivist responses. The term “collective subjectivist” may strike some as paradoxical at best and oxymoronic at worst, yet such a title is fitting for “society says” moral relativism. According to this position, morality is, in a weak sense, objective in that the individual is not free to create moral norms from scratch. They are to live within the ethical structure of societal consensus. Such an ethical standard is collective. Yet, on the other hand, it nevertheless remains a subjectivist position on meta-ethics (i.e. on how we philosophically justify or provide warrant for the system we’re espousing). What makes the collective approach ultimately subjectivist and indeed relativist is that each society determines it’s own moral norms, and accordingly, one culture (or sub-culture) cannot condemn the actions of another. The problems for this approach are equally evident. If indeed no supra-cultural definition of evil (or good) exists, how can two or more cultures or sub-cultures with different standards of ethics be compared? Consistently applied, the collectivist subjectivist model prohibits us form labeling the crimes committed at Auschwitz evil. In fact, it becomes even more problematic because not all German citizens would have approved of the war crimes and genocide of the Nazis. So, what we are left with is at least two moral sub-cultures in WWII Germany, those that would call the Nazi actions evil, and those who participated in those actions and condoned them. But any system that strips us of the ability to make moral distinctions is highly counter-intuitive. A paradigm that seeks to explain our “moral motions” must respect the moral outrage we feel at events such as the holocaust. Moreover, we do instinctively know right and wrong in most cases. We can proclaim moral relativism from the rooftops all day, that is, until someone steals our belongings, or hurts our family members. Suddenly we feel that it’s not something that we simply dislike, but rather that it is something that’s truly wrong! Then we become moral absolutists.
Lastly, if we reduce we moral claims to preference claims then we would have to radically change the way we commonly speak. Instead of saying “The terrorists who flew two airplanes into the World Trade Center buildings were wrong, and it was an evil act!”, we would have to replace it with, “I personally do not think that the Terrorists attack on Sept.11th was expedient, and it did not accord with my subjective tastes, but I could be wrong. I don’t want to “impose” my morality on anyone!” I feel my point has been made.
The Christian Response. Lastly, allow me to touch upon why I believe that the Christian God is the best bet for explaining the our ‘moral motions.’ When we find our selves taken with a belief that person X should not have committed Y act, what we’re saying is that person X is morally obligated to have done the right and good thing. In the case of murder, we’re saying that person X ought to have a respect for innocent human life, and ought it a word that implies obligation. But, we do not have obligations to mere material things. I have no obligations not to throw a stone across a beach. The stone demands no such loyalty. But both obligations and loyalty can be pledged to a person. Personal relationships imply certain obligations and can demand loyalty. But what about ultimate moral obligations? Moral obligations are, after all, hierarchical. My loyalty to my brother places certain obligations in my path, but my relationship to my mother demands an even higher level or loyalty. But my mother cannot simply ask me to rob a store. If she did, I would have to tell her that I couldn’t because it would break the law and would (in principal) cause civil unrest. But what if my government told me that I am obligated by my citizenship to randomly kill any person living in my immediate community that was not born in America? What should I do then? I would appeal to a higher standard of obligation. But what higher standard is there? Maybe one could say the ‘world community’, but that only pushes the question back one step.
Ultimately, who’s my greatest loyalty to? If i’m correct to say that obligations and loyalty only make sense in the context of personal relationships, then ultimate loyalty is due to an Ultimate Personal, or, as I’ve said above, a Personal Absolute. But Christianity is the only religion in which the greatest thing in existence (the ultimate metaphysical reality) is a Personal Absolute. In other philosophies, religions, and myths, you have absolutes that are not personal (like Plato’s form of The Good, Hegel’s Geist, Brahma is Hinduism, etc.), or you’ll find personal gods or principles that aren’t absolute (the Greek Pantheon, the god of Mormonism, thetans in Scientenology, etc.) Only in the Bible do you find a God, the final reality, that is both person and absolute/ultimate. This in my mind is strong evidence for the Christian conception of God as the best explanation for ultimate, objective, universally binding ethics.
Conclusion. Now this is my reason for rejecting an empiricism model of epistemology. It cannot account for the metaphysical assumptions that underlie the scientific method, and it cannot account for the existence of universal, immaterial absolutes, such as numbers, laws of logic, and universally binding principles of ethics. While on a Christian worldview all such things make perfect sense, and in fact can be explained (at least at the beginners level) to a child in Sunday School. One may not agree with the answers posited by Christianity, but they have to admit that Christians do have answers to these philosophical issues. Thanks so much for listening to this (rather extended) letter. Also, please forgive me for the great length of time it has taken to complete it. My prayer is that we can both understand the position of the other person fairly, and see where we’re coming from.
