In this segment, I would like to present, as the heading suggests, four key ideas in Van Til’s thought with regard to method, or how to do apologetics. This will be one of the more important installments in this series. Not that the others are unimportant, but in that this segment is the outcome of all that we have said thus far.
First, a primary thing covenantal apologists will do is filter much of the conversation through the facts or story of Christianity. For the Christian, “The nature of every fact in this world is determined by the place it occupies in the story.” Also, when considering the story, “We are not to define the essence of Christianity in terms of its lowest but rather in terms of its highest forms.” In other words, we are to describe Christianity in all its details. Presenting Christianity in a maximalist way will present an all-encompassing worldview, a total picture of reality. In this way, the unbeliever will see that the biblical worldview is not a pair of spectacles to be worn on Sunday mornings only, but that it involves the whole of life. “Mere Christianity,” writes Muether, regarding Van Til’s disdain for a minimalist approach, “is not Christianity come to its own; rather, it is less than the whole counsel of God, and it serves an insufficient means of nurturing and sustaining the Christian faith from generation to generation.”
This Christian narrative also needs to be the foundation of the conversation, for “If the natural man is… allowed to build the first story of the house in accordance with his own blueprint, the Christian cannot escape being controlled in a large measure by the same blueprint.” That is, the apologist will filter much of the conversation through the (maximalist) story of Christianity, which will keep the “blueprint” of the conversation on target.
This also has another key aspect to it: we cannot do apologetics without giving the gospel. If your prayer in apologetics is that the unbeliever be saved, and if he or she can only be saved by the gospel, then the gospel had better be part of your apologetic encounter. Shame on the apologist who spends hours and hours with an unbeliever walking through arguments and evidence without giving the gospel! Situation dictates, but, if allowed, I like to ask toward the beginning, “I know you probably already know this, but would you mind if I told you what Christianity is so we can get it out on the table for us to look at?” People typically don’t have a problem with you doing this. Then you can recite a gospel presentation from memory. Maybe it looks something like this:
There’s one sovereign, holy, all-knowing, unchanging, Creator God who exists in Three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He created and governs all that exists for His glory. And while humans were created in His image, we rebelled against God—transgressing the covenant—and are now law-breaking sinners. Though the punishment for sin is death, hell, and eternal separation from the Triune God, God, who is rich in mercy, sent His Son, Jesus, who is fully and eternally God, to become also fully man. Jesus was born of a virgin, fulfilled the law of God on our behalf by living a sinless life, performed many miracles during His earthly ministry (like healing the sick and raising the dead), He died on a cross as our substitute to take away the wrath of God that was due to us for sin, He clothed us with His own moral righteousness, He was resurrected from the grave (thus conquering death), He ascended into heaven (sitting the right hand of the Father) to be the sole mediator and intercessor between God and man (thus fulfilling and becoming the Davidic King). He sent the Holy Spirit to give us new life by His grace, to conform us into His holy image, to build His Church, and to breath out the Scriptures. Jesus will return in the future in which all the dead will be resurrected—those who followed Jesus will be resurrected to eternal life with Him in the New Heavens and New Earth, and those who did not follow Jesus will be resurrected to an eternal conscious torment in hell. If you place your faith in Christ, receive Him, and repent of your sins, you will be saved from the wrath of God, be free from bondage to sin and Satan, be justified in God’s sight, be reconciled to God and adopted into His family, and become covenant members of God’s Kingdom, to enjoy, love, worship, glorify, and rule with him for all of eternity.
Secondly, Van Til taught a type of two-step method. He said to crawl into the worldview of the nonbeliever to show how his or her worldview is incoherent, and “ask the non-Christian to place himself upon the Christian position for argument’s sake in order that he may be shown that only upon such a basis do “facts” and “laws” appear intelligible.” In this, the apologist is asking “the sinner to do what he knows the sinner of himself cannot do.” He is attempting to tear “the mask off the sinner’s face,” and compel him to “look at himself and the world for what they really are.” Through this methodology, the Christian is trying to appeal to the image of God in the nonbeliever, trying to get him or her to the recognition that he or she is a created person, and to “challenge their false assumption of their non-createdness, their autonomy or ultimacy.” When those in Adam are invited into the Christian worldview, they are reminded who they really are. The apologist can have confidence that he “gets through,” for every human, by virtue of them being made in God’s image, has “eikonic knowledge.” That is,
…all we are, think, do, and become are derivative, coming from or out of something else; we depend on, as well as mirror, the real, the Original, the Eimi. In classical terminology, we are ‘ectypal.’ The kind or type of people we are, knowledge we have, thoughts we think, things we do, is always and everywhere a copy, pattern, impression, image, taking its metaphysical and epistemological cue from the only One who truly is, that is, God himself.
