Christian Apologetics


In 1 Peter 3:15–16, the apostle exhorts his readers: But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. Definitions Christian apologetics (which has nothing to do with “apologizing”) seeks to serve God and the church by helping believers to carry out the mandate of 1 Peter 3:15–16. We may define it as the discipline that teaches Christians how to give a reason for their hope.20 I believe that we can distinguish three aspects of apologetics, which we will discuss in detail in later chapters:

1. Apologetics as proof: presenting a rational basis for faith or “proving Christianity to be true.” Jesus and the apostles often offered evidence to people who had difficulty believing that the gospel was true. Note John 14:11; 20:24–31; 1 Cor. 15:1–11. Believers themselves sometimes doubt, and at that point apologetics becomes useful for them even apart from its role in dialogue with unbelievers. That is to say, apologetics confronts unbelief in the believer as well as in the unbeliever.21

2. Apologetics as defense: answering the objections of unbelief. Paul describes his mission as “defending and confirming the gospel” (Phil. 1:7 NIV; cf. v. 16). Confirming may refer to number 1 above, but defending is more specifically focused on giving answers to objections. Much of Paul’s writing in the New Testament is apologetic in this sense. Think of how many times he responds to imaginary (or real) objectors in his letter to the Romans. Think of how often Jesus deals with the objections of religious leaders in the Gospel of John.

3. Apologetics as offense: attacking the foolishness of unbelieving thought (Ps. 14:1; 1 Cor. 1:18–2:16). In view of the importance of number 2, it is not surprising that some will define apologetics as “the defense of the faith.” But that definition can be misleading. God calls his people not only to answer the objections of unbelievers, but also to go on the attack against falsehood. Paul says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Non-Christian thinking is “folly” (ESV), or “foolishness” (NIV), according to Scripture (1 Cor. 1:18–2:16; 3:18–23), and one function of apologetics is to expose that foolishness for what it is. These three types of apologetics are perspectivally related. That is to say, each one, done fully and rightly, includes the other two, so that each is a way of looking at (i.e., a perspective on) the whole apologetic enterprise. To give a full account of the rationale of belief (no. 1), one must vindicate that rationale against the objections (no. 2) and alternatives (no. 3) advanced by unbelievers. Similarly, a full account of number 2 will include numbers 1 and 3, and a full account of number 3 will involve numbers 1 and 2.24 So in a way, the three forms of apologetics are equivalent. But it is good for us nevertheless to distinguish these perspectives, for they certainly represent genuinely different emphases that complement and strengthen one another. For example, an argument for the existence of God (perspective no. 1) that takes no account of unbelievers’ objections to such arguments (no. 2) or to the ways in which unbelievers satisfy themselves with alternative worldviews (no. 3) will to that extent be a weakened argument. So it is often useful in apologetics to ask whether an argument of type 1 can be improved by some supplemental argumentation of type 2, 3, or both.


