This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Approaches to Defending the Faith”, running in the Fall 2021 Term (September – December), and convened by Dr. Joseph Minich.
A Personal Journey of Apologetics
Like many evangelical and Reformed sorts, it wasn’t long into my apologetics pilgrimage that I was introduced to the topic of apologetic method. I found myself consuming R.C. Sproul and John Gerstner, especially their Classical Apologetics (written with Art Lindsay). I cannot claim to have been a competent reader at that point, but it at least became clear to me that the major theological talking heads sometimes disagreed profoundly about the how of defending the faith. My quest to learn about apologetics soon took the track of learning about apologetic method, and sensing that (at some point) I must choose between various different approaches.
In the Reformed world of my youth, the juggernaut was the legacy of Cornelius Van Til and his “presuppositional apologetics”. Other contenders like Gordon Clark or Herman Dooyeweerd were popular online or in the academy. But in the larger part of the Presbyterian multiverse, and the “we-just-discovered-TULIP” congregational churches that increasingly inherited their theological scraps from its table (whether Baptist, Bible, or non-denom), it was the school of Van Til that had the most vocal defenders in the world of publishing, seminaries, and churches.
My introduction to presuppositionalism was not through Van Til himself, but his followers. I still recall listening to Greg Bahnsen’s famous debate with Gordon Stein, and being dumbfounded by the “transcendental argument” for the existence of God. It became clear to me that what presuppositionalism offered transcended typical apologetic approaches. Others, so the claim goes, start on “neutral territory” and try to prove Christianity from there. Presuppositionalism, however, always starts with God and the Scriptures and claims we can’t actually get anywhere without that starting point. And so the apologetic move is not to simply exchange reasons, but rather to perform an act of meta-reasoning – to point the mind in the direction of reason’s foundations so that right use of reason implicitly presupposes the existence not just of God, but of the Triune God of Scripture. If you get this, you can argue with all comers, because you already know that whatever they say, if they have not presupposed the triune God of Scripture, they are (philosophically speaking) raving lunatics. This was the nuclear bomb of the apologetics arms race.
Whether this is a fair representation of Van Til himself is besides the point. Many would agree that it is certainly a fair representation of many presuppositionalists and what the movement often looks like when it takes on a concrete face. In any case, I found it attractive. It was my first introduction to “meta” moves in philosophy. Moreover, its proponents seemed brave. Rather than trying to apologize for their faith by showing that it really isn’t so offensive after all, or that it really all makes sense to a rational man if you just think about it, these guys went for the jugular in the other direction: “it’s not we who need to feel defensive, it is you because you oppose the Triune God.” It combined the rhetorical advantage of having a meta hot-take with the felt advantage of giving one a sense of boldness rather than timidity. It was especially attractive, therefore, to a philosophically adrift church. And for many, it really was the best option in town.
But things changed. John Frame was my gateway drug out of presuppositionalism, or rather out of my obsession with apologetic method. Although a presuppositionalist, Frame showed an enormous amount of generosity toward apologists from other traditions. This helped me because despite my delight in presuppositionalism, my mind was still stimulated by C.S. Lewis, William Lane Craig, and many others writing from different vantage points. I reconciled this by trying to frame all of this within my mind as sort of a “supplement” to Van Til.
But two things gradually shifted for me. First, I became persuaded that skepticism was not a proper starting point for apologetics, and that ordinary common reality really does point the mind and heart toward God. Finitude and sin might limit the process of explicit understanding, but it is the things themselves that gesture us to God, precisely as themselves. That is to say, it is not that God simply creates a “soul-event” every time we encounter a “nature-event” such that the real agent is always God directly, and not the world. I don’t want to claim that less than something like this occurs, but more occurs as well. The things themselves speak to the mind of God. If we are too atrophied to hear it, it is not because we lack a teacher, but because we have no “natural” ears to hear. In this, I slowly became persuaded that the path to defending the faith was not always to “back up” into starting points, but to “press forward” into looking more closely at the disputed objects. And remarkably, it is this that is ultimately persuasive. This is why C.S. Lewis remains as an apologist while many others pass: he does not merely help us have clever arguments, but he helps us see the things themselves, as themselves.
The other shift was to recognize that persuasion is ultimately a whole-personed affair. People never simply hear or read words. Whether minimally or maximally, they bring a reading of persons into their encounters. They are responding to multiple levels of communication. And they are having this exchange within an irreducibly larger situation and story. This is all always operative for all of us. And this means that the apologetic encounter is ultimately an exchange between whole persons. The final revelation of God, after all, is a Person. The world is persuaded of the reign of this Man through His body, represented in the full personage of His disciples. The rhetoric of the gospel is not merely proclamatory, but embodied and revelatory. Much of the persuasive power of the presuppositionalist movement, after all, was its confident and courageous ethos (not its arguments).
A New Approach to Apologetics
However, an ethos cannot survive on surrogate energy. Arguably, one of the liabilities of the presuppositionalist movement is that it never reliably delivered the confidence that was its chief attraction. The bits which remain most firmly in my own consciousness were those, ironically, “borrowing from another worldview” (or method). However, the point of this account is not at all to dismiss my brethren who disagree with me in this. In some ways, I remain shaped by the presuppositionalist desire for going “meta,” for finding the ultimate “hot take,” and for possessing the truth in mind and soul in such a way that it can be spoken with confidence. I remain a grateful son while a critic.
My Fall 2021 Davenant Hall course, “Approaches to Defending the Faith”, is founded on the premise that reality itself testifies in a “minor key” (as Lewis puts it) to the same theme played in a “major key” in Scripture. In the course, we will frame apologetic encounters as rhetorical moments between whole persons. The goal is not simply to learn arguments, though it is most certainly not less than that. But it is rather to see that “arguments” are always more than words, just as the Person of Jesus is more than His utterances, and utterances more than sounds.
We will argue that brutal honesty with God, one’s self, and one’s neighbor, is crucial for the apologetic encounter (and also precisely where God blesses us and helps us when we engage with others). To this end, we will look at philosophical and rhetorical exemplars who (a) seek to defend the faith through a public excavation of common reality, and (b) deploy the task of writing to engage the whole person in a non-manipulative way, a way that leaves human agency in tact, and truly summons a reader toward substantive and full-personed persuasion (by means of truly communicated understanding).
Our goal is to grow in confidence as we understand reality more profoundly, and as we see how it both points us to God and is itself illuminated by Scripture. Being open to what we don’t know, we are in a proper posture to be students, and the irony is that it is precisely this that enables us to truly know with confidence, and then to move toward others as whole persuaded persons. And this is the hopeful outcome: that we all grow as whole persons whose very life is itself a testament, an idiosyncratic proclamation of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Dr. Joseph Minich (Ph.D. The University of Texas at Dallas) is a Teaching Fellow with The Davenant Institute, and a co-host of the Pilgrim Faith podcast. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence and a frequent contributor to Modern Reformation. He lives in Garland, TX, with his wife and four children.