Attitude matters: Van Til’s apologetic – 12/15/2016
Does it matter what ‘philosophical approach’ you bring to personal (‘1-2-1’ or ‘121’) evangelism? Does it matter what your attitude is? Well, certainly! Since the Scriptural pattern is evident, we should follow the Lord Jesus who, when he taught, provoked a peculiar response . . . “the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Admittedly, provoking astonishment may be difficult in our present age, but teaching and preaching with authority is straightforward. As God exhorted His prophet Isaiah (58:1), “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.”
This essay is not written for anyone who is not already engaged in 121 evangelism, but rather for those who are already on the playing field, not just watching from the box seats, hot dog in hand, occasionally cheering or criticizing those who try. The ‘how to’ of sharing the Gospel is a simple enterprise; even children can be trained. If you are new to your Christian responsibility to follow the Lord in witnessing for Him, I refer you to the evangelism articles on this site, and especially my free e-book on the subject in the free e-bookstore.
Rather, this essay speaks to the rational foundations of a Gospel witness, the apologetics, the verbal offense and defense necessary to uproot the lost worldview of the fellow you engage. The purpose of apologetics is to help the lost to see and to face reality, to put an end to his self-deception, to dissipate the clouds of delusion that keep him bound by self-destructive sin and from knowing his need for the Savior.
Every Christian witness is an apologist, one who must be prepared to make a reasoned defense of Biblical truth (1 Peter 3:15). What is the role of apologetics? Greg Bahnsen explains: “The apologist defends what the theologian has learned, with the tools and insights refined by the philosopher, for the evangelistic purpose of seeing the unbeliever’s heart and mind changed.” Lest the novice be dismayed by the prospect of dealing with professional theologians and the arcane world of academic philosophical discourse, I’ll point out that every believer becomes a theologian as he studies and understands his Bible, and every believer who learns common sense logic, which is simply part of daily life, becomes a philosopher, regardless of his expertise in arcane terminology. Your philosophy includes how you see the world, how you decide whether you know something, and what principles you use to live this life and to interact with God and man. Clearly, the Christian’s philosophy should be Biblical at every point.
Greg Bahnsen, shortly before he died, wrote the book Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis, published in 1998, a big volume full of excerpts from the extensive works of Cornelius Van Til (1895 – 1987), a Reformed theologian both famous and infamous for insisting that presuppositional apologetics is not only the Biblical pattern, but the only method that Christians should use in approaching the unbeliever. In a nutshell (a large nutshell, perhaps) the presup (I insist on the liberty to abbreviate) approach is to confront the unbeliever with the Christian worldview in its entirety, to show him that the Biblical claims about God, man, the universe, redemption, ethics, and everything make perfect sense of reality and that the unbeliever’s worldview does not . . . the skeptic, whether atheist, Mormon, or Muslim, has a worldview that is not internally consistent and is unlivable. Unlivable? The atheist, for example, does not live as if he is only a bundle of molecules without a coherent self and without an objective morality.
I’ll pull nuggets from the book, commenting along the way, not necessarily distinguishing between Van Til’s original writings and Bahnsen’s commentary, since the two are very much in sync. My big caveat up front is that while I am very much in tune with Van Til on apologetics, he loses his mind when his Calvinism seeps through. And Van Til is a completely committed Calvinist, wholly subscribed to Unconditional Election (The ‘U’ in TULIP) and a strong version of Calvinist ‘sovereignty,’ which supposes that every event in history is pre-ordained by God’s sovereign plan. Of course if God is sovereign in that manner, then what’s the point of apologetics? A good argument will have no more effect than a bad one; in fact the bad argument must have been part of the plan and the fact that I’m criticizing Reformed theology right now must be fore-ordained, too! But everyone seems to have an unsavory dish or two on his smorgasbord, so we’ll just enjoy the prime cuts of steak that Van Til and Bahnsen grill up for us.
