Foundations of Christian Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective,
edited by Gary North, Ross House Books, Vallecito, CA, 1979,
November 2, 2011
The Unsettled and Complex Character of Apologetics
The Basic Question of Method
The Socratic Outlook
The Christian Perspective
Paul’s Apologetic Method: Acts 17
An Overview of the History of Apologetics
The Reformation of Apologetics
or Christ: The Reformation of Christian Apologetics (continued)
The Christian Perspective
fundamental antithesis exists between the thinking of Socrates and that
of the apostle Paul; they radically differ even in the area of
philosophical method. The contrast is evident in the following
exposition of Paul’s apologetic (which thematically corresponds to the
exposition of Socrates). As one who had been set apart (sanctified)
from the world by God’s word of truth,53 Paul founded his
thinking on the solid rock foundation of Christ’s words,54
realizing that no one could improve upon the wisdom of God.55
Paul had, then, no agreement with the darkness of Socrates’ unbelieving
approach to knowledge.56 Along with the other apostles, Paul
presupposed the wisdom and veracity of God’s word, in contrast to
Socrates, who started with the autonomy of man’s intellect.
antithesis could not be greater—the antithesis between truth and error.
“They are of the world; therefore they speak of the world and the world
hears them. We are of God; the one who knows God hears us, and the one
who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth
and the spirit of error.”57
elaborated upon this stark antithesis between believing and unbelieving
philosophy in I Corinthians 1-2. Those who perish see the word of the
cross as foolishness, while those who are saved view it as the very
power of God.58 The gospel is contrary to the
presuppositions of unbelieving thought, for it does not cater to
rebellious man’s demand for factual signs and logical argumentation that
will pass the test of autonomous scrutiny.59 Infatuation
with worldly wisdom was the last thing that would characterize Paul!60
Christian wisdom glories rather in the Lord. Socrates was
anthropocentric, while Paul was theocentric. Thus, when Paul came to
Corinth, he did not rely upon the intellectual tools of the Athenian
philosophers; instead, he came with the powerful demonstration of the
Spirit in order that faith might not be in the wisdom of men but in the
power of God.61 Socrates would have been completely unable
to receive this God-centered, presuppositional viewpoint of Paul as
anything but foolishness.62 Their respective epistemological
methods were as different as darkness and light.63
recognized that he had been divinely commissioned; he had been sent as
an apostle, not by men, but by the resurrected Christ.64
Hence he did not seek to please men, for that would have been
incongruent with his status as a servant of Christ.65 Paul
was not commissioned to be a gadfly who, through dialectical questioning
or research, seeks to spur men on to the self-betterment of their souls.
As the ambassador for Christ, he beseeched men in Christ’s stead, not
to recognize their inherent participation in a higher divine realm of
reason, but to be reconciled to God.66 This required the
attempt to persuade men67; yet his persuasion rested not on
the self-sufficient reason of man, for Paul walked by faith and not by
sight.68 The gospel he preached was not based on man,69
and thus the weapons of his warfare were not after the flesh but instead
mighty through God for casting down every imagination that exalts itself
against the knowledge of God.70 His aim was to bring every
thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. Therefore, in
diametric contrast to Socrates, Paul had no high regard for autonomous
philosophy. He warned that vain, deceitful philosophy which is directed
by the traditional presuppositions of the world instead of by Christ
will rob man of all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, which
treasures are to be found in Christ.71 Paul did not oppose
the use of persuasion and philosophy, but he absolutely rejected any
persuasion and philosophy that were patterned after man’s alleged
self-sufficient intellectual abilities. True love-of-wisdom
(“philosophy”) brings every thought captive to Christ and, thereby,
Consequently, rather than preaching salvation through (or dependence
upon) the rational soul in man as an incarnate divine logos, Paul
stressed the Creator/creature distinction72 and proclaimed
that men, suppressing the truth in unrighteousness,73 are
alienated and enemies in their minds against God and thus must be
reconciled through the cross of Christ in the body of His flesh.74
It is this Savior who is the eternal yet enfleshed Logos of God, the
incarnate word full of grace and truth.75 Jesus Christ
himself is the Truth,76 the wisdom of God,77 the
deposit of all knowlledge,78 and as such the life-giving
light of men.79 Paul’s perspective stands squarely over
