The Missing Heart of Apologetics

Introduction

In a Discover magazine article (Ref. 1), Sarah Scoles surveys the possible causes of (alleged) cyclic mass extinctions on Earth, such as dark matter, rogue stars and planets, and gamma rays from supernovas. Physicist Richard Muller speaks to the motivation of the community of scientists investigating Doomsday: “What we’re really interested in is where we came from and why we’re here. I think the human spirit wants to know how we fit into the world, and where we fit into the universe.”

It is the responsibility of the Bible-believing Christian to help such fellows out by employing apologetics appropriately. The question is, “What’s the best – the biblical – approach?” Apologetics author and trainer Sean McDowell recounts a cautionary tale (Ref. 2) from his early days in studying the subject. His barber, noting that he was reading ‘a Christian book,’ asked him, “Why does God allow so much evil and suffering in the world?” He thought, “Really, that’s all you got?” He quickly gave her some classic answers and answered her followup questions. He was confident he was doing well until she started crying and said, “This is a bunch of #%&! You’ve got an answer for everything. It can’t be that easy. You just don’t understand.”

He had failed miserably and he knew it, offering a measure of truth but no love or grace, especially love targeted to whatever her real problems were. In the same book, Tom Gilson in his chapter, “Servant Apologetics,” divides the Christian (professing evangelical) community into five levels of interest regarding apologetics:

  1. Core leaders: scholars, teachers, writers.
  2. Enthusiasts and local leaders: conference goers, book buyers, bloggers
  3. Questioners: People with questions they would like answered, but don’t know good answers exist or where to find them, including teens who aren’t sure about their parents’ faith and parents who don’t know how to help their children get grounded.
  4. The inoculated: People who know something about apologetics but have a negative opinion.
  5. The closed: Uninformed, not interested, and want to stay that way.

McDowell’s rueful anecdote and Gilson’s analysis reflect, in my view, a huge defect in 21st century apologetics, a disconnect from the point of it all, a disconnect from personal evangelism. Gilson doesn’t include apologetics ‘trainers’ and ‘trainees’ – warriors – because he doesn’t see that category out there. He’s not even looking for it. I don’t see it either.

Supernova 1987a

Supernova 1987a

Many apologists pay lip service to the necessary marriage of apologetics and evangelism, but few – very few – practice it. My thesis is that when studied and practiced separately from evangelism, apologists are disobedient to the Great Commission in their practice and develop a stunted form of apologetics ‘in theory.’

Apologetics becomes a part-time exercise within the church rather than a lifetime of growing stronger by engaging with the lost world – engaging via evangelism and using apologetics to find the best way to help someone, to get past his ‘mind gate’ to reach his heart. Gilson’s analysis, without him realizing it, indicates the typical perspective, that apologetics is an inside-the-community hobby, analogous to an academic study of engineering – strictly via textbook – while nobody bothers to go outside to try to build bridges, supercomputers, and spacecraft. Engineers must be trained to practice their skills and then go outside and improve the environment.

Presuppositionalism vs. Evidentialism

Discipleship is only discipleship when Christians are trained to wield the sword of the Spirit, to do so Biblically and eyeball-to-eyeball. But Western evangelicalism’s culture of a professional clergy class, winsomely entertaining passive crowds, is anathema to New Testament discipleship, which is why it doesn’t work. God knows best, however.

Notable apologists with popular podcasts and blogs can be categorized as professional clergy, ‘ministering’ by attracting online interactions from unbelievers, or speaking to one crowd after another. I recently listened to a talk by J. Warner Wallace in which he cited examples from such interactions. But what about the ‘little guys’ out there who don’t ‘build it so they will come,’ who don’t get the invitations? Well, we’ve got to get out there and hit the street. Sadly, the notable apologists don’t train the little guys, apparently having no interest in doing so, since they generally don’t hit the street themselves. Why bother, when their podcasts attract enough attention from scoffers to make them feel like they’re engaged in serious ministry? Yet ministry is, and always has been, one-to-one: discipleship. Evangelism throughout history has both characters: one-to-one and one-to-many. When finding either opportunity, the approach must be biblical.

