Posted in Apologetics

The Apostle Paul the Babbling Beggar

“There is no wrong way to share your faith.”1 Is that accurate? Does the Lord look down from His throne in heaven and say, “I don’t care how you do it, just do it!” If the Holy Spirit commands that we are to “eat” and “drink” for His glory, and these are everyday activities that at first glance don’t seem like real spiritual issues, then it most certainly follows that whatever we seek to do, we are to do it for God’s glory (1Cor 10.31). Wouldn’t Christian witnessing fall under this umbrella?

The Lord is concerned with how we share our faith. There is a right and wrong way to represent Christ to the world. And, if you want plenty of examples of how it should be done, I would suggest you start studying your Bible’s. First look to Christ, then examine the apostles and prophets of old. There you will find exemplary models that need re-imaging.

However, this does not ignore we have difficulties before us doing so.

Christian Witnessing in our day…

We live in a post-Christian world. Our generation no longer sees or accepts the teachings of the Holy Bible as authoritative.  Our society is pluralistic and so it is wrong to assume that people will recognize one authority over and above all others. If we are going to reach people today with the truth, then we need to use other means to get them to that truth; rather than appealing to the truth from which we say we have obtained life.

Christian witnessing in the Apostles day

Paul lived in a pre-Christian world. Paul’s generation did not see or accept the Holy Scriptures (Tanakh) as authoritative over and above all others. The society he witnessed to—the Greco-Roman world—was pluralistic. But, what method (or means) did the apostle use to appeal to those he was witnessing to?

Two Choices…

For all the talk about how different our circumstances are in comparison with the 1st century apostles, an honest examination/reflection over the biblical texts and the historic context of the period reveal what we are seeing today is NOT a new thing. Now there are at least two options laid before the Christian witness2 at this point. First, pragmatism is believed to be the best method. That is to say, “What we did in the past no longer works, and so new innovative approaches are needed if we are going to reach people.” Second, an attempt at integrating the apostolic method is deemed the wisest. From the material that I’ve read on Christian evangelism/apologetics the latter approach is considered extreme naiveté.3

Now you may want to chop these categories up a little finer than I have done. That is fine, but I’ll leave you with the burden of doing so. I believe that there are sufficient grounds for labeling the two distinct approaches as I have done; realizing that the underlying issue is theological. In other words, the manner in which one pursues Christian witnessing is based upon their basic presumption about the current state of mankind.

If people are essentially good and their minds are relatively unharmed by the noetic effects of the fall (i.e. original sin), then some variant of pragmatic witnessing is inevitable. However, if the view is the opposite. If the human condition has been radically corrupted by the sin of our fore-parents (Adam and Eve), and this entails our mental faculties, then an attempt at applying biblical principles when witnessing to the lost will be the goal. With those things in mind, let the reader now approach Acts 17.

The Setting…

Paul enters Athens awaiting the rest of his ministry team (Acts 17.16). He has been to various places teaching/preaching Christ from the Scriptures; in particular Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 17.1, 10). Each time he arrived at a location it wouldn’t be long before he was driven to the next. Everywhere he went “he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17.2; cf. v. 10) that “Jesus [of Nazareth] …is the Christ” (Acts 17.3). Those who opposed Paul and his gospel complained to any and all that he was “turn[ing] the world upside down…saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17.6, 7), and they followed him doggedly until he finally found himself alone in Athens.

How Does Paul Appeal to the Athenians?

To identify Jesus as the Christ—the Anointed One of God—is synonymous with claiming His kingship. This bothered the unbelieving Jews, and it also negatively stirred the hearts of the Greeks. Only those who believed in Jesus as the Christ, understood that having Him as Lord is necessary and good. If Jesus is Christ and rightful King over all, then fealty to Him is absolutely necessary. Such truth will work differently upon the person in question, depending upon their inward disposition towards God.

If we are attentive to what we are reading here in Acts 17:16-34, we will notice the reason for Paul’s initial reaction in the city, the content of his message at the Areopagus, and the response of those in attendance that day. Here’s what I mean.

The Reaction…

When Paul enters Athens, we are told that “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17.16). Paul was loyal to Jesus, and these idols were an affront to his Lord’s lordship. Idols demand fealty, loyalty, reverence and worship, everything that is to be given to God alone. Paul was intensely irritated by what he saw, his inner heart was angered by such foolishness, and this prompted him to open his mouth.

Therefore, we find that he did in Athens as he had previously done in other Greco-Roman cities:

  • “…he reasoned in the synagogues with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17.17).

In other words, Paul argued for Christ in the synagogues and in the marketplace every day. It is an interesting admission that he did this “with those who happened to be there,” for the marketplace in Athens was the societal nexus of the people who lived there. The marketplace drew not only the common rabble, but the intellectual giants, the sophisticated philosophers of Athens. While, it is true that at this time Athens had lost some of its luster as the crown intellectual dynasty of the world, the truth remains that it had retained a significant portion of that notoriety.

Paul’s preaching eventually caught the attention of the elite men in Athens, the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. They too “conversed with him” that is “reasoned with him,” “argued with him,” “debated with him,” and it is here that we ought to notice their frustration. “Because [Paul] was preaching Jesus and the resurrection…” (Acts 17.18c) these Greek philosophers, when they could not gain any ground in their conversation resorted to ad hominem tactics. That is to say, they began attacking Paul mockingly by calling him a “babbler” or a gutter-sparrow. One that picks and chooses from this piece of trash or another in order to tie together their own private teaching. Therefore, “they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?’” (Acts 17.19).

The Areopagus is often thought of as a location—i.e. Mars Hill—however, a better understanding is the premiere officials of the city, the ruling counsel if you will. The Areopagus was made up of the intellectual best, who weighed all things taught in the city, and made various judgments concerning them. They are the ones that killed Socrates for teaching strange doctrine many, many years before. They are the ones that will now hear the apostle of Christ speak.

