Some opponents of apologetics cling to a false humility that stems from an appropriate humility, based on the Reformers' understanding of the nature of salvation.
In an American evangelical landscape that emphasizes the importance of an individual’s personal decision to follow Jesus—as if that were the basis for God’s grace towards a man or woman—Lutherans and Reformed Christians insist that justification before God is based solely on Jesus’ work, two millennia ago. Reformation Christians are thus monergists, which means that only one person (in this case, God) is responsible for their rescue. They oppose any whiff of synergism,which is the unbiblical idea that two or more agents cooperate in salvation. Arminianism is the most common expression of synergism in American evangelicalism. Monergists insist that God does not meet us half way; they hold that humans do not find God through their own emotional or intellectual efforts; and they believe we can’t “save” people by converting them through our own clever techniques, be they marketing gimmicks or sophisticated philosophical arguments. For monergists, humans are spiritually as dead as Lazarus was physically dead before Jesus called him to come out of the grave. Like Lazarus, monergists believe that, apart from the call of our Lord, we truly stinketh.
Given this, shouldn’t we simply recite John 3:16 to the Lazaruses in our communities and ignore the intellectual issues? Aren’t apologetic arguments only effective for those who already believe in the first place? Don’t apologetic arguments necessarily fall upon deaf and dead ears for those who do not already believe? These are all good questions. But the answer to each is “No.” And I believe “no” is the appropriate response whether one is either Lutheran and Reformed, though the Reformed commonly assume that to affirm their version of the doctrine of election, one must adopt an approach to religious belief that is immediate, or a direct work of the Holy Spirit on human hearts and minds, apart from apologetic means.
To make the most difficult case possible here, allow me to focus on what apologetics looked like for the über-Calvinist, Theodore Beza, rather than employ someone from my own Lutheran tradition. In many cases, we Lutherans will give John Calvin a higher “grade” than Beza, Calvin’s right-hand man and first rector of Geneva’s Académie. But when it comes to this particular theological “assignment” called apologetics, Beza gets an A. (A full discussion of this for intrepid scholars can be found in my book, Faith, Reason, and Revelation in Theodore Beza (1519-1605) [Oxford University Press, 2003]. Though most popular readers will find this book too academic and tedious, it might provides helpful citations, especially for those in the Reformed camp who assume that evidential apologetics is forbidden to them). I like to bring Beza in when discussing this topic of spiritual humility, because no one can accuse this supra-lapsarian predestinarian of being a synergist!
Calvin himself had little use for apologetics. Here’s how he explained the situation:
Illuminated by [the Holy Spirit’s] power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as a thing far beyond guesswork. [Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.5, Battles Translation, emphasis mine.]
Leading Reformed theologians and philosophers, including Presuppositionalists who follow Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), Neo-Orthodox thinkers who follow Karl Barth (1886-1968), and Reformed Epistemologists who follow Alvin Plantinga (1932) stand with Calvin in this rejection of the value of positive evidence for trust in Scripture. It is important to note here that these folks are not actually opposed to all forms of apologetics, but only to evidential apologetics. They allow “negative apologetics” or the demonstration that non-Christian worldviews are incoherent (Van Til), the right for Christians to speak their own proper dogmatic language in scholarly settings (Barth), or the intellectual legitimacy of an immediate perception —or “properly basic” belief—that God exists (Plantinga). But they believe that to assemble empirical evidence for believing in the historical reliability of the Bible is futile at best and spiritually arrogant at worst.
Nevertheless, such thinking ignores the importance of vocation and the idea that God works through means in Luther’s thought. Beza, fortunately, read enough Luther to rightly understand the nature of faith, and the role of the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit (testimonium internum Spiritus Sancti). As for vocation, each Christian has several unique callings, through which he or she serves God by serving others. This means that, while some may indeed be evangelists who spend little or no time with intellectual arguments, there is also an important calling for some to be intellectual missionaries. Just as a traditional missionary will study a culture, learning to translate the gospel into its language and overcome cultural obstacles to belief, intellectual missionaries learn the language of contemporary philosophy and address intellectual obstacles to belief. Evidential apologists, as intellectual missionaries, can become means through which people come to faith. When Paul, in Romans 10:17, says that faith comes through hearing, an apologist is no less an evangelist than one who presents the biblical Gospel without bothering to explain why anyone should believe what the Bible says in the first place.
