ApologeticsA Reasoned Defense of the Christian Faith
The inseparable link between Reformed Theology and Presuppositional Apologetics
by Bryan Neal Baird
Apologetics is the branch of theology dealing with the defense and proof of Christianity. Apologetics in no way refers to being sorry (apologizing) for one’s faith; on the contrary, it involves being proud enough of one’s faith to defend it. Most importantly, however, apologetics is about the business of obeying the command to be “always ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15, NASV).
In the seminal work on presuppositional apologetics, The Defense of the Faith, Cornelius Van Til spends the first 65 pages laboring over what Reformed Theology entails and the implications it brings. Why does he not simply begin with defending the “whole” Christian faith (e.g., theism) rather than detailing the basics of a particular view of it (e.g., the Reformed faith)? Because Van Til seeks to impress upon us, as Reformed Christians, that we are not defending some nebulous theism or universal form of Christianity; rather, we are defending a specific faith — the Reformed faith. In fact, Van Til argues that if we don’t begin with defending the Reformed faith, we will never make it to defending the Reformed faith. It is based upon this that I will attempt to make clear the relationship between theology and apologetics and in so doing make clear that the only apologetical method consistent with Reformed theology is the presuppositional one.
One way of determining what relationship exists between theology and apologetics is to begin with one’s own theological viewpoint and seek out an apologetical method that does justice to and does not weaken that viewpoint. Van Til contends that only the presuppostional method affirms the Reformed position without declawing it by stripping away its particulars, only to be left with some abysmal “theism.” To underscore his point, he takes the Reformed position through the various apologetical methods.
We find ourselves in a discussion with Mr. A, an atheist of whom we are trying to convince the existence of the God of the Scriptures. We begin with the classical apologetical approach by offering to Mr. A all the traditional arguments for God’s existence — the cosmological, teleological, and ontological arguments. Everything in the universe has a cause: there is a first cause because infinite regress is impossible: this first cause must be infinite and necessary, that is, God: therefore, God exists. The world has order: some supreme designer, that is, God, must have given it order: therefore, God exists. A being than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the mind: but certainly a thing is greater if it exists in both mind and reality than in the mind alone: a being than which nothing greater can be conceived exists, then, in both the mind and reality: this being must necessarily be God. My synopsis of these arguments may be oversimplified, for much scholarship has been done to improve them. Nevertheless, my simplifications have one thing in common with the improved versions: We have not proven the existence of the biblical God, but rather some abstract entity that could be anyone’s god. But why can’t we, after having laid a theistic foundation, tack on the particulars so that we prove the Reformed faith? Because we have not challenged Mr. A’s presuppostitions. We are allowing him to reason based upon a non-believer’s premises — premises that, when taken to their conclusion, do not account for the existence of the particular God we are out to prove. Even if Mr. A accepts the possible existence of our abstract entity called “God,” there is no necessity to his leaping over to accept the existence of the biblical God.
Perhaps we could present Mr. A with concrete, objective, undeniable evidence for the biblical God. After all, as the philosopher Bertrand Russell claims, facts are facts. Facts are such that they cannot be either true or false. They are “brute” facts of hard- and-fast evidence. But Mr. A, says Van Til, readily accepts the objective evidence without it being at all an attack upon his beliefs. Why? Because we have not challenged the assumptions which actively guide his interpretations of the evidence. Every piece of evidence thrown to him, he tosses behind into the bottomless pit of his beliefs. He feels no discomfort from the evidence given to him, because he is allowed to interpret that evidence based upon his own presuppositions — his own rebellious system of beliefs. There are no “brute” facts. That is, there are no completely objective pieces of information in the world which are free from interpretation. There is no piece of evidence that does not carry a true or false statement with it. We are active interpreters of our world, and it is our host of presuppositions that guide the interpretations. What, then, has the evidentialist proven to the non-believer? That some very strange, mystical things have happened in past history. Apart from the biblical framework of interpreting, the evidence need not strengthen the Christian position or break down the nonbeliever’s position.
