This article was originally published in Antithesis (July/August 1990). I still agree with all of this, but I must say that reading stuff of mine that is over twenty years old gives me the feeling that I used to compose my prose with flattened cardboard boxes and tin snips. Just so you know. In preparing this for the blog, I fixed a few typos, and no doubt introduced a few new ones. And all the italics refused to transfer for some reason.
Apologetics and the Heart
I must perhaps begin by explaining that I do understand that an (abusive) ad hominem argument is a logical fallacy. There is no reason to think we have refuted someone’s arguments simply because we have vigorously attacked their person. There is also another fallacy, closely related to the ad hominem, dubbed “Bulverism” by C.S. Lewis.[i] He pointed out the modern tendency to dismiss an argument on no stronger grounds than the fact that you had explained how your opponent came to believe it.
But it does not follow from this that there is no connection between lifestyle and truth. It is inadequate to argue that the atheism of Jones cannot be true because he kicks his dog. If he offers arguments, then the arguments should be addressed. A thorough apologetic method will address arguments while at the same time understanding and taking into account their source.
As Christians, our intellectual object is to think God’s thoughts after Him. Our aim must not be a false humanistic “originality,” but rather, in one sense, submission to the way things are. This is because we believe that the world is the way it is because of the Creator and Sustainer of all things. But if truth is to be found through submission to God’s truth, then does it not become a matter of concern if someone claims to have found truth, but is living in open defiance of God’s law?
For example, Karl Marx engaged in a prolonged, shrill, and bitter argument with reality.[ii] The poet, Shelly, was a “lifelong absconder and cheat.”[iii] The existentialist, philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, was a notorious exploiter of women. Most notably was his mistress, Simone de Beauvoir. “In all essentials, Sartre treated her no better than Rousseau did his Therese; worse, because he was notoriously unfaithful. In the annals of literature, there are few worse cases of a man exploiting a woman. This was all the more extraordinary because de Beauvoir was a lifelong feminist.”[iv] It would not be at all difficult to fill a volume with names of men and women who shook their fists at heaven with less than altruistic motives.[v]
Now, it is quite true that the ethical standards of a man do not have a direct bearing on his opinion that 2 + 2 = 4, or that the sun rises in the east. But suppose the subject of debate is existence of a Judge? The debate is whether there is One who will weigh and evaluate the thoughts and deeds of the sons of men, and cast those who hate Him into the outer darkness. Is the lifestyle of the participants really irrelevant? In other words, are the accused qualified to give judgments about the existence of the Judge?
The heart of the problem is the heart. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools . . .” (Rom. 1:18-22).[vi]
A moral problem (refusal to glorify God as God, and refusal to thank God) is the cause of an intellectual problem. It is not the other way around. Our ethical condition cannot be preserved and protected through the intellect. The two are connected, but not in the way Christians have frequently assumed. We are to protect our intellect through our ethical standing before God.[vii] The reason unbelievers do not believe has nothing to do with a lack of arguments. Rather, their lack of desire to hear the arguments for the truth of Christianity is the result of unbelief.
We sometimes approach evangelistic apologetics as though unregenerate men did not love their sin. We speak and act as though an intellectual defense of the faith will somehow impart to the rebellious a desire for holiness. It does not. We argue with them, assuming that they would want to submit to this truth, if only they knew it to be truth. But they do know it is true, and they don’t want to submit to it (Rom. 1:28). At this point, many evangelists and apologists may be tempted to walk away in despair. Like Ezekiel, they are uncertain about the efficacy of prophesying to bones. But more on this shortly.
The intellect is insufficient protection for morality. But obedience does protect the intellect. Credo ut intelligam. If I refuse to believe, then ultimately I am refusing to understand. The testimony of Scripture is that ethical rebellion produces intellectual darkness. It is false to say that we can protect our lives with arguments; rather, we protect the integrity and reliability of argument by how we live our lives. The disobedient will eventually search out arguments by how we live our lives. In short, the disobedient will eventually search out arguments that will justify them in their disobedience. Because no such argument can be both true and valid, it will not be long before the rebellious begin to attack argument itself, i.e. “false Aristotelian categories, etc.”[viii] Christianity is initially rejected in the name of reason, but apart from Christianity, reason collapses into an irrationalism of despair.
This is why a revival of godliness will always produce a revival of learning. It does not flow the other way; learning does not produce godliness. Knowledge puffs up. But love builds up, and one of the things it builds up is knowledge. This is also why an abandonment of godliness will eventually destroy learning. The process begins with folly disguised as scholarship and learning, i.e. the folly is festooned with footnotes.[ix] Eventually, when the bankruptcy becomes evident to all, then scholarship itself will be denounced.