Our theme verse, 1 Peter 3:15, begins by telling us, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.” The apologist must be a believer in Christ, committed to the lordship of Christ (cf. Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11). 26 Once we have made the distinction between God’s Word and the imaginations of our own hearts (Gen. 6:5), God calls us to live according to the former. God’s Word is true (therefore dependable), though every human authority may lie (Rom. 3:4). If we adopt the Word of God as our ultimate commitment, our ultimate standard, our ultimate criterion of truth and falsity, God’s Word then becomes our “presupposition.” That is to say, since we use it to evaluate all other beliefs, we must regard it as more certain than any other beliefs. Noah had no empirical evidence that the world would be destroyed by a flood, only the evidence of the word of God; but by grace he believed God (Gen. 6:8, 22; Heb. 11:7). Others heard that word, but rejected it (2 Peter 2:5), doubtless often with laughter. Abraham believed God, even though the apparent empirical evidence contradicted God’s word. God said that he and Sarah would have a son, even though both were well into old age (Gen. 18:10–15). Sarah laughed, but Paul commends Abraham’s unwavering faith in God’s word despite the temptation to disbelieve (Rom. 4:20ff.). The New Testament commends those who believe even without empirical signs (John 20:29), and it condemns those who refuse to believe without such signs (Matt. 12:39; 16:1ff.; 1 Cor. 1:22). There is a difference between walking by faith and walking by sight (2 Cor. 5:7; Heb. 11). The world says, “Seeing is believing”; Jesus says, “If you believed you would see the glory of God” (John 11:40). Our apologetic approach is firmly rooted in our commitment to Christ’s covenant lordship.27 Some theologians present apologetics as if it were almost an exception to this commitment. They tell us that when we argue with unbelievers, we should not argue on the basis of criteria or standards derived from the Bible. To argue that way, they say, would be biased. We should rather present to the unbeliever an unbiased argument, one that makes no religious assumptions pro or con, one that is neutral. We should, on this view, use criteria and standards that the unbeliever himself can accept. So logic, facts, experience, reason, and such become the sources of truth. Divine revelation, especially Scripture, is systematically excluded.28 This argument might appear to be simple common sense: since God and Scripture are precisely the matters in question, we obviously must not make assumptions about them in our argument. That would be circular thinking. It would also put an end to evangelism, for if we demand that the unbeliever assume God’s existence and the authority of Scripture in order to enter the debate, he will never consent. Communication between believer and unbeliever will be impossible. Therefore, we must avoid making any such demands and seek to argue on a neutral basis. We may even boast to the unbeliever that our argument presupposes only the criteria that he himself readily accepts (whether logic, fact, consistency, or whatever). This sort of apologetic is sometimes called the traditional or classical method,29 because it claims many advocates down through church history, particularly the second-century apologists (Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Aristides), the great thirteenthcentury thinker Thomas Aquinas and his many followers down to the present day, Joseph Butler (d. 1752) and his followers, and indeed the great majority of apologists in our own time. In saying that traditional apologists espouse “neutrality,” I am not arguing that they seek to put their Christian commitment aside in doing apologetics.30 Indeed, many of them believe that their type of apologetic is warranted by Scripture and is thus very much a “setting apart of Christ as Lord.” They do, however, tell the unbeliever to think neutrally during the apologetic encounter, and they do seek to develop a neutral argument, one that has no distinctively biblical presuppositions. But does this kind of “neutrality” exist? No. Paul asks, “What partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?” (2 Cor. 6:14ff.). We are either for Christ or against him; no one is unbiased (Matt. 12:30). Through the history of apologetics, it has been common for Christians to claim some kind of neutral ground, some criteria or standards that both believer and unbeliever can accept without compromising their systems.31 There are, of course, usually some propositions that both believer and unbeliever can agree to. And those kinds of agreements are apologetically useful. Indeed, as we indicated earlier, some unbelievers, like the devils, might even confess that Jesus is the Son of the Most High God. But we mislead the unbeliever if we tell him that we are using the same standards of truth, rationality, and knowledge as he. To tell him this is misleading even if he is willing to do lip service to scriptural standards. For his grand passion, his basic commitment, is to attack and undermine the truth as the Christian understands it. I am far from wishing to declare this tradition worthless. But on the precise point at issue, the question of neutrality, I do believe that its position is unbiblical. Peter’s reasoning in our theme verse is very different. For Peter, apologetics is certainly not an exception to our overall commitment to Jesus’ lordship. On the contrary, the apologetic situation is one in which we are especially to “honor Christ the Lord as holy,” to speak and live in a way that exalts his lordship and encourages others to do so as well. In the larger context, Peter is telling his readers to do what is right, despite the opposition of unbelievers (1 Peter 3:13–14). He tells us not to fear them. Surely it was not his view that in apologetics we should set forth something less than the truth, out of fear that the truth itself might be rejected. Peter tells us, on the contrary, that the lordship of Jesus (and hence the truth of his Word, for how can we call him “Lord” and not do what he says [Luke 6:46]?) is our ultimate presupposition. An ultimate presupposition is a basic heart-commitment, an ultimate trust. We trust Jesus Christ as a matter of eternal life or death. We trust his wisdom beyond all other wisdom. We trust his promises above all others. He calls us to give him all our loyalty and not allow any other loyalty to compete with him (Deut. 6:4ff.; Matt. 6:24; 12:30; John 14:6; Acts 4:12). We obey his law, even when it conflicts with lesser laws (Acts 5:29). Since we believe him more certainly than we believe anything else, he (and hence his Word) is the very criterion, the ultimate standard of truth. What higher standard could there possibly be? What standard is more authoritative? What standard is more clearly known to us (see Rom. 1:19–21)? What authority ultimately validates all other authorities? The lordship of Christ is not only ultimate and unquestionable, not only above and beyond all other authorities, but also over all areas of human life. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 we read, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (cf. Rom. 14:23; 2 Cor. 10:5; Col. 3:17, 23; 2 Tim. 3:16–17). Our Lord’s demand on us is comprehensive. In all that we do, we must seek to please him. No area of human life is neutral.32 Surely this principle includes the area of thinking and knowing. The fear of the Lord is the very beginning of knowledge, says the author of Proverbs (1:7; cf. Ps. 111:10; Prov. 9:10). Those who are not brought to fear God by the new birth cannot even see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). The point is not that unbelievers are simply ignorant of the truth. Rather, God has revealed himself to each person with unmistakable clarity, both in creation (Ps. 19; Rom. 1:18–21) and in man’s own nature (Gen. 1:26ff.). In one sense, the unbeliever knows God (Rom. 1:21). At some level of his consciousness or unconsciousness, that knowledge remains.33 But in spite of that knowledge, the unbeliever intentionally distorts the truth, exchanging it for a lie (Rom. 1:18–32; 1 Cor. 1:18–2:16 [note esp. 2:14]; 2 Cor. 4:4). Thus, the non-Christian is deceived and “led astray” (Titus 3:3). He knows God (Rom. 1:21) and does not know him at the same time (1 Cor. 1:21; 2:14).34 Plainly, these facts underscore the point that God’s revelation must govern our apologetic approach. The unbeliever cannot (because he will not) come to faith apart from the biblical gospel of salvation. We would not know about the unbeliever’s condition apart from Scripture. And we cannot address it apologetically unless we are ready to listen to Scripture’s own principles of apologetics. But this means not only that the apologist must “honor Christ the Lord as holy,” but also that his argument must presuppose that lordship. Our argument must be an exhibition of that knowledge, that wisdom, which is based on the “fear of the Lord,” not an exhibition of unbelieving foolishness. Therefore, apologetic argument is no more neutral than any other human activity. In apologetic argument, as in everything else we do, we must presuppose the truth of God’s Word. We either accept God’s authority or we do not, and not to do so is sin. It doesn’t matter that we sometimes find ourselves conversing with non-Christians. Then, too—perhaps especially then (for then we are bearing witness)—we must be faithful to our Lord’s revelation.35 To tell the unbeliever that we can reason with him on a neutral basis, however that claim might help to attract his attention, is a lie. Indeed, it is a lie of the most serious kind, for it falsifies the very heart of the gospel—that Jesus Christ is Lord. There is no neutrality. Our witness is either God’s wisdom or the world’s foolishness. There is nothing in between. Even if neutrality were possible, that route would be forbidden to us. When I oppose neutrality, what I oppose is appealing to something other than God’s revelation as the ultimate standard of truth. It’s certainly permissible to appeal to the dictionary as a standard of linguistic usage, or to the U.S. Constitution as a standard for American law. To do this is not to appeal to an ultimate standard. So, similarly, we can agree with unbelievers on certain things: the sky is blue, 2 + 2 = 4, the Red Sox won the World Series. In one sense, this is common ground, but it is not neutrality in the above sense. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to start with present areas of agreement and work on from there. In one sense, there are all kinds of agreements, beginning with “the sky is blue.” Neutrality is not agreeing on matters like that, but agreement on such things as worldview and epistemology. Agreeing that the sky is blue can push you either to deeper disagreements or to deeper agreements brought about by the work of the Spirit. These propositions held in common can have apologetic value: If we can agree that the sky is blue, for example, how is it that such agreement is possible? If the world is a world of chance, how could anybody agree on anything? Agreement presupposes a world made by God, designed to be orderly and designed to be known by rational minds. You can see that this kind of argument is presuppositional. It’s appealing to the true knowledge of God that the unbeliever has but suppresses (Rom. 1)—a knowledge that he has in common with the believer. To argue this way is very different from saying, “Let’s assume that the Bible can be false, and let’s judge its truth on the higher authority of our senses and logic.” Now for a further bit of nuance. Cornelius Van Til uses the term presupposition to indicate the role that divine revelation ought to play in human thought. I don’t believe that he ever defines the term. I define it for him as a “basic heart-commitment.” For the Christian, that commitment is to God as revealed in his Word. While we maintain our ultimate commitment, we cannot accept as true or right anything that conflicts with that commitment. And yet in a few instances in Van Til’s writings, he uses the term differently. For example, he urges the apologist to show “the non-Christian that even in his virtual negation of God, he is still really presupposing God.”36 Clearly, when the unbeliever presupposes God in this sense, he is not acknowledging God as his ultimate commitment. Van Til’s point here is that in assuming the intelligibility of the world, the unbeliever implicitly concedes the existence of the God that he explicitly denies. This lesser sense of presuppose is related to Van Til’s more common use of the term, but it is somewhat different. For the unbeliever to presuppose God in this context is for him to think, say, or do something, contrary to his own inclination, that indicates at some level of his consciousness a recognition of God’s reality and significance. There are also passages in Van Til and other works by presuppositionalists in which the word presuppose is predicated not of persons, but of things: arguments, methods, knowledge, academic disciplines, states of affairs (such as the intelligibility of the universe). In such contexts, the word can be taken to mean “necessary condition,” or “that which legitimizes.” Perhaps we may relate these uses to our basic definition by saying that if some thing X presupposes Y, then Y is that to which a person must be committed if the person is to give an intelligible account of X. Finally, there is the phrase reasoning by presupposition , which for Van Til designates the “transcendental argument” for Christian theism. We will discuss this form of argumentation further in chapter 4. We need to keep these distinctions in mind if we’re going to get our footing in understanding how presuppositionalists speak.

