The Right Uses of Evidence
Defending our faith is important. In fact, our defense is often the first impression of Christianity upon an unbeliever. This isn’t important because we need to somehow impress an unbeliever enough so that they’ll believe in Jesus. This is important because this is a God-given task. “Are we glorifying God in our defense to the unbeliever?” ought to be our most thought of question when preparing to speak with those who are in rebellion against God.
It’s easy to misconstrue our defense. Sometimes, we want to take it into our own hands and begin throwing out evidences, as if these evidences will convince people into the kingdom of God (ignoring Rom 1:18). Other times, we may want to oversimplify our defense. Instead of answering the unbeliever’s questions, we simply play on the fact that the unbeliever has no way to account for why he or she would even be able to, or need to, ask a question (since atheism cannot even account for a single sentence).
However, I believe Scripture to be balanced between these two extremes. On one hand, relying on evidence too much can compromise Scripture when considering what it says about man’s sinfulness and the way in which God saves people. On the other hand, we can compromise Scripture when it comes to what it says about being respectful, and how it teaches us to communicate with the unbeliever.
I say all of that to say this: apologetics isn’t just about showing the unbeliever how their worldview reduces to absurdity, and then asking them questions like, “How do you know what you just said?” over and over again. Apologetics, presuppositional apologetics, is about demonstrating how the unbeliever’s worldview is absurd, and does not comport with God’s natural revelation; but it’s also about demonstrating to that unbeliever, in gentleness and respect, how Christianity makes sense over against any other worldly philosophy.
This is actually what Dr. Cornelius Van Til does in all of his written works. He seeks to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian position over against other worldly philosophies, by showing how any other option, besides Christianity, is exhausted.
I’ve written the following article in order to point out the right uses and misuses of evidences within a specific method of apologetics. Presuppositional apologetics is a growing brand, and it should be. But, it also must be handled with care and rightly articulated. My hope is that this article will help us to rethink how we go about our apologetic, and prompt us to ask, “Are we doing this right?”
It’s no secret that we ought to be ready to make a defense for the reason of the hope that is within us (1 Pet 3:15). The defense of our faith is a way in which we can glorify God through our lives.
Making a biblical defense, in gentleness and respect, pleases God because it’s something God has commissioned us to do through the writings of the apostle Peter, and in the actions of the apostle Paul (Acts 17:22).
That said, what is a defense of Christianity? What does it look like?
Fundamentally, a defense of our faith looks like a commitment to Christ as Lord (1 Pet 3:15a). But, how are we to be committed to this Lord?
“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
— Acts 17:22-25 (ESV)
Presuppositional apologetics, most famously expressed by the late Drs. Cornelius Van Til, and later, Greg Bahnsen, seeks to do just this. It’s an apologetic which considers the contents of Scripture before formulating a defense of the Christian system. It’s an entirely theologically-driven defense of the faith.
Presuppositional apologetics has been used rightly, and used wrongly, by people who have the purest intent, that is — to remain faithful to Scripture in their defense.
However, it’s important to get this right. After all, we are talking about the way in which we honor the God of the universe in our discussions with unbelievers. Far be it from us to displease our Lord as we do this.
The method itself isn’t especially difficult to understand, as it’s basically biblical.
It’s centered upon the fact that all people know God (Rom 1:18-21), and for that reason, we ought not imply in our arguments that unbelievers are wholly ignorant of His existence. If anyone has a right to speak concerning what someone else thinks or believes, it is God Himself, who knows all things.
Thus, when we defend our position against an unbeliever, we find the point of contact between us and them, that being: we both know God. However, the unbeliever’s knowledge of God and the believer’s knowledge of God differs concerning how much either one of us knows about God.
A believing Christian knows God as Trinity, he knows the power of God revealed unto Salvation in the gospel (Rom 1:16). He also knows about man, and who he himself is, in light of this holy God. More importantly, the believer has been regenerated, made able to believe that which God has said through His precious Word.
The believer can express, in biblical terms, more about the one true God than the unbeliever. He can do this because He has been granted this understanding from God Himself (Jn 1:18; Tit 3:5).
The unbeliever, on the other hand, knows this same God, but he knows Him only to the measure that it is this God which exists, and that there is something of this God’s character revealed in creation, “through the things that have been made.”
So, while our method runs on the fact that the unbeliever has no true appeal to ignorance, there is a great deal about God, and about Scripture, the unbeliever may be legitimately ignorant of.
It’s important that we also recognize the unbeliever is totally without excuse, since the unbeliever knows God to a measure which compels further discovery of God. Yet, the unbeliever refuses to pursue Him. He suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Acts 17:27; Rom 1:18).
That said, there are ways in which we can properly use additional information (i.e. Christian evidences), and there are also ways we can misuse it. I will look at both uses and misuses below.
One of the ways to properly follow our method, remaining faithful to 1 Peter 3:15b, is to provide the unbeliever more information than he currently has about our system of belief. Remember, we are to present our faith system in a spirit of gentleness and respect.
The gospel itself is information given to the unbeliever which he or she doesn’t, at that point, have.
Refusing to answer genuine questions of the unbeliever, questions we have answers to, is not necessarily a respectful thing to do, and thus borders on neglecting the latter portion of 1 Peter 3:15.
Because our opponent has absolutely no basis for knowing any facts, it is easy to simplify our method to the narrow task of revealing the absurdity of their attempts to make truth claims.
To be sure, we ought to do this. But, it’s very easy to stop at this point, with no desire to go any further into more detailed conversation.
But, why can’t we do both?
Why can’t we answer questions, and provide more information to our opponent than they currently possess, while also (first) demonstrating how their worldview is inconsistent with any type of truth claim?
This gets us into the problem of evidences.