The Grounds of Paul’s Appeal

It is here that many unwarranted assumptions are smuggled in by Christian leaders today (i.e. apologists, philosophers, theologians and ministers). The common assertion is that when Paul spoke to the Areopagus he did not appeal to these Greeks with Scripture, but chose more reasonable grounds. Rather he offered them natural proofs for God, even quoting their own poets to buttress his position, in order to prove the resurrection of Jesus. Some assume that Paul erred because he was laughed off the stage so to speak (when he got to Jesus), and so never really finished his gospel presentation.

Is it true that Paul quotes the Greek poets? Is it true that Paul leaves the Bible out of the discussion, because the Greeks do not “accept” Scriptural teaching? Is it true that Paul reasoned to them with evidences alone in order to prove Christ Jesus?

First, the answer is yes. It is true that Paul quotes Greek texts written originally in support of Zeus.  Here is what he said:

  • “…for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” (Acts 17.28).

If taken at face value, I can see why some would presuppose that this is a validation of using “whatever means necessary” in order to witness to the unbeliever. However, this verse does not sit in isolation.  Paul cites these Greek poets with a specific point in mind, which we shall see in a few moments.

Secondly, the answer is no. It is not true that Paul left the Bible out of his message to the Areopagus. Just because one does not make direct references to the biblical text does not necessarily mean that they are not starting, working out, and ending their argument from the Word of God. I find that many Christian’s are often confused over this point. What good does it do me to cite verse and text, unless my audience is familiar with those specific reference points? Eventually, those things will be drawn out in the conversation. However, my faith is drawn from God’s Word and it would be impossible to account for the hope within me apart from what is written.

The first thing that Paul establishes in his speech, after the cordial opening (i.e. “men of Athens), is a correction on the Athenian worldview. These philosophers claimed to know enough about the truth, about reality, to call Paul a “babbler,” but what he immediately shows them is their own ignorance.

  • “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17.23).

He then goes on to explain that this God is the Creator of all things (v.23-24a), the sovereign ruler over all things (v. 24), including all mankind whom He made from the blood of one man, namely Adam (vv.25-26), even going so far as determining the time and place of their dwelling (v.26b). Paul says, that none of us have anything to boast in because this God alone provides our very lives and being. He points out the foolishness of their idol worship (v.24b, 29), calling an end to this former period of ignorance (v. 30a).

Thirdly, the answer is yes. It is true that Paul used evidence to preach Christ, the chief among them being the resurrection. However, it is likewise false that this evidence is divorced from the teachings of Scripture.

**(Since that is the subject of my next post I am not going to defend that position now, only state it).

Paul tells the Athenians that God has commanded them to repent (v.30b), to turn from their sinful ignorance towards the one righteous man “whom [God] has appointed”; of whom “he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (v. 31). Three responses were given: “some mocked,” (v. 32a) others said they’d “like to hear more,” (v, 32b) and some “believed” (v. 34).

The Apostolic Position of Paul: Begging the Question

Careful exegesis of Acts 17 reveals to the observant reader the presuppositional method of Christian witnessing. When Paul was in Thessalonica he reasoned from the Scriptures. When Paul was driven to Berea he reasoned from the Scriptures. And, when Paul found himself in Athens, his inner-heart stirred because of the blatant idolatry in the land, he reasoned from the Scriptures. This is how the apostle of God proved Christ.

The flow of thought in this chapter is undeniable. Paul, knowing what the Athenians believe does a compare and contrast between worldviews. He argues for Christ and the resurrection from the Scriptures. He presupposes the God of the Bible, and makes various allusions to over 20 O.T. texts4 in order to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian worldview. Yes, he uses what they know but not to puff them up, but to knock them down. Not meanly, but to show them the folly of their position.

They claimed to be wise, but were in reality fools for they were worshiping what they did not know. Their beliefs are steeped in ignorance. What they did not know, Paul set about to show them with gentleness and respect. And, he did so on the grounds of Scripture, not apart from Scripture.  Paul presupposed Christ, argued from Christ’s Word in order to justify his position and nullify their own, eventually leading them to the Christ that all people shall be judged by. Then the apostle Paul the babbling beggar left the stage afforded to him.

____________________

ENDNOTES:

1 J. Mark Bertrand, (Re)Thinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 196.

2 I use the phrase “Christian witness” as encompassing both the evangelistic/apologetic efforts of the disciple of Jesus Christ. To be a disciple is to be the Lord’s witness (herald), and to herald the truth means both sharing the good-news (evangelism), as well as offering a reasoned argument (apologia) for the hope within.

3 Some of those difficulties stem from individuals in their ivory towers of academia.  When you have professors with PhD’s, but no pastoral experience teaching in Christian colleges/universities/seminaries you get reproductions of critical thought and philosophical meanderings, but no grass root realities.

4 Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, Robert R. Booth, ed. (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, [1996], 2001), 224, Adobe Digital Editions.

Posted in Apologetics

Review of “Apologetic Methods” by J. Brian Huffling, PhD

Over the past few posts I have been defending the idea of circular-reasoning, when it comes to ultimate standards/commitments. Originally, I had planned on closing this section of dialogue with a review of Paul’s defense of the Christian faith in Athens. However, something has been brought to my attention that I believe will be fruitful for you the reader. Recently, a fellow blogger posted a link to an article written by J. Brian Huffling, PhD entitled: Apologetic Methods and a Case for Classical Apologetics. The article concisely describes various apologetic methodologies, and then promotes what the author believes is the best method to use.  Along the way, he offers a critique of Presuppositional/Transcendental Apologetics of which I am an advocate.

I thought the article was excellent in that it supports what I have been saying all along—i.e. it is impossible to argue your position without appealing to the standard you trust in.  In other words, when it comes to ultimate commitments people argue in a circle. Now, I do not know Dr. Huffling personally and so I want to make it clear that this is not an attack on his character or a questioning of his professed faith in Christ. But I do hope to offer a helpful critique in intermural fashion.

