Friday, March 13, 2009

Answering the fool

In the last post on apologetics, we held that the heart of the apologetic encounter is a conflict between views on ultimate authority. For the Christian, the Triune God who speaks in Scripture is the highest authority. For the unbeliever the knowledge of God’s eternal Godhead and power is suppressed and they exchange the glory of the invisible God for created things. What we need to do next is to outline what methods we ought to use to give a reason why we are Christians and to try to persuade others to repent of their sins and believe the gospel; knowing that only the work of the Holy Spirit can truly bring someone to faith in Christ.

What “evidential” apologetics does is minimize the conflict of authorities that we’ve seen between believers and unbelievers so that it can be resolved the same way that we would resolve any other problem. So it seeks to appeal to the unbeliever on his own terms. It appeals to his reason, to interpreting the evidence available (be it scientific, philosophical, logical, or archaeological), and then to coming to the believer’s conclusion. The problem is that the unbeliever by necessity must reject this line of reasoning because it cannot fit within his worldview and the conclusion is at odds with the final authority he claims.

Let’s look at an example. Say that a Christian is having a conversation with a friend about miracles. The friend believes that all of reality can be studied and explained by science. The Christian of course believes that there is a transcendent God who can and does intervene in his creation through miracles. The friend can freely listen to all the evidence that the Christian has that Jesus performed miracles. He can hear about eyewitness testimony, evidence for the reliability of the Gospels, and so on. Yet because his final authority is natural science he cannot accept the Christian’s conclusion that Jesus Christ is God incarnate. Instead he will insist that there is a natural explanation that was not available to the witnesses or that they could not understand. So long as he is able to appeal to the same final authority he will not accept the Christian conclusion. The friend remains a sinner who has exchanged the truth of God for a lie; in dogmatics we call this the noetic (“to the mind”) effect of sin. As Paul tells us, “the mind of the sinful nature is at enmity with God, for it is not subject to the law of God, nor can it be.” (Rom. 8:7).

So as Christians how are we to make an appeal to unbelievers if they cannot accept our line of reasoning? We’re going to answer this question in a series of posts but we’ll start with a well-known pair of verses from the book of Proverbs:

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes. (Prov. 26:4-5)

These verses can actually teach us a lot about how to do apologetics. In Scripture, the fool is the one who rejects wise instruction. Because the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7) the fool is the one who says in his heart that there is no God (Ps. 14:1). So just as we see in Romans 1, the fool in Scripture is the one who has exchanged the truth of God for a lie and the glory of the Creator for the images of created things; “professing to be wise they became fools.” He is the one who, following after the first Adam’s fall, seeks to be like God in determining good and evil for himself rather than obeying the commands of God.

In the book of Proverbs God gives us many instructions in how to interact with the fool who rejects the wise instruction that begins with the fear of the Lord. Some of it is found in these two verses. The wise instructor first tells us not to answer the fool according to his folly lest we become fools like him. Now when we understand that foolishness means rejecting God’s authority for our own then we recognize that we cannot debate the unbeliever according to his own authority structures. This is what we saw above. The naturalist cannot be convinced of supernatural occurrences on the basis of his naturalist beliefs. Miracles are impossible according to his authority structure. To agree to argue along those lines is to become foolish like him as we reject God’s revelation to us and work within autonomous and sinful belief structures. This means that we cannot work solely within the bounds of “evidential” apologetics. The rationalist cannot be convinced by an appeal to human reason. The empiricist cannot be convinced by an appeal to what can be known by the senses. We cannot answer the fool according to his folly in this manner without becoming fools like them in appealing to an authority other than God.

In the next verse we are given a seemingly opposed instruction. Now we are told to answer the fool according to his folly lest he be wise in his own eyes. I think that the commands not to answer and then to answer are related to how we engage the fool who says in his heart that there is no God. We do not answer him by trying to appeal to his own authority structure in trying to show that there is a God. We do not appeal to human reason to bring the rationalist to faith but to Scripture. This would be like trying to show a Muslim that Jesus Christ is God by appealing to the Koran even though the Koran explicitly denies the deity of Christ. Yet there is a way that Scripture commands us to answer the fool within the context of his own authority structure. We can do this because the unbeliever does know the Triune God even though he suppresses that knowledge. That knowledge is ultimately fundamental to an unbeliever’s being as a creature. He cannot escape it though he suppresses it and exchanges it for lies. Yet lies will ultimately have contradictions in them that reveal this suppression.

So the task of the apologist in answering the fool is to expose these contradictions caused by the unbeliever’s suppression of the knowledge of God. In the example above the Christian should ask the unbeliever about scientific laws and try to show that universal laws are impossible without the existence of an absolute God. The believer should try to show the rationalist that his human reason is not a sufficient ground for interpreting all of reality. Again, it is my case that this can be done on a very simple and individual level so long as the Christian realizes that he adopts the unbeliever’s authority for the purpose of showing that authority is insufficient. Because this post has gotten rather long we’ll continue on this next time.

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