For more see:
Christian apologetics aims at a defense of Christianity against oncoming attacks on all fronts. So there’s the field of historical apologetics, scientific apologetics, counter-cult apologetics, philosophical apologetics, and so on. The brilliance of the apologetic approach known as presuppositionalism (also known as covenantal apologetics) is that it aims at the foundations of unbelief. Elsewhere I’ve discussed the flexibility of the term presupposition. So here I’ll used the term ‘transcendental.’ Cornelius Van Til and his apologetic disciples advocate a transcendental approach to defending Christianity. But what do Van Tillians mean by this often-confusing language?
Van Til defines a transcendental argument as one that “takes any fact of experience which it wishes to investigate, and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be, in order to make it what it is.” According to the The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Transcendental reasoning [focuses] on necessary enabling conditions either of coherent experience or the possession or employment of some kind of knowledge or cognitive ability, where the opponent is not in a position to question the fact of this experience [or] knowledge… and where the revealed preconditions include what the opponent questions.” (see the entry on “Transcendental arguments,”). According to presuppositionalism, the existence of God is the necessary “enabling condition” for coherent experience. The job of the presuppositionalist is to make the case that the “revealed preconditions” of discourse include what the anti-theist questions, namely the existence of God.
The basic argument. Contrary to the claims of some, Van Til’s approach to apologetics isn’t allergic to presenting positive evidence in favor of its theistic claim (i.e. the God of the Bible exists). I would argue that a transcendental argument is indeed a form of positive apologetics.
Here’s transcendental claim:
1. If God doesn’t exist, then there are no objective grounds for [epistemologically normative laws of logic, standards of ethical behavior, the scientific enterprise, human value and dignity, etc.]
2. There are objective grounds for [epistemologically normative laws of logic, standards of ethical behavior, the scientific enterprise, human value and dignity, etc]
3. Therefore, God exists.
This is a straightforward version of the argument. If the argument is both valid (constructed correctly) and sound (the premises are true) then the conclusion follows without fail. In fact, given the content of the claim (Logic presupposes the existence of God), if the conclusion is vindicated it turns out that it was possible because of the sustaining activity of God!
Van Til himself advocated a kind of two-step approach:
That means that the apologist is required to place himself on his opponent’s position, assuming its correctness for argument’s sake, in order to show him that on such a position “facts” and “laws” have no meaning. Conversely, the non-Christian will be asked to place himself upon the Christian position for argument’s sake in order to show that only upon the Christian basis are “facts” and “laws” intelligible. Van Til’s aim is to challenge the knowledge of God that the natural man has but suppresses. (quoted from Wesley A. Roberts, “Cornelius Van Til,” Reformed Theology in America, ed. David F. Wells, 183)
The point is that there are certain things the (average) non-Christian affirms. These things (epistemologically normative laws of logic, standards of ethical behavior, the scientific enterprise, human value and dignity, etc) are foundational to his thought and behavior. There’s no escaping them because they’re woven in the fabric of who we are as creatures of God living in his creation. The presuppositionalist is called to unmask the shocking truth that they cannot meaningful hold to these beliefs and also deny the existence of God. If you lose the foundation the building comes crashing down. An atheist no less than Nietzsche acknowledged this.
The attentive reader will note that in subsequent entries to this series this is what I’ll be doing, though not in a mechanic way. There is no establishing the truth of my position without also demonstrating the failure of its opposition.
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.
As I’ve argued before, the rise of modern science came about from the conviction of the Bible’s presentation of metaphysical realism teaches that the external world was really there, not merely a projection of our minds, and detailed study of it could lead to a true understanding of the world rather than merely biographical insights (opposed to eastern influenced worldviews that teach reality as maya, illusion.). This is grounded in the Biblical notion of a Creator/creature distinction.
Naturally, this may lead to an objection: What of those who practiced a kind of science before the rise of modern science? What about Lucretius? What about Democritus? Didn’t they say the same kinds of things?
Well, let’s ask a couple of question. Did Lucretius believe in a Creator/creature distinction? Great! Wait…no? Did he believe that the external world was really there? Great! My point isn’t that non-Christians don’t believe in an external world. The nub of the issue is whether their worldview provides a basis for believing those things. The issue is worldview. The rise of modern science is owed to Christian theism.