Bahnsen asks where in Paul’s speech on Mars Hill (Acts 17) does he transition from theology to apologetics to evangelism . . . are there lines of demarcation? Of course there are no clean distinctions. Paul presupposed the truth of God’s word in everything he said and applied such truth toward the converting of souls. And so apologetics is not separate from evangelism or theology. “Apologetics works to develop a method of gospel presentation that is consistent with the full teaching of Scripture and anticipates the personal needs of the unbeliever.” We need to understand God’s truth and apply it in a way to help the lost face his disconnect with reality . . . that he is a sinner headed for Hell and needs the Savior. The more the apologist / evangelist understands about the unbeliever’s worldview, the more helpful he can be.
Just yesterday I gave a packet of tracts to a fellow in his 30s. My wife and I were putting these packets on doorknobs in a neighborhood in our city and I caught the guy just as he was finishing up a plumbing job and loading equipment into his van. He is a Lutheran and promptly interacted as if he and I are both Christians, but simply members of different churches. I asked him where he would be when he died. He was confident of Heaven based on his pattern of “doing the right thing.” Using the law (murder, adultery, lying , etc., including sins of the heart and mind) I pointed out that he (like me) is unrighteous and needs salvation as a gift. He professed that Jesus is his Savior, which I challenged by asking why he gave me the ‘wrong answer’ before, admitting that he trusted his self-righteousness for salvation. In brief, his Lutheran worldview is internally inconsistent, revealed even more dramatically when he insisted that many roads lead to God. I refuted that via John 14:6 which is what Jesus – the fellow’s professed Savior – said about that. He can’t be a follower of Jesus and deny the very words of Jesus.
The conversation lasted about five minutes. I could tell from the beginning that he was anxious to get on the road for his next appointment, but I was able to keep him engaged to say what I believed he needed to hear. The mission is to challenge the lost with the perfectly consistent truth of the Gospel and point out that his own worldview doesn’t make sense . . . and most especially that this is not a philosophical or theological debate; rather, that his eternity is at stake. It’s personal!
The Christian’s witness must honor the Christ of whom we witness, “In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col 2:3) Do you believe that? Then you must presuppose the truth of God’s word as you represent Him. A nation’s ambassador does not approach a foreign leader with probabilistic arguments about the existence of his King and his kingdom. He proclaims his King’s message boldly. If his witness is rejected, he may well challenge (in effect), “What, are you crazy? Don’t you see the power and wealth of my King? Don’t you see the consequences of rejecting His offer of peace?”
Of course, the evangelist must not “strive, but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, instructing those that oppose themselves . . .” (See 2 Tim 2:23-26). Yet the evangelist knows what reality is and must do his duty with the perfect confidence of an ambassador of the King of Kings.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7) As I begin to talk with an atheist, I will tell him up front that I’m a Christian and assert that he has no intellectual ground to stand on without God . . . not just any god, but THE God as revealed in the Bible. I’ll point out to him that he and I don’t even exist – as persons – if we are just molecules in motion. (See Tract #1 toward the end of my Tracts essay.) Rational thought cannot be founded on random brain chemistry. Neither can objective morality. Thus I am cracking the foundation of his worldview on epistemological grounds. He cannot know anything unless God is real. He can know, however, once he confesses that he is made in the image of God, a person who can think and know rationally, make decisions, is morally accountable, and can recognize sin in his life and his need for the Savior.
The presup approach puts the lost on the defensive immediately. He is ‘in the dock’ under accusation. C. S. Lewis wrote in his book, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock . . . The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the dock.”
A traditional or evidential approach, as for example in the works of Lee Strobel or William Lane Craig or J. Warner Wallace, may convince the skeptic that God probably exists, which also means that God may with some probability not exist. Then the case must be made that it’s not just any god, but THE God of the Bible. Then the case for Jesus must be made along with a probabilistic case for the resurrection and the reliability of the Gospel accounts. This is a long road! All along the way, God is in the dock and the skeptic enjoys the role of judge. But the point is evangelism, isn’t it? To save the lost fellow, he must humble himself, admitting that the accusations against him do, in fact, condemn him, and he needs forgiveness and mercy. Along the evidentialist road with its twists and turns and pleas for the rebel to consider the possibilities, it’s hard to transition him from the judge’s bench to the dock.
