In John Bunyan’s book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Faithful asks during discourse with Talkative, “What thing so worthy of the use of the tongue and mouth of men on earth, as are the things of the God of heaven?” This is a great rhetorical question—one the apologist must ask himself as well. If faith comes by hearing, and if it is Christianity as told to us in Scripture that we seek to defend, what good will it do an apologist to leave the place where he is moored to venture into illusory territory? The covenantal apologist, therefore, must utilize the Bible and theology in discourse with unbelievers. Cornelius Van Til says, “To engage in philosophical discussion does not mean that we begin without Scripture. We do not first defend theism philosophically by an appeal to reason and experience in order, after that, to turn to Scripture for our knowledge and defense of Christianity.” This is because “we have taken the final standard of truth to be the Bible itself.” And even more assertive, Val Til says the reason the apologist should emphasize the Bible, is because “every knowledge transaction has in it somewhere a reference point to God.” Therefore, Van Til concludes, “The only possible way for the Christian to reason with the nonbeliever is by way of presupposition. He must say to the unbeliever that unless he will accept the presuppositions… there is no coherence in human experience.” In other words, the apologist does not say, “There are facts and evidence, now let’s see if God exists.” Instead, the apologist says, “God exists; therefore, facts and evidence exist.” In this way, the apologist presupposes the truth of the Bible—he does not leave the Bible to defend the Bible—for without this presupposition “there is no coherence in human experience.”
Without defending the faith in this manner, Van Til asks:
But how shall men ever be challenged to look inside themselves and find that all that is not of faith is sin if they are encouraged to think that without the light of Scripture and without the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit they can, at least in the natural sphere, do what is right?
The covenantal apologist will begin by asserting, as Van Til does, “I take what the Bible says about God and his revelation to the universe as unquestionably true on its own authority.” It is from this foundation that we defend the faith. Undoubtedly, this is the principle we get from 2 Corinthians 10:3-4, which teaches that the weapons of the Christian are not weapons of the flesh, but are weapons of God: “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (v. 4). The clash of worldviews between those in Christ and those in Adam is nothing less than a spiritual clash, and spiritual clashes require spiritual weapons. These “weapons” or tools are given to us in Scripture. In his travels, it was commonplace for the Apostle Paul to use Scripture in his apologetic encounters, as Scripture records that Paul “reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2), and “refuted,” false claims using the Scriptures (Acts 18:28). The apologist, therefore, knows that the “divine power” is in the divine weapons. The use of God’s weapons ought, then, to play a central role.
Some, however, believe that we cannot stand in biblical principles and categories during an apologetic encounter when the unbeliever doesn’t believe the Bible in the first place. Some other authority, they believe, must be appealed to in order to establish the authority of Scripture in the mind of the unbeliever. New Testament scholar Michael Kruger’s statement has application in this debate:
We tend to think that we are not justified in holding a belief unless it can be authenticated on the basis of other beliefs. But… this approach overlooks the unique nature of the canon. The canon, as God’s Word, is not just true, but the criterion of truth. It is an ultimate authority… If we try to validate an ultimate authority by appealing to some other authority, then we have just shown that it is not really the ultimate authority.
Now, this doesn’t mean that all we do in apologetics is quote Bible verses and constantly retort (in the most annoying manner), “Well, the Bible says…” But it does mean that we begin with Scripture, and never leave Scriptural principles. There are several ways to say things. Sometimes you can just quote Scripture, and other times you can just paraphrase Scripture. With the former, the unbeliever will obviously know they’re hearing Scripture, but in the latter it will not be so obvious. This also, and more importantly, means that we bring the conversation back to the issue of authority: on what authority are you appealing to?
The take away here is that the Bible must frame our apologetic. We not only take our direction on how to do apologetics from Scripture, but Scripture is at all times seen as our highest authority and our foundation for knowledge. And being such, it has no other authority that it must appeal to. It is, rather, self-authenticating. John Calvin perhaps says it the best with regard to the self-attestation of Scripture:
The highest proof of Scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it… Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore, illuminated by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond guesswork!
Therefore, let us never lose sight of the supremacy, sufficiency, and power of Scripture in our apologetic method. God has given us wonderful tools for us to use when we encounter unbelievers, and it is these tools we must steward well. Our prayer is not merely that we win arguments, but that we win people, for, as Paul wrote, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Philadelphia: Charles Foster, 1891; reprint, Birmingham, AL: John L. Dagg, 2005), 140.
Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, ed. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1955), 28-29.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1975), I.7.4-5.
© copyright J. Brandon Burks