Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Disagreement between Classical & Covenantal Apologetics

The non-Christian worldview, in all its forms, affirms that experience can be accounted for along autonomous lines. In back of this statement is the presupposition that human beings, apart from God, can examine a set of brute facts from the standpoint of neutrality and arrive at the truth regarding the state of affairs that has obtained in the world. Classical apologetics, with its full endorsement of natural theology and Aquinas’ second way, wholeheartedly agree with the statement above along with the underlying presuppositions. Covenantal apologetics seeks to show that only Christian theism provides the necessary preconditions for the intelligibility of experience. Human autonomy is a myth. Brute facts do not exist. Instead, only interpretations of facts exist where finite man is concerned. Like human autonomy, neutrality in any part of the human person, is also a myth. Man does not approach life as a blank slate seeking to fill himself with truth. Scripture testifies against such attitudes from beginning to end.

In the Q&A section of the SES debate between Jason Lisle, Richard Howe, and Scott Oliphint, Richard Howe was asked to comment on the difference between conceptual and ontological necessity in Van Til’s TAG. Van Til’s TAG is his Transcendental Argument for the existence of God. I was impressed with the question. I understand what the student was asking. Hence, I waited with baited breath for Howe to interact with this extremely powerful argument. However, much to my chagrin, Howe ignored the question and went off on some other tangent. This lends support to my thesis that Howe has not bothered to interact with Van Til enough to form an educated and concise analysis of presuppositionalism at all. I wish he would stop refuting, what, in my humble opinion, he does not really understand.

When Christian apologists agree that non-Christian worldviews can account for experience apart from God, they unwittingly adopt non-Christian thinking. Since Christian theism stands or falls as a unit, this practice, at a minimum, could result in some very embarrassing encounters in evangelism. At the very least, it reflects poorly constructed argumentation, lacking consistency with sound theology. What is worse is that Christian apologetics must be guided by Christian ethics and the Christian ethic demands that Christians remain faithful to the truth. Therefore, inconsistency in our apologetic method runs afoul of our obligation to remain faithful to biblical truth. Moreover, depending on our motives for this inconsistency, we could rightly be accused of compromising the truth. This occurs when we formulate apologetic method in order to maintain respectability from the unbeliever. We desire to provide an answer that is either not so offensive or one that comports with their criteria for justification of beliefs.

Covenantal apologetics argues from the start that argumentation itself, is impossible apart from God. The conditions necessary to make argumentation possible are what they are only because the state of affairs that has obtained is what Scripture says it is. This is where covenantal and classical apologetics differ greatly. And this is the concept that never made its way into the discussion at the SES conference.

Covenantal apologetics refuses to surrender the criteria of justification for belief to the demands of the unregenerate. The fact is that there is a radical difference between unbelieving criteria for justification of belief, and believing criteria for justification of belief. Hence, what is necessary to qualify as knowledge in the non-Christian worldview is radically different from what is necessary to qualify as knowledge in the Christian worldview. Classical apologetics inherently fails to make this basic distinction, and this leads to unnecessary confusion and inconsistency in the field of Christian apologetics.

In summary then, Richard Howe’s inference that use of human language justifies granting to the unbeliever a natural born neutrality when it comes to such things as evidence, criteria, and justification is just plain wrong. Neutrality is a myth. The state of affairs that has obtained is such that all men, being created in the image of God, are born with an innate and clear knowledge of the Creator. This knowledge is so perspicuous that Paul informs us in Romans one that all unbelievers are without an apologetic for their non-Christian worldview. They are without excuse. Unbelief is indefensible according to Scripture. Yet, it seems to me that classical apologetics legitimizes the unbelieving apologetic to a very large degree by surrendering ground where it should not. At a minimum, classical apologetics seems far too sympathetic with the Satanic question: does God exist? It is not a fair nor reasonable question. In fact, it is a question that is thoroughly wicked from end to end. Not only is it a wicked question where morality is concerned, it is a profoundly irrational question. Christians used to be shocked by such foolish speculations. How dare the creature ask such audaciously arrogant questions like this one! But today, we extend respectability to such an inquiry. It is a virtue of the enlightened mind, after all, to ask critical questions, to give oneself to critical reflection. Indeed, the intellectual endeavors of human speculation are boundless to listen to some even in the Christian camp.

For Richard Howe to presume that the rules of human language presuppose neutrality in not only what those rules are, but also, how those rules are employed, is in my opinion, unjustifiable. The fact is that the rules for human language are absolutely unintelligible absent Christian theism. To argue that our use of those rules justifies the neutral employment of logic and evidence is simply quite a fallacious argument and it demonstrates that Howe simply misses the point of covenantal apologetics. The experience of language, logic, and evidence only makes sense in Christian theism. Every other attempt to explain these phenomena falls short because every other non-Christian worldview collapses in on itself when it is subjected to internal critique.