The presup approach is also called a transcendental defense by some, in that only the presups of the Christian worldview account for the universe, man, morality, rational thought, etc. Our worldview transcends what our eyes see and our ears hear, but only by starting from a transcendent position can we make sense of what we see and hear. The evangelist has the mindset that only the Biblical worldview with all its claims (creation, the Flood, history, incarnation, redemption, salvation, etc.) can make sense of reality. The skeptic doesn’t see this, of course, because he is a rebel: he insists on his own autonomy apart from God or revelation. The evangelist confronts the skeptic with the God’s-eye view of his environment and shows how everything makes sense, but only from the Biblical perspective. He can then step into the skeptic’s worldview and point to the contradictions and mysteries.
The presup argument is thereby indirect. The direct evidentialist argument attempts to build the house one brick at a time, hoping to slip in a foundation somewhere near the end. For example, “Now that you believe that God probably exists and Jesus probably rose from the dead and the Bible is probably true in its historical accounts, now I encourage you to take a wild leap and believe the Bible cover to cover, trust Jesus as Savior and Lord, change your entire life and worldview, and admit you are headed for Hell and now beg for mercy.” That’s a tough sell, since you’ve been honoring his rebellious judging skills along the way.
I don’t want to build the fellow a new house one brick at a time. I want to throw the whole house at him! Why should this work? Because Scripture assures me that God has written his law in the heart of the most rabid atheist, that creation declares its Maker, and that God’s word is recognizable as truth. On that last point consider the Gospel of John, which was written for the express purpose “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” (John 20:31) John’s Gospel does not build a probabilistic case from within a skeptic’s unbelieving worldview . . . it declares Him!
Evangelism is not a math problem or a logic game. The mission is reach heart and mind and provoke repentance and a reasoned faith. We should trust the Biblical pattern: God knows what is in man and how to reach him. While we do our part, we trust that the Holy Spirit convicts of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:7-8).
Edward J. Carnell was a student of Van Til’s, but diverged from him in later years when Carnell taught that the Christian worldview can be treated as one hypothesis among many, to be evaluated by various ‘independent means’ including coherence, historical veracity, and personal satisfaction. Carnell: “In the contest of hypothesis-making . . . the winner is he who can produce the best set of assumptions to account for the totality of reality . . . Bring on your revelations! Let them make peace with the law of contradiction and the facts of history, and they will deserve a rational man’s assent.” In accord with the Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, Carnell wrote, “First we must know in order that we might believe.”
Thus Carnell (and many others today) presuppose that logic, rational thought, and methods of historical analysis are more foundational than God’s word. Who is in the dock? God exalts His own word above His very name (Ps 138:2) and quite rationally, when he made a promise to Abraham, “because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself.” (Heb 6:13) Where do logic, rational thought, and true history come from? Logic and rationality are integral to God’s person; they don’t float along independently of space / time and God himself. God is not beholden to some independent body of truths; He is the Author of truth. What about historical analysis? Unbelieving historians start with the presupposition that miracles cannot happen and that Jesus of Nazareth, if he existed at all, was no more than a man. Given those presuppositions, what do you think their conclusions will be regarding the validity and accuracy of the New Testament? Yet evidentialists step right into secular historical methods, hoping to convince the skeptic anyway.
One small point . . . In a skeptical worldview, what is the value of true, accurate history? Why is a true historical account good? That’s a moral issue. Without objective morality, established by God, “who cannot lie,” what is a history book but a collection of molecules in the form of paper and ink? Yes, we should use historical and archeological arguments . . . if these areas are the stumbling blocks of the lost . . . but we must use them affirmatively in the context of the Christian worldview. The sinner must be confronted with the personal nature of the issues, that God’s revealed history puts him in the dock, that because the Gospel accounts are genuine God-breathed history, that he is facing judgment and needs forgiveness. The history of the cross and the resurrection has utterly personal consequences for everyone.
