The point of contact with the unbeliever
“Apologetics” is the defense of the Christian Faith. Scripture states that Christians should always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (First Peter 3:15, ESV). So all of us believers have an apologetic responsibility to defend our faith before unbelievers when circumstances call upon us to do so.
But how should we go about doing this? What is the method we should use in defending our faith? And, closely related to this question, how can we effectively establish a point of contact with the unbeliever with whom we are in dialogue about matters of faith?
Some schools of Christian apologetics assume that what the unbeliever needs is simply more information. In other words, the assumption seems to be that if we just present the facts and evidences in support of Christianity in a more intellectually compelling way, the unbeliever is bound to convert and become a Christian. So, for example, many books on Christian apologetics will stress things such as philosophical proofs for the existence of God, biblical prophecies which have been fulfilled, evidences for the historical accuracy of the Scriptures, the evidences for the resurrection of Jesus, and so forth.
All of this assumes that the apologist’s point of contact with the unbeliever is the unbeliever’s use of reason, and that reason is likewise assumed to be ethically neutral and independent (or autonomous), able to correctly judge facts apart from reference to God and God’s revelation in Holy Scripture. This approach to apologetics also implicitly (and usually unwittingly) concedes to the basic assumption of the natural man(1), namely, that he is the ultimate reference point when it comes to judging what is true and what is false, what is good and what is evil.
Now, when used correctly, these kinds of evidences can certainly be helpful in stripping away the unbeliever’s excuses for unbelief and impenitence. But there are two big problems with a purely evidential approach to apologetics:
1. It overlooks the Creator-creature distinction, by assuming that human reason can operate independently from the Creator God who blessed man with the ability to reason. It ignores the fact that reason, like all created reality, is dependent upon the reality of the sovereign, Triune God revealed in Scripture, and thus that reason is not autonomous (i.e., an independent law unto itself).
2. It ignores the biblical teaching that mankind after its fall in Adam is actively and unceasingly engaged in suppressing the truth in unrighteousness by sinfully resisting the truth about God that is clearly revealed in all of created reality (see Romans 1:18-20). Therefore, when the natural man is confronted with facts and evidences that support the truth of Christianity, unless the Holy Spirit changes his heart he will inevitably interpret those facts and evidences through the grid of his own fallen, autonomous reason, and thus will end up twisting those evidences to support his own unbelieving worldview and thus will seek to insulate himself against being confronted with the truth of his sinful rebellion against God.
But if the apologist’s point of contact with the unbeliever is not to be found in the unbeliever’s reason, where then can it be found?
The biblical and reformed answer is that our point of contact with the unbeliever is not his intellect (epistemology) as such, but in our shared humanity with the unbeliever (ontology), for even the natural man was created in the image of God and thus retains what Calvin called “the sense of deity”. In Romans 1:18-20 the Apostle Paul teaches that all men (even pagans who have never heard of Jesus Christ or seen a Bible in their lives) have an innate sense of the reality of the Creator God who is revealed in Scripture. This innate sense of deity is branded into their very being as God’s image bearers.
All men know in their heart of hearts that the biblical God exists, and that they are morally accountable to Him. All men know this because all have been created in the image of God, have the works of God’s moral law written upon their hearts, and thus have an inescapable moral conscience that commends them when they do well and condemns them when they sin (Romans 2:14-16).
The problem is that fallen, unregenerate men suppress or hold down this truth in unrighteousness. In their proud desire to be their own gods by creating their own reality and being the ultimate reference point of determining truth and error, right and wrong, unregenerate people resist the innate and inescapable sense of Deity that they possess deep within their being as God’s image-bearers.
This innate, God-given, inescapable sense of Deity is the ultimate reference point that the consistent apologist should appeal to in any apologetic dialogue, for it is the ultimate point of contact shared by both the believer and the unbeliever.
So, when defending your faith in conversations with unbelievers, it can certainly be helpful to present them with facts and evidences that support the Christian system of truth. But we must do so in a way that presupposes the existence of the sovereign, Triune God and the infallibility of the Scriptures, not in a way that caters to the unbeliever’s supposed autonomous reason. We must press home upon them their own inner awareness of the reality of God, and we must point out to them that, without the existence of God and the truthfulness of the scriptural system of truth, reason itself would not exist (since the faculty of reason is itself a creation of God).(2)
(1) The “natural man” is the unregenerate man, the man whose existence is dominated by his fallen nature in Adam, since he has not been born again by the Holy Spirit. (Read First Corinthians 2:14-16.
(2) As the great Reformed apologist, Cornelius Van Til taught: “…the Reformed apologist must seek his point of contact with the natural man in that which is beneath the threshold of his working consciousness, in the sense of deity that he seeks to suppress. And to do this the Reformed apologist must also seek a point of contact with the systems constructed by the natural man. But this point of contact must be in the nature of a head-on collision. If there is no head-on collision with the systems of the natural man, there will be no point of contact with the sense of deity in the natural man…According to the doctrine of the Reformed faith, all the facts of nature and of history are what they are, do what they do, and undergo what they undergo, in accord with the one comprehensive counsel of God. All that may be known by man is already known by God. And it is already known by God because it is controlled by God.” (pp. 126-127 in Christian Apologetics by Cornelius Van Til; Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, copyright 1976, 2003) In this significant quote, Van Til not only asserts that the point of contact in our apologetic conversations with unbelievers must be the innate sense of deity they experience due to their creation in the image of God, but he also points out that our apologetic methodology as Reformed Christians must be in conformity with the Reformed Theology we profess. In other words, we are not merely seeking to defend the existence of a god; rather, we are seeking to defend the existence of the all-sovereign Triune God of Scripture, the true and living God who sovereignly governs and controls all things according to His sovereign, predestinating purpose and eternal decree.