In light of the recent dust-up concerning Andy Stanley’s sermon regarding the relationship of Christianity and the Bible, and the subsequent defense of Stanley’s sermon by men from the classical apologetics bastion, Southern Evangelical Seminary, men like Norm Geisler and Frank Turek, it seems to me that a crucial question has emerged: Can classical apologetics provide a lucid defense of the historic orthodox view of Scripture? In other words, can the current state of classical apologetics exist in harmony with, and be married to, the Christian Scriptures as they have been viewed by Christianity over the long history of the church? It seems to me that Frank Turek’s revised definition of Sola Scriptura provides an excellent starting point from which to begin our investigation.
Two things are required to answer this question: first, a sound understanding of the Bible’s claims about itself and how the church has understood those claims over the course of her history; second, a firm grasp of the core tenants of the classical method of apologetics. Can method x defend the type of claim y that Christian Scripture makes about itself?
Classical apologetics does not begin its defense of Christianity with the Bible. It begins its defense of Christianity with human reason, arguments, and evidence. It assumes that there is a set of neutral criteria agreed upon by both the unbeliever and the believer and that all that the Christian has to do is to present, in just the right way, the Christian claims in accord with this supposedly neutral criteria, and in so-doing, he will remove the unbeliever’s obstacles that supposedly are keeping him from coming to faith in Christ. What this means is that the unbeliever’s objection to Christian belief must be limited to his cognitive faculties. The classical method assumes that the primary obstacle to Christian belief is intellectual. If we can clear that objection, we can persuade the unbeliever to embrace Christianity and place their faith in Christ, or so it goes. Moreover, since Christian belief is based on the most rational arguments and clear evidence, a reasonable person will naturally decide to embrace Christianity if, and this is important, if the messenger presents Christianity in a way that accords with the neutral criteria of logic and evidence mentioned earlier. Since the unbeliever’s objection to Christ is intellectual in nature, the most effective way to clear the path to Christ from all these obstacles is to appeal to human reason, or so says the classical method. And the best way to appeal to human reason and to change minds, is to employ those tactics and strategies that have the highest probability for persuading the intellect, and hence, changing the unbeliever’s mind. You see, we can restore the intellectual respectability of Christianity and increase the Kingdom of God both at the same time! Or so goes the classical method.
Back to the question: can this method of apologetics put up a rational defense of the claims of Scripture about itself without compromising its own tenants or without sacrificing the historic orthodox view of Scripture on the altar of pagan philosophy and autonomous human reason?
Classical apologetics holds that every truth-claim ought to be accompanied with evidence, with proof for its claim. And that proof must satisfy the criteria of sound reason as agree upon by the Christian and the non-Christian alike. If we cannot support our claims by subjecting them to the criticisms and judgments of non-Christian criteria, then we have a gospel that is unconvincing because it lacks intellectual integrity and plausibility, or so the argument goes. The classical method allows for the and even depends on the condition of neutrality in human reason and the existence of brute fact for its success.
When I took Dr. Geisler’s “Introduction to Apologetic’s some 20 years ago, it was clear that reason had prominence of place. In fact, one of the points that Dr. Geisler made for why we should do apologetics in the first place was that “reason demands it.” “A fundamental principle of reason is that we should have sufficient grounds for what we believe.” Dr. Geisler went on to quote, not Paul, not Peter, but Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Indeed, human reason occupies a very high place in the school of classical apologetics. But the question for the classical apologist is can he deliver the kind of evidence required to warrant the Christian belief that the Bible is very Word of God, perfectly inspired in its original form? The real question for the classical apologist is can he deliver on his promise to defend the Christian worldview using his method without presupposing the truthfulness of the very worldview he wants to prove comports with the state of affairs as they have obtained.
The classical approach begins with the claim that God exists and it proceeds to offer us the evidence for this claim by way of the traditional arguments. But none of these arguments deliver the Christian God. They only deliver the possibility that some sort of very powerful, very intelligent being exists. They all fail to prove that the God of Scripture exists.
The classical approach then moves to the claim that if this very powerful, very intelligent being exists, then miracles are possible. And if miracles are possible then a miracle can be used by God to confirm a message from God. The problem with this argument is that Christianity, in modern times, is not accompanied by miracles. The best we can do is point to testimonies that are nearly 2,000 years old of people who claim to have witnessed a number of miracles. And that is not quite the same now is it.