against that of Socrates. Paul refused to utilize the pseudo-wisdom of
the Socratic outlook lest the cross of Christ be made of none effect.80
The rational religion of worldly wisdom knows not God, Paul maintained,
for God saves men by the foolishness of preaching the cross of Christ.81
such views as these, Paul certainly did not exalt the intellect of man,
commend neutrality in one’s thinking, or insist upon autonomy as an
of the key reasons why Paul did not exalt and trust the intellect or
reason of man is found in his doctrine of total depravity. That
depravity, held Paul, extends to the intellect of man. “The carnal mind
is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither
indeed can it be.”82 Because the unbeliever does not base
his life and thinking upon the words of Christ, he is nothing less than
foolish.83 To approach the field of knowledge without
presupposing the truth of God is to preclude arriving at a proper
understanding. The beginning of knowledge is the fear of the Lord,84
but there is no fear of God before the eyes of the sinner.85
Hence he needs to have his eyes opened and to turn from darkness to
light86; in his natural state he has a blinded mind,87
loving darkness rather than light.88 Those who are enemies
of the cross, noted Paul, are those who mind earthly things89;
being a child of wrath in his sinful mind,90 the man of
worldly wisdom has vain thoughts.91 The unbeliever,
therefore, has no understanding,92 cannot receive the Spirit
of truth,93 cannot discern spiritual things,94
cannot see God’s kingdom,95 and is nothing short of an enemy
in his mind against God.96 The thinking of the natural
man is never a suitable pattern or starting point for Christian
apologetics! Unlike Socrates, Paul did not trust man’s reason to
guide him naturally toward the good. Man’s mind is dominated by sin,
and thus knowledge is not identical with virtue. Knowing God, all men
fail nevertheless to obey Him—resulting in vain thinking and foolish,
darkened hearts.97 The unbeliever’s reason is not
omnicompetent according to Paul; instead, unbelievers walk in vanity of
mind, with darkened understanding, ignorance, and blindness of
heart—arriving at nothing but a “knowledge” falsely so-called.98
Therefore, in his apologetic methodology, Paul refrained from exalting
man’s fallen intellect or building his case for the truth of
Christianity upon its misguided standards. The carnal mind was seen for
what it is: at enmity with God.
However, this conclusion did not lead Paul to give up the task of
apologetics as hopeless. On the one hand, the unbeliever abuses his
intellect and cannot avoid foolishness; on the other hand, the sinner
yet has a knowledge of God which cannot be eradicated. All men are
always accessible to the witness and persuasion of the Christian
apologist. This is so because, as Paul teaches in Romans 1: 18-21,
there is a kind of “innate” knowledge of God which each and every man
possesses, even though he mishandles and suppresses that knowledge.
Such knowledge is not innate, with Socrates, in the sense that man’s
mind is in contact with the eternal realm of the forms and recollects
them based on endless reincarnations; such innateness as this assumes
the continuity of man’s reason with divinity. Paul’s doctrine of innate
knowledge—a knowledge of God, rather than of Platonic “archetypes” of
things in the world of “becoming”—assumes rather the distinction between
the Creator and creature. It is because God has created man as His
image99 as well as creating everything in the world,100
that man cannot avoid knowing his Creator. Man is inescapably
confronted with the face of God within him and the imprint of God’s work
all about him; God’s revelation is constantly bearing in upon him,
whether he seeks self-knowledge or understanding of the world. God
reveals himself through nature unceasingly, universally, and
inescapably.101 The silent communication of God continues to
the end of the world, day unto day and night unto night showing forth
knowledge. In virtue of creation, every man images God; man is the
climax of creation, not being made after his own kind (as with the
animals), but being made in the likeness of God. In knowing himself,
man simultaneously knows his God. Moreover, there is a sense in which
Christ enlightens every man.102 Hence, there is nowhere man
can flee in order to escape confrontation with God.100
Paul’s teaching of these points is plain to see. He asserted that God’s
invisible nature is clearly perceived and intellectually apprehended by
man,104 God is definitely known both from within man105
and from the created world.106 “What can be known about God
is plain within them,” and therefore man is categorically characterized
as “knowing God.”107 It is because of these things that the
apologist always has a point of contact with the unbeliever. Indeed,
because of the unavoidable knowledge of God possessed by all men, the
apologist is assured of success in his task of defending the faith.