Van Til: “In the first place, every Christian must tell the non-Christian that he must be saved from his false views of God and himself. The greatest love can be shown for the lost only by those who have themselves sensed most deeply the lost condition from which they have been saved. The best physician is he who tells the patient who needs surgery that he must be rushed to the hospital, not he who tells him to take a strong sedative.” Indeed. Always integrate apologetical arguments with a Gospel plea. Don’t play with the debate. Use logic, use the moral law, use history, use science . . . but always as tools to open mind and heart to saving truth.
Now, in examining your competing worldviews, you can’t talk about everything at once with the skeptic, but every specific element must be placed in context. Bahnsen: “Thus, we do not attempt to defend the resuscitation of a particular human corpse, and then attempt to add an argument that this revived individual is also a divine person (etc.); rather, we set forth and defend the resurrection of the incarnate Son of God. Likewise, the Christian apologist does not argue for just any kind of abstract, general theism (‘a god of some sort or other’), but rather for the specific conception of God revealed within the Christian Scriptures . . . apologetics becomes the vindication of the Christian worldview as a whole, not simply a piecemeal defense of isolated, abstractly defined, religious points.”
This is in contrast to ‘traditional apologetics.’ If you read a variety of modern books on apologetics you’ll likely see a pattern. There are two direct appeals to the unbeliever, seeking to establish first that God exists, and secondly that you can trust the New Testament, particularly about Jesus and His resurrection. Tragically, some modern traditionalists / evidentialists don’t work at defending the Old Testament, because they are compromised on Genesis, buying into some form of theistic evolution. Pitiful!
The traditional approach may seem quite instructive regarding the details of various philosophical and historical arguments, but it goes against the Biblical pattern of preaching to the lost. One not-so-minor issue is that it takes a lot of time to build a case from scratch, hoping that your lost friend is patient enough to hang in there for a few hours while you move from one probabilistic argument to another.
Many years ago, having been exposed to traditional apologetics, I thought that was the only way to go when dealing with an atheist / evolutionist. Doing 121s on the street, when I met a skeptic I sighed internally and thought, “Oh my. Here we go. I’ve got to convince him that God exists and that evolution is wrong . . . this will take a long time!” In frustration, I searched for alternative approaches. By the grace of God I found some helpful apologetics sources and did my own Biblical analysis to develop my own approach. You can find the details in my essays in the Evangelism section of this site, including “How to Witness to an Atheist.” What I had ‘stumbled into’ was Presuppositional Apologetics. (Thank you, Lord.)
The bigger problem in modern evangelicalism is disdain for apologetics, disdain for reasoned argument. It’s all about building relationships, they say, and showing people that following Jesus is cool, fun, and you can be happy and prosperous. Be a happy evangelical and your non-churchgoing neighbor will want to be a happy evangelical, too. Win him to you and you can introduce him to Jesus. Blah. The fundamentalists (Independent Fundamental Baptist churches) despise apologetics in a different way. Just preach the Gospel, they say, and then manipulate the fellow to pray a so-called ‘Sinner’s Prayer.’ Their ‘philosophy’ generates many false converts.
But the mind and the heart, along with the conscience and the will, must be in sync for repentance to be real, for faith to be grounded in reality. “In thy light shall we see light.” (Ps 36:9) “I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness.” (John 12:46) “But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” (John 3:21) Saving faith is about seeing reality and acting on what you know. The convert is not blind anymore, he’s not deceived; rather, he sees clearly and understands for the first time in his life. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” (Prov 9:10) True repentance turns the sinner away from the old paths. He now knows the wickedness of sin and willfully abhors it. True faith shows the well-lit path for following the Biblical Jesus day by day for the rest of his life.
