Sunday, January 1, 2012

Notes on "Contending for the Truth" (Pt. 4)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Questions and Answers #1

Topics during the Q&A range from raising kids in a media culture, to differences between Christianity and Islam, to how Arminianism doesn't represent true Christian salvation doctrine (Calvinism does!). Here's a decent introductory comparison of these doctrinal camps. And here is a pro-Calvinist lecture series. It will be interesting to see how this strong sectarian bent will affect the apologetics talks to come.



The Task of Apologetics

a talk by R.C. Sproul (the Elder, this time)


Sproul begins with the story of God telling Moses to deliver messages to the Israelites and the Egyptians.1 Moses asks how he should respond if the Israelites doubt that God really appeared to him. As Sproul points out, "Moses is raising the question of apologetics: how can I convince these people of the truth of this mandate and that it has come from God?"

So God equips Moses with three miraculous signs.

Great! This means we can expect miraculous signs to authenticate any genuine messages from God, right? Not so fast. Sproul makes two points. First, that the miraculous signs were given to Moses to "persuade the church, not the world." Second, that miracles are "evidence of things that only God can do, to authenticate an agent or messenger sent from God. But before a miracle has any evidential value to authenticate an agent of revelation, it must first be established that there is a God."

On the first point, Sproul seems to have forgotten about all the miracles Moses supposedly performed for the Egyptians (and which might have been effective if God had not hardened Pharaoh's heart).2
I don't see how he can conclude from Exodus that miracles are for "in-house" use only.

On the second point, it's nonsensical to claim that proof of divine action fails to provide any evidence of divine existence.

The task of apologetics is — so far — limited to the rare case of God sending out a new revelation to current believers through a miracle-wielding messenger. Doesn't sound much like contemporary apologetics, does it? It's unclear why Sproul would start his talk in this way, unless he wants to take miracles off the table for showing that Christianity is true in the first place.


Apologetics After Apostolic Times
"Throughout all Christian history in every generation there is a new philosophical movement that attacks Christian faith and truth claims. And so in every generation, the faith must be defended and we are called to give an intellectual apologia (a reply) to those alternate life-views that assail the Christian faith."
Ah, there's the apologetics I know. What I would like to know is whether Sproul thinks Christianity is (merely) one intellectually respectable position among other reasonable positions, or that Christianity is the only reasonable position. This distinction is widely known as defensive apologetics vs. offensive apologetics. We'll come back to this question in a minute. But first, we need to pick up some terminology from Sproul's doctrine of salvation through faith.

Latiny Stuff

Sproul gives a three part breakdown of "the nature of saving faith," as developed by sixteenth century reformers:


NotitiaWhat is believed. Saving faith is aimed at the correct propositional content.

Earlier, Sproul gave the example of Justin Martyr explaining to the Roman rulers what Christianity was really about, as opposed to the false rumors of the time.4  "[T]he first task of apologetics is linked with the task of preaching to give a clear presentation of the data or the content of the Gospel." 

Assensus — Belief that the content of Christian faith is, in fact, true.

Sproul is clear that he means belief, not just hope that the claims of Christianity are true. Speaking of evangelists who ask their congregations to take a leap of faith, Sproul says:
"[Y]ou cannot screw up your jaw and choose to believe something that in fact you don't believe. You're lying to yourself and you're on the way to schizophrenia when you play that game. But that's what we ask people to do. We ask people to park their brains in the parking lot, come in here, and believe the absurd as if there's some kind of virtue in that."
Fiducia — An attitude of personal reliance, beyond intellectual belief.3

Pointing out that Satan never doubts the truth of Christianity, Sproul emphasizes the necessity of having "religious affection" for this truth. Specifically, love for Jesus.
"[A]pologetics can never get you to step three. Apologetics can explain the data. Apologetics can give you the rational defense of the truth claims of Christianity. And we're called to do that, to give 'the reason for the hope that is within us.' And we are to work to persuade men. However, the best arguments that we ever offer — however convincing they may be — can never change the human heart that by nature is hostile toward God, at enmity to God, and dead toward the spiritual things of God."
He characterizes the apologetics task of addressing the first two steps as "pre-evangelism," and then says the third step is up to the Holy Spirit. So to summarize: the task of apologetics is to (1) explain what Christians believe, and (2) give reasons to believe this is true.


Why Does Apologetics Fail?

Why do so many people know what Christians believe, but don't believe these things are true? Sproul tries to back off from the way he separated belief from will, and belief from love for God. He does this by claiming that an unbeliever can be given a compelling, "objective proof" and remain unpersuaded because of his or her negative attitude toward God.

Do you see how this explanation muddles the categories he just set up? If intellectual belief is not a matter of the will, then having a will contrary to God does not affect belief. (Or would Sproul like to revise his view that Satan never doubts the truth of Christianity?) Also note that intellectual belief does not bring about love for God, so apologists wouldn't be stepping on God's toes by inducing even universal belief.

An alternate explanation is that the "proofs" of apologists aren't so compelling after all.


Defensive vs. Offensive


To answer my own question from earlier, Sproul appears to believe that offensive apologetics can be entirely successful...but only for insiders. Remember, miraculous signs are to "persuade the church, not the world"; and fully compelling arguments are only fully compelling to Christians.

This sounds awfully convenient. Aren't most religions obviously true from the inside?

What about the Christian who believes the truth of Christianity is demonstrable, studies apologetics, prays for guidance, rereads the Bible, and discovers deep problems as an insider? That was me. When I had all the advantages Sproul reserves for Christians, the arguments of apologists were such a disappointment that I lost all confidence in the truth of Christianity.


1. See Exodus 4.
2. Sproul Sr. teaches a tortured interpretation of the heart hardening verses.
3. See http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/faith-defined/ 
4. See Justin Martyr's First Apology.

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