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Proving the gospel?

Sensible biblical apologetics


by Tim Gallant

In an age of skepticism, Christians are repeatedly challenged to "prove" that God exists. It is supposed by many that the Christian faith cannot provide a credible claim upon unbelievers unless apologists somehow demonstrate the authority and the truth of the claims of Christianity.

Early and Medieval Apologetics

Christian apologetics is not a new field, unique to the contemporary moment, however. Throughout the history of the Christian church, believers have sought to defend their faith. This effort has often been linked to Peter's mandate: "But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear" (1 Peter 3:15).

In line with this, early Christians often defended the faith in a number of ways against sundry opponents. In defending their faith in Jesus to non-Christian Jews, they often appealed to fulfilled Scripture: Jesus had shown through the fulfillment of prophecy that He was the promised Messiah. This was quite in line with the methodology of the Apostle Paul himself (see e.g. Acts 13:15-41; cf. Acts 9:22). When dealing with Jews, the early Church almost always appealed to the Old Testament Scriptures (Acts 2:16ff.; 17:2, etc.).

In responding to pagans, the approach of the second-century apologists (such as Justin Martyr) was very different. They had to defend the Church against sundry charges (e.g. the language of brother-love often led to charges of immorality; the language of the Lord's Supper to charges of cannibalism; the refusal to worship images to charges of atheism, etc.). But more than that, they often attempted to engage the pagans on a more abstract level, demonstrating the philosophical viability of Christianity. Indeed, the faith was often presented as the proper 'fulfillment' of Platonism.

By medieval times, this approach had made the apologetic program largely abstract and philosophical. A prime example of this is the famed Five-Fold Way of Thomas Aquinas, which seeks to prove the existence of God through various cosmological arguments. This method (or at least the broader 'natural theology' of which this cosmological method is a subset) has been probably the favoured one among all succeeding generations of Christian apologists, although generally one must take much of the Reformed tradition as a notable exception.

Reformed Thinking

It is this Reformed tradition, standing on the shoulders of the work of John Calvin, that has produced the most significant methodological alternative for Christian apologetics.

Two elements in Calvin's thought, in particular, paved the way for the rigorous methodology which was to be developed later. First, the natural depravity of fallen man. Because man is a fallen creature, his 'natural' proclivity is unrighteously to suppress the truth of God (Rom. 1:18ff.); the result is that, far from seeking after God (cf. Rom. 3:10-11), as so many claim, the natural man really cannot know the things of God, since the spirit of (fallen) man within him regards it as foolishness (1 Cor. 2:11, 14).

In view of this, the Reformed have generally stressed that man's problem is not fundamentally intellectual. It is not merely information that fallen people require to convince them of the Christian faith; rather, a heart-changing work of the Holy Spirit is necessary (1 Cor. 2:12).

The second element of Calvin's thought, however, balances this somewhat. Calvin is insistent that all human beings, having been created in the image of God, are recipients of very real revelation. In particular, he speaks of a 'sensus divinitatis,' a sort of innate and fundamental knowledge of God which reveals the almighty power and Godhead of the Creator (Rom. 1:20). Indeed, this revelation is a necessary presupposition of the suppression of the truth mentioned under the first point. If man is suppressing the truth, this implies that he has access to that truth, even if it is not necessarily riding at a high level in his self-conscious.

These two elements essentially correspond to the creation and fall of man. Because man is created in the image of God, he inescapably bears some knowledge and relationship to God. But because man has marred that image, not in a metaphysical or physiological sense, but in an ethical and spiritual one, his own proclivity pushes him to try to escape from that knowledge, to deny its existence, nature, relevance, or authority. Although he knows God in the sense that the revelation of God is stamped upon him and proclaimed in every fact before him (Rom. 1:19-20), as fallen and unredeemed, he does not know God in the sense that he willingly and self-consciously acknowledges that revelation.

Van Til and the Presuppositional Critique of Natural Theology

It was Cornelius Van Til, especially, who developed these two Reformed pillars into a full-blown apologetic system, which has come to be known as presuppositionalism. Van Til laid heavy claim to both the clarity of God's revelation, and to the radical nature of man's inability to grasp that revelation.

With regard to the former, Van Til insisted that God, being infinite, cannot be escaped; His handiwork is everywhere. There is no aspect of his being in which man is not confronted with the reality of God. This is the essential common ground between the Christian apologist and that of his unbelieving challenger.

With regard to the latter, Van Til, like Calvin, insisted that man has placed himself in complete darkness through rebellion against God. Not that man's depravity obliterates the revelation of God, but his use of it means that it does not function as the proper context of his thinking; he attempts to rebel against what he knows, and thus, in principle, by denying the truth of God, really denies all things.

