I have spent a lot of time the last decade or more writing on apologetics and evangelism. My study has particularly focused on the theology and methodology of apologetics on a personal level. I believe it would be worth our while to reflect on our own apologetic theology, as it were, and sharpen our thinking in this arena.
Let’s Begin with a bit of background
Let me begin with some introductory remarks that hopefully will aim the direction I wish to take my short series.
Historical speaking, apologetics has developed along two separate trajectories that diverge away from each other regarding what Christians believe about the knowledge men have of God.
First is classical apologetics that reached its developmental zenith under Thomas Aquinas. Classicists employ the use of philosophical constructs borrowed primarily from Aristotle, whose writings, oddly, came to Western Christians through the work of Islamic apologists. Aquinas heavily influenced the shape of Roman Catholic theology. The classicists believe all men have mediate knowledge of God.
This article, 24 Thomistic proofs, highlights a mediate knowledge of God. Under thesis 22, the first sentence states, “That God exists we do not know by immediate intuition, nor do we demonstrate it a priori, but certainly a posteriori, that is, by things which are made, arguing from effect to cause.” The writer suggests that human intellect only gains knowledge about material things, or things only our physical senses can experience. Spiritual things, on the other hand, are excluded, because they are not experienced by our senses.
The classic apologist, then, in order to prove God to the unbeliever, will build an cumulative case for God. Beginning with what people know from their senses about reality, the apologist constructs cumulative arguments moving from experienced effects to ultimate causes. The God of the Bible, he concludes, is the only ultimately cause in the universe.
The other apologetic route is presuppositionalism. Dutch Reformed Calvinists cultivated Presuppositionalism in the 1700 and 1800s. Theologian, Cornelius Van Til, advanced the methodology in the U.S. during the 20th century. A number of his students like Greg Bahnsen and John Frame, carried it into our modern times. Presbyterian philosopher, Gordon Clark, taught a slightly different perspective of presuppositionalism.
Rather than having a mediate knowledge of God, presuppositionalists believe men have an immediate knowledge of God that is intuitive. They believe that because it is exactly what the Scriptures teach about mankind. In other words, because mankind is God’s special creation, all men are born as the image bearers of God (Genesis 1:27). That means the knowledge of God as sovereign creator is imprinted upon the hearts of all men, as it were.
Humanity, then, does not need to have God proven to them. All people know intuitively that He exists. Additionally, Romans 1:18ff., and Romans 2, paints a clear picture that man’s knowledge of God is internal and intuitive. Men cannot be held accountable for their rebellion against Him if that is not the case.
For the presuppositionalist, the Christian apologist does not have to prove God’s existence to an unbeliever. He already knows God exists. It is a matter of the unbeliever turning from his sin and submitting to his creator as Lord and Savior as the Gospel truth is brought to bear upon the person. Thus, presuppositionalism defends the entirety of Christianity as a worldview while engaging unbelievers at the foundational level of their worldview.
Focusing our thoughts on the matter
Now. With that brief introduction, let me shift gears to the overall thrust of my articles.
Much of what is labeled “Evangelical apologetics” in the Christian world is of the Classical stripe. Their methodology fails, in my opinion, along two significant points.
– First, Christian apologetics is placed into a philosophical category, removing it from the exegetical guidance of Scripture. The revelation of Scripture is not the engine driving the apologetic endeavor, it is more of the caboose coming along at the end.
– Secondly, apologetics is inappropriately separated from evangelism. They are treated like semi-related disciplines in the proclamation of the Gospel. A Christian must first convince an unbeliever God exists, Christianity is true, etc., before giving him or her the Gospel.
It’s been my observation that classical oriented ministries instructing Christians in the field of apologetics intentionally ignore those two vital factors. In fact, a number of popular apologetic teachers will go so far as to tell their audiences that the Bible should be the last thing a Christian brings to the discussion with an unbeliever. Other teachers make apologetics dependent upon a Christian having a familiarity with complicated philosophical jargon or so-called empirical “proofs” like the existence of God and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I consider myself to be a presuppositionalist, and it is to my presuppositional friends I would like to address some concerns.
I believe presuppositionalism is a more biblically robust apologetic approach than what most Christians are familiar with. Presuppositionalism begins by “presupposing” the truth of Christianity, rather than compartmentalizing individual arguments and asking the unbeliever to reason as to the validity of each proof for faith.
The focus upon a comprehensive worldview is what makes the methodology superior in contrast to the various expressions of classical Thomism. A presuppositionalist addresses the reality that ALL sinners without exception know the true God exists. He then calls the sinner to repent of their erroneous “presuppositions” that shape his worldview and suppress the truth of God.
I would like to think my presuppositionalism is immune from the entanglement with philosophical snares, but it is not.
I have noticed a tendency among on-line presuppositional practitioners to become just as weighed down with philosophical baggage as their non-presuppositional counterparts. Conversations about universal laws of logic, moral absolutes, and other similar “truth claims,” are helpful for the most part. However, those topics do require some understanding of philosophy and the intellectual ability to challenge unbelievers with that knowledge.
Additionally, the whole evangelistic encounter can quickly becomes a quagmire of unnecessary, impromptu debate that the Christian has to slosh through with the unbeliever. And, the chest-thumping attitude often displayed by many young presuppositional proponents against folks who take a different apologetic approach doesn’t help with advancing their cause.
Just so that I am clear, I certainly believe there can be a place for presenting philosophical arguments when we share our faith with non-Christians. Moreover, I appreciate how presuppositionalism places unbelievers on the defensive, moving the evangelistic encounter from haggling over how to interpret evidence to actually challenging them to defend their core “truth” claims about reality, life, and how people are to live.
What I am saying, however, is that our focus should not stay centered exclusively upon philosophical matters. When presuppositionalists overemphasize philosophy, they are making presuppositionalism more difficult than it needs to be. The average church-goer is clueless about laws of logic and the transcendental argument for the existence of God. Starting with those areas also shifts our presentation away from the pages of Scripture, something we want to avoid.
Peter writes in his first epistle that we are to set apart Christ as Lord. A part of that sanctifying process must be molding our methodology and practice in apologetics. Hammering out bumps and smoothing edges. I want my methodology and practice to fit together in a way that honors the Lord. Our apologetic methodology needs to flow out of the biblical text and actually be meaningfully evangelistic.
Allowing this brief article to serve as an introduction, I want to provide an outline explaining what I have learned from presuppositionalism. I’ll show how I have personally made the methodology practical in my own Christian walk beginning with the next post.