J. Warner Wallace

J. Warner Wallace

I am a presuppositionalist because that is the Biblical pattern for making reasoned arguments as part of pointing lost sinners to Christ. Peter at Pentecost, Paul on Mars Hill, Elijah on Mt. Carmel, Moses (and God) on Mt. Sinai, the Lord Jesus at the Samaritan well . . . all started ‘from above,’ from on high, beginning with the authority of God’s word and showing how the world makes sense only in light of it. We do not see the ‘traditional’ or ‘classical’ or ‘evidentialist’ approach by the prophets or the apostles, entering into debate on supposedly neutral ground, building a case by probabilities.

Now, there are many evidentialists publishing books, speaking to crowds, and doing podcasts. J. Warner Wallace’s books (Refs. 3, 4) are written at a popular level and are well done. Wallace explicitly claims the evidentialist approach, informing his arguments from his long experience as a homicide detective, ‘making the case’ (as he puts it) from a rational examination of evidence, avoiding presuppositions as much as practical. Of course, the evidentialist cannot avoid substantial presuppositions; no one can. In constructing arguments you presuppose rational thought and its correlation with reality, the moral value of finding and communicating truth, fidelity of memories, belief that other minds interpret language at least roughly as well as you do, and so on.

I’ll observe here that the notable evidentialists, including popular writers like Lee Strobel and his The Case for . . . series, but also serious academics such as William Lane Craig (Ref. 5) and Douglas Groothuis (Ref. 6) have tragically unbiblical positions regarding creation and inspiration. They tend to be Big Bangers, favoring mere Intelligent Design and a progressive creation over the course of billions of years in a futile attempt to ‘make peace’ with aspects of atheistic evolution. Ironically, there is no such peace to be had.

Groothuis, for example (Ref. 6, pp. 273-4), pays a backhanded compliment to creationists for doing “yeoman work” in areas like the fossil record, but insists that “their biblical literalism concerning a six-day creation is troublesome for two reasons.” His first reason is that he knows (somehow) that “the Genesis creation narrative does not insist on a set time period, but rather six creative periods or ‘days.’” His second is the “overwhelming evidence that the universe is 13-15 billion years old and that the earth is ancient as well.” He is simply blind to the idea that his first reason derives from his second – the Genesis account is clear that ‘days’ mean ‘days,’ and that his billions-of-years assertion is based on naturalistic presuppositions. I would love to sit down with him for a few hours and ask, “Overwhelming? Really? Let’s look at some of the details and you can show me.” But first, I would challenge him on how a born again Christian, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, so readily dismisses God’s word. The Holy Spirit should tweak his conscience concerning his oh-so-ready willingness to trust atheists, simply because he’s a theologian and (probably) hasn’t bothered to investigate the alleged evidence. The first thing with the fellow is to start from above.

I find considerable value in evidentialist books, which I won’t detail here. Yet it seems clear that their evidentialism, constructing origins arguments from within a worldly – pagan – perspective, leads them to capitulation on critical issues, with deadly consequences for evangelism. (I’ll get specific later on.)

On the subject of Biblical fidelity, they construct historical probability arguments for the Gospel accounts and the New Testament record, while carefully avoiding any thought of inspiration. I’ll mention, anecdotally, that I’ve had encounters with skeptics on campus who offer challenges about manuscript reliability, albeit on a woefully uninformed basis. Responding ‘from on high’ my argument is that, given God, particularly the God whose characteristics are revealed in the Bible, He would have delivered His message accurately and preserved it precisely, particularly in the Hebrew Masoretic text for the Old Testament and the Received Greek (and old Latin) text of the New Testament. From this foundation I can address a variety of historical issues that are consistent with my presupposition and give me confidence that I can hold in my very hands an accurate translation in English (the KJV) of God’s word.

In practice, however, I don’t (and shouldn’t) do too much of this, because my focus must be on transitioning from apologetic arguments to the Gospel, which is ultimately personal, not just historical, evidential, or philosophical. I cannot ‘prove’ inerrancy, of course, but I trust Christ and believe His revealed word on multiple grounds, and so I readily conclude inerrancy and see plenty of historic and documentary evidence consistent with my ‘presupposed conclusion.’ My ‘multiple grounds’ should be similar to yours. When confronted with the Gospel I saw the ‘ring of truth’ in it, investigated various questions which were answered by mature Christians, got convicted of sin, righteousness, and judgment; repented of my sins, trusted Christ, and experienced fruits of conversion, including transformed behavior, worldview, and relationships. As I grew I acquired knowledge and wisdom regarding history, false religions, origins, and other areas that continued to build the strength and depth of my ‘reasoned faith.’