Similar journeys towards Christian apologetics regarding motivations, not content…

My journey into Christian apologetics was not something I had originally sought. I was first introduced to the idea of defending the Christian worldview in 2005.  I found it extremely interesting and it stirred my heart, but I figured that this was only for those really smart people. During my sophomore year at Nazarene Bible College I was introduced to the writings of the early Church fathers. Men like Polycarp and Tertullian captivated my attention. I was enamored by the courage of Polycarp in his defense of the faith, and Tertullian’s argumentation against pagan thought. I also marveled over the statement by Tertullian that the “blood of the martyrs [i.e. Christian witnesses] is the seed of the Church.”

Similarly, I want to offer a cogent argument for my faith in the hope that people might be saved in Jesus Christ. The goal of the Christian witness is to present the gospel of our Lord in all its beauty so that Christ is glorified, repentance is granted, and a new life (eternally) is received. Being a Christian witness entails both our sharing and our defending the biblical worldview to a lost and dying world.

Differences in Christian apologetic methodology…

The question is how? How do we communicate our faith so that the message gets through? What is the proper method for answering the critique or edifying the fellow believer? Christian apologetics is committed to “…contend[ing] for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1.3).  Huffling thinks that the best approach for doing this is found in Classical apologetic (hereafter C. A.) method.  He defines this methodology in the following way:

  • “Classical apologetics has been called a two-stepped method. The first step is to prove the existence of God via traditional theistic proofs (the various cosmological arguments, design arguments, ontological, etc.). This method holds to the possibility of natural theology—the ability for reason to demonstrate God’s existence…The second step is to prove the veracity of Christianity by showing, for example (but not necessarily in this exact fashion), that miracles are possible, the Bible is reliable, Jesus claimed and proved himself to be God, etc.” (par 2; emphasis added).

This two-step process is seen as superior to Presuppositional apologetics (hereafter P.A.) because 1) it is believed that it avoids circular-reasoning, and 2) steers clear of the “impossibility of the contrary” (cf. par 12) argumentation which consistent P.A.’s use. Huffling also believes that C.A. provides the necessary framework for properly understanding “evidences for Christianity in a theistic context” (par 11). He states that C.A. “before arguing for God…starts with knowing reality and the absolute nature of truth” (par 10). You may wonder how C.A. is able to do this? By appealing to “natural theology” (par 8).  This is an interesting admission and we shall return to it, but first I want to make some quick clarifications.

What is meant by arguing from the “Impossibility of the Contrary?”

Huffling believes that when a P.A. argues in this fashion this is what they are doing:

  • “Those who hold to this method [P.A.] argue that we should argue for Christianity based on the impossibility of the contrary. In other words, since other worldviews and religions are show to be false, Christianity must be true” (par 4; italics added).

There are two things that immediately catch my attention when I read his definition. First, he couches the argument in a step-by-step fashion that reverses the order of our reasoning. The P.A.’s overarching position is not that we assume other worldviews are false, and therefore Christianity must be true. Rather, we assume Christ first (Jesus is not just our starting point, but our endpoint as well), and then demonstrate why Christianity is true.  This is not a unique approach as all worldview adherents do this. No one is bipartisan when it comes to their faith commitments. A position of neutrality is a false distinction that no one really believes or practices.

Secondly, he fails to accurately represent what is meant by this form of argumentation.  Apologetic debate/argument/dialogue occurs when two opposing faith-systems collide. The argument for the impossibility of the contrary is geared towards offering an internal critique of those two-opposing faith-systems.1 Asking the vital question of which worldview assumptions truly make knowledge possible.

In other words, which worldview provides the necessary preconditions that make knowledge possible? Which governing assumptions make my senses reliable? Which set provides the proper foundation for mathematics? Which makes scientific inquiry possible? What worldview provides the basis for language, communication, and logical argumentation?

A couple examples…

For example, the relativist assumes that truth is constantly influx, changing from one context to another and derived from a variety of environmental factors. They proudly assume that “What’s true for you is not true for me. You have your truth and I have mine.” The Christian believes all truth is rooted in our Creator and therefore absolute; not determined by circumstance, environment or the passing of time. By performing an internal critique of the person’s base assumptions of reality/knowledge derived from their worldview, the believer rightly points out, “If what you say is true, then it is false.” Your basis for knowing eliminates the possibility for knowing.

The same may be said of a materialistic atheist who believes that matter is all that exists. This view of reality teaches that immaterial things on nonexistent (in theory not in practice), and things that have happened in the past are products or chance, accident, or a universe in chaos.  If those things are true, then they are false. Logic, mathematics, science, the reliability of our senses, etc. are not possible based upon the presuppositional commitments of the relativist or materialistic atheist.  All that the impossibility of the contrary argument attempts to do is demonstrate the reliability or the unreliability of the person’s worldview by comparing them in light of what warrants the preconditions necessary for obtaining knowledge. If the Triune God of Scripture is in fact the creator of reality, then it will only be in reference to Him that all truth may be known.

Dreaded Circular-Reasoning

Like most Christian philosophers today, Huffling puts and “X” on circular-reasoning. This is a known sin to many Christian philosophers/apologists. But as I have been saying in previous posts, when it comes to ultimate standards there is really no way around it.

Take for example the label “Christian apologist,” what is the implication that we ought to see, but sometimes fail to recognize? The very label identifies the circular nature of the defense.  We are being challenged (either politely or impolitely) for our faith commitments. We are being asked “Why do you have hope in the Christian faith?” From the outset our defense is geared toward proclaiming the Christ of the Bible.

Peter tells the Christians he was writing to in the first century to presuppose Christ—set Him apart as Holy in your hearts (1Pet 3.15).  In other words, Jesus is our primary commitment.  The Christian apologetic is hinged on Christ, the anchor of our hearts. Contextually, this means we do not think/reason as the non-Christian does (cf. 1Pet 3.14), while identifying how we are to respond when asked for the reason of this hope we cling to (v.15).

On what grounds? Do we provide the reason for the hope we have apart from what we have our hope in? Do we lay aside our hope in order to defend our hope? I hope not. No, Scripture is pretty clear that we start with Christ, reason like Christ touching on aspects of His truth along the way, in order to reason to (lead to) Christ.