Circular Argument?

Does this mean that we are called to embrace circular argument? Only in one sense. We are not called to use arguments such as this: “The Bible is true; therefore, the Bible is true.” One can certainly say that there is a kind of circularity in presuppositional apologetics, but the circularity is neither vicious nor fallacious. It sounds circular to say that our faith governs our reasoning and also that it is in turn based on rationality. But it is important to remember that the rationality of which we speak, the rationality that serves as the rational basis for faith, is God’s own rationality. The sequence is as follows: God’s rationality → human faith → human reasoning. The arrows may be read “is the rational basis for.” So in this sense, the sequence is linear, not circular. But if faith is in accord with God’s own thought, then it goes without saying that it will also be in accord with the best human reasoning, which images God’s. God gave us our rational equipment not to deceive us, but so that we might gain knowledge. Apart from sin, we may trust it to lead us into the truth; and even to sinners, the facts of God’s creation bear clear witness of him to the human mind (Rom. 1:20). In biblical argument, therefore, there is both reasoning and evidence: the clear revelation that God has given of himself in the created world. So it is both right and proper to use evidences and human logic to confirm faith. Scripture does this very thing, frequently calling on people to look at the evidences of the truth (Ps. 19:1; Luke 1:1–4; John 20:30–31; Acts 1:1–3; 26:26; Rom. 1:19–20). Biblical religion is unique in its appeal to history as the locus of divine revelation. God has plainly revealed himself both in nature and in historical events. So it is quite legitimate, as we will see, to argue on the basis of evidence, such as the testimony of five hundred witnesses to the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:6). Eyewitness accounts may be used argumentatively as follows: • Premise 1: If Jesus’ postresurrection appearances are well attested, then the resurrection is a fact. • Premise 2: His postresurrection appearances are well attested. • Conclusion: Therefore, the resurrection is a fact. This is not a circular argument on any reasonable definition of circularity. And yet a certain circularity becomes evident when someone asks, “What are your ultimate criteria for good attestation?” or “What broad view of human knowledge permits you to reason from eyewitness testimony to a miraculous fact?” The empiricist philosophy of David Hume, to use only one example, does not allow for that kind of argument. The fact is that the Christian here is presupposing a Christian epistemology—a view of knowledge, testimony, witness, appearance, and fact that is subject to Scripture. In other words, he is using scriptural standards to prove scriptural conclusions.37 Does that procedure deserve to be condemned as circular? Everyone else reasons the same way. Every philosophy must use its own standards in proving its conclusions; otherwise, it is simply inconsistent. Those who believe that human reason is the ultimate authority (rationalists) must presuppose the authority of reason in their arguments for rationalism. Those who believe in the ultimacy of senseexperience must presuppose it in arguing for their philosophy (empiricism). And skeptics must be skeptical of their own skepticism (a fact that is, of course, the Achilles’ heel of skepticism). The point is that when one is arguing for an ultimate criterion, whether Scripture, the Qur’an, human reason, sensation, or whatever, one must use criteria compatible with that conclusion. If that is circularity, then everybody is guilty of circularity.38 Does this fact eliminate the possibility of communication between believer and unbeliever? It might seem so. The Christian argues on biblical criteria that the resurrection is a fact. The non-Christian replies that he cannot accept those criteria and that he will not accept the resurrection unless we prove it by, say, the standards of Hume’s empiricism. We reply that we cannot accept Hume’s presuppositions. The unbeliever says that he cannot accept ours. Does that end the conversation? Certainly not, for several reasons. 1. At one level, the unbeliever already knows the truth. In the first place, as I have said, Scripture tells us that God has revealed himself clearly to the unbeliever, even to such an extent that the unbeliever knows God (Rom. 1:21). Although he represses that knowledge (vv. 21ff.), there is at some level of his consciousness a memory of that revelation. It is against this memory that he sins, and it is because of that memory that he is held responsible for those sins. At that level, he knows that empiricism is wrong and that Scripture’s standards are right. We direct our apologetic witness not to his empiricist epistemology or whatever, but to his memory of God’s revelation and to the epistemology implicit in that revelation. To do that, to accomplish such meaningful communication, we not only may but must use Christian criteria, rather than those of unbelieving epistemology. So when the unbeliever says, “I can’t accept your presuppositions,” we reply: “Well, let’s talk some more, and maybe they will become more attractive to you (just as you hope yours will become more attractive to me) as we expound our ideas in greater depth. In the meantime, let’s just keep using our respective presuppositions and move along to some matters that we haven’t discussed.” 2. Our witness to the unbeliever never comes alone. In the second place, if God chooses to use our witness for his purposes, then he always adds a supernatural element to that witness—the Holy Spirit, working in and with the Word (Rom. 15:18–19; 1 Cor. 2:4–5, 12ff.; 2 Cor. 3:15–18; 1 Thess. 1:5 [cf. 2:13]; 2 Thess. 2:13–14). If we have doubts about our own ability to communicate, for whatever reason, we need not doubt the ability of the Holy Spirit. And if our witness is fundamentally his tool, then our strategy must be dictated by his Word, not by our supposedly commonsense suppositions. 3. We all already do this . In the third place, this is in fact what we do in similar cases that are not normally considered religious. Imagine someone living in a dreamworld—perhaps a paranoid, who believes that everyone is out to kill him. We’ll call him Oscar. Let’s say that Oscar presupposes this horror, so that every bit of evidence to the contrary is twisted and made to fit the conclusion. Every kind deed, for example, becomes in Oscar’s view evidence of a nefarious plot to catch him off guard and plunge a knife into his ribs. Oscar is doing what unbelievers do, according to Romans 1:21ff.—exchanging the truth for a lie. How can we help him? What shall we say to him? What presuppositions, what criteria, what standards would we employ? Certainly not his, for to do that would lead us to embrace his paranoia. Certainly not “neutral” criteria, for there are none. One must either accept his presupposition or reject it. Of course, the answer is that we reason with him according to the truth as we perceive it, even though that truth conflicts with his deepest presuppositions. On some occasions, he might answer, “Well, we seem to be reasoning on different assumptions, so we really cannot get anywhere.” But on other occasions, our true reasoning might penetrate his defenses. For Oscar is, after all, a human being. At some level, we assume, he knows that not everyone is out to kill him. At some level, he is capable of hearing and being changed. Paranoids do sometimes, after all, revert to sanity. We speak the truth to him in the hope that that will happen, and in the knowledge that if words are to help at all in this situation, they must convey the truth, not further error, to bring healing.39 I take it, then, that a presuppositional approach to apologetics is warranted not only in Scripture, but also in common sense. 4. We never run out of topics for discussion . In the fourth place, Christian apologetics can take many forms. If the unbeliever objects to the “circularity” of the Christian’s evidential arguments, the Christian can simply change to another kind of argument, such as an “offensive” apologetic against the unbeliever’s own worldview or epistemology. That apologetic will also be circular in the precise sense noted above, but less obviously so. It could be presented Socratically, as a series of questions: How do you account for the universality of logical laws? How do you arrive at the judgment that human life is worth living? And so on. Or perhaps, as the prophet Nathan did with King David, when David would not otherwise repent of his sin (2 Sam. 11–12), we can tell the unbeliever a parable. Maybe we can tell the one about the rich fool (Luke 12:16–21). Van Til advocated a frank and explicit comparison of the competing worldviews. How might this interaction with a non-Christian look when we are bound to speak from Christian presuppositions? In very general terms, it goes like this: BELIEVER: The gospel is true because X, Y, Z. UNBELIEVER: But your argument presupposes the truth of Scripture. BELIEVER: Yes, but everyone presupposes something. You presuppose the autonomy of human reason. UNBELIEVER: But how can you argue the truth of Scripture by appealing to Scripture? That’s circular. BELIEVER: No more circular than appealing to reason to prove reason. UNBELIEVER: Well, then, you have your presupposition and I have mine. Does that mean that we cannot reason together at all? BELIEVER: No, there is still a lot that we can talk about. Let’s put your presupposition on the table, with your arguments, and I’ll do the same with mine. We can compare the two. I think I can show that your argument “deconstructs”—that is, that it cannot even work within your own presuppositional framework. UNBELIEVER: Good! Show me how you do that. Those who believe that presuppositionalism eliminates communication between believer and unbeliever underestimate God’s power to reach the unbelieving heart. They also underestimate the variety and richness of a biblical apologetic, the creativity that God has given to us as his spokespersons, and the many forms that a biblical apologetic can take. 5. Not all circularity is created equal . In the fifth place, I have, in DKG and elsewhere, distinguished between “narrowly circular” and “broadly circular” arguments. An example of the former would be: “The Bible is the Word of God because it is the Word of God.” That might itself be a way of saying, “The Bible is the Word of God because it says it is.” I agree with any nonpresuppositionalist that this narrowly circular argument is not an apologetic claim in a serious sense. In fact, it acts as a contrast to those arguments that I believe have real apologetic value. But is there no truth at all in the narrowly circular argument? Let us formulate the argument a bit more formally: • Premise 1: Whatever the Bible says is true. • Premise 2: The Bible says that it is the Word of God. • Conclusion: Therefore, the Bible is the Word of God. Both premises are true from an evangelical viewpoint, and they do validly imply the conclusion. So the conclusion is true because the two premises are true. We believe that the Bible is the Word of God because it says that it is the Word of God. A profound truth is vividly displayed in this narrow argument, namely, that there is no authority higher than Scripture by which Scripture may be judged, and that in the final analysis we must believe Scripture on its own say-so. Nevertheless, the narrow argument has some obvious disadvantages. In particular, an unbeliever will likely dismiss it out of hand, unless a great deal of explanation is given. We may overcome those disadvantages to some extent by moving to a broader circular argument. That broader argument says, “The Bible is the Word of God because of various evidences,” and then it specifies those evidences. Now, the argument is still circular in a sense, because the apologist chooses, evaluates, and formulates these evidences in ways controlled by Scripture. But this argument tends to hold the unbeliever’s attention longer and to be more persuasive. Circularity, in the sense that I have conceded it, can be as broad as the whole universe, for every fact witnesses to the truth of God.