Once the classical approach has established that the existence of some god is possible, or probable, and then from this conclude that miracles are possible, and from this, conclude that miracles can be used to confirm a message from God, it claims to have cleared the way to an examination of the claims of the NT. From this point the claim is made that the NT is historically reliable. I suppose this means that the NT then is God’s message because God has given us miracles to confirm that it is true. The problem with this view is that it presupposes what it wants to prove: The Bible. You cannot use the miracles of the Bible to claim the Bible is confirmed to be God’s word without arguing in a circle. The very idea of the possibility of miracles presupposes the truthfulness of Christian belief. Now, as a presuppositionalist, I don’t mind the circle quite so much, but the classical method has a serious problem with it. You see, we do not see the miracles that Geisler talks about. We only read eyewitness accounts, or as the skeptic would say, claims. A mere claim that a miracle happened is not grounds to accept it. As Geisler has already said, we need evidence. What evidence do we have? From whence will it come? It cannot come from the very Scripture we are trying to conclude is the word of God. That is assuming what we are trying to prove or demonstrate. The evidence, in order to remain consistent with the classical approach must come from someplace else.
In order to show that the NT is historically reliable, Dr. Geisler points to the fact that we have a LOT of copies of the NT, and we have a lot of OLD copies of the NT. In fact, we have more of these old copies of the NT than any other document from antiquity. The NT records that Jesus claimed to be God in many ways. But does it follow that just because it is historically accurate to say that Jesus claimed to be God that he actually was God? The classical apologist will reply that Jesus worked a lot of miracles and claimed to be God. Did he really work those miracles? Just because the NT has proven to be reliable in those areas where it can be fact-checked against the evidence, that does not mean that it is reliable in every other area. After all, Andy Stanley is calling into question the historicity of creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood. The whole point is that Christianity can survive without a fully reliable Bible. Don’t let the 6 days of creation scare you away! That is the point. So, these miracles may not have happened just like Adam and Eve and the flood and the talking snake and the talking donkey may not have actually happened.
The next claim is that Jesus predicted and accomplished his own resurrection. Therefore, Jesus is God. Whatever Jesus, who is God, teaches, is true. Jesus taught that the Bible is the word of God. Therefore, the Bible is the Word of God. The problem with this approach is that none of these things come directly from Jesus. The miracles don’t come directly from Jesus nor do we witness these sorts of things in our day. And it is faith in our day that we are talking about. The claims that Dr. Geisler writes about are all claims made by someone else about Jesus. These men claim to have witnessed Jesus raise the dead, heal the sick, and so forth. The whole question is, did Jesus do these things? And more importantly, the question is, can classical apologetics demonstrate with sound arguments and good evidence that these things are in fact true? And can it do so without presupposing the very thing it is attempting to demonstrate? Namely, that the Bible is the Word of God and can be trusted in all that it claims.
What is the nature of the Bible? What do we mean by the phrase sola Scriptura? The 1689 LBCF as well as the WCF say: The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God. Can classical apologetics provide the kind of evidence and argumentation that warrants belief in the Bible while remaining internally consist with its own method? I don’t believe it can. And the reason I don’t believe it can is because belief in the Bible as God speaking, which is what we are talking about, is not the conclusion of logical arguments or historical evidence. Belief in the Bible as God speaking is the result and only the result of the miraculous and gracious gift of faith placed in the regenerated heart by God the Holy Spirit. The nature of the Bible is such that unaided human reason cannot and will not honor the Bible by properly recognizing it for what it is. Belief that the Bible is God speaking is not something that one can limit to the human intellect. Such a belief is whole-life changing and transforming.
The traditional arguments have failed to prove that the Christian God exists. They simply fall short of the mark. And if that is true, we cannot say if miracles are possible or not. In fact, if the conclusion of the traditional arguments is the warrant for belief in the possibility of miracles, then that warrant is low to be sure. And since we have such a low degree of warrant for both the Christian God and from there the belief in the possibility of miracles, the next issue we must face is the question concerning the claims of miracles in the NT. We may say that generally speaking a document is reliable and credible if we can validate its claims by means of other reliable and credible sources. But is this the case with the NT? If it is logically the case that the traditional arguments do not provide a high degree of warrant for belief in the Christian God and I don’t think they do, then it follows that miracles will necessarily come with a low degree of warrant. And if this is true, then surely any document that claims that God exists and that miracles happen may be very reliable in some respects, but quite unreliable in others. Why couldn’t one claim that the Bible is filled with many stories, some of them quite reliable where history is concerned and where corroborating evidence exists, and others of them are very probably the product of superstitious minds, especially where supernatural claims are concerned.