Evidentialists, presupposing the principle of neutral ground, criticize presuppositionalists for circular reasoning. Most people are surprised to hear that only some circular reasoning is problematic. As expounded well by presuppositionalist John Frame (Ref.7), narrow circular reasoning is, indeed, problematic: “I believe the Bible is God’s word because the Bible tells me so.” This is not a helpful argument, of course. Yet no one can avoid circular reasoning entirely, albeit in a broad sense, because everyone starts with presuppositions and ends with conclusions found among them. Groothuis, for example, presupposes naturalism when he asserts (in the same passage cited above) that “a coherent Christian worldview should attempt to bring together ‘the book of nature’ and ‘the book of Scripture.’” Yet, as readers well know, ‘the book of nature’ does not have a study guide attached. It is not constructed of propositions. Observables must be interpreted. Groothuis, apparently, embraces the naturalist’s guidebook for interpretation. And so he derives a naturalist’s conclusion about the universe’s origins, and binds himself with a naturalist’s view of life’s history, sneaking God into the process wherever He cannot be detected. This is not the work of the Holy Spirit.

helical staircase

helical staircase

Now consider the short outline above of my conversion and (slow) growth as a Christian. Once I ‘bought into’ the Bible’s message and found repentance and faith, I concluded that the Bible is true despite minimal knowledge on my part. The process continued from there, not in a circle, but in an upward climbing helix – envision a helical staircase. As I climb, guided by the Holy Spirit, I’m always returning to the same point on the circle seen from a viewpoint high above. But in the 3rd dimension I’m climbing. Faith grows vertically in this picture, buttressed by accumulating evidence. I see the presuppositional approach to evangelism and discipleship as helical reasoning, not circular!

I see the critics of presup (please allow the abbreviation occasionally) thinking as Spock saw Kirk’s brilliant adversary in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan: “He’s intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking.” Spock’s insight enabled a tactical victory. Similarly, apologists (evangelists) can benefit from an extra-dimensional perspective.

The Relevance of Textual Issues in Evangelistic Apologetics

I must return, temporarily, to the textual issue. If you find yourself in the Critical Text camp, with an ever shifting text, especially in the Greek, and ever malleable translation methods (dynamic equivalence), you’re not going to be of any help to that young skeptic on campus. The presuppositionalist and the evidentialist may employ many of the same arguments in an extended dialogue, but where you start – attitudinally – is vital. I recognize that the vast majority of evangelicals are in the Critical Text camp (as evidenced by use of CT-derived translations . . . ESV, NASV, NIV, etc.), but I suspect that many of them have arrived at camp without realizing there is an alternate and solid foundation . . . if it’s true, which is always the question! Yes – manuscript and translation fidelity is a big issue and so I must leave it shortly. You might try Jack Moorman’s book (Ref.8) for a moderately serious treatment or David Cloud’s more elementary review (Ref.9).  Yet Biblical inerrancy is foundational to presup apologetics.

Have you noticed that almost any evangelical church’s web site will profess that they believe in inerrancy “in the original autographs,” because they simply don’t believe in preservation? Many such churches profess Calvinist sovereignty, yet believe, like modernist unbelieving scholars, that we have an uncertain text, with thousands of errors, and skeptical scholarship must be relied upon to give us their best guess. If you hold this position, at least recognize that your foundation is metaphorically cracked (literally uncertain). Most creation ministries, notably Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International, shout loudly that their foundation must be God’s word, yet subscribe to Critical Text (CT) thinking.

I take the same presup viewpoint to the textual issue as I do to origins. God’s word must be reliable and transmitted and preserved accurately. As I grow in knowledge and wisdom (however slow the rate) I find much evidence in textual history that my presuppositions are right. I also find evidence that the Adversary is at work creating corrupt versions of the text.

If the Critics are right, then there never was an inerrant Bible. By the time the later books were written, untold numbers of untraceable errors must have crept into extant copies of the earlier texts. Recovering most of the original texts is a probabilistic game made problematic by the unbelieving presups of the CT scholars. (Your modern versions are translations of texts that the scholars believe were penned by authors not inspired by God.) Inspiration without preservation is an empty doctrine.