It’s not enough that someone, somewhere (ex: Lucretius) agreed with a single point that Christians later held. Rather is was a collection of beliefs that made modern science possible. Even Alfred North Whitehead, not exactly a friend to historical Christianity, said in Science and the Modern World:
Faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.
The point? Even those who reject Christianity acknowledge its role in the development of modern science.
Let’s think of some other problems for naturalism. Epistemologists for centuries have noted what I’ve called the problem of the knower. That is, how do we know that our measuring, thoughts, etc. match up to the external world? Our measuring, observations, etc may work (they may provide pragmatic usefulness), but how do we know that they lead to truth? Personally, I can understand how on a materialistic worldview they lead to the first (pragmatic usefulness), but not how they can secure the second (truth).
You see, this is also called the subject/object problem. But, one of the reasons for the problem (and the issue here, again, is how does one justify, integrate, harmonize, provide the philosophical preconditions for these assumptions. I’m not doubting that the assumptions (i.e. that our measurements reflect the external world, etc.) are valid, I’m questioning naturalism’s philosophical foundation for such beliefs. Naturalists have failed to provided an epistemological norm or standard for these foundational beliefs. For Christians the standard is the Bible. Lots of work has been done to unpack the philosophical implications for metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc from the teachings of the Bible, like John Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (P&R Publishing), and Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford). This “norm” serves as a presupposition in the sense that it acts as the filter, lens (insert analogy here) through which evidence will be understood. This norm isn’t easily refuted or correct by a simply appeal to “the facts” either, because it’s the standard by which evidence is interpreted. So the battle between naturalism and Christianity is a clash of worldviews. This clash was made explicit in the now infamous book review by Richard Lewontin:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, IN SPITE OF its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, IN SPITE OF the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a A PRIORI adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
– Richard Lewontin,”Billions and Billions of Demons,” The New York Review of Books, Jan. 4, 1997, 31. Emphasis in original, though they were italicized, not caps
This speaks volumes, and I’m convinced that this worldview clash is what dictates so many of the arguments against, for example, the intelligent Design movement. It’s a commitment to methodological naturalism, and as Lewontin notes, and a priori commitment at that.
Conclusion. What’s the Christian response to the philosophical issues noted above? In a nutshell, it’s found in biblical doctrines of creation and anthropology. Since the same God created both me and the world around me, there’ s a correlation between the two. God has created the world with a rational structure and likewise has modeled our thinking to match this rational structure (not perfectly, but truly).
- 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)
Here are 2 articles by John Frame introducing the basics of Reformed apologetics:
Part 1 of 2: Introduction and Creation
- The Word of God vs. Mere Creaturely Wisdom
- God’s Word Our Presupposition
This last section on ‘problems’ is very helpful. It covers issues like the psychology of presupposing, the content of our presuppositions, circularity, and persuasion.
Part 2 of 2: Fall and Redemption; and Summary and Conclusion
- Sin, Grace, and Knowledge
- Apologetic Implications
This is an excellent place to get your bearings on fundamentals of presuppositional apologetics in general, and Frame’s approach in particular.
The whole notion of ‘giving reasons’ is completely destroyed by any ontology other than the Christian one.
Greg Bahnsen unpacks Van Til’s claim:
According to Van Til, the Christian claim (that non-Christians already know God from natural revelation and also recognize the voice of God in Scripture) is justified because the knowledge of God is the context and prerequisite for knowing anything else whatsoever. Without presupposing God, it is impossible to make theoretical sense out of any rational method for “justifying” beliefs of any kind on any subject. As the apostle Paul indicated, by suppressing the truth about God that they clearly and directly know, unbelievers have their reasoning reduced to foolishness (Rom. 1:21-22). If they do not acknowledge knowing God, they cannot make intellectual sense out of God’s world or out of themselves as God’s image-bearers. Likewise, Paul taught that those who reject the word of the cross (which is needed to repair man’s stubborn refusal to submit to the light of God) are reduced to foolishness in their thinking and living (1 Cor. 1:20). Their attempts to warrant what they believe and do–indeed, to know anything–are futile deceptions apart from that philosophy which is “according to Christ,” in whom “all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge are deposited” (Col. 2:3, 8). The Christian message, whether it be the truth about the Creator communicated in natural revelation or the saving truth of the gospel declared in Scripture, was defended by Van Til as the necessary precondition for rationally justifying any claim to knowledge about anything else. Van Til: “In fact it then appears that the argument for the Scriptures as the infallible revelation of God is, to all intents and purposes, the same as the argument for the existence of God.”
– Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis, 262-263 (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