This approach, as Van Til taught, can be seen in Proverbs 26:4-5, which reads, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Who is the fool? Scripture gives an example: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1). From Proverbs 26 the apologist learns that the fool is not to set the blueprint for the discussion. That is, the apologist doesn’t take the presuppositions of unbelief. But, on the other hand, as the latter part teaches, a helpful tool to use in apologetics is assuming, hypothetically, the worldview of the unbeliever in order to take his unbelief to its logical conclusion, which will always be irrationality.
One other clarifying point must be made. When we deconstruct the unbeliever’s worldview, we do so with regard to philosophy of fact, and not facts themselves. What I mean is this: deconstructing one’s worldview can be done by showing that the person cannot account for the most basic of things, such as objective morality, laws of logic, uniformity, diversity, meaning, values, universal authority, reliability of senses and memory, and the objectivity of love and beauty that transcends social constructs. Going after these types of things will prove fruitful in deconstructing an unbeliever’s worldview. The very things they hold most dear—the very things they live by—can be shown to not be as solidly founded as they might have thought. Why is it wrong to kill or steal? Why do you trust your senses? Why do you live as though there is meaning in life? Why do you say ____ is beautiful? Those who argue scientific and historic facts, however, often find themselves running up a never-ending hill. Bernard Ram put it this way:
The big problems of science… must be argued in terms of a broad philosophy of science. The evangelical always fought the battle on too narrow a strip. He argued over the authenticity of this or that bone; this or that phenomenon in a plant or animal; this or that detail in geology. The empirical data is [sic] just there and the scientist can run the evangelical to death in constantly turning up new material.
What will not prove fruitful, however, would be an attempt to deconstruct the unbeliever’s worldview by debating fact after fact, evidence after evidence. As we saw previously, the unbeliever views evidence different from Christians because we have different worldviews. Imagine saying this to an unbeliever: “The Jews acknowledged that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb, which shows that He rose from the grave. Your worldview is problematic because you can’t account for this fact!” This has little persuasive value because, while he admittedly cannot account for your interpretation of the facts, he can account for that fact in his worldview. He might say that the disciples stole the body, that Jesus wasn’t really dead and removed the stone away Himself, or that His body was eaten by wild dogs. His worldview can and does interpret the facts. Therefore, any attempt to deconstruct an unbeliever’s worldview by saying, “You can’t account for this or that fact,” is fruitless and leads to two people of two different worldviews talking past each other. Instead, get at the heart of the worldview by critiquing what it cannot account for.
Some describe this two-step approach in terms of “defensive” and “offensive” apologetics. Scott Oliphint further explains:
A more defensive answer would try to show that the argument itself carries little weight. It would set the argument out in such a way that it would appear itself to have serious problems. In that way, it would stop the advance of the argument. A more offensive approach, however, would respond to the problem, not just the argument, to help the challenger begin to think about the problem in a different, Christian way. Offensive apologetics, then, offers the Christian way of thinking and doing as a part of its approach.
An apologist using a more offensive approach, then, would bring the unbeliever into the Christian worldview in order for the unbeliever to see the Christian way of thinking. Since the “fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9:10), the apologist, appealing to the image of God and suppressed knowledge in the unbeliever, will try to “remind” those in Adam of who they really are—that they might turn from Satan to God (c.f. Acts 26:18). A helpful tool might be to say to the unbeliever, “Pretend for a moment that you are a Christian; pretend that you submit wholly and completely to the Scriptures.” Once the unbeliever has put his hypothetical “Christian glasses” on, ask him a series of questions that he must answer as a Christian: “Does it make sense that….”. This might prove to be the closest he’s come to proper thinking in his life.
