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FROM Approaches in Apologetics, JAN/FEB 1998

Unbelievers and the Knowledge of God: Biblical Warrant for a Presuppositional Apologetic
Kenneth Scott Oliphint
©1998 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.

The Covenant
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 all things.

So How Do We Defend the Faith?
Given 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 truth.

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.


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