While men suppress the truth in unrighteousness, God nevertheless makes
himself so clearly manifest to them that men are without excuse for
their rebellion. They are fully responsible. As the Greek original
suggests, “they are without an apologetic.”108 The
presuppositional apologetic of Paul, then, could never encounter an
intellectual fortress which exalts itself against the knowledge of God
in an effective manner; by making his apologetic captive to the
obedience of Christ, Paul was guaranteed the victory in pulling down
such strongholds.109 He was set for the apologia of
the gospel against men who had no apologetic for their foolish rebellion
against the knowledge of God.
contrast to the dialectical epistemology of Socrates, Paul taught that
knowledge for man has to be the receptive reconstruction of God’s
thoughts. In this case, God’s revelation is foundational to human
knowledge; man’s reasoning is not self-sufficient,110
autonomous,111 or somehow profitable as an independent source
of knowledge.112 As is evident from what was said above,
Paul denied the normative character of the human mind and its thinking.
We should go on to see that Paul also denied the ultimacy of man’s
reason as the standard of knowledge and the final category of
interpretation. Unlike Socrates, Paul did not seek to determine the
nature and possibility of knowledge without reference to God.113
By making man the final epistemological court of appeal, Socrates was
led to a dialectical mixing of continuity and discontinuity, of unity
and diversity, of logic and fact, in man’s mind. For Paul, it is not
man (reflecting on logic and fact) but God and His revelation which
constitutes the final reference point of knowledge.114 Human
knowledge can never be comprehensive, but neither does it need to be in
order for man to attain to veridical apprehension of reality.115
Comprehensive knowledge is possessed by God,116 and since He
is the determiner of all things,117 there is no “realm of
possibility” behind Him.118 Consequently there is no mystery
or contingency which can threaten God’s knowledge. The temporal realm,
with its created unity and diversity, finds its interpretive unity in
the mind and decree of God.119 God’s self-sufficient,
absolutely rational, comprehensive, and coherent plan for creation and
historical eventuation120 provides the integrating category
of interpretation for man’s knowledge. God’s creation of the world
establishes the reality of particulars121 and yet provides a
genuine, preinterpreted, order to things.122
Therefore, we must recognize two levels of knowing,123 and
man must thus think God’s thoughts after Him in order to understand God,
the world, or himself.124 That is, God’s creative and
constructive knowledge125 is determinative for man’s
receptive and reconstructive knowledge.126 What man learns
from nature and history must be seen in the context of God’s revelation.
Even when man is not consciously speaking of God, man must know God in
order to find intelligibility in anything else. Man cannot gain
knowledge by looking within himself for the final reference point or
interpretative category of experience. Human knowledge is completely
dependent upon the original knowledge of God, and thus God’s revelation
is foundational for man’s epistemological endeavors. The Psalmist
gives succinct expression to this, saying “In Thy light shall we see
light.”127 Only God is wise,128 and it is the
Lord who teaches man knowledge.129 Because Jehovah is a God
of knowledge, arrogance must not be expressed by man130;
instead, “attend unto my wisdom; incline thine ear to my understanding
that thou mayest preserve discretion and that thy lips may keep
knowledge.”131 The Lord must enlighten man’s darkness.132
Accordingly, it is the entrance of His words which gives light and
understanding.133 Paul would not allow any man to deceive
himself: in order to be genuinely wise one must become a fool according
to worldly standards134 (i.e., base his thinking upon the
word of the cross rather than the pseudo-wisdom of this world) because
all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in Christ.135
In His light alone can men see light.
