This afternoon I finally polished off an essay that I had to write for Apologetics at Bible college. For those who don’t know, apologetics is the art of defending the Christian faith in public from attack and critique, and it is a partner (if not a part of) evangelism. There are five basic and various ways to approach apologetics and I don’t have the time to go into all of them. However, the one that I very much subscribe to is Pre-Suppositional Apologetics. It was first established by Dutch Reformed scholar Cornelius Van Til and has since been refined and used by others such as John Frame and K. Scott Oliphant (who has pioneered what is known as Covenantal Apologetics).
Pre-Suppositional apologetics is basically a framework of engaging with non-Christians whereby in order to have a conversation about God, the non-believer must first understand certain pre-suppositions about Him. Crudely put, the reason and faculties of non-Christians is darkened because they deliberately suppress the truth even though there are some self-evident proofs of God’s existence and an understanding of His ethical expectations (Romans 1:18-22). Consequentially they have ended up in idolatry (v. 23), but it’s not their idolatry that is the source of the problem, but the abandonment of God in their hearts. When a person becomes regenerated by the Holy Spirit and is saved by becoming justified in Christ Jesus, their eyes are then opened to apprehend and delight in God. Their minds can then begin – and only in minute detail (Prov. 3:5b) – comprehend the deeper things of God (1 Cor 2:16b) such as the Trinity. As such for Pre-Suppositional apologetics this means when engaging non-Christians, it is essential for them to understand the God whom they are dealing with. This approach stands firmly on the infallibility of the Bible (2 Tim 3:16-17) and seeks to make God’s word both intelligible and understood to non-Christians. Whereas unbelievers use their own reason as the final authority to understand spiritual matters, Pre-Suppositional apologetics rightly sees this as a faulty premise and assumes the Bible to be the final and lasting arbiter.
Cornelius Van Til, being more of a purist, discounted the need to dialogue with non-Christians by answering their questions. Like most responding to Van Til, I believe that is a step too far: Christians are told to be always ready to give an answer for their faith (1 Peter 3:15). Men of faith are to go about “instructing his opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth. Then they may come to their senses and escape the Devil’s trap, having been captured by him to do his will” (2 Tim 2:25-26). However, the means by this is through the Holy Spirit (Luke 12:12; Matt 10:20; Mark 13:11) because evangelism and apologetics are the property and work, ultimately, of God Himself. Human reason and drawing endless analogies to ‘self-evident’ proofs of God’s existence in creation can have apologists and unbelievers alike walking in circles. If there IS proof that a God made the world by looking at the majesty of creation, it begs the question: which God? As Richard Dawkins once stated (and quite rightly in my view), that even if you could prove that the world is made by a divine being, that being could be Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, Amon Ra, Zeus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The American scientist Carl Sagan, who wrote, “… if, by ‘God’ one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. [However], this God is emotionally unsatisfying … it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Sydney: Random House), 19, emphasis added). Even C.S. Lewis once admitted that there is no one foolproof means of proving God’s existence.
In my limited experience of doing apologetics in the media and in normal life, 80% of it is demonstrating that the God of the Bible is who He says He is. It is (re-) introducing people to a God who has been misunderstood and warped Satan’s lies. The trick then is not to argue people into belief by appealing to their fallen reason but to speak to their hearts and often to the lies and wounds that have infected their hearts. Almost all of the time such lies come from past wounds from family, friends, and significant others; hence what sinful people need is a realistic understanding of God and most importantly a personal encounter with Him (Psalm 34:8-10). This means apologists spend less time getting bogged down in endless (and fruitless) debates about proofs, first principals, and other things and can ‘cut to the chase’ about what is really going on at the heart-level that is driving the intellectual objections.
For me though, 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 really sums up the theology of this well (see below):
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians was not about who had the best apologetic argument: in fact using the language of worldly wisdom was a hindrance to evangelism, not a help. In Colossians 2:8,16,20-23 he lambasts worldly wisdom in scathing language. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 1:18-21 he writes:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. For it is written:
I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and I will set aside the understanding of the experts.
Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached.
The Corinthians had tried to import such ‘wisdom’ to prove who was ‘in’ on all the good stuff and who wasn’t and Paul chastised them for it because, he said, “When I came to you, brothers, announcing the testimony of God to you, I did not come with brilliance of speech or wisdom“. (The wisdom he’s referring to is the Greek notion of wisdom, which centred on rhetorical ability to win arguments and live certain ways to prove virtue.) For Paul though, using ‘clever arguments’ and ‘brilliant speech’ is not how you win people who are already thinking they’re ‘wise’. Pride has silenced their ears. And in fact appealing to and using forms of human wisdom in order to claim it for Christ can actually entrench people in their pride and falsely lead them to think that they’ve ‘reasoned’ their way into faith.
For me this is a very important reason why I see Pre-Suppositional apologetics as so helpful and important. It’s not a foolproof method: but then again, nothing is in this fallen world. Even the Lord Jesus didn’t convince everyone that He was who He was and lead everyone He met to salvation! But that’s OK because in apologetics – and everything – evangelists cannot make people choose: they can only offer them the choice and leave it up to the person, with the power of the Holy Spirit working in their hearts.
If you wish to read my essay on apologetics feel free to send a request.