God’s Responsibility and Ours

The relation of divine sovereignty to human responsibility is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. It is plain from Scripture in any case that both are real and that both are important. Calvinistic theology is known for its emphasis on divine sovereignty—for its view that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). But in Calvinism there is at least an equal emphasis on human responsibility. An equal emphasis? Many would not be willing to say that about Calvinism. But consider the Calvinistic emphasis on the authority of God’s law—a more positive view of the law than in any other tradition of evangelical theology. To the Calvinist, human beings have duties before God. Adam failed to fulfill his duty and plunged the human race into sin and misery. But Jesus fulfilled his duty and brought eternal salvation to his people. Although God is sovereign, human obedience is of the utmost importance. God will fill and subdue the earth, but only through human effort (Gen. 1:28–30). He will gather his elect from all nations into his church, but only through faithful human preaching (Matt. 28:18–20; Acts 1:8; Rom. 10:13–15). Salvation comes to people solely by God’s sovereign grace, without any human effort; yet we are to receive that salvation by grace and “work [it] out” with “fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12)—not in spite of, but because of the fact that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (v. 13). You see that typically God’s sovereignty does not exclude, but engages human responsibility.41 Indeed, it is God’s sovereignty that grants human responsibility, that gives freedom and significance to human choices and actions, that ordains an important human role within God’s plan for history. It is important for us to maintain this balance between divine sovereignty and human obedience in apologetics. We have already seen that apologetics cannot be successful apart from a supernatural element, namely, the testimony of the Holy Spirit. In that sense, apologetics is a sovereign work of God. It is he who persuades the unbelieving mind and heart. But there is also a place for the human apologist. He has the same place as the preacher mentioned in Romans 10:14. Indeed, he is the preacher. Apologetics and preaching are not two different things. Both are attempts to reach unbelievers for Christ. Preaching is apologetic because it aims at persuasion. Apologetics is preaching because it presents the gospel, aiming at conversion and sanctification. Yet the two activities do have different perspectives or emphases. Apologetics emphasizes the aspect of rational persuasion, while preaching emphasizes the seeking of godly change in people’s lives. But if rational persuasion is a persuasion of the heart, then it is the same thing as godly change. God is the persuader-converter, but he works through our testimony. Other terms are also roughly synonymous (or perspectivally related): witnessing, teaching, evangelizing, arguing, and the like. Another way of putting it is this: the Spirit is the One who converts, but he normally works through the Word. Faith wrought by the Spirit is trust in a message, a promise of God.42 As the earth was made by Spirit and word together (Gen. 1:2–3; Ps. 33:6 [“breath” = Spirit]), so God re-creates sinful human beings by his Word and Spirit (John 3:3ff.; Rom. 1:16ff.; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23). As we have seen, the Spirit’s work is necessary, but he works by illumining and persuading us to believe God’s words (1 Cor. 2:4; 1 Thess. 1:5).43 Thus, as I indicated above, the Spirit is necessary, but the preacher-apologist is also necessary. The work of the preacher-apologist is to present the Word. And his job is not just to read the Word, but to preach it—that is, to expound it, to apply it to his hearers, to display its beauty, its truth, its rationality. The preacher-apologist seeks to combat the unbeliever’s false impressions and present to him the Word as it really is. It is to this testimony that the Spirit also bears witness. This discussion will suffice to answer those who oppose the work of apologetics out of fear that it is an attempt to play God. There need not be any such competition between God’s work and ours, as long as we recognize both God’s ultimate sovereignty and his determination to use human agents to accomplish his purpose. Apologetics, rightly understood, is not playing God; it is merely practicing a divinely ordained human vocation. Our discussion of divine sovereignty and human responsibility will also help us to answer those who insist that the Bible needs no defense. Charles Spurgeon is sometimes quoted (from somewhere!) as saying, “Defend the Bible? I would as soon defend a lion.” Well, it is certainly true that Scripture, attended by the Spirit, is powerful (Rom. 1:16; Heb. 4:12–13). And it does defend itself, giving reasons for what it says. Think of all the “therefores” in Scripture, such as in Romans 8:1 and 12:1. Scripture does not merely tell us to believe and do certain things; it tells us to do them for certain reasons. This is Scripture defending itself, indicating its own rationale. But of course, when we as human preachers expound Scripture, we, too, must expound that rationale. Thus, we defend Scripture by using Scripture’s own defenses. Indeed, Scripture not only defends itself but goes on the attack against sin and unbelief! Still, remarkably enough, Scripture itself calls us to be its defenders (Phil. 1:7, 16, 27; 2 Tim. 4:2; 1 Peter 3:15). To defend the Bible is ultimately simply to present it as it is—to present its truth, beauty, and goodness, its application to present-day hearers, and, of course, its rationale. When that message is preached so that people understand, the Bible defends itself. But the Bible will not defend itself to those who have never heard its message. Spreading that message is a human task, the task of human defenders. Listen to the apostle Paul: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).