Star Trek's Khan

Star Trek’s Khan

The textual issue is more than a digression here, since it is vital to foundations. Let me connect it to apologetics directly. A major topic in apologetics is the reliability of the New Testament accounts, including the resurrection of Christ, other miracles, and historical details of the development of the 1st century churches and doctrinal beliefs. Evidentialists, including Strobel, Craig, Wallace, Groothuis, and many others, take a neutral ground approach to making the case. They ‘drop down to the level’ of secular historians in doing so, and explicitly avoid the issue of inspiration.

If I take this approach 1-2-1 with the skeptical student on campus, we will go round and round, making no progress. No matter what vague probability I might get him to warrant, it will make no difference. His heart won’t be touched. I, the evangelist, must make it personal on the Biblical pattern. The prophet Isaiah has the proper mindset when he shouts, “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.” (Isaiah 58:1)

I recently saw an egregious example of evidentialism in a sermon by megachurch superstar Andy Stanley, as he made the case for the trustworthiness of the New Testament. Sadly, his ultimate foundation was the work of Josephus. He, like many others, tactically surrender to the lost scholar by admitting, for argument’s sake, that we can’t trust the Gospel accounts as definitive historical works, because they have ‘religious content.’ And so we must dig for foundations among the works of Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and others.

Practical Apologetics ‘On the Street’

Let’s get specific about what the presup pattern should be in evangelistic apologetics. I’m not saying that this is THE WAY, but just an example of applying presup principles subject to the imperative of the Great Commission. Here, I choose the constraint of the ‘cold-turkey’ encounter, the stranger on the city sidewalk. Most of the books related to apologetics or personal evangelism presume that your lost friend is already sitting in your living room after a leisurely dinner and you have several hours to roam philosophically hither and yon. Great fun – I love that scenario! But I want to reach out to the multitudes I can never have over for dinner.

Andy Stanley

Andy Stanley

On the street you have no relationship and no rapport when you initiate a 1-2-1. Your first 10 seconds is fragile and determines whether you’ve earned another 10 seconds. You’ve got to be friendly, intriguing, and efficient. You’ve got to earn the opportunity, especially with an atheist, to open him up to worldview issues and a hearing of the Gospel. Those that won’t stop to talk will often – very often – accept a tract, if it looks colorful and intriguing. The tract has to be efficient and earn its opportunity to be read all the way through. Designing tracts is perhaps the greatest writing challenge I’ve ever attempted.

The pdf below is a tract I’ve designed and used for many years. It’s printed on 6×4 inch glossy cardstock, with natural colors on the front; the back is yellow text on blue background. The argument in the tract can be used verbally when in a 1-2-1 with a professed atheist. You’ll note that the case is made directly against naturalism, since rational thought and argument are not derivative from the nature of matter or brain chemistry. This is a well-established argument in apologetics, but on the street it must be compact and personal. The personal challenge is on from the start. We must not allow apologetic arguments to be detached thought bubbles that the lost soul might peruse from a comfortably distant vantage point. There is no neutral ground. Engage him within the reality of the Biblical perspective.

tract-what-am-i-thinking

Long ago I learned from the writings of Francis Schaeffer (Ref. 10, for example) that the unbeliever must understand that his worldview is unlivable. God must be there and not silent in order to allow us to even make sense of ourselves and our world. Specifically, that’s why I go well beyond citing the laws of logic as refutations of naturalism. More compelling are qualities that include truth, beauty, love, justice, honesty, and goodness. This is where people live and I find in my 1-2-1s with atheists that the point invariably strikes home and their mouths are stopped for at least a moment (Romans 3:19). The moral and aesthetic arguments are personal.

From there quickly to Intelligent Design – on the street I point to a nearby building and ask if he knows who the architect was. When he says no, I admit the same, and point out that neither of us has any doubt that there was an architect. Everyone gets this point, including the young inner-city gang member. What if they want to explore the issue? Wonderful! I love to expand on any of these topics, but if the point is taken then the focus turns quickly to the identity of the Designer (verbally, I’ll add “With a Big D!”). Now the moral argument goes to the law (Galatians 3:24), my new acquaintance’s personal responsibility and coming judgment, and the Gospel as his exclusive recourse.

Not a minor point . . . I include contact info on each tract, including at least my web site, to enable the open-hearted to go as deep as he likes. Verbally, I volunteer to be there and to be a friend for life if he responds.

