Unmasking Unbelief

Introductions:

Much that passes for evangelicalism today I find personally disheartening. Switch on channel 21 (TBN) and you will find a gaudy mixture of theological nonsense and outright heresy parading around as “Bible-believing Christianity”. The majority of the time these people are preoccupied with getting their viewing audience to send them money—and always under the pretense that giving to their “anointed” ministry is the guaranteed way to get God to return your investment a hundredfold.1

High pressure tactics are used to separate the gullible from their money—and these poor souls are preyed upon by these charlatans who promise them physical healings, financial prosperity, restored marriages, etc. but only if they send money. No telling how many poor people respond to these kinds of pitches, meanwhile those pleading for money “to do God’s work” live openly lavish lifestyles.2

Alongside this type of popular Christianity there is the equally widespread user-friendly Evangelicalism that echews doctrinal distinctives (which they say offends the unchurched) and baptizes pop-psychology with a sprinkling of Bible verses in an attempt to justify their efforts as being biblical.3 The vast majority of those who today go by the name Evangelical have drifted away from their historical reformational roots.

Many people (like Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota) view organized religion (read here the Evangelical church) as a sham and a crutch for the weak-minded, and like it or not, this perception is often correct! The noted English writer of a past generation, Dorothy L. Sayers, self-consciously rejected a similar form of evangelicalism because of its shallow and anti-intellectual tendencies. Her time at the Godolphin School in Surrey, England left her with distaste for evangelical pietism. There were two kinds of Christian faith, she concluded. The pietistic and evangelical was sentimental and made her feel uncomfortable; the other appealed openly to the understanding. “The cultivation of religious emotion without philosophic basis,” she explained, “is thoroughly pernicious.” Her evangelical schooling, she reflected later, was simply a period for “gawky young souls growing out of their spiritual clothing.”4 I received this week a notice regarding a seminar, being held around the valley, which has this title “How to Share Your Faith Without an Argument”.5

How typical—this type of evangelicalism wants to share but not argue—this was not the Apostle Paul’s approach, as these texts make plain. Saul increased the more in strength and confounded the Jews that dwelt at Damascus, proving that Jesus is the Messiah” (Acts 9:22). “As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scripture’s” (Acts 17:2). “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the Godfearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there, (including) certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (Acts 17:17). “Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4). “Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God…(and later) reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:8-9). When objections are raised to Christianity, it is our obligation to present reasoned answers in defense.

We must argue with those who oppose the truth of God’s word. Offering arguments in favor of certain conclusions should not be confused with being “argumentative” or contentious in one’s demeanor. The Bible exhorts us to the former, while prohibiting the latter. Presenting a reason for the hope that is within us does not demand that we do so in an offensive or arrogant way. So well-meaning Christians who say “we shouldn’t argue with people if we would be Christ-like” have something valuable to say, but are not saying it clearly and correctly. Arguing is not in itself wrong. The apostles quite obviously engaged in arguments with unbelievers.6 And so should we.

