Approaches in Apologetics,
Unbelievers and the Knowledge
of God: Biblical Warrant for a Presuppositional Apologetic
Kenneth Scott Oliphint
Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
This article will set forth several of the main theological
tenets of an approach to apologetics typically labeled "presuppositionalism."
That label itself can be confusing, since there are various approaches
seeking to take pre-suppositions seriously and to incorporate them in
their methods. E. J. Carnell, Francis Schaeffer, and many others have
been aware of the crucial role that presuppositions play in our thinking.
As such, our first task is to clarify what kind of presuppositionalism
is being discussed.
I believe the apologetic approach presented most consistently by Cornelius
Van Til during his forty plus years at Westminster Theological Seminary
in Philadelphia is the approach most informed by and dependent upon
traditional Reformed theology. If that is so, then it would follow that
such a construct is the most consistently Reformed. I realize there
are other Christian approaches. I would even argue that it is the Christian
apologist's task to make his apologetic method consistent with his theology.
It would then be out of place for a person convinced of an Arminian
or evangelical theology to espouse a Reformed apologetic. Apologetics
must not simply refrain from violating the theological principles held
by the apologist, but must be informed and dependent on such principles.
It would be logically and theologically inconsistent, therefore, for
one who is Reformed in theology to hold to an apologetic that is informed
and dependent upon Arminian theological tenets.
But what are the principles on which a Reformed apologetic depends?
Given that the Reformed tradition carries with it various theological
nuances, some of which are at least implicitly inconsistent, I will
mention two that seem to be most apologetically relevant.
I have often thought that a truly Reformed apologetic should be referred
to, not as a presuppositional apologetic, but as a covenantal apologetic.
While there are certainly aspects to the biblical teaching on the covenant
that are less relevant to apologetics, some, nevertheless, should be
highlighted. The first thing worth considering when we develop a biblical
apologetical approach is that every living person is in a relationship
to the one true God. It seems to me that this truth is all too easy
to forget. Such forgetfulness may be due, in part, to the emphasis on
the radical transformation that takes place when God adopts us into
his eternal family; an emphasis that we must continue to have. However,
because we often focus on the relationship we have to God by virtue
of our union with Christ, we can forget that unbelievers are related
to God as well. We should remember that even those outside of Christ
are in a covenant relationship to the God who made them. They are not,
of course, his adopted children; that privilege is reserved for Christ's
own. But they are as they live, move and exist, both on this side and
on the other side of death, in a covenant relationship with God. This
relationship (and here it is much like that of those redeemed) is sovereignly
initiated by God. It is based on his creative activity, and is one in
which the person himself is responsible to keep God's law. This is a
truth that the apostle Paul wants to teach us at the beginning of Romans.
In Romans 1:18 and following, Paul describes the universal condition
of mankind. His particular concern is to articulate just how and why
it is that those who do not have the oracles of God, who have not had
the law of God delivered to them, are nevertheless legitimately held
responsible by God and are objects of his wrath. Paul sets out, then,
to answer the perennial question, "What about those who have not been
included in the special covenant God has made with his people?" Or,
to use New Covenant language, "What about those who have never heard
of Christ?" His answer is not simply to lay it all at the feet of God's
holy justice--a kind of sanctified agnosticism--but is instead amazingly
specific in its content.
Paul says that the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness
and unrighteousness of men. Notice that Paul is saying that there is
an attribute of God that is revealed. His initial concern, therefore,
is to set forth the fact that God is revealing himself from heaven.
It is revealed because the very revelation from heaven that God has
given continues to be suppressed, subverted and twisted almost beyond
recognition. God's wrath is revealed because human beings have taken
the revelation of the character of God and have attempted to hold it
down (v. 18). They have exchanged its glory for a lie, have decided,
in spite of what they know, to worship and serve something created rather
than the Creator (v. 25), and have openly approved of those things that
they know deserve death (v. 32). Therefore, in many cases, God gives
them over to the consistent consequences of what they attempt to believe
(vv. 24-28). Paul's point here is to stress that these treasonous acts
against God are not acts accomplished out of ignorance. They are acts
of disobedience against the God whom they know. And note well--Paul
is not out to assert that some people know that there is a god; Paul's
specific language is that all people know the one true God (v. 21).
And, if nineteenth century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge is right,
people do not simply know that this God exists, but they know "all the
divine perfections."1 They know that God is infinite in being and perfection,
a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; they
comprehend that he is immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible,
almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute (WCF II:1).
