The Failure of Classical Apologetics in the Context of Biblical Contextual Reality (A Case for Presuppositional Apologetics)
A biblical approach to apologetics does not entail proving God exists in a manner that confers legitimacy upon agnosticism, atheism, sincere seekers etc., let alone does it approve of fastening a dreamy possibility of the resurrection to a vague concept of God or multiple first Causes or Designers that might not still exist. (Nor does our apologetic entail a naïveté that is consistent with furnishing a series of uninterpreted particulars that demand an evidentialist verdict of resurrection.) No, a biblical approach to apologetics does not try to prove what rebels already know, but rather by reasoning transcendentally our aim is to expose what rebels defiantly deny. By the grace of God, the presuppositional apologist will expose the folly of unbelief by powerfully demonstrating in reductio ad absurdum fashion that even the mere possibility of rejecting God’s existence presupposes God’s existence!
At the heart of Christian apologetic methodology is the consideration of ultimate authority. How the authority of Scripture should shape the Christian’s defense of the faith is a matter of bringing every thought captive to obey Christ, (even as the Christian gives an answer for the hope that is in him, with meekness and fear.) How consistently the believer sanctifies the Lord God in his heart will influence his apologetic methodology.
Classical Apologetics (CA) seeks to establish Theism from nature and unaided reason. If a theistic universe with design, causality and / or morality can be established, then there is a basis for considering evidence for the true and living God who has intervened in history in the Christ event, and in particular through the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. For the classical apologist, a two-step approach is advisable. First, establish theism in general; then, try to prove the resurrection through historical evidence. After all, until one becomes persuaded of the possibility of a Designer, an Unmoved Mover, a Moral Law Giver, or a conception of a “Supremely Perfect” being, he won’t likely be as open to evidence for the resurrection. In other words, before one begins marshaling evidence for God having raised Jesus from the dead, it is advantageous to first establish there even is a god who could possibly have raised Jesus from the dead.
Classical Apologetics denies a biblical contextual reality:
Apologetics ought to be done in the context of the unbeliever’s condition and relevant divine revelation. Because the unbeliever’s condition cannot be reliably inferred by the unbeliever’s false claims about himself, the apologist should seek to be informed by the authority of God’s word alone. Apologetic methodology surely must not betray Scripture and if possible, should be inferred from Scripture.
With respect to biblical contextual reality, General Revelation reveals much about God, yet little about man’s spiritual covenantal condition. For instance, apart from a confrontational encounter with Scripture, unregenerate man knows God is all powerful, omniscient, and omnipresent (as well as other perfections). Yet we know those bits of truth about man’s condition from Scripture alone. Scripture reveals to us that all men know not merely a notion of God but the one true and living God, which is why it can be said that all are without excuse. Indeed, man suppresses the truth in unrighteousness, but it is the truth he suppress (and not some false conception of God). In moral and epistemic rebellion, natural man willfully turns the truth he knows into a lie. Without exception, that is man’s response to what he knows by nature as he lives in God’s ordered universe, experiencing God’s goodness and daily provision. Accordingly, any consideration of the viability of a Natural Theology apologetic should be placed in the context of man’s willful suppression of the truth he knows.
There is knowledge of God that is properly basic. It is apprehended directly (as opposed to discursively), yet not in a vacuum but always through the mediation of created things in the context of providence. Without reasoning from more fundamental or basic beliefs, the unbeliever apprehends God in conscience through the things that are made. Man’s knowledge of God is mediated through the external world, but it is apprehended immediately by God’s image bearers apart from argumentation or even modest reflection. Therefore, the apostle Paul may say that all men have knowledge of the truth. Not all men can follow the elaborate arguments of another’s Natural Theology, let alone formulate their own theistic proofs, but all men directly apprehend God’s General Revelation of himself. A god who must be proved is not the God of Scripture.
Moral considerations regarding Natural Theology as it relates to Classical Apologetics (CA).
To try to prove God exists in order to get someone to believe God exists is a fool’s errand. It is to go along with the charade of the unbeliever who has said in his heart there is no God. Engaging the folly of unbelief in this way is to become like the fool (as opposed to properly answering the fool). In short, by not applying this one foundational biblical truth that all men know God and are, therefore, without excuse, the employment of CA implies several distinct yet related untruths.
Before reading on, it’s important to internalize that it is only the unbelieving fool who denies God’s existence. The fool’s profession is a deception. The alleged seeker, inquisitive agnostic, and committed atheist all know God. Accordingly, the Bible instructs us not try to prove what is known but rather expose what is denied! That is an entailment of doing apologetics in a biblical contextual reality.
Seven betrayals of CA:
1. Implicit in the employment of CA is that God has not plainly revealed himself in creation and conscience. After all, why use CA to prove God’s existence unless some do not know through General Revelation that God exists? Accordingly, CA implicitly denies God’s revelation and man’s knowledge of God.
The following betrayals flow from the first:
2. CA implies that unbelief is an intellectual matter, not an ethical one. The unbeliever needs better arguments in order to become intellectually persuaded of what is already known yet suppressed. CA emphasis is on proof and persuasion, and not the biblical mandate to gently expose one’s willful, sinful rebellion that can manifest itself in a denial of God’s existence. CA focuses on a false need for intellectual enlightenment and not a true need for moral repentance.
3. CA implies that all men are not culpable for denying that God has plainly made himself known. After all, the alleged need of the unbeliever is to be enlightened to something he doesn’t already know, which undermines the need to avoid wrath due to rebellion against God who is known a priori.