  1. The Nature of the Apologetic Situation: (Rom. 1:18-32)
    1. The controversy between the believer and unbeliever is in principle an antithesis between two complete systems of thought involving ultimate commitments and assumptions.
    2. Even laws of thought and method, along with factual evidence, will be accepted and evaluated in light of one’s governing presuppositions.
    3. All chains of argumentation, especially over matters of ultimate personal importance, trace back to and depend upon starting points, which are taken to be self-evidencing; thus, circularity in debate will be unavoidable. However, not all circles are intelligible or valid.
    4. Thus appeals to logic, fact, and personality may be necessary, but they are not apologetically adequate; what is needed is not piecemeal replies, probabilities, or isolated evidence but rather an attack upon the underlying presuppositions of the unbeliever’s system of thought.
    5. The unbeliever’s way of thinking is characterized as follows:
      1. By nature the unbeliever is the image of God and, therefore, inescapably religious; his heart testifies continually, as does also the clear revelation of God around him, to God’s existence and character.
      2. But the unbeliever exchanges the truth for a lie. He is a fool who refuses to begin his thinking with reverence for the Lord; he will not build upon Christ’s self-evidencing words and suppresses the unavoidable revelation of God in nature.
      3. Because he delights not in understanding but chooses to serve the creature rather than the Creator, the unbeliever is self-confidently committed to his own ways of thought; being convinced that he could not be fundamentally wrong, he flaunts perverse thinking and challenges the self-attesting word of God.
      4. Consequently, the unbeliever’s thinking results in ignorance; in his darkened futile mind he actually hates knowledge and can gain only a “knowledge” falsely so-called.
      5. To the extent that he actually knows anything, it is due to his unacknowledged dependence upon the suppressed truth about God within him. This renders the unbeliever intellectually schizophrenic: by his espoused way of thinking he actually “opposes himself” and shows a need for a radical “change of mind” (repentance) unto a genuine knowledge of the truth.
      6. The unbeliever’s ignorance is culpable because he is without excuse for his rebellion against God’s revelation; hence he is “without an apologetic” for his thoughts.
      7. His unbelief does not stem from a lack of factual evidence but from his refusal to submit to the authoritative word of God from the beginning of his thinking.
  2. The Requirements of the Apologist: (1 Peter 3:15,16)
    1. The apologist must have the proper attitude; he must not be arrogant or quarrelsome, but with humility and respect he must argue in a gentle and peaceable manner.
    2. The apologist must have the proper starting point; he must take God’s word as his self-evidencing presupposition, thinking God’s thought after Him (rather than attempting to be neutral), and viewing God’s word as more sure than even his personal experience of the facts.
    3. The apologist must have the proper method; working on the unbeliever’s unacknowledged presuppositions and being firmly grounded in his own, the apologist must aim to cast down every high imagination exalted against the knowledge of God by aiming to bring every thought (his own, as well as his opponent’s) captive to the obedience of Christ.
    4. The apologist must have the proper goal: securing the unbeliever’s unconditional surrender without compromising one’s own fidelity.
    5. The word of the cross must be used to expose the utter pseudowisdom of the world as destructive foolishness.
    6. Christ must be set apart as Lord in one’s heart, thus acknowledging no higher authority than God’s word and refusing to suspend intellectual commitment to its truth.
  3. The Procedure for Defending the Faith: (1 Cor. 1:18-21)
    1. Realizing that the unbeliever is holding back the truth in unrighteousness, the apologist should reject the foolish presuppositions implicit in critical questions and attempt to educate his opponent.
    2. This involves presenting the facts within the context of the Biblical philosophy of fact:
      1. God is the sovereign determiner of possibility and impossibility.
      2. A proper reception and understanding of the facts requires submission to the Lordship of Christ.
      3. Thus the facts will be significant to the unbeliever only if he has a presuppositional change of mind from darkness to light.
      4. Scripture has authority to declare what has happened in history and to interpret it correctly.
      5. The unbeliever’s espoused presuppositions should be forcefully attacked, asking whether knowledge is possible, given that:
        1. In order to show that God has made foolish the wisdom of the world the believer can place himself on the unbeliever’s position and answer him according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceits; that is, demonstrate the outcome of unbelieving thought with its assumptions.
        2. The unbeliever’s claims should be reduced to impotence and impossibility by an internal critique of his system; that is, demonstrate the ignorance of unbelief by arguing from the impossibility of anything contrary to Christianity.
        3. The apologist should appeal to the unbeliever as the image of God who has God’s clear and inescapable revelation, thus giving him an ineradicable knowledge of God; this knowledge can be exposed by indicating unwitting expressions or by pointing to the “borrowed capital” (un-admitted presuppositions) which can be found in the unbeliever’s position.
        4. The apologist should declare the self-evidencing and authoritative truth of God as the precondition of intelligibility and man’s only way of salvation (From all the effects of sin, including ignorance and intellectual vanity):
          1. Lest the apologist become like the unbeliever, he should not answer him according to his folly but according to God’s word.
          2. The unbeliever can be invited to put himself on the Christian position in order to see that it provides the necessary grounds for intelligible experience and factual knowledge—thereby concluding that it alone is reasonable to hold and the very foundation for proving anything whatsoever.
          3. The apologist can also explain that Scripture accounts for the unbeliever’s state of mind (hostility) and the failure of men to acknowledge the necessary truth of God’s  revelation; moreover, Scripture provides the only escape from the effects of this hostility and failure (futility and damnation).

