Friday, January 11, 2013

The Tragedy of Classical Apologetics: Christian Theology or Worldly Philosophy

In his rudimentary approach to apologetics, William Lane Craig proposes that human reason relates to the truthfulness of the Christian worldview in two fundamental ways. Craig says, “The methodological approach which I shall defend in this essay is that reason in the form of rational arguments and evidence plays an essential role in our showing Christianity to be true, whereas reason in this form plays a contingent role in our personally knowing Christianity to be true.”

I do not write this post for the sake of theological or philosophical dispute or disagreement. I write it because I firmly believe, as do many others, that classical apologetics has hi-jacked Christian evangelism. When the men at Triablogue admit that the gospel is not enough, that the Bible is simply not a sufficient tool in and of itself to effectively proclaim and defend the Christian worldview, then something is dreadfully wrong. When Paul Manata can accuse me of anti-intellectualism because I contend that we should spend more time training believers how to deliver a succinct presentation of the gospel rather than spending ludicrous amounts of time on arguments from philosophy and human reason, then you know that even in our most conservative circles, the sparks of compromise are finding a home. It can’t be long until the brush fires of a skewed gospel are upon us. Indeed, the breeze is pushing the flames in our direction with the passing of each twilight.

Contrary to the teachings of classical apologetics (and some others), one does not have to attain a graduate level understanding of philosophy in order to proclaim, and effectively answer questions concerning the hope of the gospel that is within them, in a way that honors and glorifies God. It is not necessary to defeat every complex and sophisticated argument that ungodly skeptics construct in their attempt to suppress the knowledge of God that is within them as they futilely distort and intentionally misinterpret the evidence that is all around them. To the contrary, rather than spending time moving from one absurd complex philosophical question to the next, Christians must focus on the basic presupposition upon which the more complex strain of the argument depends. If you have ever observed the demolition of a large building, then you know that explosives are place, not at the top of the build, but at its foundation. That is, it is the foundation of the building that has to come down in order to take the whole building down. The same is true in discussions about truth, reality, and theology. It is the substance of the objection that we must focus on. We take the complex, identify the simple foundation upon which is it  build and explode it with God’s truth. Our method for answering inquiries concerning the hope that is in us must be aimed, first and foremost, to honor and glorify God. That is the goal. Classical apologetics, I will show, has a considerably different goal in mind. Christian evangelism seeks to proclaim truth in hopes of winning a soul. Christian apologists all too often seeks to parade intellectual acumen in speaking truth in hopes of winning a debate. Far too many Christian apologists are far too impressed with the human intellect for their own spiritual health.

Natural Theology and Neutrality

Clifford McManis, in his book, “Biblical Apologetics,” defines natural theology, “also called philosophical theology, speculative theology or natural religion, is the practice philosophically reflecting on the existence and nature of God independent of divine revelation or Scripture; thoughts about God developed through discursive reasoning and ratiocination without the contribution of the Bible.” [1] According to some philosophers and theologians the existence of a supreme and supernatural being can be reasonably inferred from the data of observation and experience.[2]

Natural theology deals with man’s knowledge of God apart from divine revelation in Scripture. In essence, it deals with man’s knowledge of God as revealed in general, in the natural order. As such, natural theology is an epistemological issue. What is the nature of man’s knowledge of God as it comes through natural revelation? “A biblical theory of knowledge proclaims the absolute requirement of God’s revealed truth as the tacit foundation of understanding and knowledge.”[3]

Fundamental to a distinctly Christian epistemology is the view that knowledge has an entirely revelational nature. Since that is the case, we must examine Romans one in light of the fundamental premise of natural theology. Does creation and conscience provide irresistible evidence sufficient for reasonably concluding that God probably exists? On the other hand, does God deliver actual knowledge of his existence in creation and conscience? What does Paul say about this in Romans one? How one understands Paul in this text is critical to the formation of their view of natural theology and the possibility of neutrality in human reasoning. Moreover, we must do our best to purge ourselves of philosophical and undue theological biases as we approach this question. In other words, our perspective should be informed by a sound exegetical inquiry resting on sound hermeneutical principles. Is Paul saying that men possess knowledge or is he saying that they should possess knowledge of God vis-à-vis natural revelation?