In abhorring apologetics, many evangelicals and fundamentalists abhor the very reasoned discourse that is necessary for the lost to understand that he must be saved and just what that means. Bahnsen: “Apologetics can be pursued with a humble boldness, one which displays true concern for the error of the unbeliever’s thinking and the destructiveness of his ways. This does not mean giving even an inch on any issue of truth over which we disagree with the unbeliever. But it does mean, as Dr. Van Til would always say, that we keep buying the next cup of coffee for our opponent.” Of course, the fellow we’re trying to reach is not our ‘opponent.’ Our opponent is Satan who has blinded the mind and heart of the lost fellow. We do our best to shine light on reality because the stakes are infinite, and we pray that the Holy Spirit illuminates and convicts so that our friend willfully chooses to repent and trust Christ.
Van Til’s system of presup apologetics can be summarized by the points below. I’m using his outline, but edit it for efficiency’s sake and with some of my own interpretation. (You can see Van Til’s unedited work on page 610 of Bahnsen’s book.)
- In apologetics we must use the same principles we use in theology, especially the principle of the self-attesting authority of Scripture, that God speaks truth through His word in such a way that the image-bearers He designed can hear it.
- Therefore, we don’t make our appeal to alleged ‘common notions’ of unbelievers and believers, but rather to the points of contact we have with unbelievers due to the fact that they are made in the image of God, and that God’s law is written in their conscience.
- We set the Christian worldview squarely in opposition to that of the unbeliever. We point out that he has no autonomy because this is God’s creation. As a man the unbeliever has no personhood and no possibility of rational thought without God as revealed in the Bible.
- The entire set of the claims of Christianity are not only reasonable, they are the only rational way to make sense of anything, such as existence, design in creation, history, morality, relationships, life’s meaning, beauty, justice, etc.
- The argument for the Christian worldview must be by presupposition. “God’s revelation is the sun from which all other light derives.” Unless you start with the foundation of Biblical truth you won’t be able to prove anything. (How can an atheist even begin a rational argument unless he can show that his brain chemistry can transcend itself and produce rational thought?)
- When confronted with Truth the sinner can respond to the drawing / leading / convicting of the Holy Spirit to act on the evidence set before him. Here Van Til would see the Holy Spirit acting irresistibly only on the ‘elect,’ whereas I see an opportunity for everyone to respond, since all are drawn by the Spirit (John 12:32) and God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), since God “will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:4)
- Traditional methods of apologetics must be discarded. Here and in many other places, Van Til identifies traditional apologetics with Roman Catholic and evangelical (of the non-Reformed variety) scholarship. All such non-Reformed evangelicals are called ‘Arminians’ by Calvinists. Van Til likes to insist that presup apologetics is ‘owned’ by Calvinist theology. My view is not only is this false, but that TULIP destroys the purpose and the value of apologetics.
As mentioned before, you obviously can’t throw an entire worldview on the table in a moment of time for a comprehensive examination. But you can pick any serious subject and place it in the context of Biblical truth to show that it makes sense only in light of God’s word. Below are some examples, the pdfs for three of the tracts I’ve designed. You can review the entire set in the Tracts essay. (If you would like to use some, just ask.)
The first tract, “What Do These Scenes Have In Common?”, discusses love, sex, and marriage from the Biblical point of view. Along the way I take shots at the nonsense of the unbelieving perspective. My ‘attitude’ is to boldly proclaim the truth, abhorring equivocation, in the confidence that a reader’s God-given conscience will recognize truth, if his heart allows it.
The second tract, “Can you name these famous Fighter Aircraft?”, begins with the topic of war and the brokenness of the world around us, and then connects history to Biblical prophecy. The appeal becomes personal, warning the lost reader that he will face future history and had better do something about it.
The third tract, “Can You Name These Famous Philosophers”, puts the hopeless worldviews of history’s most famous secular philosophers on the table, showing that they have no answers. Biblical history is invoked and the conscience is challenged, because these issues are always personal, and personally consequential.
These are just a few examples of how I apply presup principles to a Gospel witness via tract. Of course, the same arguments can be made in a verbal witness, depending on how you read the stumbling-block issues of the lad or lass you’re trying to help.
Let me know what you think.