Given this relationship between godliness and the intellect, the manner we display in our presentation of truth is important. In II Timothy 2:23-26, we are instructed to correct “in humility” those who oppose us, with the hope that God will grant repentance. The sovereign God uses means in the salvation of the rebellious, and one of the means is humble instruction from the godly. In particular, the apologist should cultivate two things in his demeanor as he talks with those who are in the Romans 1 mold. His demeanor should address the two areas identified in that passage as being the heart of the problem, i.e. the refusal to honor God as God, and the refusal to give thanks.
First, the apologist must be filled with an understanding of the majesty of God. If the rebellion of the one before you comes from a willful blindness of this majesty, then how can he be helped by an evangelist with the same problem? The triviality, triteness, and silliness which characterizes much of evangelical Christianity will not be successfully covered with the whitewash of some argument. Why is it that our modern declarations of evangelical truth lack the triumphant and majestic tone of the prophet Isaiah? “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary. There is no searching of His understanding” (Is. 40:28). It is this writer’s conviction that this sense of God’s grandeur has been lost from the church at large because of the widespread rejection of the Biblical understanding of who God really is. Nothing empties a man of himself quite so much as the realization that God is God in everything, and cannot be replaced by a creature in anything, including the creature’s salvation.[x]
Second, the apologist must be filled with thanksgiving and gratitude. Again, because the rebellion of man is rooted in a refusal to thank God, the more he is exposed to thankful Christians, the better. The mystery of thanklessness begins early. Who among us has not seen some puffy-faced, rebellious child refusing to thank some adult for something or other? There is something in the sinful nature of man which does not want indebtedness, and saying “thank you” to God is an intolerable indication of indebtedness.[xi]
If these two attitudes are evident, then they will be used by God to convict the hearer of his basic problem. This is not to say that words are unimportant. The words of truth are the nail which must be driven into the heart. The submission of the evangelist to God as God, along with his gratitude, is the hammer. The One who wields the hammer is the Holy Spirit; He is the One who gives repentance.
It is crucial to remember that evangelism, and consequently faithful apologetics as well, may be divided into two aspects: law and gospel (not to be confused with the dispensational or Lutheran distinction). Much modern evangelism does not bear fruit simply because both these elements are neglected, or they are twisted.
When law comes to an unregenerate man, he always does two things; he acknowledges it as true, and he hates it as true. It is not our position to seek to persuade him that he has an obligation to honor God as God, and to thank Him. He already knows this. It is a truth which he is suppressing in unrighteous. Consequently, the individual hears the law everywhere; in the Creation, in his own wicked heart, and from the evangelist.[xii]
In other words, we should not seek to get the person to whom we are witnessing to verbally agree to the Biblical view of man. He is the way God has made him whether he agrees to it or not. So we must assume the Biblical view of man. We speak on this basis. As we speak, we know that the one who hears knows, at some level, that we speak the truth. This is true however much he has suppressed it. It is on the basis of this that God judges men who reject the gospel. They rejected it, knowing it to be true.
The content of our communication should revolve around two things; again, these are the two points at which men are rebelling. First, we must not be hesitant to speak of God as God. He is the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all things. We must not speak of a Higher Power, however man conceives him or her to be. We are Christians who serve the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, not devotees of some Fuzzy Benevolence in the Sky. But as we speak of God, it must be clear that these words have very clear definitions, and that the definitions are not man-flatterers. God knows everything; He oversees everything; He brought everything into existence; He is holy, righteous and good; He is a severe Judge and a loving Savior; He is present everywhere; the whole earth is full of His glory; from Him, through Him, and to Him are all things. The twenty-four elders need to spend more time on their faces (Rev. 4:10-11).
Second, we must emphasize, overtly, the obligations of all creatures to render thanks to God. Everything that has breath is to praise the Lord (Ps. 150:6). Too often, Christians assert that God is the Creator, without going on to apply the obvious ethical response — thanksgiving. Suppose, for a moment, that we gave all the engineers and scientists in the world a titanic budget and the following task: to come up with a functional human hand, with all the options. A hand that would grow callouses when used, repair itself when cut, move with the dexterity of an accomplished pianist, and so forth. They could not do it with all the resources in the world. And yet, here I sit at my word processor, typing away with two of these things. And they were given to me. Free.
We, as creatures, have an obligation to thank God. Those in rebellion who do not thank God need to be reminded of the obligation. God is God; He is not like we are. God is good; He daily gives to each of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, far more gifts than we can even keep track of (Matt. 5:45).
As we testify to these things, the testimony has the force of law. It does what the law is supposed to do, which is to increase and reveal transgression (Rom. 3:20; 5:20). It condemns. It is no wonder these truths are suppressed. For non-Christians, there is no good news at all yet.
After the law comes the gospel. The message of the cross and resurrection reconciles sinners to God, and part of this reconciliation is the dispelling of intellectual darkness. The futility of thinking is gone because the hardness of heart which produced it is gone. Hard hearts make for soft heads. Because the Spirit of God has taken away the heart of stone, the way the man thinks is altered forever. Everything is not done at once, but the process has begun. Because the rebellion is over, the process of renewing the mind is established (Rom. 12:1-2).