is quite evident now that the scriptural perspective on knowledge is
theocentric, in sharp contrast to the anthropocentricity of Socratic
epistemology. Only by making God one’s starting point for thought and
standard of truth can the objectivity of knowledge be preserved. For
Paul, God is the final reference point in interpretation. His knowledge
has unfathomable depth and wealth; “who hath known the mind of the
Lord?”136 Paul’s answer could only be, “we have the mind of
Christ.”137 For man to apprehend any truth, he must relate
his thinking back to God’s original knowledge. “For of him and through
him, and unto him, are all things.”138 Our thinking requires
a theistic orientation: we must see things as Christ does, thinking
God’s thoughts after Him. Therefore, man’s mind needs to be renewed
unto genuine knowledge after the image of his Creator,139
rather than fashioned according to this world.140 Man must
reflect God’s thoughts on a creaturely level, making God the measure of
all things, instead of being driven ultimately to scepticism by holding
man to be the measure. In contrast to the Socratic dictum, “Know
thyself,” Paul declared that he counted all things to be loss for the
excellency of the knowledge of Christ; indeed, he reckoned everything as
refuse in order that he might know Him.141 While Socrates
sought union with the eternal realm by self-knowledge, Christ taught
“This is life eternal, that they should know thee the only true God, and
him whom thou didst send, Jesus Christ.”142
scriptural outlook is undaunted in its theocentric epistemology. By
centering his thinking on God’s word, man is delivered from sin and its
epistemic offspring, scepticism.
commandments make me wiser than mine enemies, for they are ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for thy testimonies are
my meditation. I understand more than the aged, because I have kept thy
precepts. . . . Thou hast taught me. How sweet are thy words unto my
taste. . . . Through thy precepts I get understanding; therefore, I hate
every false way.143
man applies his heart unto God’s knowledge, then he can know the
certainty of the words of truth.144 A knowledge of God’s Son
prevents one from being tossed about with every passing doctrine,145
and full assurance of knowledge comes through looking in unwavering
faith to the promises of God.146 One such promise is that of
Jesus, “If ye abide in my word, then you are truly my disciples, and you
shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”147
Man in his created individuality has no problem, in the scriptural
perspective, with knowing objective truth. Man was created148
and is now being recreated149 unto that end.
the vantage point of the epistemology traced above, it is not surprising
to find that Scripture does not extol neutrality as Socrates did. The
Lord created all things for himself,150 and He directs every
event of history according to His wise plan.151 He rules
over all,152 and everything in heaven and earth is His
possession.153 Consequently, in all things God is to be
glorified.154 Man is commanded to do everything he does to
God’s glory,155 being consecrated to Him in “all manner of
living.”156 This command extends to man’s noetic
(intellectual) activities. The first and great commandment calls for
man to love the Lord with all his mind;157 every word and
thought must be under the authority of Christ.158 Thus,
Christ does not allow one to take a detached, open-minded, free-thinking
approach to the truth; man’s thinking must be committed to the truth and
glory of God. Neutrality is impossible. “No man can serve two lords;
for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold
to the one and despise the other.”159 One is either
submissive to God’s word in all his thinking, or he is not; he is
deluded to think that an uncommitted spirit characterizes his thought.
“He that is not with me is against me.”160 One either has
the mind of Christ or the vain mind of the Gentiles,161
brings every thought captive or is an enemy in his mind against Cbrist.162
To be friendly toward the world—even in the area of scholarship or
presuppositional commitment—is to be an enemy of God.163 The
lordship of Christ extends to all thinking, thereby precluding any
endorsement of neutrality. Instead of a detached following of reason
alone, Paul (and the other writers of Scripture) commended a whole
hearted commitment to God’s revelation. Dogmatism cannot be banished.