Thus far we have briefly shown why the Reformed position cannot employ the classical or evidential methods of apologetics and still survive intact. First, the god proven by the classical method is not necessarily the God of the Scriptures; there is still room for the non-believer to interpret it otherwise. Second, the evidential approach gives the non-believer the high ground by allowing him to interpret the evidence given to him by his own standards; thus the evidence does not necessarily give credence to the truth presented in the Scriptures. Van Til likens this situation to building a two-story house. When we employ the classical and evidential methods, we are trying to lay a general theistic foundation for the first story and afterward add on the particulars of the theology we are defending for the second story. We have seen, however, that when one begins with laying a general theistic first story, it crumbles underneath the non-believer’s interpretations; consequently, we are not able to go on and build the second story of Reformed theology. This is why we must defend Reformed theology from the outset, which can be accomplished with consistency only through presuppositional apologetics.
To be sure, it is not the case that as presuppositional apologists we can never resort to or use classical or evidential arguments for God’s existence. These arguments, especially evidential ones, can speak strongly for the God of the Scriptures. The difference between the apologetical approaches is that for the presuppositional apologist, the arguments come already interpreted. It is similar to presenting the non- believer with pieces of wood, showing him how you put them together to make a house, and giving him the wood to make his own kind of house. Instead we should present the non-believer with the wood (evidence), show him how the wood is to be used to build a particular kind of house (the God of the Scriptures), and give him that house.
We can neither present a sound theology nor maintain loyalty to God by allowing the non-believer to reason from his own ungodly presuppositions. What can we do? Preaching must accompany defending the faith. In Why I Believe in God, Van Til states: “A testimony that is not an argument is not a testimony either, just as an argument that is not a testimony is not even an argument.” We must begin our defense with what we are defending — the facts of Christianity as Scripture says they are to be interpreted. Why begin with preaching? First, since we have no “common ground” on which to reason with the non-believer, we begin by pitting framework against framework. Otherwise, we end up defending what the non-believer thinks of God instead of what God has revealed about Himself. Second, we must show plainly where the non-believer is wrong in order for God to accomplish His work. For true truth of God is evident within the non-believer; but through his ungodliness and sinful nature, the truth is suppressed (cf. Romans 1:18- 21). Therefore, the non-believer, blinded by sin, will not accept our preaching. Nevertheless, to this both Van Til and the Scriptures declare that only in preaching man’s fallen nature and its results — both spiritual and philosophical — in light of the biblical system can God take away the non-believer’s blindness (cf. Romans 10:14-15). Indeed, we are called to defend the faith and plant its seed, not convert the blind (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:6-7). Conversion rests with God.
So then, we can testify to and argue Reformed theology, but we can do absolutely nothing to win the non-believer over to our position. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” (8:7, NASV). This is where a basic tenet of Reformed theology enters — that of total depravity. Nothing the non- believer does on his own will bring him to God; only when God changes his heart will the non-believer accept the bases of our arguments. Concomitant with this are a host of other interrelated tenets of Reformed theology. We have the promise that God’s grace is irresistible; His purposes will be accomplished in both the individual and society. Because God is sovereign and all things depend on Him rather than on man, there will always be a remnant of God’s people preserved. Our efforts are therefore not without the promise of harvest. Because our God of the Bible is back of everything, we can be sure that His word will not return to Him empty and will achieve the purpose for which He sent it (cf. Isaiah 55:10-11).
The presuppositional method refuses to allow the non-believer to be comfortable by reasoning from his “mind set on the flesh.” In keeping with Scripture, this method recognizes that the non-believer’s very reasoning about God is faulty and challenges him from that point. This method likewise preserves a sound Reformed theology, which can be presented with force to the non-believer. Thus we can see how Reformed theology and presuppositional apologetics must be taken together. For one’s theology affects the apologetical method used, and the apologetical method used affects one’s theology.
Copyright © 1996 Bryan Baird
All Rights Reserved
Bryan Baird received B.A.’s in both Philosophy and Psychology at Mississippi State University. He has earned an M.A. in Psychology at Mississippi State University and will begin his PhD. work in philosophy at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA.