Recently, I wrote up a brief outline summarizing in bullet-point fashion the key components distinguishing presuppositionalism from classic/evidential apologetic methodology.
One of my points highlighted what I believe to be two foundational distinctions between the methodologies. That being, classic/evidential apologetics believes in the self-authenticating nature of tangible evidence and proofs for the Christian faith; and men, though fallen in sin, retain in some fashion the ability to rationally evaluate the truthfulness of that evidence and make reasonable conclusions about spiritual matters.
To illustrate my point, I cited from the purpose statement of the campus apologetic para-church ministry, Ratio Christi. It says,
It is our belief, however, that the Scriptures testify to the fact that man, though corrupted by sin, is still made in the image of God and has been given reasoning faculties that can be used to gain important, though limited, data from nature about reality and theology.
I had a campus director for a Ratio Christi chapter in N.C. take friendly issue with my citing from that section of the purpose statement and he offered some challenges to my overall thesis I presented.
Some of those challenges include,
– Ratio Christi utilizes the classic apologetic method, not merely “evidentialism.”
– Both classic apologists and evidentialists would never say an unbeliever can be “reasoned” to the faith.
– Presuppositionalism tends towards fideism, because it begs the question on the trustworthiness of Scripture as an unique, holy book.
– The Holy Spirit can use evidence to clear away intellectual obstacles and thus give a person a reason to believe in Christ.
I thought his comments offered up some excellent challenges to my apologetic theology, and though he provides some good ones, I still think those challenges demonstrate what I believe to be the inadequacy of his apologetic methodology. In order to spare the reader from having to slosh through a ten page paper, I’ll break up my response into two, possibly three, posts.
By way of introduction, I will say that I am not opposed to utilizing evidence based arguments when I engage unbelievers with the Gospel. While I heartily agree that any so-called “evidence” for the existence of God or the integrity of Scripture is open to interpretation by the presuppositions the unbeliever brings to bear upon that “evidence,” a discussion involving evidence can be used to reveal the folly of those presuppositions and the faulty, inconsistent worldview from where they originate.
A good example of what I mean can be found in the debate James White had with atheist Dan Barker back in 2009. During his presentation, Dr. White played a video of an animation showing the F1 ATPase structure in the mitochondria. He did not present the video as “neutral facts” that can be used to reason with an unbeliever about the reality of God’s existence. He presented it as a fact that is incompatible with Dan Barker’s materialistic atheist worldview. In short, the presentation of this video exposes the folly of the atheistic interpretation of the world.
Additionally, just so as to be clear, I don’t depend upon evidence to be the persuading element in an evangelical encounter. Nor do I further believe the Holy Spirit “uses” evidence to clear intellectual obstacles as classic apologists claim in their dialogs with me. That is because a sinner’s refusal to believe has nothing to do with his intellect being cleared, but has everything to do with his heart. He has a moral problem, not an evidence/intellect problem.
Let me draw our attention back to what I believe is the profoundest disagreement between our two methodologies, and that has to do with the nature of man. My challenger insists that no classic apologist he knows believes men can be “reasoned to faith apart from the Spirit.” Perhaps they may say that, but they don’t teach it or practice it. Let me explain:
If one were to survey the writings, books, seminar lectures, and radio monologues of the various proponents of so-called “classic apologetics,” they frequently appeal to men being “reasoned with,” or having “free-will to choose God,” or they even speak of some innate ability in man to “make a choice for God.”
Moreover, their presentations are often times inconsistent with their apologetic methodology. On one hand, when they teach about the doctrine of man, they will say he’s in rebellion against God and can do nothing good, yet on the other, when they engage the unbeliever, they seem to believe those exact same sinners, when presented with evidence for the Christian faith, can be convinced of it.
Take for example the apologetic ministry (aptly named) Please Convince Me that supposedly applies the perspective of a cold-case detective to the Christian worldview. The very title of the ministry, “Please Convince Me,” insists unbelievers can be convinced of evidence. In fact, when I have heard J. Warner Wallace, the initial founder of the Please Convince Me ministry speak, his main approach is treating the truth claims of Christianity as if they are on trial in a court room and he is the lead detective presenting the evidence to the jury. Even his bio tells us he takes an “evidentialist” approach to truth when he applies it to the Christian faith.
However, their main doctrinal statement presents what I would consider an okay, biblical understanding of who man is in his fallen nature, even stating that men are so fallen they don’t even understand spiritual things. I would agree.
Yet in spite of that clear statement about the nature of man, the apologetics advocated and practiced by the ministry team, contradicts what is affirmed in that statement concerning the doctrine of man. How can a fallen sinner unable to understand spiritual things be convinced the evidence proves the truthfulness of the Christian truth claims? Would he not be a biased jury member to begin with?
My classic apologetic challenger says the Holy Spirit can use evidence to remove obstacles out of the way for sinners to believe. The reason the Holy Spirit does this, some would say, is so that the sinner can make a choice one way or another to believe or reject Christ. In the work of salvation, this is the Holy Spirit’s use of common grace working with the general revelation of nature and conscience to compel a sinner to believe. Bruce Demarest, in his book on general revelation, describes it like this,
The crippling effects of sin in the human mind are overcome in part by a general illumination of the Logos (John 1:4, 9). God wills that man, the pinnacle of His creation, should use his reason to secure truth, including elementary truths about himself. Equipped with an intuitional knowledge of God, including the light of conscience, and enabled by common grace, man by rational reflection on the data of the natural and historical order draws inferences about God’s character and operations [Demarest, 233].