Huffling identifies circular reasoning as one of the “many problems” with P.A. (par 12). He rightly points out that we appeal to the use of logic as one example of why not all circular reasoning is fallacious (false), but then says…

  • “such is not a circular problem, it is merely undeniable that reason is unavoidable in discussions or arguments. One is not using reason to prove reason; he is simply saying that it is unavoidable and undeniable” (par 12).

I’m not sure if Huffling realizes it or not, but he has just used a form of the impossibility of the contrary argument. He has stated that using logic in our reasoning is not circular, but axiomatic (i.e. self-evident truth). Essentially, he is arguing that without using logic/reason one could not argue; therefore, it is impossible to not appeal to logical reasoning when coming to the knowledge of the truth. But, that is precisely the point!

Without logic one cannot reason logically, but in order to do so we must use logic to validate our logical argumentation—i.e. a necessary circle—because if we did not do so, we wouldn’t be able to prove anything. In other words, logic is a necessary precondition. This is true with all axioms. They must be assumed. If we did not assume them (axiomatic truths), then it would not be possible to argue at all.2 Is it not therefore, logical to assume the chief axiom of all reality, the One who makes sense of all reality, the Triune God of the Bible? Is not Christ the chief axiom of all Christian thought—the treasure trove of all knowledge and wisdom (Col 2.3), and therefore rightly assumed at the outset when we defend our faith in Him? For apart from Him our faith—including all knowledge and wisdom—loses its savor and is fit to be cast under the feet of all mankind!

The problem is that Huffling uses the very thing that he seeks to deny. First, he assumes C.A. is the superior method of all Christian apologetics, most of all over P.A.  He begins his article with the presupposition of “…the superiority of the classical method” (par 1), then touches on aspects of it along the way (cf. par 2, 4), in order to reason to (lead to) the conclusion that “…the classical model is more comprehensive than the others, puts miracles and evidences in a theistic context, and avoids the problems of presuppositionalism. Thus, classical apologetics is the strongest, most comprehensive model” (par 13). The very definition of a subtly circular argument. I do not fault him or others for this, but merely point it out because all do it.

Another Circular Assumption C.A.’s Draw From…

Moreover, Huffling makes an interesting admission about one of the key tenets of C.A.; natural theology.  Without the assumption of natural theology, C.A. falls on its head. Again, I want to remind the reader that he denies circular-reasoning as a valid form of argumentation, but I must ask from where does Huffling draw the presupposition that “natural theology” is warranted? Where do C.A.’s get their justification for using or appealing to natural theology? The Bible. He cites Romans 1:19-20, which reads

  • “…For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (ESV; italics added).

Huffling believes that “the Bible says we can know about God through nature” (par 7). Therefore, arguments from natural theology are seen as justifiable in the C.A. mindset in order to lead people to the possibility of God (cf. par 8). Moreover, he claims that C.A. provides the necessary framework for “knowing reality and the absolute truth of nature” (par 10) so that the miracles of the Bible (I assume like the Resurrection) make sense. Of course, without being coy, I must ask “on what grounds” does the C.A. truly know realty and absolute truth. Does nature teach this? If so, from where is this observation made? If it is an observation from nature (i.e. natural theology), what context is it interpreted from that makes it absolutely true for all reality?

This has always been one of the inherent problems with “natural theology” when used in this way, because nature does not “prove” anything, because nature does not “state” anything, for nature must always be “interpreted,” and this in turn raises the question of “Who’s interpretation is the correct one?” A universal standard is needed in order to verify the truthfulness of an interpretation.  Yard-sticks that are not universally three feet long will provide varying measures depending upon the manufacturer and user. And, they are fit for the trash heap.

In any event, the grounds for much—if not all—of C.A. methodology is built upon a belief that is drawn from biblical teaching. And to be quite frank not very well. Here I will close with my final criticism of C.A.’s prized method.

Misunderstanding and Therefore Misappropriating the Biblical Text

It is often stated that “we can know about God through nature” (par 7; italics added), and then references to passages like Roman 1:19-203 are given. However, I wonder how much care is given when reading the text. The text does not say that “we can know about God” as if that is somehow up in the air. The text says that all mankind does know God because He has made “it plain to them,” having “shown it to them.” These attributes of God are “clearly perceived, ever since the beginning of the world, in all things that have been made.” This text is cited as if Paul only throws out the possibility of knowing God, rather than actually knowing Him.4

However, the apostle is very careful in the use of his language. He does not say that mankind “can know,” but that they “do know.” And yet they willfully “suppress the truth” (v.18) and are before the judgment seat of their Creator “without excuse” (v.20). Or more literally, “without an apologetic.” Unbelievers are said to have no defense before God’s judgment (i.e. wrath, v. 18) because they are fully culpable about His existence as their Maker, but they would rather hold the ball under the water, than let it hit them in the face.

Herein lies the chief problem with the C.A. method of witnessing to the lost. They refuse to start with Christ in order to lead to Christ. They prefer to assume that knowledge is possible apart from God, and argue in one circle in order to get others to jump ship to the Christian circle. Which as you know is logically impossible. Circles are made of an unlimited number of points, but they are closed circuits. To assume that you can lead a person to one closed circuit from another closed circuit is an extraordinary claim, to quote Bill Nye.

But, if unbelievers are functioning on a different circuit than the believer—i.e. their worldview/standard is different—how do we get them to our circle? By presenting the truth of the Christian worldview cogently, passionately, and unswervingly committed to Jesus our Lord, and then allowing the Holy Spirit to do the one thing that we cannot hope to do…convert them to our circle by changing their heart. Or course that raises the question of having a proper anthropology, but that is a discussion best served on another day.

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ENDNOTES:

1 Well, that is a bit of an overstatement. The argument for the impossibility of the contrary is one of the three legs that we analyze for determining whether or not the chair of the other person (the worldview and its interrelated presuppositions) is seated on can actually hold up under scrutiny. The other two legs, which work in coordination the one already mentioned, is arbitrariness and inconsistency.