For Van Til, the implication of this is that it is useless to argue with unbelievers on the basis that had long been espoused. The cosmological method of Aquinas implicitly assumes that man needs more information. But the information which natural theology supplies is not information that man is genuinely missing. In fact, the opposite is the case. Man is in reality daily and inescapably confronted with the revelation of the one true God (the ontological Trinity, as Van Til was fond of insisting upon). Meanwhile, the cosmological argument can at best draw lines that point to the probable existence of some sort of Creator 'god.'

Therefore, for Van Til, Thomas errs on two points. First, the religion he demonstrates is really little more than theism in general, and leaves many false religions virtually untouched. Positing a Great Designer, or an Uncaused Cause, or an Unmoved Mover is not the same thing as unveiling the one God of Scripture. But second, the manner of argument of natural theology actually militates against the general revelation that the unbeliever has already received. It does this by implying that the unbeliever really does lack information and thus undermines the ineffacable character of the divine revelation which Paul describes in Romans 1. That which Paul describes as certain and leaving man with no excuse has at best been lowered to a mere probability, open to question. This invites the unbeliever to sit in judgment upon the evidence and act as if God truly does not confront him infallibly and inescapably. Thereby, the would-be apologist has invited fallen man to judge the credibility of the revelation of God. This provides a judicial setting that is thoroughly unsuitable for the defense of the faith in general, and for the defense of the self-attesting authority of Scripture (revelation) in particular. One cannot consistently invite man to judge the credibility and clarity of natural revelation at one point, and then deny that man has a right to stand over the authority of Scripture at a later one. The apologist who employs natural theology is thus at war with himself.

Van Til and Bahnsen: Presuppositional Method

What, then, does Van Til offer in place of this inadequate apologetic? Van Til laid the groundwork for what has become known as the transcendental argument. The heart of this method is simply to show the impossibility of the contrary: unless we presuppose the God of Scripture, we are left with utter nonsense. This method was developed, in particular, by Van Til's star pupil, Greg Bahnsen.

Bahnsen's biblical basis for his method is largely rooted in Proverbs 26:4-5: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes."

Bahnsen saw this verse as endorsing a two-fold apologetic approach. In the first half ("do not answer a fool. . ."), Bahnsen identifies the problem with traditional natural theology. In his view, the apologist in natural theology stands alongside the fool (who says in his heart, "There is no God," Ps. 14:1), grants him his self-assumed position (i.e. that of an autonomous judge who sees himself equipped to render a verdict on the question of God's existence), and in so doing the apologist ends up like the fool himself (he relativizes the revelation of God and thus legitimizes the unbeliever's unbelief). This first half of the program, then, suggests that the apologist is to argue presuppositionally; that is, rather than follow the fool onto his ground, the apologist is to start with the truth of Scripture and show positively how it makes sense of everything.

In the second half of the program ("Answer a fool according to his folly. . ."), Bahnsen sees a calling to expose the folly of unbelief. The goal is to prevent the fool from being wise in his own eyes. In other words, the only reason to stand in the unbeliever's shoes, apologetically speaking, is not to use that unbeliever's own presuppositions to arrive at the God of Scripture, but rather the opposite, to use those presuppositions to expose the utter impossibility of them as truth claims. The goal of taking up the unbeliever's autonomous starting point is to show how ridiculous and untenable it is. In his own recorded debates with unbelievers, Bahnsen again and again shows how his opponent cannot with consistency account for logic, or for that matter, any reality whatsoever. What is, can only be explained coherently by presupposing the God of Scripture.

Transcendental Argument: Critique and the Way Forward

What can we say, from a biblical standpoint, with regard to the apologetic program of Christians, in view of what we have discussed to this point?

I stand with Calvin, Van Til and Bahnsen in terms of the two biblical pillars outlined above: man is created in the image of God, and is thus the recipient of clear revelation; and man is fallen, and thus an enemy of God, who therefore finds it necessary to suppress the truth of that revelation. Inescapably, apart from the intervention of the Holy Spirit, the natural man rejects the things of God and accounts them foolishness (whether implicitly or explicitly).

Nonetheless, there remains an unsatisfactory element in the program of Van Til and Bahnsen. Particularly the latter cites 1 Peter 3:15 and other 'apologetic passages' and infers that the calling of every Christian is to defend the faith in accordance with his own program. The transcendental argument has become the foundation for Christian apologetics.

And it is here that I must plead caution, to say the least. Anyone who has listened to Greg Bahnsen debate atheists (e.g. his university showdown with Dr. Gordon Stein) will recognize how difficult this sort of apology usually is. Bahnsen did it uniquely well; he was a brilliant debater, rigorously logical and very adept at abstract reasoning.

But we are not all Greg Bahnsen, and our interaction with unbelievers is rarely conducted at the philosophical level of these debates. Furthermore, I am not convinced they should be.

It is true that Bahnsen attempted to simplify his method (witness his book Always Ready), as have other 'popularizers' of Van Til (in particular, Richard Pratt, Every Thought Captive). But in truth, even quite intelligent people have studied books such as Every Thought Captive, and still found them difficult to implement in practice. Rather than empowering believers to defend the faith, it often seems that the transcendental argument has quite effectively crippled them; they find it difficult to see themselves as apologists.

