The Bible calls Christians to always be prepared to give an answer to those who ask for the reason of the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15). And so, from the very beginning of church history, Christians have publicly and privately labored to show the reasonableness of our faith against the objections of skeptics. In the last century, Christians debating the relationship between reason and faith have divided into sometimes warring camps of classical, evidential, and presuppositional apologetics. If you’re wondering how these views relate, then this week’s series of five articles is for you. The Gospel Coalition welcomes apologists and pastors who will define, critique, and defend particular methods commonly used among Christians. But we don’t want to stop at method, as if apologetics were just meant for the lab. We also hope to provide resources to not only firm up your grasp of the debates, but also to put apologetics into practice in preaching and evangelism.
After a considerable time of hibernation, partly due to living in a fearful world, partly due to Karl Barth’s skepticism about defending the faith, apologetics is enjoying a comeback. But which of the many schools is the most biblical and the most useful to the task of persuasion? We find revivals of the classical proofs, updates of the ontological and cosmological arguments. We find many varieties of evidentialism, from ID (intelligent design) to arguments from Jesus’ trial, the empty tomb, the New Testament documents’ reliability, and so on. And we find various forms of “humble apologetics,” using less aggressive arguments, such as teaching rather than preaching, clarification rather than dogmatism, focusing on Jesus, and the like. We find specialists answering Islam, race matters, or the New Atheists. And there is lots of eclectic apologetics, using insights from many sources, literature and the arts, culture studies, the sociology of knowledge, and much more.
One of the contenders is “presuppositionalism.” In its modern form, the pioneers include Abraham Kuyper, H. G. Stoker, Cornelius Van Til, and, in their own manner, Francis Schaeffer, Richard Mouw, John Frame, and Michael Goheen. To begin with, presuppositionalism is not a great word. It implies circular reasoning, or worse, fideism, a leap of faith. A better choice might be “covenantal apologetics.” The idea is that the apologist begins by frankly acknowledging divine condescension. Unlike the classical approach, which begins with a logical demonstration, or the evidentialist view, which appeals directly to the facts, covenantal apologetics begins (positionally, not in every conversation) with the authority of divine revelation. One of its slogans in that there is no neutrality. If you appeal to logical demonstrations you may be ignoring the doctrine of the “noëtic effects of sin,” that is, the fallenness of reason. If you appeal to the empty tomb or to “irreducible complexity,” you may be ignoring the human tendency to observe the world with prejudice, or what James K. A. Smith calls the fall of interpretation.
So, then, how does the covenantal apologist actually argue for the faith? Do we ignore evidence and simply engage in a shouting match? No, the opposite. First, we strongly believe in a point of contact. It is what Calvin calls the “sense of deity,” based on passages such as Psalm 19 or Romans 1. An unbeliever knows God. Not just about him, but God himself in his many attributes. Certainly an unbeliever seeks to process that knowledge in a wrong direction, to his advantage (Rom. 1:18-23). But the knowledge is there, in the heart. Second, assuming this innate knowledge-cum-suppression, we move over onto the ground of our unbelieving friend. From there we attempt to show, on his own grounds, that there is a disconnect between the presuppositions and the claims. If this is God’s world, then we cannot succeed living in it if we deny him. Third, we invite our friend to “taste and see” how good the Lord is. As C. S. Lewis put it, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
This is not a ten-step method, or a lock-step procedure leading people from unbelief to faith. The covenantal approach is more of a wisdom than a scheme. It requires spending time with our interlocutor, and not the elevator speech. Peter tells us to commend the hope we have, but with gentleness and respect, not aiming first at winning an argument, but at lifting up Christ in our hearts (1 Pet. 3:15-16). Last, it is crucial to realize that only with the Holy Spirit’s work of inner persuasion will my arguments achieve the desired goal. Of course, that is not our call. Jesus invited the rich young ruler to sells his possessions and follow him. He used covenantal apologetics and exposed the fellow’s deepest aspirations. At that point, he didn’t win the argument, but he honored the Father.