I have been writing on the topic of apologetics, particularly contrasting classical apologetics from Reformed presuppositionalism. There are two important distinctions to note with classical apologetics. First, the adherents tend to believe in the self-authenticating nature of tangible evidence for the Christian faith. Second, though fallen in sin, men retain in some fashion the ability to rationally evaluate the truthfulness of that evidence. Once examined, the unbeliever can then draw reasonable conclusions with how the evidence connects to spiritual matters.
To illustrate my point, consider this statement on apologetic methodology from the para-church ministry, Ratio Christi.
As a Christian apologetics ministry, we believe that the veracity of Christianity can be supported in a number of diverse ways. We acknowledge that evidential, existential, historical, legal, philosophical, classical, and presuppositional methods for apologetics can be used in appropriate circumstances. 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. [Emphasis mine. A full statement of beliefs can be found HERE]
Classicists will insist that no unbeliever can be “reasoned to the faith.” In fact, many will affirm the total depravity of mankind. However, they will say that the Holy Spirit can, and will, use evidences to clear away intellectual obstacles. Clearing away those intellectual obstacles provides a reason for a person to believe in Christ.
How Does Evidences and Proofs Fit in with Apologetics?
As a presuppositionalist, I am certainly not opposed to utilizing evidence based arguments when I engage unbelievers with the Gospel. However, I have an entirely different approach with the utilization of evidence.
Keep in mind two things. First, any so-called evidence for the Christian faith is open to interpretation by the presuppositions the unbeliever brings to bear upon that evidence. Second, a discussion involving evidence can, and will, reveal the folly of those presuppositions and the faulty, inconsistent worldview from where they originate.
A good example of what I mean happened in a 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 for the purpose of reasoning with an unbeliever about the reality of God’s existence.
Rather, he presented it as evidence that is incompatible with Dan Barker’s materialistic atheist worldview. In short, the presentation of the video exposes the folly of the atheistic interpretation of the world. That is how evidence should be utilized when engaging unbelievers.
Additionally, just so as to be clear, I don’t depend upon evidence as a persuading element in an evangelical encounter. Nor do I further believe the Holy Spirit uses evidence for clearing intellectual obstacles. That is because a sinner’s stubborn unbelief has nothing to do with his clouded intellect. In truth, it has everything to do with his heart. He has a moral problem, not an evidence/intellect problem.
What’s Man Gotta Do with All This?
Let me draw our attention back to what I believe is the profoundest disagreement between apologetic methodologies and the use of evidences, the nature of man. The good majority of classical leaning apologists will insists that no man can be reasoned to faith apart from the Spirit. Perhaps they may say that; but do they practice it?
If one were to survey the writings, books, seminar lectures, and radio monologues of the various proponents of so-called classic apologetics, they frequently speak of men being “reasoned with,” or having “free-will to choose God.” They may even speak of some innate ability in man to “make a choice for God.”
The most problematic aspect of their presentations is the disconnect between their doctrine of sin and their apologetic methodology. On one hand, they’ll teach man is in rebellion against God doing 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 instance the apologetic ministry (aptly named) Please Convince Me. Initially founded by J. Warner Wallace, his approach is to apply the perspective of a cold-case detective to the Christian worldview. The very title, Please Convince Me, insists unbelievers can be convinced with evidence. In fact, Warner treats the truth claims of Christianity as if they are on trial in a court room. He likens himself 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.
The Please Convince Me statement of faith affirms the doctrine of man’s sin. Their apologetic methodology, however, contradicts it. 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?
The Limits of Man’s Reason
Many classical apologist will say the Holy Spirit can use evidence to remove obstacles out of the way for sinners to believe. The reason the Holy Spirit does that, they claim, is so a person can make a choice one way or another to believe or reject Christ. Classicists understand that as the Holy Spirit’s compelling use of common grace working with the general revelation of nature and conscience. 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, if I am reading him correctly, the “illuminating” Logos is equivalent to the “Holy Spirit using evidence to remove obstacles.” It is just one way He overcomes the crippling effects of sin in the human mind so as to draw men to Himself.
Men do think logically. They communicate rationally, react to instances of right and wrong, and have a sense of the divine, or a transcendent authority outside themselves. 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. The apostles often wrote 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. That is total depravity. Sin impacts the totality of the human being both in his physical and spiritual dimensions.
The Freeing Work of the Holy Spirit
Most classical apologists agree that men are totally depraved. Where they differ, however, is with how they understand man’s ability to know God and submit to Him as their Lord. What are those differences exactly? Let me highlight five truths in closing.
First, I believe the Bible is clear that sinful men know there is a God. That goes back to God creating man in His image. Paul tells us this in Romans 1-3. Men will dispute God’s existence and publicly revile religion, but they still live their lives as though God 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 agree with the classical apologists when they say 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 evidence to convince them. Even the devils believe God, writes James, and they have the sense to tremble before Him (James 2:19).
Third, Unbelievers need no convincing of Christianity’s truth claims. 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, and red, bold font).
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.” He draws a picture of warfare. Men are standing in treasonous opposition to God’s authority, willfully rejecting Him. Their opposition to God’s authority has nothing to do with removing intellectual obstacles or having reasonable answers supplied to their objections. The nature of fallen man is to hate God’s authority governing his life.
Fourth, Only God’s regenerating power can subdue sinful man’s innate rebellion. 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 exchange a worldview of foolishness (Psalm 14:1) for one grounded in wisdom. A worldview that can only be found in the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7, 9:10). That 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.
Fifth, evidences are utilized to demonstrate the folly of the unbeliever’s rejection of God. Christians should not shun the use of evidence when engaging unbelievers. However, they should never depend upon evidence as a means of clearing away intellectual obstacles. Instead, the use of evidence uncovers the unbeliever’s sinful rebellion against his creator. Their objection to belief has never been intellectual, but entirely moral. Once the Holy Spirit’s regenerating power overcomes the moral, bringing the unbeliever into a right relationship with God, any intellectual objections will begin to fall away.