The two pdfs below make up a tract (front side and back side) to summarize the significance of the fossil record. (I also have tracts on Carbon 14 dating, DNA & Information, flood geology, genetic entropy, two on astronomy, two on ID, plus ‘non-scientific’ tracts on famous atheists, famous philosophers, an overview tract on the anti-scientific nature of evolution, plus others on various topics.) The fossil record, a supposed pillar of evolution, can be skewered quickly using what is common knowledge to most high school graduates. Everyone has seen such ‘fossil tree’ diagrams. Few make the connection that the dashed lines are purely speculative. Dumbstruck silence is a typical response. Challenge the evolutionist (or the ‘evolutionized’ which comprise much of the population) to think scientifically . . . and beyond! His worldview is not in touch with reality. I’m on offense immediately; he’s on defense . . . as it should be for the presuppositionalist. Hopefully then, humbled a bit, he may listen attentively to the good news.

tract-fossil-tree-of-life-front

tract-fossil-tree-of-life-back

As a retired Air Force officer I have absorbed a fair amount of military history. I see evidentialism as akin to the set piece battles favored by British General Bernard Law Montgomery in WW2. A presup approach on the street reminds me more of Patton’s armor thrusts deep into the enemy’s rear, keeping him on the defensive and always reacting.

In Air Force history, the preeminent tactician was Colonel John Richard Boyd, who developed air-to-air fighter tactics that have enabled American forces to acquire and maintain air superiority in every action for the last three generations (Ref. 11). He taught that a winning pilot must operate at a faster tempo than his adversary, operating inside the enemy’s time scale. Boyd’s most famous legacy is the OODA loop: Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. On the street I often feel the urgency of these principles as I’m doing my best to reach the heart of a complete stranger, using each 10 seconds to earn another short block of time. He’s not ‘my adversary,’ but The Adversary owns his heart and mind. Yes, we pray and trust the Holy Spirit to convict and draw, yet we have the awesome responsibility ourselves to be ambassadors, beseeching others on Christ’s behalf with all our abilities and passion (2 Cor 5:20).  The ambassador represents his King. He doesn’t accept a defensive position. In my experience a solid 1-2-1 on the street will last about 5 minutes, including apologetics dialogue, a Gospel presentation, and Q&A. It can go much longer on occasion. I believe it is about the most satisfying experience in life.

General George Patton

General George Patton

The order in which you deliver arguments is not critical. A discussion of the fossil record can be a good ‘hook’ to initiate a conversation. What is critical is attitude. The evidentialist will have difficulty getting off of his so-called neutral ground. He has ensconced the skeptic in the Judge’s seat, so transitioning is difficult; once in the Judge’s seat the skeptic is not likely to volunteer to climb down and sit ‘in the dock.’ The presuppositionalist has him in the dock immediately.

Incomplete Apologetics

A well-done popular-level exposition of basic presuppositional apologetics is written by creationist astronomer Jason Lisle (Ref.12). His ‘ultimate proof’ does not guarantee conversion, of course, but offers confidence that any rational hearer will have no logical grounds for rebuttal. Lisle’s approach is sometimes termed ‘the transcendental argument,’ focusing on worldview issues. For example, rational thought presumes the immaterial, including and especially the laws of logic. Naturalism as a worldview is tied to empiricism, the belief that all knowledge is acquired by observation. This is self-refuting because the philosophy of empiricism cannot be derived from observations of particles and forces . . . and presupposes rational thought!

His chapter on logical fallacies is a wonderfully concise tutorial. Lisle’s appendices provide a large number of ‘real-life’ examples of his correspondence with skeptics who wrote to him while he was employed at Answers in Genesis.  He does a fine job attacking the inconsistent worldviews represented in the emails.

Nevertheless, Lisle’s balance is weighted too much upon the laws of logic and the uniformity of physical laws in space and time. These issues should certainly be ‘on the list’ in a long discussion, but they are not compelling personally. The lost mind may grasp your point, but the lost heart is unmoved.

Transcendental arguments that touch the mind MUST be supplemented by those that touch the heart. Some of the atheists who correspond with Lisle seem to enjoy a debate on the nature of logic, no matter how uninformed they are. They relish the position of Judge and Jury in their own minds. A direct challenge on both logical and moral grounds is much harder for the dis-believer to deal with.

