On Apologetical Method

I’m still pondering the implications of Joe Carter’s exploration of Jesus the Logician over at the evangelical outpost which is based on a Dallas Willard article by the same name.

I posted portions of the discussion thread from Joe’s blog wherein I refuted his apologetical contentions in my post entitled Evening Comments, and then I spent a bit of time countering Dallas Willard’s fractured apologetical approach in my post entitled Refuting Dallas Willard.

While many – if not most – modern evangelicals would tend to generally agree with, or perhaps even applaud the direction being taken by Joe Carter and Dallas Willard I couldn’t disagree more. In my view it isn’t doctrinally acceptable to approach the unbeliever with the notion that his reasoning is basically reliable and intelligible, needing only to be supplemented with some Christian truth-claims; for this apologetic yields to the unbeliever ethical ground that he does not deserve. In fact the unbeliever’s position ought to be challenged at every point by the Christian theist since the unbeliever stands in total and absolute defiance to his Creator and Judge due to his sinful, unregenerate and wicked reasoning.

I believe this fundamental flaw of sinful man is often overlooked by the average well meaning, albeit misguided Christian apologist. Questions about the way men think may be important, but they are often viewed as as ethically indifferent or “neutral” matters more suited for scholarly investigation and debate rather than matters for active, conscious reflection. The moral quality of our lives doesn’t seem to be an issue here, for ethics is thought to pertain to our conduct (daily affairs), along with the underlying motives for our behavior and attitudes, especially toward other people. I believe this outlook is so widespread that it hardly rises to the level of conscious consideration and choice, we simply take it for granted.

In other words we tend to think that “reasoning” is one thing and “ethics” is another thing. But Scripture insists that the way in which we use our minds – the way in which we reason, how we evaluate claims to truth, the standards we adopt for “knowing”, etc. – is itself an ethical matter. We would do well here to recall that the greatest commandment teaches us to love the Lord our God with all our minds too (Matt. 22:37)! And to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5)!

Thus our approach to dialogue between the believer and unbeliever – our apologetic – exhibits not only two conflicting points of view (as to whether God exists, Jesus rose from the dead, etc.), but also two different moral stances. The believer and the unbeliever recognize two different final standards for living – including that aspect of living known as thinking, reasoning, and arguing. They are divided by their ultimate commitments, either to Christ or to some other authority, usually themselves. This is, of course, the classical form of idolatry in which man usurps God from His throne as ultimate authority and esteems himself (man’s autonomous intellect) as the ultimate authority in direct contravention to the command thou shalt have no gods before me.

Sin comes into expression in the unbeliever’s intellectual conduct and standards. This is because unregenerate men are sinners and their intuitive powers are as sinful as their reasoning powers. Every man by his sinful nature seeks to suppress the voice of God. Men are either covenant-keepers (born again Christians) or they are covenant-breakers (everyone else) before God, there is no middle (neutral) ground. Therefore all of man’s questionings, all of man’s affirmations, indeed all of his denials in any dimension are conditioned upon his covenant position before God.

It’s important to note that Christians must not fall into intellectualism here. This is because intellectualism in the church has often made an easy compromise with the Socratic dictum that knowledge is virtue. Therefore men often speak as though the only thing the sinner needs is “true information” or “evidence” for Christian truth-claims. This is not the case! Man needs true interpretation, this much is certain, but he also needs to be made a new creature in Christ. Sin isn’t merely misinformation; it is nothing less than the power of perversion in the soul.

It’s important to understand that the non-Christian’s opposition to the truth about God or the gospel does not arise from anything like legitimate intellectual problems with the faith, but rather from a rebellious and rationalizing heart. For you see, the sinner’s problem from his point of view is to cast doubt upon any “evidence” presented to make it appear as though the evidence were not clear, or perhaps somehow insufficient. It is the effort of every sinful man to put the blame for his failure to serve God upon the “elusive character” of the “evidence” presented for God’s existence.

So now we can see that the two opponents in an apologetical encounter are thus intellectually living by two different ethical standards, but they are also arguing according to conflicting final standards for knowledge itself. They disagree on the ultimate authority that should be used to warrant or justify what a person believes as true. This explains why it often seems as if the opponents are speaking “two different languages” for in effect, they are. At this point the reader may complain, “So on what basis can we argue for Christ? Based on the argument from depravity is there any reason to witness at all?” Yes there is, for it is by the Holy Spirit that men are enlightened and drawn to repentance (a change of heart) and salvation. We are to bear witness to that Light, but we are not that Light, for it is Jesus Christ “which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:8-10).