Natural theology demands epistemological neutrality. It demands neutrality of the human intellect. In fact, it demands that the human intellect, in terms of capacity, remain unaffected by sin. Natural theology begins with the concept of brute facts, couples that concept with the view that human reason is unaffected by sin and concludes that we can and should do our best to use these facts, so-called, to appeal to the unbeliever’s reasoning capacity to convince them that God probably exists. “To compromise with unbelieving standards or methods in the world of thought is to do grave disservice to the needs of those with whom we speak: to be willing to assume a position of neutrality would be conducive to anything but spiritual health in our hearers.”[4]

What does Scripture reveal?

What does Paul say in Romans chapter one and what are the consequences of his remarks for Christian evangelism and apologetics? To answer that question, we must turn to the exegetical process. Paul says in Rom. 1:18 that God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness of men who suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness. Notice the words “all” and the phrase “suppress the truth.” That the language is universal is clear from both the immediate context of chapter one, not to mention the book of Romans in its entirety. Romans 2:1 points up to a universal condition of all men using the conjunction dia which is a logical inference from what just followed and is translated “therefore.”

Verse 19 tells us that “what is know about God” is clear or evident in them. Some commentators use among as opposed to in, but when the antecedent is referring to the abstract, it is better to translate the preposition as “in.” I will come back to this later. Paul says God has also made it evident to them. The knowledge that God is there is both evident in them and has been made evident to them.

Paul goes on to say that from the creation of the world, from the very beginning, God’s invisible attributes have been clearly seen by them and that they understand that God exists through the things that have been made. Up to the point, Paul has not told us that we have to teach them this. Paul is describing the state of every human that has lived from the beginning. Paul says this serves as the basis of culpability, so that they are without excuse. Yet, it is those very excuses that apologetics seems so interested in legitimizing and then defeating from an intellectual standpoint. One has to wonder if we truly are obeying 1 Pet. 3:15 or if we are feeding an intellect that desires to elevate itself rather than walk in the humility that God demands. One thing is certain: when we begin to trust more in our ability to navigate complex philosophical arguments and say things like “the Bible is not enough” or “the gospel is not enough,” we are drifting from simple and clear truths revealed in Scripture. I can think of only one reason why we exchange the simple for the complex: pride!

Paul moves on to say that even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God. Instead, they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. This is the result of sin. This is the impact of sin on the human intellect and heart. This is the effect of sin on the human person. The mind and heart stands for the whole person. Man is totally depraved. There is no part of the human person that is not affected by sin.

Because of the consequence of sin, man suppresses the truth and knowledge of God that he possesses from the very beginning. This is due to the curse that God Himself has inflicted on man, to include the human intellect. Man has become a race of fools, exchanging the image of God for a lie, worshipping and serving creatures, created things, idols of the imagination, and images of God in the mind that are far from the image of the God revealed in Scripture. Man does this willingly, but because of sin, he does it necessarily and unavoidably. So long as man is incarcerated in sin, his intellect is incarcerated with him. He is not bound in every other way, but free in his reasoning capacities. Sin has invaded the intellect, the will, and the emotions. In one way or another, to one degree or another, sinful men distort and therefore attempt to destroy the truth of the reality of God and the truth of God’s reality.

Paul goes on to inform us that because of men’s utter contempt of the truth of God in reality that God has given men over to degraded fleshly lusts. The sexual promiscuity and perversion we witness in the human race is a display of God’s wrath. Here we are, harkening back to v. 18. Homosexual behavior is one of those “degrading lusts” that is a sure sign of God’s judgment. Paul tells us “for this reason” dia touto, God turned men over to homosexual passions and lusts to engage in behavior that is not fitting or right, in other words, immoral. Paul uses the words adokimon noun, translated depraved mind. In other words, the minds of unregenerate men are worthless in terms of spiritual truth and biblical morality.

Natural theology requires certain metaphysical conditions in order to support it’s thesis that natural proofs can be used to reason with men to accept the truth about God. It requires brute facts. It requires the human intellect to be unaffected by sin. It requires objective neutrality when it comes to the idea and concept of the God who is there. Natural theology assumes that there are men who truly do not know if God exists or who truly do believe that God does not exist. Contrary to these things, Romans one tells us clearly that men’s reasoning is hopelessly affected by the sinful condition in which he finds himself. Not only this, Romans one nowhere supports the idea that brute facts exist and that with a little help we can discover them. If anything, Romans one tells us that all men, apart from God, bring an interpretive paradigm to reality that is contrary to God’s interpretation of reality. Moreover, Paul’s description of the human mind as adokimon noun indicates that the human intellect is contaminated with sin as a result of the curse of God. Finally, Paul tells us that despite his condition, man possesses adequate knowledge of God to be morally culpable for his behavior. This is contrary to the entire enterprise of many schools on Christian apologetics.