Thirdly, another pertinent Scripture for the covenantal apologist is Paul’s great apologetic example in Acts 17:15-34. In this encounter, Paul saw the Alter to an Unknown God, and used it as a starting place to engage the philosophers in Gospel dialogue. He then quoted two of Athens’s poets who had written about Zeus, and repackaged it in a Christian context. Oliphint observes, Paul was saying to them, “Your ideas and concepts can be true only if they refer to the true God.” Paul, he continues, “turned their worldview upside down by ‘reminding’ them of who the true God is.” “This is masterful pathos, and it is persuasion at its finest,” he concludes.
Just as in Acts 17, covenantal apologetics meets the unbeliever where he is and can “start anywhere and with any fact.” “What we say, how we say it, and what words and responses we choose to give,” writes Oliphint, “will depend to a large extent on those to whom we speak.” Persuasion plays a key role in covenantal apologetics, because all humans have the sensus divinitatis that “provides the connecting link between what we say in apologetics and what God is always and everywhere ‘saying’ in and to his human creatures.” In persuasion, the covenantal apologist “takes something that the non-Christian has already claimed to be true, and uses it to the advantage of the Christian defense.” The use of persuasion is not, however, in opposition to proofs and evidence, but “in their proper place, both sides are mutually dependent. Persuasion, then, is the proper mode in which to consider the rational and the evidential,” writes Oliphint.
William Edgar wrote a useful book on persuasion in apologetics, and offers us a helpful reminder:
In doing apologetics we should strive to understand someone’s position from within. Our friends should sense that we know why they have come to their conclusions and what they are struggling with, for then our disclosure of the problems will be plausible. And if the disclosure is plausible, chances are the homecoming will be too.
Lastly, an argument often employed in this apologetic is the transcendental argument for God’s existance (TAG). Illustrative of this, Van Til writes, “The best and only possible proof for the existence of such a God is that his existence is required for the uniformity of nature and for the coherence of all things in the world.” He also writes that Christianity is the only position that “does not annihilate intelligent human experience.” More pointedly, perhaps, Greg Bahnsen has said:
We can prove the existence of God from the impossibility of the contrary. The transcendental proof for God’s existence is that without Him it is impossible to prove anything. The atheist world view is irrational and cannot consistently provide the preconditions of intelligible experience, science, logic, or morality. The atheist world view cannot allow for laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, the ability for the mind to understand the world, and moral absolutes.
When the unbeliever does, however, use things like laws of logic, he is borrowing from the Christian worldview. Laws of logic makes sense in a Christian worldview, but they do not in an atheistic worldview where there cannot be abstract, universal, or invariant entities. This is often called borrowed capital: when the unbeliever uses the Christian worldview, all the while denying Christianity—like the little girl slapping her daddy’s face all the while standing upon his knee for support.
In summery, the covenantal apologist makes sure he gives the gospel away. This can be done upfront or in segments, as the conversation dictates. Furthermore, the apologist presents Christianity maximally. That is, he doesn’t shy away from the details (ecclesiology, worship, prayer, Calvinism, eschatology, etc). The covenantal apologist will also often deconstruct the unbeliever’s worldview and commend the Christian understanding in its place. One of the more beneficial means of doing this is by way of the transcendental method, which shows that God is needed for everything in the world to make sense.
© copyright J. Brandon Burks
Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, ed. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1955), 302.
John R. Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman, in American Reformed Biographies (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 238-239.
Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 132.
K. Scott Oliphint, Reasons For Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006), 178-179.
J. P. Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), 247.
K. Scott Oliphint, The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture For Defending Our Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003), 79.
K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of our Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 149.
Scott Oliphint, The Consistency of Van Til’s Methodology (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Books, 1990), 17.
Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics, 160.
Oliphint, The Battle Belongs to the Lord, 151.
Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics, 138.
 William Edgar, Reasons of the Heart: Recovering Christian Persuasion (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003), 63.
Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 126
Ibid., 198. [Emphasis not mine].
Greg Bahnsen and Gordon Stein, “A Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence,” in Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources, ed. by Khaldoun A. Sweis and Chad V. Meister (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 142.