Man knows God exists. God has made certain of it. Therefore, I do not need to prove to anyone that God exists. When I accept the claim that a person does not know if God exists or does not believe that God exists, I am rejecting what God says about that person’s knowledge of Himself. This is neither right nor safe and it is not in keeping with biblical apologetics. All men pervert the revelation of God they have been given, suppressing the knowledge of God within and around them. Absent the work of grace on the heart, by the person of the Holy Spirit, man will always approach the subject of God from the position of an affirmed and hostile antagonist. Unregenerate man is a God hater by nature. This is the basic theological commitment of covenantal apologetics. Hence, it is wildly antithetical to the classical notion that unregenerate men actually are not sure if God exists. Moreover, these men are capable of approaching the question of God in a neutral fashion. Furthermore, these men can be persuaded that God exists if given the right evidence in just the right way. From there, they may be convinced to accept the rest of the teachings of Christian theism and decide to follow Christ. The disparity between these two schools is indeed overwhelming.


  1. Hello Ed
    In the spirit of edification, I confess to struggle with several statements or claims you make herein and hope you can clarify.

    First, let me say, that I am a regenerated Christian believer who adheres to reform theology. So, on that basis, I agree wholeheartedly with many of your comments about the lack of theological rigor and scriptural understanding that exists in much of today’s evangelical church.

    You write, "There are no brute facts". Is that statement itself a “brute fact”? If not, then it seems to me that it is simply one’s (your) interpretation of fact. If yes, then it seems to me to be self-refuting, correct? Second, what do I do with facts such as “I live in Harleysville, PA”, or I have been married 17 years or I have a son with special needs? Are those only interpretation of fact? Can they not be true (for example to my non-believing neighbor) whether or not one is a Christian theist or not?

    You write, “Man does not approach life as a blank slate seeking to fill himself with truth. Scripture testifies against such attitudes from beginning to end”. I have a 12 year-old daughter who is just learning chemistry. How is it that she does not approach it from a lack of knowledge and understanding seeking new truth on the subject of chemistry? I understand that she will approach the subject based on thoughts and presuppositions that she has developed up until this point in her life (A biblical worldview), but one of those assumptions it seems to me would also be the assumed the analogical use of language. That is, the words of the chemistry textbook must correspond to something that is real such as the word, “proton”. It would further seem that one can understand the structure of a proton regardless of theological presupposition. What is different between the Christian theist and the non-believer it would seem is the ultimate source or origin of that proton.

    That brings me to your next claim, “The fact is that the rules for human language are absolutely unintelligible absent Christian theism. The experience of language, logic, and evidence only makes sense in Christian theism”. If that is true, then how did Jesus’ unregenerate listeners understand anything he said orally? Is it not the Holy Spirit’s use of a believer’s words that performs the regenerative work that convicts and causes unregenerate man to repent? So, cannot a non-believing pagan understand that if A=B and B=C, then A=C? I would think so, because even the non-believer, being made in God’s image, has the capacity to understand the rules of logic and deductive reasoning. If in that person’s mind, they are not regenerated in the process of hearing or reading scripture, is it not the case that person does not understand, but rather that the person is in bondage against embracing the convicting truth of Jesus? If I ask a non-believing work colleague of mine to meet me in the hotel lobby at 7 PM does he not understand the rules of human language and not know exactly what I mean? How is it that the rules of human language are unintelligible to him?

    Finally, you write, “Reason nor science can function properly without radical transformation by God’s regenerative work of grace”. Is it not the case, that much of modern science has been developed by non-Christians and actually works because of the order and design God put into the world? Could not a non-Christian develop a small pox vaccine or develop an insulin pump or a hepatitis C drug without even knowing the regenerative work of grace? It is difficult for me to see how that could not be true. Is it not the case, that man’s ability to use reason is not part of God’s creative act in creating humans (as distinct from the rest of the created order) whether or not that human acknowledges or accepts that fact or not?

    Appreciate your responses.

  2. The denial of brute facts points us to the view that we are all interpreters of God's reality. The notion that our perception of creation could exist apart from our interpretation of it is a false notion. Romans 1 informs us that unregenerate humans ALL suppress the truth of God about reality. Your daughter approaches chemistry with some bias, either it is what it is as a creation of God or it is what it is apart from being created by God. Even her study of chemistry involves interpretation of those facts through some lens, Christian theism, or human autonomy.

    Concerning language, I think you misunderstood my point. My claim is that only Christian theism can make sense out of our ability to communicate with each other. In other words, the laws of human thought make no sense apart from Christian theism. Other systems of belief within the non-Christian worldview cannot provide for the intelligibility of the experience of human communication.

    Modern science and reason only function properly if they are acknowledging their Creator beginning to end. I do not mean that science and reason cannot occur unless one is a Christian. To do science properly is to do it as God designed it to be done and that involves acknowledge God as the source of empirical knowledge. I hope this helps clear things up.


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