“And as a third consequence of the fall, Christian ethics and theology cannot be built on the basis (even partially) of nature. There can be no natural theology, natural law or natural morality that corresponds to the ethics and theology of grace and revelation. This is true for ‘epistemological’ reasons (we cannot rely on natural reason or conscience to discern the good) as much as for reasons of the will (we cannot rely on natural inclination or natural powers to perform the good). Morality of the world is inextricably of the order of necessity and the order of the fall.”[5]

So let’s pretend that men like William Lane Craig and Paul Manata are correct in their interpretation of Romans one. Let’s say that Paul is saying that men do not possess the knowledge of God, but rather that given the evidence all around them, they should. If that is so, what else is Paul saying in that text? It is my contention that at the simplest of levels, Paul is saying that what all men do have is enough! In other words, we have no obligation to give the unregenerate any more than what they have already been given by God in creation and conscience. If you hold to a presuppositional approach, you think that the thing they have is actual knowledge of God that they intentionally twist and distort. If you are a classical apologist, you think “the thing” is the evidence in creation. That is fine as far as it goes. However, neither group should miss the consequence of possessing this “thing” that Paul says all men have. That is, whether you are reformed and think it is knowledge or if you are not reformed and think it is evidence, both sides have to admit that the message, at the end of the day, is that “the thing” (be it knowledge or evidence) is enough and God is not obligated to give them one ounce more than He already has.

I am not arguing that we should not be passionately involved in understanding men’s objections to God. I think we should. I think some of must because that is our function in the body. I think it is like mathematics. We should know them, albeit, a little more passionately for some of course. However, when it comes to apologetic methods, the significance that theology plays is immeasurable. If our theology is biblical, we understand there are no brute facts. We know that the human intellect is woefully inadequate to reason its way truly to the God who is there. As Greg Bahnsen says, man knows and he doesn’t know. Theologically speaking, we know that man is hostile to God, existing as a sworn enemy of God. He takes the truth God has given to him in creation and in his conscience and distorts it, perverts it, corrupts it, and hence tries to destroy it. If your theology is biblical, you know that no amount of intellectual prowess will bring men to God. Your focus is not on your ability to win a debate, but rather on issuing the truth of God accurately so that you may win a soul!

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Romans 5:6-10)

What do you think? Is the Word of God enough to give a reasonable answer for the hope that lies in you? Is it enough to save souls from the captivity of sin and the impending doom of eternal judgment? How will we answer this question? However we answer it, this will shape our entire approach to the subject of Christian apologetics right down to how and on what we spend our time, which by the way, Jesus commanded us to redeem.


[1] Clifford McManis, Biblical Apologetcs (USA: Xlibris Corporation, 2012), 142.
[2] Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry, vol. 2, God, Revelation, and Authority (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 104.
[3] Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 1996), 37.
[4] Ibid., 34.
[5] David W Gill, "Jacques Ellul: The Prophet as Theologian" In , in Themelios: Volume 7, No. 1, September 1981 (United Kingdom: The Gospel Coalition, 1981), 9–10.


  1. Hi Ed! I really like your post here. I think you hit the nail on the head. I also read the exchange at Triablogue. It is an ugly shame the way you were treated. It is always a bad state of affairs that many name the name of Christ as Lord and Savior but act like school boy bullies. It does show that you got the better of them. You showed Christ well in the face of such arrogance. I say arrogance because only one such as that would be blind to think one can reason themselves up to God. They seemed not to grasp the fact that it takes divine intervention from almighty God to raise the spiritually dead, and the gospel, not philosophy is the means God uses. Just wanted to drop a note saying one person understood you. Blessing my fellow North Carolinian!

  2. Hi Ed! I really like your post here. I think you hit the nail on the head. I also read the exchange at Triablogue. It is an ugly shame the way you were treated. It is always a bad state of affairs that many name the name of Christ as Lord and Savior but act like school boy bullies. It does show that you got the better of them. You showed Christ well in the face of such arrogance. I say arrogance because only one such as that would be blind to think one can reason themselves up to God. They seemed not to grasp the fact that it takes divine intervention from almighty God to raise the spiritually dead, and the gospel, not philosophy is the means God uses. Just wanted to drop a note saying one person understood you. Blessing my fellow North Carolinian!

  3. Thank you for your kind remarks. It is very sad when Christians cannot passionately reach for the truth in discussions like this without resorting to such displays. The world sees this and thinks we are no different at all.


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