I Peter 3:15 instructs, “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed.” Good reasons, good defenses come from good hearts. If I am only prepared intellectually. I am not prepared intellectually.[xiii] The representative of Christianity must have “sanctified” the Lord in his heart, he must have a good conscience, and then he must give his defense, and his reason for hope. The one to whom he speaks has not sanctified the Lord in his heart, and does not have a good conscience. This is why he is in intellectual darkness.
As mentioned above, the popular dichotomy between the head and heart is a false one. But to use the terms assumed by it for a moment, if someone concerned for heart religion rejects the importance of “doctrine,” the problem is not in his head. The problem is in his heart; it is not bearing the proper fruit. This is because if a man sanctifies the Lord in his heart, the result will be defenses and reasons.
And if a Christian apologist, who is “into sound doctrine,” lives a life that is an ethical stretcher case, then the problem in his heart will eventually show up in his thinking.[xiv] We cannot seal off one part of us from another. When people get out of a Biblical balance, they lose the very thing they deem most important. Pharisees worshipped the law, but in effect, destroyed it. Pietists say we must concentrate on the heart, but the result is a heart which does not produce the fruit it should. In the name of clean hearts, they produce rotten ones. Our more intellectual brethren neglect the heart, and consequently are really neglecting the head. In the name of sound minds, they destroy the basis and foundation of all clear thinking, which is practical obedience.[xv]
The Bible teaches that intellectual darkness is the result of rebellion, not the cause of it. Those who have been brought out of darkness have a responsibility to speak to those who are still in it. As they speak it is crucial to realize the source of intellectual darkness, and to address it through the demeanor of the speaker, and the content of what is said.
If the apologist displays God’s character and demonstrates thankfulness to Him, then it is far more likely that God’s mercy will be demonstrated. These same two truths should spill over into the content of what is said. Until this happens, we will not see what has been absent from evangelical Christianity for hundreds of years: apologetics on fire.
[i] Lewis, C.S., God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 271-277.
[ii] I believe Marx was a good living example of the two fundamental tenets of atheists: (1) There is no God, and (2) I hate Him.
[iii] Johnson, P. Intellectuals (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), p. 46.
[iv] Ibid., p. 235.
[v] It would also not be hard to fill another volume with names of professing Christians whose lives were less than admirable. But the problem of hypocrisy is an entirely different one. The immoral atheist is unwilling to live with the logical tension between his premises and his lifestyle; he wants them to be consistent. The immoral “Christian” is willing to be inconsistent.
[vi] Gordon Clark sees this same process in II Timothy 3:8. The false teachers had “deteriorated intellectually.” Clark, G., The Pastoral Epistles (Jefferson: The Trinity Foundation, 1983), p. 173.
[vii] Some have sought to protect themselves from sin by looking at the final consequences of it. This is quite Biblical (Prov. 5:1-23), but there are other places to look besides the divorce courts and skid row. I have encouraged myself to godly and moral behavior by considering the intellectual folly I have seen at a nearby state university. There, the wreckage is intellectual.
[viii] Of course, the attack on argument is itself an argument.
[ix] The two best examples of folly defended by scholars are Marxism and evolutionism. Here we have two patently ridiculous theologies, and the priests of these religions are teaching at our best universities. As often noted, the last bastion of Marxism in the world appears to be American universities.
[x] Biblical theology, properly understood, is a joyous, victorious, militant, conquering faith. It has this effect because of the proper understanding of who God is, and what He has done in the cross and resurrection of Christ.
[xi] Have you noticed how our ungrateful culture doesn’t know what to do with Thanksgiving? They want it to be Turkey Day.
[xii] The doctrine of man’s total inability does not refer to his inability to recognize the law of God. It refers to his inability to recognize and love it at the same time. He can love it, provided he misunderstands it (zeal without knowledge), or he can understand it while hating it (the sinful mind is hostile to God). But he cannot, without the intervention of the Spirit, both understand the law and love it.
[xiii] This point is often misunderstood by “pietistic” evangelists. They establish a false dichotomy between the heart and the head, assert that only the heart is important, and then take a stand for Jesus. But good hearts will produce intellectual fruit. To object, as they do, to “intellectualism” on behalf of heart religion is like a farmer objecting to apples on behalf of apple trees. True piety will always produce true learning.
[xiv] I once wrote a letter to a pastor, making a point very similar to this one. He and his church were into what they called sound doctrine. Rather than pointing out the deficiency of love, which was a charge they were no doubt used to, I pointed out a doctrinal deficiency— the low view of Scripture indicated through their disobedience. I received a copy of my letter back from him with a term of scatological significance stamped all over it.
[xv] If a man won’t obey God in how he treats his wife, then why would he obey God in how he thinks? Rebellion tolerated anywhere will spread everywhere.