Ken Ham and those tied to his ministry employ the ‘glasses’ argument, that the creationist and the evolutionist observe the same facts, but see them through the perspective of different glasses, different worldviews. I dislike the argument. Yes, it illustrates the worldview issue, but it reeks of the equivalence of the neutral ground. The lost rebel is already puffed up in pride (Psalm 10:3-6). The ‘glasses’ argument will seem to him a plea from you to be taken seriously. Rather, he doesn’t have ‘glasses’ on at all because he’s spiritually blind (2 Cor 4:3-4). The apologist must come from above and proclaim (compassionately and insightfully, etc.) that the fellow has missed truth completely. You can use the ‘glasses’ argument as instruction for young Christians, to teach worldview principles. But it’s not for rebels. With them, go big.

Os Guinness

Os Guinness

Os Guinness (Ref. 13, p. 18) argues that apologetics has lost touch with evangelism, with a focus on “winning arguments rather than winning hearts and minds and people.” This relates to those efforts to reach out to lost people. It’s clear that most apologetics today is a conversation within the Christian community. I see irony with respect to the most common evangelistic practices within the American churches. Let’s briefly consider two major segments. In my years of experience as part of the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) culture, an anti-intellectualism prevails, resulting in formulaic, manipulative 1-2-1 or pulpit-to-pew evangelistic practices. These methods work to bypass the mind and bypass the heart, attempting to enlist the will to assent to a set of truths and to clean your act up. Weekly altar calls reinforce the theme of developing a strong will to ‘hang in there, don’t backslide.’

The evangelical community (and I admit to painting with a very broad brush, yet have studied scores of churches in some detail), relegates evangelism to event-based and relational-based efforts to engage the emotions, effectively despising mind and heart issues. A typical evangelical service features high energy music and a winsome how-to-live-happy-this-week sermonette. In both IFB and evangelical cultures it is difficult to find people interested in apologetics / personal evangelism, which would demand time and energy and a non-trivial learning curve. And so there are few in the West who even have the concept of reaching the minds and hearts of lost people, outside of (perhaps) their brother, sister, or grandma.

Guinness observes (p. 22) what I have for many years: “Almost all our witnessing and Christian communication assumes that people are open to what we have to say, or at least are interested, if not in need of what we are saying. Yet most people quite simply are not open, not interested, and not needy, and in much of the advanced modern world fewer people are open today than even a generation ago. Indeed, many are more hostile, and their hostility is greater than the Western church has faced for centuries.”

This cultural shift must compel us to construct and use the most attention-grabbing (mind) and poignant (heart) arguments to open ears to hear the Gospel. I have read several how-to books on personal evangelism from the early and mid-20th century. It is remarkable how the instruction presupposes in the lost culture a basic respect and even a basic understanding of the Biblical perspective. We don’t live in that age anymore. Guinness (p. 26): “. . . our challenge is to help them to see it despite themselves.” Furthermore (p. 37), “God forbid that we ever see the day when we have a guild of apologist experts to provide all our public answers for us . . . Christian persuasion is a task for all Christians, not just the expert few; and a task to be done, not merely talked about.” He suggests that apologetics has become “the art of apologists talking to other apologists about apologetics, but never doing it.” I’ve heard J. Warner Wallace make the point that we don’t need million-dollar apologists. We need a million one-dollar apologists.

Tracts come strongly into play here. You won’t likely be offering a full-length book to the next lost fellow you meet, no matter how much you admire the author. Furthermore, most won’t read a book-length argument. But with a tract you can afford the gift and it is short enough to be read, if there’s any interest at all. They also have something to refer to, with contact info, when they forget virtually everything you said. A plug here . . . Nevertheless, I have written such a book-length tract (Ref. 14), the project triggered by my daughter who was reaching out to an open-minded tennis partner, and wanted to go deeper than tracts and short verbal encounters.

Francis Schaeffer

Francis Schaeffer

I worked in Air Force R&D for many years. “R” is important but “D” is vital. The mission is to weaponize research, not just publish it. I see most of apologetics work as “R.” I see tracts as “D.”

Paul Nelson (Ref. 15) is a presuppositionalist much in sync with John Frame. Both are Calvinists, along with Jason Lisle, which I believe is relevant: full disclosure . . . I’m not. Nelson is a Ph.D. chemist and runs a biotech firm on the West Coast. He relates a personal anecdote about a dinner he had with nine other scientists during a technical conference. The discussion turned to evolution. All the others were evolutionists and some knew that Nelson was not. He asked them a classic question, “What one thing about evolution do you know to be absolutely true?” Dead silence ensued, ironic in light of the arrogance displayed up to that point. A German scientist admitted, “We don’t know anything absolutely, but we do know it is highly probable.”