Christians claim that the Bible is the supernatural Word of God. The Bible is a miraculous project. Can logical arguments and historical evidence defend the claim that the Bible is a supernatural book and remain internally consistent? Yes and no. Heb. 4:12 says that the Word of God is living and active. How can a book be alive and actually active? Well, given the presuppositions of autonomous human reason, it cannot. To say that the Bible is the word of God because Jesus claimed it is the word of God is not evidence that the Bible is the Word of God, at least not if we follow the logic of the classical approach. What it is, is something that a presuppositionalist like myself might say. But if we yield to the classical approach, it is only evidence that Jesus Christ believed that the Bible is the Word of God. And to say that Jesus was the Messiah because he rose from the dead and therefore, whatever he says is true, is a belief that is based on the Word of God. Why do I need to conclude that the Bible is the Word of God when all the evidence I am referencing, for the most part, is contained in the very book I am trying to demonstrate to be the Word of God? But this is, for the classical approach, begging the question. The presuppositionalist would gladly extend an “amen.”
Part of the problem is how the classical approach views what it means to know. The classical approach has embraced some principles from pagan Greek philosophy and some principles from the enlightenment. The demand for a very specific type of evidence has been uncritically accepted by this school and as a result, it has produced an apologetic approach that is on the brink of collapse. These philosophies first infected theology about God, about man, about salvation, and have now worked their way into apologetic method. Knowledge is not defined by ancient Greece nor is it defined by the god-hating, arrogant blasphemers from the enlightenment. It is defined by divine revelation. True human knowledge begins only where the fear of the Lord resides. That is where we must begin our definition, understanding, and case for the possibility, of human knowledge. Elizabeth Meek tells us that restricting knowledge to the sentence lying on a piece of paper makes no sense. This is not the kind of knowledge we are talking about when we talk about how we know God or how Christians know that the Bible is God speaking. I did not come to know my wife by way of logical arguments or syllogisms. I did not come to know her through empirical investigations. And we do not know God or God speaking in this way either. But you have an anointing and you all know, the apostle John tells us. (1 John 2:20) What? We know because we have an anointing from the Holy One. Jesus told the Father that he had manifested the Father’s name to his disciples and as a result, they have come to know everything. (John 17) The disciples only knew once Jesus disclosed the Father to them.
The classical approach ignores the fact that the human intellect is now operating under a divine curse and in desperate need of redemption. 1 Corinthians tells us without ambiguity that the message of the cross, which is exactly what the entire Scripture is about, is foolishness to those who are perishing. I would say that that qualifies as an obstacle. Why didn’t Paul tell us that we should do all we can to remove that obstacle? There is an incredible antithesis between unbelieving criteria for justified belief and believing criteria. The unbeliever’s epistemic authority is rebellious, unaided, fallen human reason. The believers epistemic authority for warranted belief is Scripture alone.
One final point on this was made by James White and I want to share this principle with you because it is indeed an excellent one. If you are going to make an argument for the credibility of the Bible, then that thing to which you appeal in your argument must come with a greater degree of credibility than the Bible if it is going to add anything to the credibility of the Bible. Appealing to the Babylonian Talmud to prove that Christ performed miracles is silly when you have the sort of evidence you have in Scripture. The Talmud has less integrity than Scripture and therefore, it does not add force to your argument. This point seems to be entirely lost on the classical approach.
In the end, it seems to me that classical apologetics cannot defend the doctrine of sola Scriptura precisely for the reason that it depends on the autonomous reason of fallen men to judge of its claims. This fact alone, by definition, means that classical apologetics is impotent when it comes to defending the Christian claim of Scripture alone! That fact alone should be enough for anyone who cares about the doctrine of sola Scriptura to abandon this apologetic method. Gordon Clark wrote, “All attempts to obtain knowledge apart from revelation have failed.” This is because the revelation of God in Scripture is the only means by which man may come to a true knowledge of God and of God’s creation. I need no further evidence than that which I have in Scripture alone!