With all this talk in the previous posts about worldviews and the absence of epistemic neutrality, some might wonder if evidences and argumentation (historical, archaeological, philosophical, or scientific) have any place in Covenantal Apologetics. It is not, however, the case that covenantal apologetics refuses to use evidence when talking with unbelievers. Van Til himself has said much in this area (here and here), and even taught a class on Christian evidences in 1930. Van Til stated, “I do not reject ‘the theistic proofs’ but merely insist on formulating them in such a way as not to compromise the doctrines of Scripture.” He continues, “I would not talk endlessly about facts and more facts without ever challenging the nonbeliever’s philosophy of fact.” This latter point is what we’ve talked about previously: everyone has a worldview. If a person has an unbelieving worldview, facts and evidences for Christianity will not make sense in his or her worldview. “Facts and logic which are not themselves first seen in the light of Christianity have, in the nature of the case, no power in them to challenge the unbeliever to change his position.” Van Til goes on to teach, “It is therefore quite impossible for the natural man, holding as he does to the idea of autonomy, even to consider the ‘evidence’ for the Scripture as the… revelation of the God of Christianity” For an apologist to insist the unbeliever weigh the evidences in his or her own worldview would be contradictory, as Val Til concludes:
If he is asked to use his reason as the judge to the credibility of the Christian revelation without at the same time being asked to renounce his view of himself as ultimate, then he is virtually asked to believe and to disbelieve in his own ultimacy at the same time and in the same sense.
What is more, if the apologist seeks to begin with facts and evidence, as opposed to Scripture, the apologist ends up weighing probabilities, rather than certainties. “It is an insult,” Van Til writes, “to the living God to say that his revelation of himself so lacks in clarity that man, himself through and through revelation of God, does justice by it when he says that God probably exists.” Van Til continues, “You would argue that the Jesus of the New Testament is probably the Son of God and that he quite probably died for the sins of men.” We must resisted the temptation to put God in the realm of probabilities.
The main problem with the unbeliver is not a lack of evidence, but that—like Eve—he is assuming self-autonomy. “The God of Christianity,” writes Van Til, “cannot meet these requirements of the autonomous man.” Thus, he says to the autonomous man, “You have assumed the autonomy of your own existence. Consequently you are unable—that is, unwilling—to accept as a fact any fact that would challenge your self-sufficiency.” How can the autonomous man (in suppression of truth) consider evidence within his own false worldview of illusion?
It may surprise some, however, that Van Til saw “factual apologetics,” as the “other half” of his apologetic method. He writes:
The point is not that factual apologetics is useless but that it alone and by itself is insufficient, if we are considering the question of a logically consistent and comprehensive apologetics… Because I have said that factual apologetics is, say, half the work, I have not said that that half is not important. If someone could prove that the human species has actually derived from animal species, Christian-theism would be disproved. It is therefore important to show that the facts do not warrant any such idea. But even when that has been done the whole work has not been done. A discussion of the philosophy of fact will have to accompany a discussion of the facts themselves.
To use evidence, then, means the apologist must use it indirectly, and “in such a way as not to compromise the doctrines of Scripture.” An indirect use, explains Thom Notaro, “accounts for the importance of Christian presuppositions in the interpretation of evidence.” To use evidence presuppositionally, the apologists introduces the unbeliever to the evidences when the unbeliever has put on Christian “glasses,” which means he is encouraged to view the evidence in its proper context, for “we can have no true knowledge of any fact apart from its context.” Evidences, writes Scott Oliphint, “can only be true if framed in terms of the real world, the world that God has condescended to make and control.” A direct use, on the other hand, allows the unbeliever to weigh the evidence from his own worldview—out of context—which, again, only leads to two people with incommensurable worldviews talking past each other.