In the dispute of eternal import between the Christian and the unbeliever we find the two disagree on the reference point to be used in assessing truth-claims and interpreting experience. In fact believers and unbelievers have radically different basic assumptions that give them their orientation to the world, to reasoning, and to living. Either one thinks in terms of the authority of Scripture, making reason and all its activities subject to this authority, or else one acts and thinks on one’s own ultimate authority. Again we see there are only two camps represented here, there is no middle (neutral) ground. Christian believers should and must agree that human experience and human logic must be interpreted in terms of God and Christ rather than God and Christ must be interpreted in terms of human experience and logic!

A person simply cannot have it both ways regarding his final standard or ultimate reference point. He either reasons according to the authority of God or according to some other authority, usually himself. The very act of attempting to be neutral about God’s ultimate authority in determining what we know is a result of bad attitude toward God’s ultimate authority. As the Apostle Paul showed in his Mars Hill discourse, the reasoning of the Greeks wasn’t merely defective, it was downright sinful! It’s sinful because it’s a way of saying that one does not really need the work of Christ to save him in his reasoning, but it’s the self-authenticating Christ who shows us that in all our efforts as ultimat
e self-interpreters we are actually opposing the salvation that He alone offers.

Hence, and this is a critical point, Christian apologetics is at its base a conflict over ultimate authorities for knowing and living. When the sinner by God’s grace in Christ receives this new light and this new power of sight then he sees all things in their proper relationships. Formerly he referred all things to himself as the final point of reference, but now he refers all things to God his Creator and to Christ his Redeemer as the final point of reference. His conversion is nothing short of a revolution. It was not accomplished by steps or stages, rather it was an about face. Before his conversion he looked away from the God and the Christ of Scripture, but after his conversion he can’t see a fact in the world that he does not wish to deal with to the glory of God. The words of Paul “whatever ye eat, or drink, or do anything else, do all to the glory of God” are now his motto. Deeply conscious of his continued sinfulness and profoundly humbled by the grace he has received, he is nonetheless now in the core of his being a lover of God instead of a hater of God.

It’s now easy to answer the age-old question of the relationship between faith and reason. Christianity affirms the importance of reasoning and using our intellect as a tool, but we are to also understand that this tool should be utilized according to the direction, standard, or “reference point” of some ultimate authority for ethics as well as for “knowing”. The unbeliever uses his reason (reasoning) in the service of his own personal authority, desires and rebellion against God. The believer has been brought to a change of final authorities for when God has reasoned with us and changed our minds until our every thought is brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, we must use our minds, our intellect, our reason, our consciousness, in order to receive and re-interpret the revelation God has given of Himself in Scripture. That is the proper place of reason. There is no conflict between this reason and faith, since faith is the impelling power which urges reason to interpret properly.

But of course the unbeliever finds this utterly unacceptable. The complaint will be heard that if we are arguing over whether God exists and has final authority, we may not take that authority for granted while we are arguing about it. But the complaint is reversible, is it not? The Christian can reply, “if we are arguing over whether God exists and has final authority, we may not take it for granted that He is not the final authority; the attempt to authorize (substantiate) His authority by some other standard would amount to the ruling that whatever authority He has cannot be final”. Another example is that when arguing for the truth or validity of logic one does not put aside the laws of logic while arguing for it.

But by what standard does the unbeliever object? The unbeliever as much as the believer follows some ultimate standard, although he may be reluctant to admit it. For the unbeliever, the tool of reason (reasoning) would be transformed into the final judge for knowing anything, thus replacing the final authority or standard of God’s revelation. Of course reason – in the sense of the tool of intellectual analysis (reasoning)- must indeed be used to read, understand, and believe what God’s revelation says, and yet the final authority that directs this reasoning process is God’s revelation itself since the tool of reasoning is only intelligible in terms of what God’s revelation teaches in the first place.

But it must be pointed out that we can’t speak of “reason” in general, or the human consciousness in general because reason in the case of the non-Christian is employed to assume themselves to be self-sufficient whereas reason in the case of the Christian in employed by those who through regeneration have learned to think of themselves as creatures of God and of their task in life as keeping covenant with God. This is the focal point of the argument between the unbeliever and the believer. The Christian doesn’t have two ultimate authorities for interpreting life and directing his thinking, one that he shares with the unbeliever and one that is unique to his religious stance. The Christian knows that he would interpret nature incorrectly due to the sin that’s within him, unless he were enlightened by Scripture and guided by the Holy Spirit. Strictly speaking he should therefore not refer to two sources with respect to his general interpretation of life. If he says “Scripture and reason convince me that this or that is true”, he should mean by this that his reason, as it looks at everything in the light of Scripture, has convinced him. If therefore he appeals to the unbeliever on the grounds that nature itself reveals God, he should do this in such a manner as to make it clear in the end that he’s interpreting nature in the light of Scripture.

In conclusion it’s imperative to recognize that Christian apologetics involves a serious conflict over ultimate authorities. What should be the source of a person’s most basic assumptions? For the unbeliever it will be some authority for reasoning other than the Word of God, while for the believer it’s God’s revelation.

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