The discussion turned to probabilities, randomness, and chance. Nelson challenged them on uniformity in nature, an observation in apparent contrast with a worldview based on chance. At this point, a nearby table of marketing folks walked over to listen in. He then said, “You have to borrow from my worldview to make sense out of this – that there is a Creator who created this uniformity, and He controls and governs it. You can’t make sense of this world, or use the scientific method without it.” His emphasis was on the impossibility of science without the Christian worldview.

The company’s president, thinking to rescue him, interjected, “You have to understand that Paul is very religious.” Paul turned and said to everyone, “I’m not the one having the problem in this conversation.” Nelson writes about this incident, “That evening was a great victory for the Lord.”

Here’s my problem with Nelson’s story: He didn’t go far enough; he didn’t transition. In his position I would have gone with the ‘brain chemistry’ / rational thought argument, although he did well enough with his initial volley. (The ‘brain chemistry’ argument might be problematic from a Calvinist perspective, which tends to deny free will.) But he’s got a captive audience of lost people. He has their attention. He leaves the argument at the level of philosophical thought bubbles. The uniformity argument is impersonal (and arguable).Worst, he fails to share the Gospel – the very linchpin of the Christian worldview. He doesn’t make it personal. The argument just floats in the rarefied intellectual air. Now, I suspect that the Lord was helping him. His president, at the end, pitched him the easiest softball imaginable. Nelson could have used it to good effect, perhaps to discuss the nature of blind-faith religious worldviews, like evolution . . . which offers no hope for their biggest problem – certain DEATH. Then, eyeball-to-eyeball, put on the table the reality of their personal accountability to God’s moral truth. Instead, he made a clever wisecrack.

I don’t have space here to document my experience, but Nelson’s shortfall in this case is consistent with Calvinist doctrine; Nelson’s book reveals his devotion to the doctrines of Total Depravity (better termed Total Inability), Unconditional Election, and Irresistible Grace. The temptation for many Calvinists, although some thankfully don’t yield to it, is to fall short of a plea to repent and trust Christ, simply because they feel it’s not their job. Either the Holy Spirit will regenerate or He won’t and there is nothing the evangelist can do about it. Yes, this is a big subject and I just mention it here, doubtless aggravating some. My point is that doctrine informs apologetics and evangelism and the consequences are not trivial.

John Frame (Ref. 7), also committed to Reformed theology, closes his book (much to his credit for the attempt) with the chapter, “Talking to a Stranger,” in which he constructs a fictional encounter on a plane to explore the apologetics issues that could come up in a believer’s dialogue with an educated skeptic.   Frame admits the dialogue is contrived, which suits his purpose in the book, but apparently fails to understand that the ‘long form’ extended polite dialogue is rare, indeed. What’s disturbing is that his dialogue closes with his protagonist inviting the lost fellow to church, to “find a fellowship where you can learn more about Christ. That’s God’s purpose for the church and for you.”

people-talking-on-planeFrame’s naivete is startling, considering the standard fare of most evangelical churches today. The more vital point is that even in his imagined dialogue he fails to share the Gospel and to share it urgently. Does he simply delegate that to the Holy Spirit, forgetting that the Holy Spirit explicitly ‘delegated’ that mission to him? After all, he might suppose, how can one know when Irresistible Grace is to be delivered? Doctrine informs urgency.

Frame’s introduction to this chapter is revealing. He writes the dialogue to show how presuppositional apologetics “can be used in practical situations.” Then he writes, “I readily admit that this is not my own natural milieu. I am far better suited to technical discussions than to exchanges with ‘people on the street.’ Indeed, I rarely enter into such exchanges, since I think God has equipped me to carry out the Great Commission through the written medium much better than orally . . . my mind is not as quick, at least in unfamiliar surroundings.”

Frame’s malady is widespread in evangelicalism, including among well-informed creationists and apologetics ‘experts.’ Evangelism is always someone else’s job. It’s interesting – for a fellow skilled in logical discourse, he offers in effect – ‘I’ve got this gift over here, so I don’t have to obey that command over there. Let someone who has more talent over there obey that command.’ Yet I suspect it’s his doctrine that tempts him. Of course, evidentialists also seem to stop short of the goal line – explicitly sharing the Gospel – although not as much as presuppositionalists. Interestingly, evidentialists today seem less likely to be Calvinists.