They know of God's mercy and kindness, which should lead them to repentance
(Rom. 2:4), but they refuse to repent. Such is the psychology of every
unbeliever. Every person, even those outside of Christ, knows God and
his attributes. And it is important to see that those outside of Christ
and of his special covenant blessings know these things, no because
of what they have done, intellectually or otherwise, but because of
what God has accomplished and is accomplishing in revealing himself
to them. There is no hint here of an intellectual process producing
these truths about God, but rather, as Paul says, that which is known
about God is evident within them, because God made it evident to them.
(Even if this knowledge of God were a result of one's intellectual activity,
such activity would have to be universal in its scope, because Paul's
conclusion in verse 20 is that this knowledge of God renders all people
without excuse before God.)
All of this, of course, is couched in the language of covenant. God
sovereignly initiates (in this case by virtue of creation and providence)
both the circumstances and the terms of this arrangement, and having
done so he holds people responsible for carrying out those terms. God
gives to all people life and breath and all things (Acts 17), showing
thereby his goodness to us, but he also gives us his law, requiring
that we keep it and promising to judge us by it (Rom. 2:1-16). There
can be no question, furthermore, that as Paul writes he has the covenant
with Adam in mind, a covenant sovereignly given when Adam was created.
As covenant creatures, then, all people know the God that we Christians
serve, the only true God; they know what he requires of them; and they
know that failure to meet his standards is deserving of death. What
they do with this knowledge, however, is the second point of Reformed
theology that we need to discuss.
The Human Condition
Paul makes clear that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven because
the knowledge that all men have of God, which is both understood and
clearly seen through what has been made (Rom. 1:20), is simultaneously
being suppressed or held down. It is not the case, therefore, that the
unbeliever will readily or explicitly admit this knowledge. It is, in
that sense, a kind of "subconscious" knowledge that people have. The
effects of sin are such that people will not face this knowledge if
they can avoid it; but they cannot avoid it. It comes, as Paul tells
us, through the inescapable medium of creation. To avoid it would be
to annihilate oneself, which is utterly impossible. The next step short
of avoidance, then, is to hold it down, to suppress it, to attempt to
ensure that it is never a part of one's life and thinking. This suppression
causes a person to live and think against his or her better knowledge;
it is to live and think irrationally.
It is important to see the tremendous amount of energy that is required
for the unbeliever to accomplish this task of suppression. God's revelation
bombards his creatures day and night, both within and without us. It
never lets up because creation screams it and creation never goes away.
So the unbeliever goes about his daily life attempting to submerge as
much of creation as he can, all the while necessarily living within
its bounds. Such is the futility of sin. Such is the condition of unbelief.
Recently, our military attempted to "smoke out" some rebels from a compound
in which they were holed up by playing music as loudly as possible,
twenty-four hours a day. The theory was that those inside would eventually
"crack" and surrender. The unbeliever's thought and life are like that.
Night and day pour forth the "speech" of God; all day, every day, as
the heart beats, the revelation of God screams his attributes. And the
unbeliever attempts all the while to pretend that no One is there. There
will inevitably be, consequently, various tensions and irrationalities
in the everyday life of unbelief.
But the false cannot totally avoid truth's attack; darkness cannot
withstand the light. Unbelievers cannot pretend forever. They can't
even pretend consistently in a given day. As we said, to do so would
be to annihilate oneself. The unbeliever knows God and is repeatedly
confronted with his character in the richness of the revelation that
comes from heaven. He cannot continually suppress it. This knowledge
of God that the unbeliever has is like a beach ball in a swimming pool:
the unbeliever attempts to hold it down and in spite of his best efforts,
no matter how strong he is, one slip, one letting down of the guard,
and the ball comes rushing to the top, back in plain sight, just as
it was intended to be all along.
So it is with the knowledge of God. Unbelievers will, in spite of their
best efforts, both attempt to suppress this clear knowledge that they
have, and also to make use of it when it is pragmatically beneficial
to them. They will mix this knowledge of God that they have with the
perversions that they work to create. Thus, perversions and distortions
can be recognized in what they think and do, showing all the while the
truth of Paul's teaching in Romans. They will show that, as a matter
of fact, they do know God. In spite of their perversions, their sinful
exchange, their attempts to suppress and reject, the truth of God comes
through nevertheless. It was this that Paul was expressing as he spoke
to the philosophers on Mars Hill in Acts 17. He told them that he was
not only going to declare the God whom they had concluded was unknown,
but also that their own poets had given evidence of God's attributes,
though they had applied such truths so as to make them false. Their
poets had rightly said that it was in God that they lived, moved and
existed, but in that knowledge they sinfully and culpably ascribed such
things to Zeus, rather than to the God who had made them and given them
So How Do We Defend the Faith?
the above, certain things seem to be true of every person. First, all
people, even unbelievers, know God. They do not simply know a proposition
about God, but they are covenantally related to God in such a way that,
in the core of their created beings, they know intimately the God who
made them. But, second, they also attempt throughout their lives as
unbelievers to hold down that knowledge, to distance themselves from
it. Yet they are not able to do so. They cannot do so because this revelation
of God permeates creation, and creation is the place where the unbeliever,
as God's creature, must always live.
