More than men’s writings… (Prologue, Part 1)
One of the fundamental propositions under which this blog operates is the authority and inspiration of the Bible as understood by the historic orthodox Christian faith. This understanding is grounded in the Reformation with its principle of sola Scriptura and subsequent developments in the various areas of human endeavor have not required a rejection of that conclusion, although the battle has been waged quite heavily, and unfortunately, quite successfully in the hearts and minds of some.
It is a further operational principle here that the Christian faith is eminently reasonable and rational, affirming the primacy of the mind without denying the importance of the heart. In keeping with the principle of sola Scriptura, it is also affirmed that this conviction has its basis in the Scriptures themselves. So, in response to some favorable comments in an earlier post, I am initiating a series on basic Christian apologetics with this prologue. (You asked for it!)
Before diving into the data, however, we need to lay a foundation: just what is the relationship of faith to facts? What function does apologetics serve? Isn’t it a lost cause because there is no common ground from which both the believer and the unbeliever can start? And doesn’t the Bible just assume the existence of God without offering any evidence or argumentation? Or, in other words, is there a Biblical mandate for apologetics (since I’ve already said that we operate under the principle of sola Scriptura, where are the Scriptures backing up the primary proposition here?)?
The answers to these questions will lay the foundation for an examination in some detail of evidences in several areas, moving from weaker to stronger, so that, in the end, we will be able to say that here is evidence that the foundations on which this blog are established are not sinking sand but solid rock.
There are two books that will form the basis for the content of this series, and I recommend them highly to anyone who wants more information, or a still more detailed discussion of the topics into which we will be immersing ourselves in this series. I do not want to reproduce what has already been so aptly done, and I want to give credit where credit is due. Both of these books I’ve mentioned here before.
The first is Classical Apologetics – A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics, by R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Zondervan Publishing House, 1984 (ISBN: 0310-44951-0). For those of you with a more philosophical bent (some might say, warp), this is the book for you. It will inform this prologue primarily.
The second book is the revised and updated classic by Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Thomas Nelson, 1999 (ISBN: 0-785-24219-8). This is a unique book in that it is written as a resource for papers and in an outline form rather than prose. But the content is very extensive. Your worldview must account for this data. If you ignore it, it is not Christianity that is being irrational. Note that Josh McDowell started out to disprove Christianity by determining he would show the resurrection to be a fraud. By the way, this is the correct approach (1 Corinthians 15:13-19). The weight of the evidence for the resurrection as a fact of history led him in the opposite direction.
One last resource is a concise essay by R. C. Sproul that I previously posted entitled An Apology for Apologetics. I will be expanding somewhat on his effort in this post, but he covers many of the same points there.
The Elements of Faith
In describing and defining saving faith, Reformation scholars dissected out three elements. These elements help delineate the relationship of faith to facts. The first is notitia, the data or content of the Christian faith. One does not, and indeed, cannot, worship a God with his heart if he has no prior mental awareness of Him. Or, in other words, saving faith is not some mushy emotion of feel-good warmth and trust. This first and primary aspect of faith is cognitive. We believe in something, and thus there is factual content to our faith, whether or not there is a basis for those data, and whether or not you personally recognize it as such. The second element of saving faith is assensus, the assent of the intellect to the truth of the data of one’s faith. The heart cannot truly and fully embrace what the mind repudiates no matter how one tries to rationalize it. In addition, a vital point that Sproul, Gertsner, and Lindsley make with some eloquence:
It is possible to have a lucid understanding of the data (notitia) and even give intellectual assent (assensus) to its truth without having saving faith. James verifies this in his caustic statement, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder” (James 2:19). To achieve notitia and assensus gives us no more qualifications than devils. Yet these two elements are integral ingredients of the full measure of redemptive faith and are not dispensable. In and of themselves they are insufficient, but redemptive faith does not flow without them. (page 21)
It is the third element that cements the redemptive value of faith, and it is this element that can only be applied by the operation of God’s Holy Spirit, that of fiducia, a personal trust in Christ and His saving work alone for redemption, i.e., the achieving of a right standing before an holy and righteous God. Although the mind is engaged in fiducia, it goes beyond the intellect to encompass the heart, the will, the affections – in short, the whole man. Thus, the first and greatest commandment is “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.” (Mark 12:30)
For a biblical example of these three elements in the drama of human experience, read the story in John chapter nine of the man blind from birth healed by Jesus. The Pharisees have trouble determining and accepting the notitia and never get beyond a reluctant assensus (John 9:18). The man who was healed goes through all three stages, ending with the fiducia statement of “Lord, I believe” and worship (John 9:38).