2 Joe Boot, Why I Still Believe—Hint: It’s the Only Way the World Makes Sense (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 85. He writes, “In all argument we must take for granted the authority of certain ideas/principles (presuppositions) as a starting point, in order to evaluate the assumed authority of another person’s basic assumptions (i.e. theism and humanism, respectively). Given this circumstance—that we cannot argue at all without these presuppositions [axioms]—there is an inescapable circularity involved in argumentation.”

3 See Psa 19:1-6 which is often cited as further proof for the use of natural theology with unbelievers, but a wise person would compare such passages with Psa 92:5-6 which reads, “How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep! The stupid cannot know; the fool cannot under this” (cf. Jer 10.10-15).

4 It should be noted that this does not pertain to salvific knowledge, or a right relationship with the Creator of all things. The knowledge is plain and evident to all in the sense that it is wrong to deny God’s existence for all of creation testifies (proclaims the glory) of Him.  Often Christian philosophers seem to struggle with this distinction (I am not saying this is true of Dr. Huffling, I do not know), between knowing God and not knowing Him.  How can they both be true, for they appear to be a contradiction.

Let me answer that in the simplest way I can, by appealing to Scripture. Throughout Jesus incarnated ministry He was surrounded by those who knew Him but did not know him, and those who knew Him completely. This is demonstrated in a number of places in the gospels, but the testimony of Peter is appropriate.

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matt 16.13), and then a variety of answers were given. Then the Lord poses the same question directly to His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16.15). Here Peter answers confidently, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt 16.16). There were those who knew the Lord, but did not know Him. They knew His origin, son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter, the Nazarene. They knew of His power in teaching and in His control over creation, but knowing him they did not know Him (John 6.36) and Jesus said they would die in their sins (John 8.24). This line of thinking is what Paul applies when he writes Romans 1.

Posted in Apologetics

Arguing in Circles: Part II

Christian apologetics is drawn from the well-spring of Scripture.  Like the head and tail on the monetary coin, apologetics shares its foundation with evangelism. The two are necessary branches stemming from a proper biblical theology. You cannot divorce apologetics from the Bible any more than you can separate evangelism from the knowledge of God. To sever the cord is to cut-off the umbilical life line necessary for Christian faith/Christian theism, which is inescapably Trinitarian.

Unfortunately, there are those that bear the name of apologist in light of the Christian faith-system that do attempt this form of mental gymnastics. Rather than start with Scripture when reasoning with an unbeliever, they prefer the method that steers clear from anything that might label them a circularist—i.e. one who reasons in a circle.  Instead of beginning with biblical truths, they prefer to present various forms of argumentation—different shades of evidence—that will hopefully lead the individual they are witnessing to, to the probability (possibility) that some divine creator being exits.

This line of so-called Christian argumentation leads to a generic god, not the God of the Bible. It would be arrogant (the assumption goes) to ask the unbeliever to accept the idea that the Christian God exists at the outset. In order for that to take place, many small steps must first be taught and accepted before the unbeliever is moved far enough down the line to embrace what the Christian says he/she believes in.

**Saying “the Bible says so,” or “this is what the Bible says is the truth” is very embarrassing to many popular Christian apologists. 

When Christians assume the Bible’s validity and veracity and argue from that standpoint they somehow damage (it is thought/claimed) the apologetic endeavor. The Christian worldview becomes laughable to the surrounding populace who deems it, nonintellectual, unreasonable, foolhardy, and as a result will turn people away from the faith. Or, so the objection goes.

No, I’m not making this stuff up. I’ve read such things in apologetic texts, listened to them on various radio or podcast platforms, been told it in graduate level classes, and heard it preached from the pulpit. On one occasion I attended a seminar at a neighboring Christian college where this attitude was expressed.

A pastor who ministered in Las Vegas, NV asked the speaker about what he believed was the wisest way to witness to people struggling with the concept of gay marriage. The Prof. who was the head of the Philosophy Department at the school chided using the Bible as a way to defend biblical marriage—one man, one woman.  He claimed that a better approach would be to appeal to historical evidences for traditional marriages and scientific studies that showed the benefits of heterosexual marriages.  Strongly implying to the questioner that using biblical truths would not change people’s hearts on the issue; more than likely driving them in the opposite direction.  (To be fair the speaker did not deny Christ and professed Him as his savior, but evidently not Lord of his thoughts.)

Since many Christian apologists are fearful of either being equated with or practicing question-begging (i.e. circular reasoning), they assume there is a better way to get people to Jesus Christ. The Bible is good for Christians, just not unbeliever’s. What many Christian apologists/philosophers fail to realize is that when it comes to ultimate standards circular-reasoning not only happens (everybody does it), but is absolutely necessary. Something Joe Boot recognizes as a bit of “…a catch-22 situation…In other words, you have to start somewhere; in order to reason at all something must be taken for granted.”1 Why? Because “…in order to argue at all we necessarily presuppose the truth of something, and that something must be taken as self-evidencing—a truth that need not (or cannot) appeal to anything else or beyond itself for verification.”2

Surprisingly there are a significant number of professed Christian apologists who fail to understand the necessity of this position. There are, I think, a few reasons for this, but I’m only going to briefly touch on one in this post.

“Well, what is it?” you ask. The answer: A failure to see that the Bible teaches us to do it.

Understanding the Charter Verse of Christian Apologetics

Christian apologetics is the believer’s attempt at defending/defining Christian belief to the surrounding populace. Such a defense is meant to be a cogent argument for the truthfulness of the Christian worldview; an offer of the hope that is within us. If we are going to do this faithfully, then we need to understand how the Bible commands all Christians to do so. The answer lies in the following verse:

  • “…but honor [set-apart] the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1Pet 3.15; HCSB).

As I noted in the past this verse is drawn from Isaiah 8:12-13.  At a time when many Hebrews in Judah were being tempted to follow the “logical” thinking of the day, the Lord through His prophet Isaiah, tells them to not adopt worldly thinking.  What were they to do? They were to base their thoughts and actions upon the Word of God.