Evidence viewed out of context with reality will be unpersuasive, because “every sinner looks through colored glasses.” A direct use of evidence, Greg Bahnsen notes, “simply will not woo him to Christ but encourage him to assert his own autonomous authority over Christ’s claims.” The one in Adam will consider the evidences through his tainted glasses and will “toss them behind him in the bottomless pit of pure possibility.” In fact, he does this every second of every day, because “everything is evidence,” writes Notaro, “every fact, every object, every event properly understood is evidence for Christianity. Furthermore, every bit of evidence… proves with absolute validity the truth of God’s Word.” Notaro recounts a helpful analogy given by Ronald Nash:
A father takes his young son to a baseball game in which a player hits a timely home run. The father is ecstatic, whereas the son who is puzzled by all the excitement asks, “What happened?” Do both the father and son witness the same fact? A ‘yes and no’ answer is possible. Both the father and son are eyewitnesses… but only the father perceives a home run. The son does not understand the rules of the game… In order for the son to re-recognize the fact of a home run, he must first cognize the significance of the visual phenomena, integrating it into meaningful whole… Thus, if there is any sense in which facts speak for themselves, it is limited by the contribution of the knowing subject.
Therefore, in the final analysis, covenantal apologetics “may be understood as a cumulative case approach that recognizes the problem of epistemic normatively.” That is, “it sees, as other schools of apologetics do not, that the issues between theists and nontheists is not merely about certain facts or arguments, but also about the way they look at all facts and arguments.” In other words, covenantal apologetics will use historical, scientific, and philosophical evidences, but not without taking seriously the state of the unbeliever’s worldview, as taught by the Scriptures.
Many unbeliever’s are dogmatic about the Cliffordian Maxim, which is the belief that one must have sufficient evidence in order to rationally believe something. The problem with this is that, first, it’s self-refuting because the Cliffordian Maxim cannot be established by the Cliffordian Maxim. That is, what evidence is there for us to believe that rational beliefs must have sufficient evidence? And, second:
The dilemma is obvious. There simply cannot be sufficient evidence propositions ad infinitum. There has to be some ‘place’—some proposition, some concept, some idea, some foundation of authority—that is sufficient to carry the conceptual weight of what we claim to know, believe, and hold.
This entire paradigm must be challenged. Unfortunately, many Christians have been sucked into this line of thinking as well: they believe we must match fact with fact, evidence with evidence if we’re going to convince people of the gospel. This is unfortunate, for, as Bavink states:
A church does not believe its confession because of scientific proof but because it believes God has spoken. To seek religious conviction in a school of philosophy confuses religion with science and gains nothing but a learned judgment or opinion that is eminently disputable… Giving reasons for believing ought to arise out of faith itself and not serve as the preamble to theology.
In summery, the use of evidence and argumentation can be a great tool in persuasion, as we’ve seen previously. But we mustn’t let our apologetic method contradict our confessional Reformed theology. We do this when we assume in our method the neutrality of reason or believe the unbeliever can be an impartial jury in the weighing of evidences or act as though the unbeliever is not, at all times, unethically suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. Evidence, then, must be given indirectly as a means of persuasion, which will encourage the unbeliever to view the evidence as a Christian, in its proper context.
Once we understand this, we can use arguments championed by other apologists (some who may not even share our theological and apologetic foundation). We can study the arguments, say, of William Lane Craig, Timothy Keller, Lee Strobel, Alvin Plantinga, NT Wright, James Sire, D.A. Carson, F.F. Bruce, Walter Kaiser, Francis Schaeffer, Alister McGrath, Josh McDowell, Ken Ham , and Mitch Stokes to better our persuasion. We can present these arguments when the unbeliever has come into the Christian position “for argument sake,” and ask them, “Doesn’t it make sense that…” By this they can see not only the depth of the Christian worldview, but also the Christian way of viewing what we see in the natural world. Therefore, use evidences and arguments, but do it in a way that doesn’t contradict your theological foundation. That is, use them indirectly, not directly.
© copyright J. Brandon Burks
John R. Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman, in American Reformed Biographies (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 70.
Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, ed. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1955), 255.
Cornelius Van Til, Why I Believe in God (Philadelphia, PA: Great Commission, 1976), 10.
As quoted in: Muether, Cornelius Van Til, 86.
Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 255.
Thom Notaro, Van Til and the Use of Evidence (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 78.
Scott Oliphint, The Consistency of Van Til’s Methodology (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Books, 1990), 11.
K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of our Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 155.
Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 258.
Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions For Defending the Faith, ed. Robert R. Booth (Nacogdoches, TX: CMP, 1996), 100.
Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 261.
Notaro, Van Til and the Use of Evidence, 59.
John M. Frame, “A Presuppositionalist’s Response,” in Five Views On Apologetics, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and Steven B. Cowan (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 196.
Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics, 127.
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Abridged in One Volume, ed. by John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 18, 26.