So what about the monergistic objection that Calvin expressed? Beza agrees that God alone opens our eyes to the truth about God that is right in front of us, but he does this—as Martin Luther recognized—through means. He writes, in his Questioninum et Responsionum (Geneva, 1570):
Q. How do you know (that Scripture is from God)? A. From the very matters that are treated in those writings—from the majesty of God gleaming in the very words; from the heavenly purity and highest holiness emanating throughout; from the most certain solidity of the principles on which that doctrine is based; and from a comparison of predictions with their fulfillments—all of this is more than sufficient to prove, even to those who resist it with all their strength, that these writings are divine and heavenly. This is reinforced by the very sequence of history, and by the testimony handed down by the hands of pious men. [Tractionum Theologicarum I.669; translation mine.]
In other words, Scripture is self-authenticating (αυτοπιστον) not because, through some circular reasoning, we believe it is God’s word, but instead because we don’t need the authority of the Church to affirm us that it is God's revelation. It comes to us bearing its own internal marks of authenticity, but it provides indications of its trustworthiness. In other places, Beza even lists several arguments related to the historical trustworthiness of the Resurrection accounts as well. Why doesn’t this make Beza a synergist? It’s simple: the work of the Holy Spirit is necessary to allow an individual to properly respond to this clear, historical and textual evidence. Beza explains himself as follows:
But why I know these [evidences] to be true—such that I absolutely assent to that which some routinely despise and mock, and others claim to believe for themselves but yet do not know in the least—I attribute wholly to the Holy Spirit, who opened my heart that I might perceive that which was hidden in my ears and mind. [Ibid.]
We give thanks to God for his enlivening work on our dead minds. That work allows us to see clearly the God who is both hidden and right in front of us. In all of this, Beza reflects a classic understanding of the three-parts of knowledge and the three parts of faith. He describes faith as involving the following three elements:
- Understanding facts (cognoscendum)
- Assenting to the Christian interpretation of those facts (probandum)
- Particularly applying, or trusting in, the Christian interpretation of the facts (particulariter applicandum). [Apologia pro iustificationione, found in Tractionum Theologicarum II.134]
Christian faith is not some wish fulfillment or will to believe in the irrational. It involves knowledge, assent, and trust. The first level, knowledge of the content of Christianity, can be taught to anyone. This might be as simple as giving someone a book about the basic contours of Christian belief. At this stage, the conversation can be a somewhat detached and objective, so long as we don’t over-stress the word. The second level, assent to the Christian interpretation of the facts, involves evidential apologetics. And while some might willfully disregard evidence for subjective reasons, it involves a blend between subjective and objective operations within the mind. According to James 2:19, even the demons can get this far. But the third and final level, trust, involves our subjectivity and requires the work of the Holy Spirit. Here, we don’t just believe that the teaching about Jesus is historically true, but that it is true for me, and that I trust in this objective work of Christ for my justification before God. Apologetics, therefore, can’t make someone a believer by itself. But apologetics can serve as one of several important means through which God calls us from death to life.
Another Reformed thinker, Wolfgang Musculus (1497-1563) speaks of the three parts of faith this way:
- We believe something about God (Deo quaedam credimus),
- We also believe God (crediumus etiam Deo), and
- We believe in God (credimus in Deum) [Loci communes sacrae theoligiae (Geneva, 1573), 23.2].
Apologetic methods provide no foolproof way to convince someone to believe in God. This is a work that depends on the power of the Holy Spirit. But apologetics can at least get a person as far as belief that there is good evidence that God raised his son from the dead. Will some still stubbornly ignore this good evidence because of sin? Of course; but that does not permit us to be lazy and fail to submit the evidence to anyone who will examine it. We cannot hide behind a veneer of humility in order to conceal evangelistic sloth. We who believe should not neglect our obligation to share the good news that a historical guy walked out of a real tomb. If we actually get into genuine conversations with hurting people all around us, we will find that some would actually like to know why we think such an unlikely thing happened. Are we too proud of the accomplishments of our own personal faith that we are unwilling to explain it to those who really want to know how we got there?
Maybe you sense that I just called you lazy, proud, or misguided. So allow me to conclude by quoting author of Hebrews: “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation.”