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Apologetics: The Fruit of Faith

In his little booklet, The Certainty of Faith, Herman Bavinck penned a short sentence which is laden with profundity. “Apologetics is the fruit, never the root, of faith.”[1] Bavinck’s insight highlights something crucial. When it comes to our attitude towards the gospel there is a fundamental difference between faith seeking understanding and doubt demanding proof. The two are actually antithetical spiritual postures.

I have often had apologetic conversations in which the person I am dialoguing with issues the demand, “Prove it!” Most always that demand is a verbal power play. The person is not interested in exploring the complexities of theological inquiry but is calling for a short refutation which can confound their unbelief in a few sentences. I have thus felt the anxiety that I’m sure many Christians feel when faced with that challenge. “How do I pull a silver bullet out of my pocket right now to defend my faith?”

But the best way I have found to defuse the conversational stalemate produced by the commandment to “prove it” is the often overlooked but necessary question, “What do you mean by proof?” Asking that question moves the conversation into crucial examination of our fundamental posture towards God. Answering that question illuminates what is at play in the apologetic conversation and that is what Van Til labels “two opposing principles of interpretation.” He explains, “The Christian principle of interpretation is based upon the assumption of God as the final and self-contained reference point. The non-Christian principle of interpretation is that man as self-contained is the final and self contained reference point.”[2]

Doubt which demands proof assumes that certainty can only be the product of absolute comprehension. It assumes that in order for man to be rationally certain about the claims of the Gospel, (and really certain about anything in the world since the Gospel touches everything in the world), that man must be able to know and explain something so thoroughly that there is no corner of that thing his mind cannot penetrate and apprehend. It assumes at the very least that if man does not presently comprehend absolutely that at least he can do so with enough intellectual grunt work. It assumes that the complexities of God and his relation to the world both as Creator and Redeemer are capable of being fully mastered and dissected by human inquiry.

That is the proof which autonomous man requires as he attempts to interpret his world with himself as the final and self-contained reference point.

Such proof the Christian can never give to the unbeliever because such proof requires that God get off his throne so that man can take his place upon it. It is not merely an intellectual attitude. It is a moral and spiritual attitude. It is an expression of human pride which assumes that the human mind can only count as proof what it understands exhaustively and that without submission to divine authority.

The call to “prove it,” begins with the Cartesian assumption that doubt toward the God of the Bible is the only virtuous and rightful place to begin.

I have to admit with honesty that as I have thought about apologetics I have often fallen into sin and adopted this attitude. And it always leads to agitation and dark unsettlement. As I have grappled with theological mysteries and the question of whether or not my faith is rational, I have all too often assumed, whether conscious or not, that true proof leaves no residue of mystery. And when I have done so, my soul has been assaulted by the malignant restlessness of doubt.

Faith seeking understanding, on the other hand, is at home with the assumption of mystery as a necessary component of human knowledge. It starts with the interpretive base that man will never know anything in the mode that God knows things. God’s mode of knowing things is original, archetypal, in sum as the Creator.

His knowledge of the apple on my desk is knowledge which actually does grasp all the vast relationships that that apple has to other things in the world. What’s more his knowledge of that apple is wholly unique in that He is the one who has ordered and defined all those relationships by his decree. His knowledge of the apple on my desk actually causes that apple to be, and to be on my desk.

Christian faith seeking understanding starts with the assumption that my knowledge of things will never equal that sort of knowledge. It is never original and definitive. It is always derivative and receptive. It starts with the humility of faith which is not restlessly agitated by the fact of mystery, but instead sees mystery as cause for doxology. It investigates and seeks understanding, but it does so out of the posture of faith and never the demands of doubt. And of course this disposition can only be the result of the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit applying the work of Christ.

But it is important to note, especially in our present post-modern context, that a truly humble epistemology is not one that denies the possibility of certainty. Rather a truly humble epistemology is one that insists that certainty can only be the product of faith in the triune God of the Bible. It rests in faith in the authority of the Word of the God who created, sustains, and is redeeming the relationships between every object of my knowledge. And that posture of faithful and humble rest is the wellspring of Christian certainty. Such certainty can never be arrogant certainty for it is certainty which always bows the knee before God as the archetypal Knower. And no one is prideful when prostrate thus.

Bavinck’s insight is rich food for the soul. It is only when we begin with the posture of faith and then stubbornly maintain that posture of faith that we can authentically defend our faith. To move away from apologetics as the fruit of faith instead into the posture of doubt which demands proof is to have already surrendered what is essential to Christian faith.

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Certainty of Faith, (St. Catharines, ON: Paideia Press, 1980), 22.

[2] Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1969), 44.


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