Sola Scriptura

“The Bible needs no defense” can also be used somewhat differently: as a way of invoking the Protestant principle sola Scriptura, the sufficiency of Scripture. Some fear that apologetics (which over the years has been notorious for injecting nonbiblical philosophical notions into Christian theology) may be seeking to subject Scripture to the judgment of something beyond Scripture. That is, of course, a great danger for the traditional apologetic, and it can happen unintentionally even when an apologist seeks to be presuppositional. But when apologetics is consistently presuppositional—that is, when it frankly recognizes that its own methods are subject to biblical norms— then it will avoid this danger. Sola Scriptura, after all, does not require the exclusion of all extrabiblical data, even from theology. It simply requires that in theology and in all other disciplines, the highest authority, the supreme standard, must be Scripture and Scripture alone. As Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6 puts it, it is as “the whole counsel of God” that Scripture may not be added to. There can be no objection to mentioning extrabiblical data in apologetics, as long as those data are not presented as “counsel of God” on the same level as Scripture. Human thought, even theology, requires the use of extrabiblical data, for we are always dealing with the contemporary world in which God has placed us. Obviously, physics, sociology, geology, psychology, medicine, and so forth must respond to data beyond the Scriptures. Theology must do the same, because it is not a mere reading of Scripture, but an application of Scripture to human need.44 Theology, therefore, always faces the danger of elevating the theologian’s own conception of human need to a position of equal authority to, or even greater authority than, the Scriptures. But through prayer and meditation on God’s Word, that danger can be avoided. Therefore, to defend the Bible according to its own standards, even when we use extrabiblical data in the process, is not to add anything to Scripture as our supreme standard. It is simply to expose, as we saw above, the rationality of Scripture itself. It is sometimes hard to rid ourselves of the notion that when we argue the truth of Scripture based on facts outside of Scripture, we are elevating those facts (ultimately our own fact-gathering) to a position of greater authority than Scripture. It seems that we are measuring Scripture by those facts—that we are judging Scripture on the basis of their (presumably higher) authority. Van Til himself seemed to fear this, though not consistently.45 But this is not necessarily the case. When I say, “There is design in the world; therefore, God exists,” I might in fact be getting the premise from Scripture itself! (Surely Scripture teaches that there is design in the world!) In addressing the unbeliever, I might be addressing the knowledge that, according to Romans 1:18ff., he has obtained from creation. Indeed, when I say that, I could very well be expressing the certainty of my heart that design is unintelligible apart from the biblical God, and therefore that the very existence of design implies his reality. It is not that my concept of design is something by which I judge the Bible; rather, the Bible tells me what must be true if design is to exist. What about using extrabiblical historical or scientific data to confirm biblical teachings? Surely, some might say, to do that implies that we have more confidence in this data than we do in the Bible, that we consider this data to have more credibility. And again, my reply is negative. I have far more confidence in the truth of the biblical history than I have in the reliability of, for example, Josephus.46 But he does occasionally confirm biblical statements, and I think it is perfectly legitimate to mention that fact in apologetic discussions. The point is not that Josephus is more authoritative than, say, Luke. It is rather that even the non-Christian Josephus at points recognized the facts that Scripture records.47 And modern skeptics, who are often willing to believe even the least reliable non-Christian historians in preference to God’s Word, must take note that even first-century non-Christian historians wrote as one would expect them to, granted the truth of Scripture. Again, this sort of argument does not add anything to Scripture in a way that would compromise the sola Scriptura principle. It adds nothing to our stock of supremely authoritative truth. That is in the Bible and nowhere else. Further, in one sense, arguments such as the causal argument or the Josephus argument, even though they involve extrabiblical data, aim simply at communicating the Scripture “as it really is.” After all, to see Scripture rightly, it helps to see it in its various contexts: the context of its contemporary culture (with writers such as Josephus) and the context of the overall universe (including cause and purpose). To see Scripture rightly is to see how it fits and illumines those contexts. In that sense, a proper causal or historical argument does not go beyond Scripture. It simply shows the applicability of scriptural truth to some area of the world, and thus it displays the Bible in its full meaning. I conclude that we may use extrabiblical data in apologetics, but not as independent criteria to which Scripture must measure up. How ridiculous it would be to imagine that God’s Word must be considered false if it fails to agree with Josephus or Eusebius or Papias—or with some anthropologist’s theories about “early man”! Precisely the opposite is the case. We should simply present Scripture as it is, that is, as sometimes agreeing with other writings and sometimes not. That is what we would expect if God’s Word were to enter a world of finitude and sin. And that very fact can, by God’s grace, be persuasive. Our job is to present the Bible as it is, and to do so we must often refer to it in various contexts.