Listen, because this is important, Israelites were being commanded to stand upon God’s revealed instruction not the evidence all around them. If they were making decisions based on the evidence, then their faith would have failed because things were looking pretty bleak at that time.  And yet, they were told “Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed…” (1Pet 3.14; Isa 8.12; cf. 7.2). Notice that those who were afraid in Isaiah’s time were those who had deviated from the truth of what God had spoken, Isaiah was sent to a people who refused to bow the knee to the Lord and honor His Word (see Isa 6.8-10).

Both Peter and Isaiah tell God’s children not to fear or be disturbed.  Both men of God are speaking about the various trials that true believers in their particular context struggle with. What is to keep them sated; to calm their fears? The Word of the Lord. In both contexts believers are told to regard Him as holy. Both Isaiah and Peter tell the people of God that their foundation, which is the Lord of Hosts, is to be that ground on which they stand.

It is true that in Peter’s application of this command (and yes, it is a command to sanctify the Lord as holy in our hearts) seems to offer a unique twist. For he says that we must always be ready to give an apologetic to anyone who asks. But in response I ask you, “Do you suppose that people in Isaiah’s day wouldn’t have asked their fellows who had settled the matter in their heart, ‘What gives you such hope? Do you not see the danger before us? The suffering that seems so evident? How can you trust that the Lord will deliver?’” Both Peter and Isaiah tell believers to start and finish their reasoning on the same ground.

Peter says, “Christian, you must first start with Christ in order to answer for Christ.” How many times have you read that verse (1Pet 3.15) and failed to see that the very ground for Christian apologetics is circular? We are commanded to start with Christ (set Him apart as Holy) as our hearts primary commitment. Likewise, when we are confronted with the various opinions of Mr. and Mrs. Worldly-Wise, we do not abandon our treasure trove of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2.3); rather, we tear down their opinions by bringing them unto submission under Christ Jesus (2Cor 10.4-5).  The desire to appear neutral when witnessing to those outside the Christian faith is a practice of folly, plain and simple. And not only does Peter tell us not to reason with the world in that way, but the Bible is filled with texts that validate a subtle form of circular argumentation.

Biblical Evidences for Circular-Argumentation

“It is written,” “Have you not read?” “You err because you do not know the Scriptures.” These are the common rebuttals that Jesus used during His earthly ministry. When challenged, when tempted (i.e. tested), when His practices were inquired about, whatever the circumstance might be Jesus’ go to was the Word of God. Our Lord was confident that Scripture could not be broken and would stand the test of time. He instructed His people to reason in the same way so that they would know the truth and the wisdom that comes from heaven above. He taught that the Scripture is a necessary presuppositional commitment.

There are many texts that we could draw this truth from. Jesus used it in order to justify His disciples picking grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2.23-28), to prove He was the Messiah to John the Baptist while he was in prison(Matt 11.1-6), His driving of the money changers out of the temple complex (Mark 11.17), to lightly chastise his disciples for not discerning the truth of the empty tomb (Luke 24.25-27), on proper divorce procedures (Matt 19.3-8), and yes, even providing the grounds for the source of one’s faith and witness (John 5.45-46; Luke 16.30-31).

“Yes,” you say “but that was provided in a Jewish context. Those people had been raised on the Bible3, but what about the Gentiles? What about people who don’t believe?”

I can think of two instances that we are provided with that help us in this regard. First, the testing of Satan. Second, Paul in Athens (addressed in the next post).

The Testing of Satan…

After Jesus had been anointed by the Holy Spirit for ministry, He was immediately lead into the wilderness where he fasted for 40 days. When this period was finished, naturally he was famished. Having deprived His body of necessary nutrition the Lord was weak. In walks that vile serpent of old Satan, the great adversary, to test Him.  “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread” (Matt 4.3).  What is the implication of this statement?

“Jesus, you believe you are the Son of God…prove it. If you really have divine authority, take these stones—you know your hungry—and turn them into bread. Not only will your body get sustenance, but you will also prove to me that you are who you say you are.” Notice, Satan does not ask for Jesus’ credentials from Scripture, but prefers that Jesus prove He is the Christ using some other standard.

What is the Lord’s response? Does He meet the devil where he is at by appealing to some other proof? Does He look at this unbeliever and think “I’ll show him something that he cannot deny?” No, He does not. Jesus presupposed the Bible as an authoritative foundation to refute His opponent. In fact, the text that the Lord cites is one that states unequivocally that it is only possible for a person to truly live when they are dependent upon every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matt 4.4; Deut 8.1-3). It is possible that you passed by my point without realizing it, so allow me to repeat it “it is only possible for a person to truly live when they are dependent upon…” the Word of God. Christian apologetics is an act of living dependently in this fashion.

Had Jesus acquiesced to Satan’s demands, He would have proven not that He was the Son of God but that He was not worthy of such a title. In order to turn those stones to bread He would have had to deny Himself; showing that man could faithfully live by some other means before His Creator. Such irrationality you will never find in the mind of God. Jesus proved in His appeal to Scripture as the ultimate standard for living not only that He is rational, but that He is none other than God’s unique Son; a perfect representation of the image of God.  By the way, Jesus used the same approach before the Sanhedrin when they charged Him with blasphemy (Mark 14.61-64). And according to the writer of Hebrews God made His promise to Abraham on the same presuppositional grounds:

  • “For when God made a promise to Abraham, since He had no one greater to swear by, He swore by Himself…For men swear by something greater than themselves, and for them a confirming oath ends every dispute. Because God wanted to show His unchangeable purpose even more clearly to the heirs of the promise, He guaranteed it with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us” (Heb 6.13, 16-18; italics added; HCSB).

A subtly circular argument on which the promise to the heirs of God rest. Part III will focus on Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus in Athens.

Posted in Apologetics

Arguing in Circles: Part I

Eaves dropping on a Realistic Hypothetical…

“How do you know we landed on the moon?” asks the skeptic.

“Well, we have the reports from NASA, and the testimony of the astronauts.  There are also various media sources that validate the event” answers the believer.