So in other words, at least in the way I understand it, the “illuminating” Logos is equivalent to the “Holy Spirit using evidence to remove obstacles” and is one way He overcomes the crippling effects of sin in the human mind so as to draw men to Himself. The only problem I have with this classic, Wesleyan-Arminian view of the Spirit’s work of “prevenient” grace is that it isn’t biblical.
When I discussed the subject of man’s sin nature with my challenger, I had stated that the Bible tells us men are in need of having a divine work of regeneration happen to them first before they can savingly believe the Gospel. He responded by asking me a question, “how do I know the Bible says man needs to be regenerated?” I wasn’t sure if he was asking that question because he sincerely didn’t know what the Bible taught on the subject, or if it was his way of pointing out that my ability to understand what the Bible says about man, sin, and the Gospel proves I have the ability to understand the Gospel savingly apart from regeneration.
Whatever the case, he provides us with a starting point that allows me to briefly outline what I think the Bible teaches on man and his reason.
I agree with the classic apologist up to a point. I would be foolish to say men are so corrupted by sin that they are unable to rationally function in society, or in the case of his question, unable to understand what the Bible says about the sinfulness of men.
Of course I believe all men think “logically” (depending upon how they understand “logic”), communicate rationally with each other, react to instances of right and wrong, and have a sense of the divine, or what would be understood as a transcendent authority outside themselves. That would be what theologians understand as the “image of God” in man. God created men to be rational, logical, moral beings.
But when Adam fell into sin, sin not only separated man from God, but it also marred his ability to think rationally, logically, and morally. In the NT, the apostles often write about how man’s ability is marred in those areas. See for example Paul’s description of sinners in Romans 1:18 ff., 3:10-18, 8:6-8 and Ephesians 2:1-4, 4:17-19. It is what is termed “total depravity” because sin impacts the totality of the human being both his physical and spiritual dimensions.
I think my challenger would agree with my basic premise regarding man. Where we differ, or at least the area of disagreement between myself and what I see with the host of classic apologists with whom the majority of evangelicals in America are familiar, is with how they understand man’s ability to know God and submit to Him as their Lord.
First, I believe the Bible is clear that sinful men know there is a God. That goes back to them being created in His image. Paul tells us this in Romans 1-3. Even though they may dispute God’s existence like a number of the well-known atheists who publicly revile God and religion, they still live their lives as though He exists. They are outraged by acts of immorality (they always complain about God being a “moral” monster), they certainly insist upon being “logical” (faith and religion being “illogical”), and they appeal to a transcendent “authority” outside themselves (“Evolution is the driving force behind all reality”). In other words, they live life according to their divine image.
Second, I would agree with what my challenger implies with his question: That sinful men can understand biblical truth. I have encountered many unbelievers who know what the Bible says about the Resurrection, the atonement, and the basic Gospel message. In fact, I have met many who could articulate the Christian faith better than most Christians. Think Bart Ehrman. It is absolutely certain they know the “truth,” and in point of fact, they don’t need to be convinced of it at all by any evidence. Even the devils believe God, writes James, and they have the sense to tremble before Him (James 2:19).
The issue really isn’t unbelievers in need of being convinced of the truth claims of Christianity. The real issue is the implication those truth claims present to unbelievers. Let that last sentence soak in a moment (hence the reason I put it in italics, bold font, and colored it blue).
Remember, the Bible tells us their hearts are willfully in rebellion against God’s authority. Like Paul writes in Romans 8:7, “the carnal mind is at enmity against God.” It is a picture of warfare; men stand in treasonous opposition to God’s authority and willing reject it. Their opposition to God’s authority has nothing to do with intellectual obstacles in need of being removed or having a reasonable answer supplied to their objections. It is in fallen man’s nature to hate God’s authority governing his life, and that innate rebellion can only be over come by God’s regenerating power. As Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 12:3, “no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”
Just as the Thessalonians turned from their idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9), unbelievers have to relinquish their sinful autonomy and submit themselves to Christ’s Lordship. They are in essence exchanging a worldview of foolishness (Psalm 14:1) for one grounded in wisdom that can only be found in the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7, 9:10). That kind of profound, life-altering change can only come from the hand of God. It’s a divine miracle. True conversion, then, is God’s victory over the sinful heart of a man at war with Him.
Now it certainly me be that classic apologists agree with me, especially those who are Calvinistic in their theology. But there is a significant disconnect between theology and practice. Because the means they employ to engage the unbeliever with the truth claims of Christ do not take into consideration those Scripturally revealed insights regarding man’s nature. They also tend to shun the use of the Bible in apologetic encounters and put God on trial, as it were, so that the sinner can judge Him worthy of his loyalty. I find this approach not only problematic, but offensive. That’s what I’ll take up in my next post on this subject.