Regarding Frame’s God-given talent to write books: Does he expect that a Christian will hand his tome to a lost person and she will read it? Yet tracts can be given out by anyone at the rate of tens of thousands per year. Good tracts will be read.

I note one encouraging example. William Lane Craig (ref 5), in his introduction explains, “Frankly, I can’t help but suspect that those who regard apologetics as futile in evangelism just don’t do enough evangelism. I suspect that they’ve tried using apologetic arguments on occasion and found that the unbeliever remained unconvinced. They then draw a general conclusion that apologetics is ineffective in evangelism.” Craig includes some personal anecdotes in his book that speak to his heart to reach individuals for Christ.

The ‘deepest’ works in apologetics seem as if they are trying to provide arguments that will confound the most educated, most virulent skeptic. Such arguments as the classic Ontological Argument and the Kalam Cosmological Argument are interesting academically and historically, but are irrelevant for 99.999% of people on the street. (At least.) There exists no argument that compels a determined rebel, steeped in the world’s philosophy, to repent – of course. When I encounter a determined rebel, I’ll use moral arguments and get to the law quickly, hoping that his conscience still breathes.

Conclusion and Appeal

The reason I write this essay is to try to provoke some ‘one dollar apologist’ out there (like me), to hit the street and use the passion, the talent, and the tools God has provided. The Biblical pattern is narrow. Yes, God will use and bless incomplete, awkward, and even error-laden (to some degree) efforts to reach people for Christ. Yet our responsibility is to truth and obedience to the Master’s teaching. Of the small remnant of American Christians who have zeal to reach the lost, few indeed are equipped with the apologetic tools needed to be helpful to young skeptics, especially college students – who are, statistically, in the last phase of life in which their minds will be somewhat open. Creationist research and publications can be helpful here, but authors could be more helpful by including compact arguments for use on the street.

Of the small remnant of American Christians who have knowledge of apologetics and creation science, few, unfortunately, try to reach the lost eyeball-to-eyeball, including those who publish and speak to crowds.  And virtually no one is working to train ‘laymen’ to do so with a full toolbox. My hope is that I might find a new partner among readers of this essay.

Finally, I solicit feedback. Please know that I am painfully aware that this has been a very brief survey of a large and contentious subject; and I have not ‘proven’ my assertions. But I have put them on the table. Let me know what you think.

  • drdave@truthreallymatters.com

References:

  1. Sarah Scoles, Sept. 2016, “Death from Above: Do Big Extinctions Come Like Clockwork from Space?”, Discover.
  2. Sean McDowell, ed., 2016, A New Kind of Apologist, Harvest House, Eugene, Oregon. The books consists of 33 short chapters by and interviews with notable evangelicals (and even some emergents and an atheist) engaged in apologetics.
  3. J. Warner Wallace, 2013, Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels, David C. Cook publishing, Colorado Springs.
  4. J. Warner Wallace, 2015,God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, David C. Cook publishing, Colorado Springs.
  5. William Lane Craig, 2008, Reasonable Faith, Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois.
  6. Douglas Groothuis, 2011, Christian Apologetics, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois.
  7. John M. Frame, 2015, Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, New Jersey.
  8. Jack Moorman, 1985, Forever Settled: A Survey of the Documents and History of the Bible, The Dean Burgon Society Press, Collingswood, New Jersey.
  9. David W. Cloud, 2006, The Bible Version Issue, Way of Life Literature, Port Huron, Michigan.
  10.  Francis A. Schaeffer, 1976,How Should We Then Live?.
  11.  Robert Coram, 2002, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Back Bay Books, New York.
  12. Jason Lisle, 2009, The Ultimate Proof of Creation, Master Books, Green Forest, Arkansas.
  13.  Os Guinness, 2015, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois.
  14.  David H. Stone, 2011, One Heartbeat from Hell . . . Plus 11 other Compelling Reasons to become a Christian, Blurb Inc., also a free download from the e-bookstore at truthreallymatters.com
  15.  Paul Nelson, 2014. Presuppositionalism: A Biblical Approach to Apologetics, P.I.R.S. Publications, San Bernadino, CA.

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