“Yeah, but I don’t accept those claims.  I don’t believe what the government or the media tells us…you can’t trust them” the skeptic responds.

“You don’t believe them…you don’t trust them? Are you serious, the evidence is pretty…well…evident!”

“Now you know as well as I do,” starts the skeptic “that the media outlets and the information that the government gives are often filled with various inconsistencies, and yes though you may want to deny it…contradictions. All either really care about is money and power anyway.  Look at how much money the IRS takes from the people as they pass around the tax forms for us to fill out. And since the media is in bed with the government, most of what they report is fake news anyway,” he finishes triumphantly.

“Hold on a minute! What about the testimony of the astronauts, surely you can’t dismiss them.  Not only did some of them orbit the moon, but men like Neil Armstrong actually got out of the spaceship and stepped on that rock, planting the United States flag on it.  Why would they lie? Why would they make it up? Surely all those witnesses wouldn’t fudge the record!” proclaims the believer (just a wee-bit aggravated).

The corners of the skeptic’s mouth begin to inch toward an upward arch before he confidently says to the believer, “People lie all the time.  Some people are willing to die for the lies they told.  I’m not necessarily calling all the witnesses liars, some may have been duped by what they saw and heard, but that doesn’t mean what they have become convinced of is the truth. Self-deception is a real thing. Haven’t you heard of people who believed that their arm wasn’t really their arm and so they cut it off? Or the mother that drowned her children, convinced that she was doing what was for their benefit…not murder, but a peculiar gift?

Men like Neil Armstrong worked for the government. Don’t forget NASA is a governmentally led agency. Not just that, but look at the notoriety that he gained through the media. People like that tend to crave power, and what greater prestige could be gained when the whole world thinks you’re this great hero of a movement (the future promise of space travel and the possibility of living on other planets).  I’m not surprised that someone like him would cover up the truth, when he had so much to gain.”

…if you really want to prove to me that we’ve been to the moon, you’re going to have to prove it to me some other way, because I don’t trust the source(s) your giving me.”

**With that the skeptic wishes the believer a good day and departs, leaving the believer a bit dumbfounded.

Arguments over Truth and the Apologetic Response…

When we look at truth (we don’t actually look at it by the way since it’s an abstract concept of reality) we see things propositionally. Those propositional truths are then given meaning by way of analogy. In other words, we often use illustrative forms that people can relate to in order to better instruct what those propositional truths convey. This is not done as a slight of hand, but by way of drawing out the practical applications of those truths at play in real life scenarios.

In my former post, I pointed out how some Christian apologists prefer to leave the Bible out of the discussion when speaking to unbelievers because it is supposed that the skeptic will not accept its claims. Therefore, in order to avoid uncomfortable discussions and to steer clear from the dreaded fallacy of begging the question (a.k.a. circular-reasoning) many Christian apologist prefer philosophical argumentation regarding evidence, divorced from the Bible, as the preferred method of approach. How well do you think that works in the real world?1

Uhm…it doesn’t.

Regardless of the subject one attempts to tackle, opposing sides of the argument will argue.  And when they argue they will naturally appeal to that which they hold as ultimate. You can take the above scenario that I presented and put anything you desire into it, and the result will be the same. Whether it be sports, politics, forms of entertainment, financial planning/budgeting, etc. name the topic, identify the source, and watch the sparks fly. The issue is the person in question and what they identify as authoritative.

There are still people out there that believe the earth is flat not spherical, that vaccines are the products of pharmaceutical companies and the health profession intent on hurting rather than helping humanity (they’re all about the money!). You can show people evidence and pile it to the ceiling, but they will always appeal to that which they view as an authority in their life.

If someone argued against the earth being a sphere, or the benefits of vaccines, or the fact that we have orbited the earth, built a space station and have sent people to walk on the moon, to what would you turn as your authority? What would you cite? You would point to the source of the claim. You would point to the one source that made sense of the evidence. And you know what…you’d be arguing in a circle; necessarily so.

What is Circular-Reasoning or the Fallacy of Begging the Question?

Circular-Reasoning known as the fallacy of Begging-the-Question, is “…when an unjustifiable assumption is slipped into an argument to support a conclusion that has not yet been established.”2 In other words, you presuppose what you are attempting to prove; the conclusion of the arguer is found at the beginning of the argument. Here is an example that is often cited and criticized (and I would add rightly so) in Christian circles: “The Bible is inspired by God, and the Bible says that God exists. Therefore, God exists.”3 Here the assumption “God exists,” which is the conclusion of the argument, is smuggled into the opening of the argument.  The argument is supposed to justify that God exits, but rather than giving warrant to the conclusion the opening statement presupposes it. Therefore, the reasoner has reasoned in a circle, but nothing was actually proven.

The funny thing about this particular fallacy (i.e. false-reasoning) is that the form is logically valid (the premise and conclusion necessarily agree), but what makes it false is the arbitrary nature of the argument. We are being arbitrary when our personal “preference or convenience rather than by necessity or the intrinsic nature of something…,” say a standard is being applied. Arbitrariness is unjustified reason; the mere opinion of the arguer.4 That is why reasoning in a circle can be false.

“Wait a minute…you said can be. What do you mean?”

There are circumstances when reasoning in a circle is not fallacious.  Take for example logic, how does one go about proving it? When we argue we assume (rightly so) that there are standards that our reasoning must submit to. Logic is immaterial.  You cannot touch, taste, see, hear or smell a law of logic, but you can prove them.  “How do you prove something that does not exist!” By validating the standard by which you appeal.  In order to argue cogently, you must do so logically.  In order to argue logically, you must use logic; a necessary circle.

Here is a wonderful example of what I just stated:

  1. “If there were no laws of logic, we could not make an argument.
  2. We can make an argument.
  3. Therefore, there must be laws of logic.”5

Stated another way…laws of logic are necessary for proper argumentation and we argue; therefore, laws of logic must exist.  This argument, as described by Jason Lisle “…is subtly circular. We have assumed in this proof that there are laws of logic; modus tollens is a law of logic and we have used it as part of the proof that there are laws of logic. In this case we had no choice; in order to get anywhere in an argument we must presuppose [assume] that there are laws of logic…But what makes this a really good argument is that any possible rebuttal would be self-refuting.”