Conclusion:

Having to defend the Christian faith is a biblical injunction. Defending the actions or character of other Christians (some are Pseudo Christians) is not part of Biblical apologetics. Unbelievers will gleefully point out the inconsistencies they see in Christians—but this does not invalidate the truth of Christianity. Two illustrations bring out this point. Suppose I give a piano recital after taking years of lessons from one of the area’s leading piano teachers—my recital is awful. Many reasons could be cited (nervousness, the piano was not properly tuned, many of the people who come personally have no ear for good music and some of them probably don’t like me)  but the reality is that despite my desire to become a fine piano player, the truth is I lack the talent—something my teacher recognized long ago. It would be unfair to blame the teacher for my lack of talent. She did the best she could with what she had to work with. A second a illustration looks at this from another angle. In college, I took classes in symbolic logic from a recognized expert in the field. Later it is discovered that he was a bigamist and was a secret member of the KKK. If I have a debate would it be valid for my opponent to say “your logic is worthless because you learned it from a man who was a scoundrel!” The soundness of my argument has nothing to do with whether or not my teacher was a virtueless man. In the same way, the truth claims of the Bible do not depend on the character of those defending the Bible or those who identify themselves as Christian. Having said that, we do need to realize that thoughtless Evangelicalism is a major stumbling block to many in our society. More than ever we need to be people of the Book, people prepared to do Biblical apologetics.

Endnotes:

  1. In a book titled God’s Will Is Prosperity, Gloria Copeland (who, along with her husband Kenneth, appears frequently on TBN) explains the “hundredfold” this way. Expanding on the promise of Jesus to provide a “hundredfold” return to those who leave everything behind for the kingdom, Gloria writes, “Give $10 and receive $1,000; give $1,000 and receive $100,000. I know that you can multiply, but I want you to see in black and white how tremendous the hundredfold return is.” And just so you don’t miss her point, Gloria explains further: “Give one house and receive one hundred houses or one house worth one hundred time as much. Give one airplane and receive one hundred times the value of the airplane. Give one car and the return would furnish you a lifetime of cars. In short, Mark 10:30 is a very good deal.” For further documentation cf. Hank Hanegraaff, Christianity In Crisis (Harvest House, 1993), p. 199.
  2. The 1998 report of the Chronicle of Philanthropy revealed the following: The largest increase among all chief executives went to Paul Crouch, president of Trinity Christian Center in Santa Ana, Calif., which operates the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Crouch’s total compensation package rose from $159,000 in 1997 to $262,915 in 1998, a 64.8 percent increase. But Crouch’s wife, Janice, the organization’s vice president, received an even bigger boost. Her compensation rose to $321,375 from $159,500, making her the highest paid executive in the Chronicle’s sample of religious non-profits. These figures do not include the various perks (cars, house, vacations, etc.) the Crouches receive at the ministry’s expense.
  3. Phil A. Newton illustrates how this mentality operates: a lady from our congregation recently traveled out of state for a wedding. During her involvement in the wedding festivities, she was seated at a table with a pastor who was in between churches. An interesting dialogue began to ensue. This “in-between” pastor was a member of a noted Southern Baptist Church whose pastor is considered to be one of the Convention’s finest preachers. His conversation went something like this: “We have the most wonderful pastor! He really preaches the word. He preaches against sin and even calls sin ‘sin’. We have a fast-growing church, with over 10,000 members.” “That’s interesting,” my friend replied, then asked, “Does he preach on doctrine?’ The pastor looked a bit puzzled at her inquiry and quickly stated, “Oh no! He would never preach against other churches.” “Oh, that’s not what I mean!” this inquisitive lady responded. “By doctrine I am referring to regeneration, justification, redemption, sanctification and so forth. Does he preach on these subjects?” With a stunned look, this preacher said of his well known pastor, “No, he doesn’t preach on those kind of things.” As cited in “My Journey Through the Church Growth Movement” Reformation & Revival: A Quarterly Journal for Church Leadership (Vol. 8, No. 3, summer 1999), p. 111. Peter Toon refers to this as Therapeutic Evangelicalism. “This emphasizes inner healing, sees sin in terms of sickness and dysfunctionality, and encourages self-knowledge through introspection. The Bible is used as a support base for psychological theories. Theologically it can be either inductive (creating doctrine from human experience) or reductive (reducing doctrine to psychological theory) or both.” The End of Liberal Theology: Contemporary Challenge to Evangelical Orthodoxy (Crossways, 1995), p. 213.
  4. As cited by Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It (Baker, 1994), p. 152.
  5. As advertised in the Active Christian News (Nov. 1999), p. 8.
  6. Cf. Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Covenant Media Foundation, 1996), p. 129. The outline I have used in this message is adapted (with modification) from this excellent volume on apologetics cf. pp. 77-80.

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