Two ways to apologize

The Briefing

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Originally Published:
Payne, T, Marshall, C and Jensen, P 'Two ways to apologize'. The Briefing, issue 50, July 1990, pp. 3-6.

Tagged: apologetics evangelism evidence evidentialism naturalism presuppositionalism reason worldview

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Co-written with: Colin Marshall, Tony Payne

Defining terms

Evangelism
telling people the good news of what God has done in Christ and calling on them to repent and put their trust in him. Evangelism involves both giving information and making invitation.
Apology
making a defence of this news; answering people’s questions and presenting arguments to persuade them of the truth.
Apologetics
the study of how to make a good apology; the how and why.
Apologist
one who makes an apology.
Presuppositional apologetics
a form of apologetics focusing on people’s assumptions or presuppositions about the world.
Evidential apologetics
a form of apologetics which concentrates on presenting evidence (like historical records) to confirm the truth of Christianity.

Do you fancy yourself as a Francis Schaeffer? Or perhaps more of a Josh McDowell? There is more than one way to “give an answer for the hope that we have”.

I looked over the top of my coffee mug and tried another tack.

“What about the resurrection? Do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead?”

“Oh yes,” my friend replied, “I have no doubt that he did.”

This was too good to be true. I pressed my advantage home.

“And if he rose from the dead, then he is unique in the universe—the Lord, the Ruler, the one to whom we must all submit ... ”

I was winding up for a big finish when my friend, Mr Gupta, quietly interrupted.

“Oh no, that does not follow at all. What is so unusual about being raised from the dead? I certainly expect to be—don’t you?”

Open-mouthed, I realized that this tack, too, was flat like all the others. Mr Gupta, a devout Hindu, saw nothing unusual in resurrection. He and I lived in different worlds—in his, resurrection (or reincarnation) was a normal part of life; in mine, it was an extraordinary event indicating the power of an extraordinary person.

This exchange highlights the problems we have in apologetics. Answering our friends’ questions and trying to persuade them to put their trust in Christ is rarely easy or straightforward. Very often, we find ourselves in deep water not because we have said something false or misleading, but because we have said it at the wrong time, or to the wrong person.

The little exchange with Mr Gupta also highlights the two approaches that Evangelicals have used for defending and confirming the faith: the Presuppositional and Evidential methods. In this, the first of a series of articles on apologetics, we will look at these two approaches to apologetics that have dominated the way Evangelicals have interacted with the non-Christian world. What are their strengths and weaknesses? And is too much apologizing a bad thing?

What are your Presuppositions?

Well-known writers like Francis Schaeffer (The God who is There), James Sire (The Universe Next Door) and Richard Pratt (Every Thought Captive) are examples of Christians who focus on people’s presuppositions in defending Christianity and arguing for its truth.

Presuppositional apologists perceive that the reason many people do not accept the Christian gospel is that their assumptions prevent them from doing so. Like Mr Gupta, their view of the world is such that presenting the facts of Christ to them makes little sense. If you are talking with a Hindu or Buddhist, for example, there is little use appealing to historical facts or events to support the Christian gospel, since neither Hindus nor Buddhists believe in history (in the way we would use the term). Their ‘world view’ is entirely different.

To counter this, the Presuppositionalists start with the revelation of God in Christ Jesus and the Scriptures. Working from this base, they tend to adopt three strategies:

1) To show that the Bible is internally consistent.

Internal consistency is one piece of evidence for the truth of what God has said in Scripture. James Sire, for example, argues that ‘inner intellectual coherence’ is a leading characteristic of an acceptable world view. A valid and acceptable world view must contain reasoning that is philosophically coherent. Put simply: it’s got to make sense.

2) To show that the Bible’s world view is the ‘best fit’ for explaining the world, man, society, history and so on.

James Sire puts forward a four-fold test for an adequate world view (Universe Next Door, p. 209f). The first of these is internal consistency, as above.

The second test is that the world view must be able to explain the data of reality. Any system of thought that offers an explanation for the way the world is, must be able to accommodate the world as we know and experience it. It must find room for the experiences of our daily lives, the discoveries of rational and scientific investigation, and the experiences of others as reported to us (including the ‘miraculous’).

The third test is that a world view should be able to explain things like man’s rationality, his moral sense, his searching for truth, and his desire for personal fulfilment and relationship.

Fourthly, a world view must be ‘liveable’. It must be personally satisfying in day to day life.

Sire concludes that Christianity provides the best fit: “It provides a frame of reference in which man can find meaning and significance. It stands the four-fold test for an adequate world view” (p. 213).

3) To expose the faults of other world views.

Much of Francis Schaeffer’s writings are directed to this end. By showing the inconsistency and inadequacy of other world views, people are pushed towards Christianity as a system that does provide answers.

Sire, for example, attacks Naturalism1 by exposing two flaws. First, the problem of value: how could a human being, thrown up entirely by chance from the primordial slime, be worth anything? If we are but a complex arrangement of atomic particles, we are of no intrinsic or personal worth—no more or less than any other arrangement of particles (like a cockroach or a piece of cheese).

Second, how can we trust our capacity to think and know things if our brains are simply chemical machines? Our thinking machine may tell us that we are valuable, personal, moral beings who can reason and investigate the world, but how can we know that our machine is reliable? It may be playing tricks on us. It may be faulty, and the illusion that we can think and know things may be part of its malfunction.

The Presuppositional approach has its strengths and weaknesses.