That last sentence may have left you wondering, “how so?” In order to argue against the argument presented, you would have to assume what you are trying to disprove—i.e. laws of logic. In short, not only would you have to borrow what you are trying to say is not true, but you too would also be arguing in a circle.

The Tie-in with Ultimate Standards…

This is why understanding ultimate standards is so important. That underlying foundation of a person’s perspective worldview is always the final court of appeal.  All people argue in a circular fashion to some extent, because it is impossible not to do so. Greg L. Bahnsen offers a cogent argument for why this is the case:

  • Therefore, all argumentation over ultimate issues of truth and reality will come down to an appeal to authorities which, in the nature of the case, are ultimate authorities. Circularity at this level of argumentation is unavoidable…When that ultimate authority is challenged, the argument must necessarily become circular, for nothing is “more authoritative” or carries greater warranting power than the “ultimate’ authority.” The unbeliever, as much as the believer, has a final authority to which he appeals in order to defend the world-view that embraces his interdependent metaphysic [i.e. view of reality] and epistemology [i.e. source of knowledge].7

But, not all foundations are made the exact same, are they? Nor are all circles of reasoning the same. A foundation or a circular argument that is self-refuting, rather than self-attesting, is a vicious and therefore fallacious (false) standard to appeal to. A worldview standard that cannot attest for, or provide the grounds for knowledge is self-refuting. That ultimate standard cannot be arbitrary, inconsistent, or lack the foundation for making knowledge possible. If it fails in any of these areas, then it’s a standard we shouldn’t be using.

This is truly at the heart of every apologetic encounter.  A person asks you why you believe “x,” and then you offer a reasoned response in defense of believing “x.” How do you prove “x,” if you refuse to stand on the very soil that makes “x” possible? If you cannot truly understand “x” without your faith-commitment’s standard, then why would you propose to give an understanding of “x” in some other format?

Think of it this way… (Oh yes, another illustration!)

You claim to have access to and privileges to drink from the sweetest well in all the world.  The water from this well is the purest, the sweetest, the absolute best. Because of this well’s water you will never thirst again, your thirst will always be satisfied, your soul refreshed. This well provides living-water.8

Then someone comes along and says to you, “Why do you drink from that well? Why do you claim that the water from it is the purest, the sweetest and the best to meet your needs? Why not these other wells that have good water in them to, why do you refuse to drink from them?”

In response to the inquiry, you immediately begin to dip your cup in the water from the well you cherish above all others. As you turn to offer a drink the questioner says, “What are you doing? Why do you approach with the water from that well?”

You say, “Well, you want to know why I drink from it, why I claim it is the sweetest and the best to satisfy one’s thirst…you want to know why I am so confident that this water alone will satisfy your soul for all your days. So, I bring to you a cup of this well’s water so that you might taste of it and know its sweetness.”

“No, no not that water. I will not drink of it, you must first prove to me that this water is what you say it is. Then, I will drink,” the questioner replies.

“How do I prove it without drawing from it and giving to you?” you ask. “Easy,” the questioner says “show me it is the sweetest by drawing from these other wells.”

Herein lies the dilemma of the one who refuses to draw from the well that the Lord has given, preferring instead a different well, in order to prove what he testifies about the life-giving water is indeed Living Water.

To Be Continued…

We shall return to the subject of circular reasoning by examining whether or not the approach is biblically justified.

________________________

ENDNOTES:

1 No, I’m not a pragmatist; quite the opposite. I do think this ideology has seeped into the Evangelical Church and so Pragmatism will be—by way of necessity—the subject for a future article, but for now we will leave it where it lies.

2 Norman Geisler and Peter Bocchino, Unshakeable Foundations: Contemporary Answers to Crucial Questions about the Christian Faith (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2001), 145.

3 Joel McDurmon, Biblical Logic in Theory and Practice: Refuting the Fallacies of Humanism, Darwinism, Atheism, and Just Plain Stupidity (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2011), loc 3519, Kindle Edition. The problem with both premises in this syllogism is not that they are false. According to the Christian worldview they are both true. However, to use them to prove each other is not a cogent argument, but rather a viscous circle.  I would recommend not joining the two together to prove the point, from biblical grounds, that God exists and the Bible is His breathed-out Word.

4 Jason Lisle points out that “Arbitrary assumptions are not be used in logical reasoning because we could equally assume the exact opposite.” He gives the following example: “Evolution must be true because it is fact.” The evolutionist accepts this argument as valid, even though he has reasoned in a circle. However, one could likewise argue “Evolution cannot be true because it is false.” The form is valid, the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises provided, but the premises are assumed true without validation. Cited from: Discerning Truth (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2010), 16, Adobe Digital Editions.

5 Jason Lisle, The Ultimate Proof of Creation: Resolving the Origins Debate (Green Forest, Master Books, 2009), 145.

6 Ibid, 145-146.

7 Greg L. Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended, Joel McDurmon, ed. (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press & Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, [2008], 2011), 89.

8From the Lord comes living water: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7.38). In John 6, Jesus compared himself to manna from heaven when He declared, “I am the bread of life…” (John 6.35). Similarly, we do no violence to biblical teaching when we compare the Rock of our Salvation to those rocks that were struck in the wilderness that provided living water for in desperate need (cf. Psa 78.15; Isa 48.21; see Exod 17.6; Numb 20.10-11; compare Jer 17.13 and Isa 55.1). “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psa 42.1-2a). Once our thirst drives us to the Lord, and His sweet water satisfies our soul (i.e. salvation), why would we put away that which has afforded us such a great gift. Let me put it another way: What is saved in Christ Jesus? The person in part or in totality? If in total, then does this not also include our very minds? If our minds, then why would we assume that there is some other way, some better way, to lead someone to this Living Water other than the source from which it springs?