Some presuppositional apologists refuse to integrate any sort of evidence into their method. However, the problem with this is that neither Scripture, nor the presuppositional academics, like Van Til or Bahnsen, thought evidence was out of the question during apologetic conversation.
Not to mention, offering any sort of dialogue in support of the Christian faith could be considered an evidence in itself. So, it doesn’t really make any sense to preclude the use of evidence, and then go on to offer a type of evidence.
What was out of the question, for people like Van Til and Bahnsen, was submitting evidence in order to prove God exists, as if God hasn’t made Himself known to all people (cf. Rom 1:18-21).
There is a distinction between attempting to use evidence to convince someone of a god, and using evidence as a way to demonstrate the primacy of the Christian position.
The former is wrong to do.
As mentioned above, God has made Himself known to all people. To use evidence in this way ignores biblical data given in places like Romans 1 and elsewhere.
The latter use, where we use evidence to demonstrate a correlation between Scripture and nature, is a proper way to use evidence. It’s not so much appealing to the evidence to get from point A (no god) to point B (some kind of god). Rather, it’s appealing to evidence in order to re-establish that which has already been made known.
Some might say this sounds redundant, but sin has a way of causing people to deceive themselves so much that they might have actually been self-tricked into thinking there’s no evidence for Christianity.
I think, within the context of pointing out to the unbeliever that his or her worldview is inconsistent with the world in which he or she lives, it’s completely God-honoring to present these evidences — not as proofs — but as examples of the overwhelming substantiation of Christianity found in both special and general revelation.
Common misuses of our method manifest themselves as either an oversimplification or a slip into implying Scripture doesn’t say what it actually says.
When I say oversimplification, I mean to say that it’s easy to refuse some forms of dialogue after the initial reductio ad absurdum (reduction to absurdity) has been presented to the unbeliever.
For example, let’s say we just finished showing how the atheist, according to their worldview, shouldn’t really be able to know anything at all (reducing atheism to absurdity); they might fall back to some type of moral argument against God. They may say something like, “Well, the Old Testament presents a different kind of God than the New Testament presents!”
Now, they just made a blasphemous charge against the Word of God. We could essentially react in two different ways. We could say something like, “Well, to go into Scripture with you is useless since you are an atheist and will just reject my explanation anyway.”
Or, we could say something like, “As a matter of fact, Scripture is consistent all the way through. For example, in Revelation 14, we see the Lamb (i.e. Jesus) present in the judgement of the reprobate, just as He was present for the judgment of Canaan (Jos 5:15).”
They very well may reject this response according to their sin nature. But, they also may have received information which they didn’t have before, information God may use as a means to convict them of their rebellion against Him.
This is not to say that the unbeliever merely lacks information, and that it is this lack of information we can blame for them not coming to Christ. That completely flies in the face of the Doctrines of Grace. It’s obvious, from Scripture, that it takes an act of God alone to bring a dead sinner to life (Eph 2:1; Jam 1:18).
We also, however, must admit that God ordains means through which He draws people. If He didn’t do this, evangelism would be nonsensical and hyper-Calvinism might actually be true. God works through people to draw His will to fruition.
Therefore, there is nothing “un-Reformed” about a Christian providing more information to an unbeliever than what they previously possessed.
The Christian would also continue to uphold 1 Peter 3:15 by answering the question, so there is no danger of compromising how we are to defend our faith. The Christian can continue to recognize the Lordship of Christ, he can provide a defense, and he can do it in gentleness and respect.
Moreover, the Christian can continue to remain faithful to Romans 1:18-21. He would never undermine the fact that all people know the God of the Bible.
Not correcting blasphemous language against God’s Word could be taken, by some, as approving of blasphemous behavior. We need to correct those who speak in error concerning the very Word of God, in gentleness and respect, in hopes God will draw them to Himself through these means.
The second misuse of our apologetic could look like the exact opposite of the first. It could be that we begin to rely on empirical evidences as if those evidences themselves will convince someone to believe in a generic deity, so that we can then move, ever so gradually, toward the gospel.
This does begin to infringe upon the information revealed from Romans 1:18-21, and if we neglect a single portion of God’s Word in our apologetic, we compromise 1 Peter 3:15, “honor Christ the Lord as holy.” Thus, before we know it, we have neglected the entirety of God’s Word while making our defense.
CLOSING WITH VAN TIL
“In the first place, Christian theism must be defended against non-Christian science. It is this that we seek to do in the course of Christian evidences. Evidences, then, is a subdivision of apologetics in the broader sense of the word, and is coordinate with apologetics in the more limited sense of the word.
“Christian-theistic evidence is, then, the defense of Christian theism against any attack that may be made upon it by “science.” Yet it is Christian theism as a unit that we defend. We do not seek to defend theism in apologetics and Christianity in evidences, but we seek to defend Christian theism in both courses.” — Cornelius Van Til
We live in a world gloriously created by our great God. Every fact of creation, as Van Til goes on to say, is a fact first comprehensively known and interpreted in the mind of God. God knows all things actual, and all things possible. He created the stars, the planets; He created the ocean, the land, and all the animals which populate both.
He created you and me, in His image. What a marvelous thing, to study the creation of God and to be able to use that study throughout the course of making our defense to the unbeliever — all in hopes that God will draw that unbeliever to Himself.
All of creation is evidence for the Christian God. We merely point to it and say:
“This does not mean that we hold creation or providence to be merely a matter of revelation in the sense that they are not rationally defensible. On the contrary, we hold that though we must, as sinners, get these doctrines from the Bible, they are indeed rationally defensible. With them it is as with the rest of the Bible teaching; unless they be true there can be no interpretation of anything without them. The world of facts would be utterly discrete. There would be no laws at all.” — Cornelius Van Til