Sola Scriptura and Natural Revelation

To relate Scripture to its contexts is to relate it to natural revelation. Natural revelation is the revelation of God in everything that he has made (Pss. 19:1ff.; 104:1ff.; Rom. 1:18ff.), including human beings, who are his image (Gen. 1:27; 9:6; James 3:9). Every human being is surrounded by God’s revelation, even within himself. This includes, of course, the unbeliever. As I stated earlier, the unbeliever knows God clearly (Rom. 1:21) but seeks to repress that knowledge in various ways. Natural revelation reveals the eternal power and nature of God (Rom. 1:20). It also reveals his moral standards (1:32) and his wrath against sin (same verse; cf. v. 18). But it does not reveal God’s plan of salvation, which comes specifically through the preaching of Christ (Rom. 10:17; cf. vv. 13–15). We have that preaching of Christ in definitive form in the Scriptures, and on the authority of Scripture we continue to preach the gospel to the world. Why do we need two forms of revelation? For one thing, direct divine speech shortens the “learning curve.” Even unfallen Adam needed to hear God’s direct speech that supplemented and interpreted God’s revelation in nature. He didn’t need to figure everything out for himself; in many cases, that might have taken a long time or indeed been impossible for the finite mind. So as God’s faithful covenant servant, Adam accepted this help gratefully. He accepted God’s interpretation of the world until he made the tragic decision to accept Satan’s interpretation instead. But after the fall, at least two other reasons for special divine speech entered the picture. One was man’s need of a saving promise, a promise that could never be deduced from natural revelation alone. The other reason was to correct our sinful misinterpretations of natural revelation. Romans 1:21–32 shows what people do with natural revelation when left with no other word of God. They repress it, disobey it, exchange it for a lie, disvalue it, and honor those who rebel against it.49 Thus, God has given us Scripture, or special revelation,50 both to supplement natural revelation (by adding to it the message of salvation) and to correct our misuses of natural revelation. As Calvin said, the Christian should look at nature with the “spectacles of Scripture.” If even unfallen Adam needed to interpret the world according to God’s verbal utterance, how much more do we! The point is not that Scripture is more divine or more authoritative than natural revelation. Natural revelation is every bit the word of God and absolutely authoritative. The difference is that Scripture is a verbal divine utterance that God gives us to supplement and correct our view of his world. We must humbly accept that assistance. In doing so, we do not make Scripture more authoritative than natural revelation; rather, we allow the Word (with its ever-present Spirit) to correct our interpretations of natural revelation.51 To allow Scripture this corrective work, we must accept the principle that our settled belief52 as to Scripture’s teaching must take precedence over what we would believe from natural revelation alone.53 God gave Scripture as the covenant constitution of the people of God, and if it is to serve us in that way, it must take precedence over all other sources of knowledge. It is wrong, for example, to suggest (as many do) that the “two books of nature and Scripture” should be read side by side, carrying equal weight in every respect. That sort of argument has been used to justify relatively uncritical Christian acceptance of evolution, secular psychology, and so on. In such arguments, Scripture is not permitted to do its corrective work, to protect God’s people from the wisdom of the world (see 1 Cor. 2:6– 16). Hence sola Scriptura. Nevertheless, natural revelation, rightly understood through the “spectacles of Scripture,” is of tremendous value to the Christian, and specifically to the apologist. As we look at nature with God’s help, we see that the heavens really do “declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1). We see some of the very interesting ways in which human beings image God.54 We see how it is that God furnishes the rational structure of the world and of the human mind, so that the two structures are adapted to each other. We see through science the astonishing wisdom of God’s plan (see Ps. 104). We see through history and the arts what evils result when people abandon God and what blessings (and persecutions, Mark 10:30!) follow those who are faithful to him. Traditional apologists have not always understood nature to be revelation of God. Aquinas did not distinguish between natural and special revelation, but between reasoning with and reasoning without the assistance of revelation. It is easy to understand how such views can be characterized as “autonomous” or “neutralist.” Other traditionalists, however, have made much of the concept of natural revelation, even describing their method as one that presents natural revelation (somehow apart from special) to the unbeliever. Certainly there can be no objection to presenting natural revelation to the unbeliever. We must, however, be careful that our statements about natural revelation are in line with scriptural teaching—that we are looking at nature through the “spectacles of Scripture.” Showing natural revelation to the unbeliever is not an invitation to him to reason neutrally or autonomously or to ignore the Scriptures. Therefore, in a sense, natural and special revelation must never be separated in an apologetic encounter.55 Such a presentation of the Word, then, may include many sorts of arguments and evidences. Presuppositionalists are often accused of rejecting the use of evidence. This simply is not so.56 The use of extrascriptural evidence, therefore, may be seen as part of a godly use of Scripture itself. It is an obedient response to Scripture’s own view of the world. In principle, presuppositionalists have a higher view of evidence than some evidentialists do. In presuppositionalism, evidence is not a merely probable witness to the truth of Christianity; rather, it is sure and certain. God’s normative interpretation of it is the only rational interpretation of it.57 Therefore, presuppositionalism does not involve any general prejudice against the use of extrabiblical data; such prejudice is impossible in any apologetic that seeks to address current issues. We do not reject the use of evidences, even the use of theistic proofs. We only insist that these be scriptural arguments —that is, arguments that appeal to scriptural criteria.58 In Scripture’s teaching, nature points to God; so the obedient Christian apologist will show the unbeliever the various ways in which nature reveals God, without claiming neutrality and without allowing the use of non- Christian criteria of truth.59 Thus, while he appeals to natural revelation, he inevitably appeals to Scripture at the same time. Indeed, the very purpose of Scripture (as I emphasized in DKG) is application, the use of Scripture to illumine situations and persons outside itself. “Viewing creation in the light of Scripture” and “applying Scripture to creation” are the same activity, seen from different perspectives.60 Granted this approach, there need be no competition between presuppositions and evidences. Our scriptural presupposition authorizes the use of evidence, and the evidence is nothing more than the application of Scripture to our situation. The use of evidence is not contrary to sola Scriptura, but a fulfillment of that principle.


What is the use, the purpose, the value of apologetics? Since apologetics and preaching are perspectivally related, the benefits of the two are the same. As preaching leads to the conversion of the lost and the edification of the saints, so does apologetics. The specific work of giving an intellectual rationale has its usefulness within these broader contexts. For the believer, apologetics gives reassurance to faith as it displays the rationality of Scripture itself. That rationality also gives to the believer an intellectual foundation—a basis for faith and a basis for making wise decisions in life. Apologetics is not itself that foundation, but it displays and describes the foundation presented in Scripture, as well as the way in which we should, according to Scripture, build on that foundation. For the unbeliever, God might use apologetic reasoning to sweep aside rationalizations, arguments by which the subject resists conversion. Apologetics might also provide evidence conducive to a change in conviction. We are not saying that the unbeliever lacks evidence. He is surrounded by evidence in creation (Ps. 19:1ff.; Rom. 1:18ff.) and in himself (Gen. 1:26ff.) for the existence of God, and there is plenty of evidence in Scripture for the truth of other Christian doctrines. But an apologist can formulate that evidence, and do so in provocative ways, drawing the unbeliever’s attention to it. And he can apply it to the unbeliever’s particular objections. For those who never come to faith, apologetics still might be doing God’s work. Like preaching, again, it adds to their condemnation. Failure to repent and believe, despite faithful presentations of the truth, leads to more severe condemnation (Luke 12:47ff.).