Now, I am not saying that anything that is not easy is not good. The truth is, I do not deny that there is a place for the kind of work that Bahnsen and others have done on the philosophical level. But I am not convinced that the transcendental argument represents the defense of the faith that all believers are called to. It may at times, in the hands of some people, be a helpful tool. But generally speaking, I do not believe it is.

This conviction does not arise simply out of the difficulty of making the argument. It rather flows out of the New Testament record itself. The biblical apologetic does not look like the transcendental argument. It is altogether true that Bahnsen can appeal to elements in (for example) Paul's sermon in Athens as components of his own approach. But this is not the same as saying that Paul's sermon is an example of the transcendental argument.

Van Til often said that epistemology cannot be separated from ontology. What he meant is that our manner of knowing cannot be separated from what is known. That God is who He is (transcendent, immanent, sovereign, holy, etc.) dictates how we can know Him.

This is a true observation, but it is not fully adequate. The biblical writers, it is true, do not simply appeal to epistemology. Their epistemology is fully dependent upon the full being of God. But it is dependent upon more than that. It is dependent upon the acts of God. This is so in the Old Testament: the defense of Yahweh as the only true God is made in terms of His creative and redeeming acts (see e.g. Ps. 96). And in the New Testament, the Church defends the faith by speaking of the activity of Jesus Christ.

What I am saying is that our defense of the faith should not be an abstraction, which is what I fear it often is. Our job is not to demonstrate the impossibility of the contrary. Our job is to proclaim the attributes, character, and deeds of God, especially as seen through and in Jesus Christ.

I believe that 1 Peter 3:15 has been misunderstood and misused. Sanctifying the Lord God in our hearts and offering a reason for our hope: this is not an imperative to engage in anything abstract or philophical. We sanctify the Lord God in our hearts and provide the reason for our hope when we proclaim the saving message and work of Jesus Christ. In the context of 1 Peter 3, the issue has to do with suffering as Christians: believers are blessed if they suffer for righteousness' sake (v. 14). But they ought to be willing to do more than that: they ought to interpret, verbally, their willingness to suffer, by appealing to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Not a complex transcendental argument. Not a philosophical discussion about autonomy and its impossibility. But a God-glorifying exposition of the Christian hope.

John the Baptist at one point struggled with doubt. Is this Jesus, after all, the Messiah that we have expected? Or have we misread the evidence? So he sent his disciples to question Jesus: "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?" (Matt. 11:2-3)

Jesus did not respond, "How do you claim to question Me? I have transcendent authority. You ought simply to believe that I am the one, simply on my bare say-so."

Rather, He appealed to His works: "Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: the blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me" (Matt. 11:4-6).

The point is not to deny that Jesus revealed Himself as the Coming One. The point, rather, is to address how He did so: He acted.

In John 1:18, we learn, "No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him." The word declared literally means, exegeted, expounded. In seeing Christ, we get an exposition of the Father, so that Jesus can later ask Philip, "Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, 'Show us the Father'?" (Jn. 14:9)

How had Philip seen Jesus? Merely in a picture? Merely by having Him in his presence without saying or doing anything? No, Jesus spoke and lived before Philip, and it was in so doing that He expounded the Father to Him.

The apostles, of course, were eyewitnesses of the majesty and glory of Christ (Jn. 1:14; 2 Pet. 1:16; 1 Jn. 1:1-3). In that sense, neither we nor our hearers are witness to that glory. Does this mean, then, that we are back to the same problem, that we must somehow get behind the revelation and first defend the Bible, theism, etc., before we can really expect unbelievers to 'see' Christ?

No. Thankfully, that is not the case. All Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16), and is thus His voice. Moreover, the word of (faithful and biblical) preaching is the voice of Christ (Rom. 10:14; note that the word 'of' in most translations is not necessary to proper Greek usage; thus this verse should read: "And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?"). We must return to the old faith that in proclamation, Christ really speaks and is made known. And analogously, as Scripture is the Word of God, those who are not preachers but simple believers may stand upon that same Word, declare it and explain it, and fully expect that Christ is being disclosed, in all His authority, glory and grace.

I argue, then, that we need to do more than appeal to the sensus divinitatis and the claims of general revelation. We need to preach God in all His acts, and especially Christ in all His works in life, death and resurrection.

None of this is to deny what we noted earlier from Romans 1. Those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness will indeed be judged; there is adequate revelation made known to them to condemn them. But our concern is not to make unbelievers even more accountable to that general revelation. That is not Paul's point in Romans 1. Rather, he is explaining why he feels so compelled to preach the gospel. It is because God's wrath is revealed against man who is so busy suppressing the truth, that Paul hungers to spread the gospel, for in it God's saving righteousness is revealed (Rom. 1:16-18). It is the hope of the gospel that the Spirit uses to win alienated men to faith.

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