It is simply a question of whether the foundational dogma shall be the
autonomous dictates of reason or the truth of God.
should be perfectly obvious by this point that everything in the
scriptural perspective on truth and knowledge dictates against any
attitude which is even remotely similar to that of Socrates in the
Euthyphro dialogue. Socrates reduced the word of God and the
opinion of man to a common environment, subject to the same epistemic
conditions and requirements, with a standard of truth or criterion of
verification higher than both. God’s word is irrelevant to establishing
a point or position; the outlook of deity is not crucial to knowledge,
but rather endorsed only after independent establishment by autonomous
man. The revelation of God might or might not accidentally coincide
with the autonomously discovered truth of man’s mind. Socrates said we
have to try the spirits, not to see whether they are of God, but whether
they agree with self-sufficient evaluations of reason.
Scripture is to another effect. Here we are taught to try the spirits
by the absolute standard of God’s revealed truth.164 No one
and no consideration is allowed to draw the word of the Lord into
question;165 so God’s word cannot be tested by any higher
standard or principle of truth. God himself is the absolute,
unconditioned, eternal standard of truth.166 His word is
infinitely more sure than man’s direct, eyewitness experience,167
which is why faith is not based on sight.168 God’s
word is epistemologically foundational or logically primitive (i.e., the
first priority). It brings all other worlds into judgment, but it itself
is to be judged by no man. There exists no independent standard of
truth higher than God. Thus, when a question of truth arises, the godly
response is “To the law and to the testimony!”169
God’s word is never just “one hypothesis among many others.” It alone
has self-attesting authority. Only the fool will subject God’s word to
his own autonomous testing, failing to understand the depth of God’s
thoughts170 and that nobody can improve upon His thinking.171
The word of God has a unique authority, one which does not require it
to depend on the endorsement of other experts or authorities.172 When
the word of God is questioned, the proper reply is to call into question
the competence of the autonomous critic, pointing out that in reality it
is this very word which is the standard that draws him into judgment.173
God’s sure word is the final criterion of truth, the ultimate authority
in the world of thought. Therefore, woe to him who strives with his
maker!174 The creature does not have the right to question
the Creator. “Shall he that cavilleth contend with the Almighty? He
that argueth with God, let him answer.”175
perspective was foundational in Paul’s philosophy. Because God’s word
is the ultimate, authoritative, standard of knowledge and truth, Paul
refused to submit it to the arrogant scrutiny of the sinner in order to
have it established and accepted. In a spirit diametrically opposed to
that of Socrates in Euthyphro, Paul declares “Nay but, O man, who
art thou that repliest against God,!”176 Rather than being
irrelevant, God’s revelation had the greatest relevance in establishing
the truth for Paul. God’s word could never “accidentally coincide” with
the truth, for God’s word is the necessary presupposition for all true
knowledge. Without the word of God, this world would be “sound and fury
signifying nothing.” Therefore, in all of Paul’s thinking God’s word
was taken as his genuine authority. Rather than having God pass the
tests of fact, logic, beneficial effect, and subjective satisfaction,
Paul realized that logic and fact (along with all the other criteria)
would be senseless without God. Rather than God’s needing such
credentials to be admissible to the mind of man, these things themselves
need God to be meaningful and useful for man’s thinking. The fool
overlooks this, trusting his own heart,177 uttering his own
mind,178 being right in his own eyes,179 and
taking utmost confidence in himself.180 Professing
self-wisdom, the fool suppresses the truth of God181 and
delights in discovering his own heart’s conclusions182—returning
to his folly like a dog to his vomit.183 It is impossible to
arrive at knowledge in this fashion, and a fortiori it is
impossible autonomously to verify the word of the God of all knowledge.