James warns us, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). If we do not teach, our errors affect only ourselves; but if we do, our errors can affect others also. Thus, errors in those who teach are more serious and will be judged more severely. The apologist is, as we have indicated, a teacher; therefore, the scriptural warnings about teachers apply to apologists. Can we be more specific? In our theme verses, 1 Peter 3:15–16, Peter urges apologists to keep “a good conscience,” so that those who slander them will be “put to shame.” It is interesting that Peter does not urge apologists to be intelligent and knowledgeable (although such qualities are certainly helpful), but to lead consistently godly lives. He gives us a practical standard for a discipline that we are inclined to regard as theoretical.61 The fact is that every apologetic presentation has important practical contexts. Our communication with unbelievers consists not only of what we say, but also of how we live before them. If our life contradicts our doctrine, then our apologetics is hypocritical and loses credibility. But if our life and doctrine are consistent, then those who try to make us look bad will themselves lose credibility. They will, in the end at least, be put to shame. To be still more specific: apologists are subject to the same sins that everyone else is, but over the years, they have been especially prone to sins in two areas. In terms of Ephesians 4:15, which urges us to speak the truth in love, we may say that apologists have sometimes been guilty of speaking falsehoods and sometimes of speaking without love. The first is often condemned in the New Testament polemic against false teaching (2 Tim. 3; 2 Peter 2; etc.). It is remarkable how many heresies are traceable to apologetic motives. Someone will think, “If I am going to present Christianity more persuasively, I will have to show that it is compatible with the intellectual movements of my time. I must present Christianity as ‘intellectually respectable.’ ” Thus, various Christian doctrines are compromised, replaced by the doctrines of popular philosophy. The second-century apologists (Justin, Aristides, Athenagoras) were for the most part deeply committed Christians, but they compromised the Christian doctrine of creation, accommodating it to the Gnostic philosophical notion of a continuum of being between God and the world. This led to an almost impersonal concept of God (the unknowable being at the top of the scale) and a subordinationist view of the Trinity (Son and Spirit subordinate to God the Father, so that they could interact with the world, as the Father could not). Similar motivations are evident in Clement of Alexandria and Origen, in Thomas Aquinas, and more recently in Schleiermacher’s Speeches to the Learned Despisers of Christianity and the many modern theologians from Bultmann to Tillich to Pannenberg who want to show “modern man” the intellectual value of Christianity. Very often the apologetic motive has led to doctrinal compromise. That doesn’t mean that the apologetic motive is wrong; as we have seen, that motive in itself is scriptural. But the historic pattern and Scripture’s explicit admonitions should lead us to be highly cautious. And don’t be an apologist unless your first loyalty is to God—not to intellectual respectability, not to truth in the abstract, not to the unbeliever as such, not to some philosophic tradition. Contributing to such failures are other sins: misdirected love, underestimation of human sin (as if what the unbeliever needs is merely a better argument), ignorance of God’s revelation (especially of biblical presuppositionalism), and intellectual pride. The opposite violation of Ephesians 4:15 is speaking without love.62 Unfortunately, many contentious or quarrelsome people are attracted to the discipline of apologetics. In their hearts, they are unhappy unless they are in the midst of controversy; and if no controversy is going on, they will create one, picking fights over matters that could easily be overlooked or resolved peacefully. Scripture speaks often of this spirit and always negatively (Prov. 13:10; 18:6; 19:13; 26:21; Hab. 1:3; Rom. 2:8; 1 Cor. 1:11; 11:16; Phil. 1:16; Titus 3:9). One would do well to meditate on these passages before beginning a career in apologetics! This sort of contentiousness comes from pride, according to Proverbs 13:10. When one is too proud to “take advice” from others, he insists on his own way until he is forced to desist. Far from being wise, such people are foolish (Prov. 18:6) and under the direction of the devil himself (James 3:13–16). James goes on to say, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (vv. 17– 18). Paul even tells us that “knowledge” without love is not true knowledge: “We know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (1 Cor. 8:1–3). To defend the Christian faith with a quarrelsome spirit is to defend Christianity plus quarrelsomeness—a self-destructive hybrid. True Christianity—the Christianity that we are called to defend with word and life—says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9),63 and “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18).64 Hear also Peter, again in our theme text, urging the virtues of “gentleness” and “respect.” Gentleness is the way of love and peacemaking, a trait quite opposed to the contentious spirit. In circles such as my own that emphasize (rightly, in my view) a militant orthodoxy, gentleness is the most neglected of the biblical virtues. Is it possible to be militant and gentle at the same time? Of course. Let the Lord Jesus himself and his apostles show us the way.65 “Respect” is the ESV translation of the Greek word phobos, “fear.” The translations that use the term fear perhaps intend it to be taken as the fear of God (the NASB says “reverence”), or at least the apologist’s perception of the spiritual dangers of the situation. Respect would mean treating the unbeliever as what he is—a person created in the image of God. It would mean not talking down to him, but listening to him—not belittling him, but taking seriously his questions and ideas. Either idea would be in accord with other scriptural teachings. The bottom line is that we should relate the apologetic encounter to God and his purposes, rather than allow our own emotional evaluation of the unbeliever to dictate our approach to him.

Source: John Frame, Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief, pdf, (2015), 24-32.