So there is, in the life of every unbeliever, near-insurmountable tension;
tension that will reveal itself both in their thinking and in their
living. A Reformed apologetic seeks to work with that tension in order
to offer the only resolution to it. Tension in thinking, commonly called
irrationalism, can be resolved only by accepting Christianity. Tension
in one's living, commonly referred to these days as "dysfunction," can
also be resolved only by accepting Christianity--trusting Christ.
So what is our defense, given these truths? Given the fact that everyone,
in all places at all times, knows the true God but seeks to suppress
that knowledge, exchanging it for a lie, what is a proper defense of
the Christian faith? We should first understand that because all of
creation testifies infallibly to the existence and character of God,
we may start anywhere in our defense of the faith. Any fact, to be a
fact, is created and sustained by God in the first place, and reveals
his character in the second place. So there can be no fact that will
disprove him, on the one hand, and every fact proves him, on the other.
Since, then, the creation proves God, and since the unbeliever knows
this God who is proved in all things, there are at least two possible
broad avenues open to us.
We may want to ask the unbeliever to make sense of the world in which
he is living, given that he continues to deny the God who made it all.
We ask him, then, to give an account of those things that he takes for
granted, or takes to be true. In doing this, we are relying on the implications
of the truth Paul discusses in Romans. We are relying on the fact that
the unbeliever wants his life to make some kind of sense, to be more
than the every day routine seems to indicate. He may say that such things
are not important to him, but because he lives in God's world, his life
will show that they are. In asking him to give an account of his world,
we understand that, apart from God's regenerating work, he will not
be able to do so. But this provides the avenue for our communication
of the Gospel. What the unbeliever claims to know, as well as what he
does, cannot be accounted for except on the presupposition of Christianity's
Perhaps, for example, we talk to an unbeliever about one of the theistic
proofs. One version of the cosmological argument wants to work from
the necessity of a cause/effect relationship to a first cause. As Christians,
we don't want to deny that there must be a first cause, or that implied
in the notion of an effect is, necessarily, a cause. But we should understand
that such things are true only because Christianity is true and not
because there are more or less neutral rational principles out there
to which all, in the same way, submit. Or, we may want to ask the unbeliever
to make sense of the notion of logic. As Christians, we want to affirm
the necessity of logic for thinking, but (as in air for breathing) such
necessity can only be accounted for because of Christianity, and not
because of some idea of eternal categories that are independent of God.
We may want to ask him to make sense of his life insurance policy, given
the fact that so few people can be trusted, or that there is no guarantee
that tomorrow will be like today, or that the sun will come up, or anything
else that the unbeliever takes for granted. Any fact, any activity,
any statement, the very discussion which we have with an unbeliever,
all can be accounted for--justified--only because God is who he says
he is and Christianity is what Christ says it is.
There is another approach that we can take as well. We may want to
ask the unbeliever to look at the world from our own, Christian, perspective
for a while. In doing that, we are well aware that he simply cannot
see things from that perspective unless his heart is changed and he
is transformed. But, like our communication of the Gospel, it is the
truth of the matter that the Spirit uses to convert sinners. Like the
cosmological argument, or logic, or life insurance--none can be accounted
for unless Christianity is true--and it is that very fact that is the
point of contention.
You may have noticed by this time that the word "presupposition" has
been conspicuous by its absence. The discussion so far has focused on
the theology behind the defense. When we ask unbelievers to make sense
of their world, we inquire about their presuppositions. Not only so,
but we question their presuppositions realizing all the while that the
existence and knowledge of God is something the unbeliever, just by
virtue of who he is, has indelibly imprinted on his soul--forever. So
our defense, not unlike the proclamation of the gospel, attempts to
show the unbeliever the truth of the matter--the truth of the world,
of his life, of logic, etc.--and leaves the understanding of such things
to God and his mercy.
We argue, then, from the impossibility of the contrary position--and
any position that is not the Christian position is contrary to it. We
do not simply argue from the impossibility of something; we are not
trying to assert the absolute necessity of something which God has made,
be it logic, the air that we breath, or anything else that is necessary
for living and thinking. Rather, we are attempting to assert the impossibility
of any contrary world, including the things within it, except the one
which God has made and in which we all live. Thus, we argue from the
sole possibility of Christianity alone for living and thinking in a
world which God has made and in which he has placed his covenant creatures,
even those still in bondage to sin.
Dr. Oliphint, the co-author of If I Should Die Before I Wake:
Help for Those Who Hope for Heaven, is assistant professor of apologetics
at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.