So, faith and fact are intimately associated. If you place your faith in a falsehood, your faith is at best worthless, and more likely eternally suicidal.
The Value (Role) of Apologetics
In the Sproul article cited above, he gives us four “vital tasks” of apologetics. The first is in preevangelism, in assisting the mind as it acquires notitia and comes to a conclusion of assensus. I would also argue that God the Spirit sometimes uses the weight of the apologetic evidence to bring some of His elect to fiducia as well, to a true saving knowledge of Christ, as was noted above for Mr. McDowell. Granted, one must be careful in using this approach, for unregenerate sinners love to get you entangled in their smoke screens of argumentation just to prevent a serious consideration of the claims of Christ upon their own lives. Nor am I saying that we can argue people into the kingdom of heaven. What I am saying is many are the tools of evangelism, including simple gospel presentations, preaching, and the giving of one’s personal testimony, and God can use any or all, as He sees fit, to accomplish His purposes and to call His elect. However, if no reason is given for why one should believe, we leave the sinner with “an out” that allows him to say that since you didn’t answer his question(s) (granted, many of which will be absurd in the extreme), he won’t listen to you, period. Thus, as a responsible workman, we need to know how to use as many tools as possible. More on this when we look at the biblical mandate for apologetics.
The second task of apologetics is the restraint of evil. Sproul notes Calvin’s argument that one value of apologetics was to “stop the mouths of the obstreperous.” The idea is that apologetics, though not able to convert the infidel, can restrain the unbeliever from unbridled assault against the faith. The laws of the land being based on Old Testament law, we should all agree that we are better off individually and collectively when murder, theft, and lying are considered wrong, evil, and otherwise deserving of punishment. Yes, I know there are some who want to make victims out of the perpetrators, but that makes my point. The very existence of civilization suffers when the biblical ideals are rejected and we embrace the evil: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!” (Isaiah 5:20-21)
The support and encouragement of believers is the third task of apologetics. I don’t mean to be offensive, but we Christians are repeatedly called “sheep” in the Scriptures (e.g., Psalm 100:3), and sheep are not always the brightest bulbs in the pack. As such, particularly newborn Christians can be easily intimidated by the pseudo-intellectual attacks upon their faith. Moreover, we are told that we wrestle not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), and the enemy of our soul loves to raise one doubt after another; it was his primary attack upon Eve all the way back in the garden (Genesis 3). Even John the Baptist, when he was in prison, finally sent messengers to Jesus asking whether or not He was the Messiah, a question fraught with doubt (Luke 7:19-23). And can you blame him? He’s now locked away in prison for preaching righteousness and prisoners in those days had to compete with the rats in their cells for their food. They didn’t have the ACLU (or whatever bleeding hearts are responsible; and no, I’m not saying prisoners should be treated like animals, though some certainly deserve it, but neither should they be treated like honored guests) to get them the amenities we provide in prisons today. Instructive is how Jesus answers John. He does not exhort him to greater faith, or deliver any feel-good psychological ploys, nor does He berate him for his doubt. Instead, “Then Jesus answering said unto them, Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached.” What Jesus has done is provided John, through his disciples, with objective empirical evidence grounded in prophecy, and told him to reason logically from effect to cause. In the same way, Christians may be encouraged that their faith is not an illogical blind leap of faith that will end in eternal catastrophe.
Lastly, Sproul suggests a fourth task that is very close to the second, that of providing commonplace benefits. By this he means the beneficial influence of Christianity on the cultural climate of a civilization by informing the institutions that shape that culture. As Sproul et al. note, “Man’s general welfare is enhanced by a cultural consensus in which Christianity and its values are deemed credible.” And please, don’t regurgitate the tripe about Christianity is the cause of all wars and all kinds of evil in the world. Don’t reveal your own ignorance of history and shallowness of analysis so profoundly.
In Part 2 of this Prologue (I promise there will only be two parts, and then we get to go have fun with data), we will venture into the questions of the existence of common ground for the believer and unbeliever, and finally the biblical mandate for apologetics. Forging ever onward….