If one does not begin with the truth of God, he cannot conclude his
argumentation with either God or truth. “The fear of the Lord is the
beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”184
By refusing to presuppose the word of the Lord, the autonomous fool
hates knowledge.185 Therefore, Paul would not submit to the
presuppositions of worldly philosophy and traditions of men; the
elementary principles of learning which do not follow Christ have to be
rejected in order to avoid vain deception.186 Paul’s
starting point in thought was not autonomous but theonomic; no truth was
more basic for him than God’s revelation. Consequently, Paul hearkened
to the Lord’s reaffirmation of the law, “Thou shalt not put the Lord thy
God to test.”187 If God’s authority needed to be authorized
by some other consideration, it would cease to be the final authority.
Hence Paul sought to bring every thought captive to the obedience of
Christ,188 not allowing his or any other person’s mind to
lord it over the word of God. Absolutely nothing would be permitted to
question God’s authoritative word. And therefore the central thrust of
Paul’s apologetic was summarized in this bold declaration, “Let God be
true, but every man a liar!”189 He presupposed the truth of
God and defended the faith from that sure foundation, challenging the
very possibility of truth or knowledge on unbelieving assumptions: “Hath
not God made foolish the wisdom of the world!”
I Corinthians 2:16.
Cf. II Corinthians 6:14-15.
I John 4:4-5.
I Corinthians 1:18; cf. Romans I: 16.
I Corinthians 11:22-23.
I Corinthians 1:26-31.
I Corinthians 2:1-5.
I Corinthians 2:14.
Cf. Ephesians 5:6-11.
II Corinthians 5:20.
II Corinthians 5:11.
II Corinthians 5:7.
II Corinthians 10:3-5.
Colossians 2:8, 3.
John 1:1, 14.
I Corinthians 1:24.
Cf. I Corinthians 1:17.
I Corinthians 1:8, 21.
II Corinthians 4:3.
Philippians 3: 18-19.
I Corinthians 3:20.
I Corinthians 2:14.
Ephesians 4: 17-18; I Timothy 6:20.
Romans I:19, 21.
II Corinthians 10:4-5.
Corinthians 4:7; II Corinthians 3:5.
Colossians 2:4, 8; Job 11:12; Romans 1:21; I Corinthians 1:20.
Romans 11:34; I Corinthians 2:16; Isaiah 40:13-14; 41:28.
Colossians 2:3; Isaiah 46:10.
11:36; John 14:6; I Corinthians I :24; Colossians 2:3.
E.g., I Corinthians 2:11-12; 13:11-12; Ephesians 3:19.
Romans 11:33; Psalm 147:5.
Ephesians 1:11; Psalm 103: 19.
43:10; 44:6; cf. “Fortune” and “Fate” in Isaiah 65:11 (ASV).
Isaiah 40:26; Acts 15:18.
Isaiah 40:28; cf. I Corinthians 14:33.
Colossians 1:16; Ephesians 3:9; John 1:3.
Colossians 1:17; Psalm 104:24; Proverbs 3:19.
Proverbs 22:17-21; John 16:13-15; Ephesians 4:20; 8:31-32; I Corinthians
2: 6-13, 16; Colossians 3: 10; Ephesians 4:23-24.
Proverbs 3:19; 8:1, 12, 22-35 with John 1:1-4.
Proverbs 2: 1-9; II Corinthians 4:6; 10:5; I Timothy 6:3-4, 20.
I Samuel 2:3.
Proverbs 5: 1-2.
Psalm 119 130.
Corinthians 3 18.
Corinthians 2 16.
Romans 11 36.
Colossians 3 10.
Philippians 3:8, 10.
Proverbs 22 17-21.
Ephesians 4 13-14.
Ephesians 4:24; II Timothy 2:25.
I Chronicles 29:11.
I Corinthians 10:31.
I Peter 1:15.
II Corinthians 10:5; Colossians 3:17.
I Corinthians 2:16 with Ephesians 4:17.
Corinthians 10:5 with Colossians 1:21.
I John 4:111.
II Peter 1:19.
John 1:15-17; 12:48.
Romans 1:18, 22.
Proverbs 1:22, 29.
II Corinthians 10:5.
Apologetic Method: Acts 17
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Socrates or Christ: The Reformation of Christian Apologetics
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