It is appealing theologically because it starts with the revelation of Cod. Christianity is not seen as an abstract theological system, but as a relationship with a God who has spoken. (Note the title of one of Schaeffer’s books: He Is There and He Is Not Silent).

However, by arguing for the internal consistency of the Bible, the Presuppositionalists also tend to reduce this sense of personal relationship. The Bible is treated as the source of a world view or system of thought, rather than as what it is—a mosaic of narratives, history, poetry, letters and various other forms, which tells the story of God’s dealings with his people.

The success of the Presuppositional approach seems dependent on the particular background of those involved. On university campuses and in circles where people have thought out (or are in the process of thinking out) their view of the world, it can be a powerful tool. Many Australians don’t tend to think about what their ‘world view’ is, and have a habit of borrowing ideas from a number of systems. This makes the Presuppositional approach a little more difficult.

Just Show me the Evidence

The other approach to apologetics is perhaps more familiar to us.

The Evidentialist starts with the idea that Christians and non-Christians share a notion of ‘reasonableness’. On this basis, various pieces of evidence are put forward to demonstrate that the Scriptures are true. Unlike the Presuppositionalist, he does not assume the truth of God’s revelation—instead, he argues towards it.

Most of us would have seen classic Evidentialist works like Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict and F.F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? (Frank Morrison, Paul E. Little, Michael Green and Paul Barnett are other popular writers in this field.)

It comes down to probabilities. Given the historical reliability of the New Testament, its attestation by outside sources, its internal consistency and power, the evidence for the resurrection, and so on, the most reasonable and probable explanation of the facts is that Jesus was who he claimed to be—God made man.

The evidential approach only really works with people who share its view of history, logic, reason and truth. This is both its strength and its weakness.

The Effects of the Fall

An interesting example of the differences between these two approaches is their attitude to the Fall and its effect on human reason.

The Presuppositionalists see the mind having been affected by the ‘total depravity’ of mankind after the Fall. They cite verses such as:

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ ... (2 Cor 4:4)

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Rom 1:21)

In other words, because of the Fall, man’s mind no longer functions properly. It no longer recognizes basic rationality, but tends to move away from it. When people no longer recognize the categories ‘true’ and ‘false’ and can happily live with the most blatant of contradictions (as many do today), the Presuppositionalist would say that it is a result of the Fall.

The Evidentialists say that Christians and non-Christians use the same kind of logic, but in different ways. They argue that the Fall has not affected the powers of reasoning, but that it does affect the conclusions we come to. The unregenerate mind will assess the arguments for the truth of Christianity using common laws of rationality, but having a hostile mind, he will tend to come to the wrong conclusion (Rom 8:5).

The Evidentialist would argue that presenting the evidence is still worthwhile be cause rationality and logic have not been totally distorted by the Fall, and that the Holy Spirit is able to overcome the hostility to bring a right conclusion.

In summary, we could perhaps say that the Presuppositionalist overstresses the distortion of the mind and that the Evidentialist overestimates the soundness of the mind.

Part of the problem is that the Bible does not speak of something abstract like ‘the mind’ or ‘reason’ having fallen, but man. Our estrangement from God is primarily personal, not rational. Having rejected the truth at the most fundamental level and worshipped created things rather than the Creator, we are cut off from God in a profound way. We may be able to follow the various arguments, but we will have no love for the conclusion. It is a moral defect, not a mental one.

The Dangers of Too Much Apologizing

Apologetics is a good servant, but a dangerous master. There are dangers attached to focusing too much on apologetics.

The first of these is to confuse Evangelism and Apologetics. We start to believe that people can be argued into the kingdom of God by the right combination of arguments and reasoning. Even the Presuppositionalists, who stress the fallenness of human reason, tend to overvalue rational argument as a means of evangelism. We can find ourselves spending more time giving reasons for belief than actually telling people what the good news is!

The most serious danger of apologetics is its distorting effect on the gospel. As we seek to reason with outsiders and provide grounds for belief, we can start to mould the gospel into a shape that is more pleasing for the hearer. St Augustine ended up with a Platonic gospel; Thomas Aquinas with an Aristotelian version. This tendency is a result of the fact that apologetics tends to address the mind rather than the conscience.

We must not forget that faith comes by hearing the word of God and by the Holy Spirit opening our eyes to perceive its truth. We must ensure that proclamation of this truth (in understandable, creative ways) remains our first priority. This is evangelism—to proclaim what God has done in Christ and to invite people to respond. Apologetics must remain the handmaiden of Evangelism and not supplant it.

However, if we are aware of these dangers, and make sure that we do not fall into them, apologetics is still a useful servant. We are called to contend for the gospel that was “once for all given to the saints”, and this will involve both defending the gospel against attack and persuading our contemporaries of its truth.

In this article, we have examined two prominent approaches to apologetics and some of the dangers of too much apologetics. In our next article, we will suggest how to build a strong ‘apologetic armoury’ by gleaning the best from both Presuppositional and Evidential approaches. Then, in following issues, we will look at some of the common questions raised by non-Christians and how to answer them most effectively.

This article was adapted by Tony Payne from material by Colin Marshall and Phillip Jensen.

Endnotes

1 Naturalism says that the universe is a closed system. There is no God or Supreme Being ‘out there’. Physical or ‘natural’ matter is all that exists. Man is a product of the natural evolutionary process and is nothing more than a particularly complex arrangement of atomic particles.