4. Since CA implies man is not culpable, CA implies God’s injustice, for God would be unjust to punish those who aren’t culpable due to their innate inability to construct theological proofs on their own.
5. By trying to overcome the unbeliever’s alleged agnosticism or atheism with sophisticated proof(s) that presuppose man can actually seek God, CA denies that no one seeks after God. Accordingly, CA implies that an alleged seeker is not in ethical rebellion while he masquerades as intellectually pursuing an honest answer to the question of God’s existence.
6. CA implies that God is not a necessary precondition for the very possibility of the masquerade of seeking God (and denying God). In other words, CA grants the requisite tools of investigation (common notions) are implicitly neutral ground and not strictly common ground that can only be justified if it is first true that God exists.
7. If common ground is neutral ground, then CA implies that there are brute facts that can be interpreted without worldview bias. In other words, CA grants that the facts of nature can exegete themselves without any reference to God as sovereign interpreter.
In sum, CA relates to an endeavor that aims to prove a false god who has not effectively revealed himself to at least some invincibly ignorant creatures. Again, a god who must be proved is not the God of Scripture.
Aside from denying the biblical contextual reality in which apologetics should be conducted, theistic proofs as they’ve been traditionally formulated have been, I believe, an embarrassment to the church. For instance, how does the cosmological argument disprove a first cause of simultaneous multiplicity, or the teleological argument rule out multiple designers? In other words, how do such arguments avoid a fallacy of quantification, or avoid a natural theology of the gods? How do we deduce from natural experience of natural causes a single supernatural first cause? Why must a logical first cause or the supposed designer of the universe still exist?
Yet even if these shortcomings (and the ones I’ve not mentioned for brevity sake) were adequately overcome, CA would still entail (a) implicit denial of natural man’s sinful suppression of his knowledge of God along with (b) impugnment of God’s righteous judgement against man’s moral rebellion.
CA follows Eve’s modus operandi:
Unbelievers require a “neutral” investigation into the claims of Christianity. Unbelievers employ autonomous reasoning (i.e., reasoning from a mindset that does not acknowledge God’s epistemic Lordship over the possibility of human reason itself), without which unbelievers cannot judge whether the Bible should be deemed reliable for its claims let alone authoritative over all of life. For the unbeliever, apart from judging the Bible from a throne of autonomy, the Bible and all it claims cannot be assessed as true. The problem with such a philosophical and religious posture, which admittedly touches upon a concept that is difficult for both unbelievers and many believers to grasp, is that if the Bible must first be validated by the unbeliever as authoritative, then it cannot be intrinsically authoritative. Yet if the Bible is authoritative by virtue of its divine origin, then no such human validation is permissible (or even possible when one is in submission to God’s word!).*
While the unbeliever remains a judge of God’s word – the unbeliever remains his own self-proclaimed authority; God’s word is positively rejected as long as the unbeliever seeks to determine its origin. With hat in hand, God remains in the dock awaiting the unbeliever’s favor.
What is built into the unbeliever’s make-up is something from which the unbeliever cannot extricate himself. That is, there is an ethically driven intellectual bias, a deep-seated antithesis that rejects the authority of God’s voice in Scripture (and in nature). If God’s word is authoritative, then it may not be judged. It must be obeyed for what it truly is, God’s word. But like Eve who placed God’s word on the same level of Satan’s and then rose above both to judge what is true, so is the posture of the unbeliever. He sits in the place of God, presiding over the authority of Scripture. CA not only caters to the unbeliever’s quest for autonomy, the classical apologist shares in the mission! He has become like the fool, which is the very thing the Proverb warns against.
The unbeliever presupposes at the outset of his pursuit of God that the requisite tools of rational investigation (e.g. logic, inference, memory etc.) and the context in which they function (e.g. reality and providence) are not God dependent. In other words, the unbeliever’s bias is that any mind-world correspondence is perfectly intelligible apart from any reference point other than the finite human mind itself. Little if no consideration is given to the question of why the subject and object of knowledge should correspond, or how there can be a fruitful connection between the knower and the mind-independent external world that can be known. By the nature of the case, the unbeliever imagines that if God exists, he must be discovered through autonomous reason that is capable of functioning apart from God. In doing so, the unbeliever not only rejects a God who must make reason possible – he is not even seeking such a God at all! The unbeliever is seeking a god who does not make knowledge possible and has not plainly revealed himself in creation, providence and grace. The unbeliever is seeking an idol of his own making and CA aids in the pursuit.
Hope is on the way:
There is an apologetic that is true to biblical contextual reality, but it looks quite different from CA. It’s my experience that an appreciation for the sheer profundity of a distinctly presuppositional approach to apologetics directly corresponds to a diminishing view of CA. Until the Christian apologist recognizes the biblical infidelity of an apologetic methodology that wrongly diagnoses man as needing cleverly devised proofs to satisfy “neutral” yet “honest” intellectual-pursuit of God’s existence, it is not likely he will see the biblical faithfulness of an apologetic approach that works within the biblical confines God’s revelation. Far from partisan apologetics, this is a matter of Christian obedience. The extent of the fall as it relates to what mankind lost when our first parents plunged humanity into a state of total depravity must be seen through non-Thomistic, Calvinistic lenses if we hope to apprehend a biblically informed apologetic.
But before getting into a distinctly presuppositional approach to apologetics, first a few words about Evidentialism, which is the short-relief closer for the ace of CA. (It is October, after all! ⚾️) Translation, Evidentialism completes CA.