"Wholly Upon God"
Article byJuly 2012
There are a few questions that readers have submitted that seem to belong to the same generic family. Specifically, questions have come that revolve around the doctrine of Scripture and its relationship to apologetics. These are great questions, and they show an insightful and central focus of the apologetic task.
Related to these questions also are various requests that the response be given in a way that non-specialists and younger children can grasp. I think this is entirely appropriate and possible, with the caveat that it is important for Christian adults to teach these things to those who are younger (physically and spiritually). That is to say, the request to make things understandable to non-specialists and young folk is sometimes, maybe even if unconsciously, a request that nothing new be presented or taught, but that everything be presented "in their language." This, I think, is detrimental to Christian growth. It is impossible to read the Bible without expanding our vocabulary, and our thinking. So, I hope to present the material below in a way that can be understood by the majority, but that does not mean that the majority will be familiar with everything said. Some of it might, for some, be new, and thus may need to be taught.
From my perspective, there are three central ideas with respect to a doctrine of Scripture (and its use in apologetics) that, if grasped, will serve to set the stage for a rich and beneficial way of defending the Christian faith. But first, one basic point needs to be highlighted (or, remembered from previous posts). When we think of apologetics, we need to see that what we are defending is the Christian faith. Apologetics should not be content to defend a mere or bare theism. Anyone who is a mere theist has the same eternal destiny as one who is an atheist. The task of apologetics is not to convince someone that there is something bigger out there. Everyone knows that already, and putting the title "god" on it is like sticking a label on a can of food that says "Food." You've got a label, but you don't know what's in the can. It could be rotten, poison, or it could be nutritious.
The task of apologetics, therefore, is to defend the Christian faith. In that way, it is inextricably related to the communication of the gospel to the lost. Apologetics, then, is the twin brother of evangelism. Maybe the twins are not identical, but they are, without question, fraternal. Oftentimes, therefore, it is quite helpful, if there is a question in apologetics, to set that question within the context of evangelism and see how it might be answered in that context. In many cases, the same basic answer can be given for apologetics as well.
Two of the three crucial ideas related to Scripture and apologetics can be clearly and concisely articulated, because they are found in the Westminster Confession of Faith (and, verbatim, in the Savoy Declaration and the London Baptist Confession). So let's consider these three central ideas.
1. In section 4 of Chapter 1, the WCF says this:
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
Note that the topic in this section is the authority of Scripture. With respect to authority, the Confession first gives us the negative. It tells us on what that authority does not depend. It does not depend on the testimony of any man or Church.
The Confession, of course, since it was written in the middle of the seventeenth century, is thinking specifically about the Roman Catholic church. It is declaring, we could say, the Protestant principle, as that principle is set in diametrical opposition to Romanism. So, according to this section, to be a Romanist is to deny the underived authority of Scripture. That has substantial and significant consequences for anyone in the Romanist church.
The (inferred) reason why the authority of Scripture cannot be dependent on someone(s) external to it is crucial to see. If it were so dependent, then Scripture's authority would be derived; it would be what it is because it was determined by someone(s) else to be authoritative. And, if someone(s) external to Scripture determines its authority, that same someone(s) can determine it to be not authoritative, or partially authoritative, or... It would be necessary, in such (Romanist) circumstances to place one's trust in the one(s) who determined Scripture's (derived) authority. This leads to the "implied trust" in the church (fides implicita) that the Romanist church requires.
The positive aspect of Scripture's authority is then affirmed in section 4; its authority depends "wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof." The adjective here is all-important. Scripture's authority depends wholly, not partially, upon God. Romanists would affirm that Scripture's authority depends on God, but not wholly. This is not a minor difference of opinion; it is all-determinative with respect to the object of our trust.
After stating what Scripture's authority is not dependent upon, we are then directed to the relationship of this authority to God's character and to His action. With respect to his character, God is truth itself (which means, at least, that God himself is the primary "truth-bearer." All other truth follows from his own character). If there were "time and space" in this article, it would be fascinating to explore the myriad implications of this one statement. If we consider that truth pertains primarily to what reality is, the primary implication of this affirmation is that God alone is real. This does not mean that everything other than God is illusion. It only means that whatever else is real, is so due only to God's own character and activity. So, whatever else there is besides God is derivatively real, and it does not have reality as one of its essential characteristics. You and I are real people. But we are that only insofar as God, who is truth (reality) itself, gives us reality. And, this God, who is truth, is the author of Scripture.
The Confession is showing us that there are two options available to all people when it comes to the question of authority - either I am my own authority, or God is my authority. The authority we rely on is basic to everything else that we claim to know, believe and live. But in either case, there needs to be a rationale for the authority we choose, and that rationale has to have some relationship to truth. If I am my own authority, how does that comport with the notion of truth? The only honest answer will be that I am my own source of truth. In the seventeenth century, the answer was that the Romanist church was its own source of truth. But that is just another way of saying that man is his own authority. (For an excellent, extended argument on these points, see John Owen's Works, Vol. 4).
How, though, does this notion of Scripture's foundational authority relate to the apologetic task? We should first point out that there is a difference, what we might call a "wisdom difference," between what we know and what we communicate in our apologetics (Col. 4:5). We are not called to communicate all that we know. But what we know should make a difference in how and what we communicate. In this case, what we know is that Scripture (and the truths that follow from it) carries its own authority with it; it carries the authority of God Himself. This is not, in most cases, an argument that we make in our defense of Christianity. But, since we know that God's authority goes out with His truth, we should be quick to communicate that truth. We recognize that God's truth never returns to Him empty, but always accomplishes His sovereign purpose. That purpose, at times, is to convert those who are lost. So we can be confident that when we communicate the truth of God, the power of God always accompanies that truth, and it accomplishes exactly what God intends (cf. Isaiah 55:10-11).
2. The second central idea in the relationship of Scripture to apologetics is given to us in the next section of the Confession (1.5):
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
In other words, as the Confession says, there are arguments, even evidences, of Scripture's authority and of its divine character. The heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, etc. These are all arguments that can be used to testify to Scripture's divine authority.
Of course, what this all boils down to is that Scripture is its own best witness to its authority. But that should be no problem for us in apologetics (even as it is no problem in evangelism). If the options open to us are, at bottom, only two -- either trust Scripture (God), or trust ourselves -- then we can happily ask someone who trusts in himself to provide arguments, even arguments internal to himself, as to why his authority should be trusted. This is as it should be. Whenever we confess a basic authority, as basic and by definition, there is nothing more authoritative to which we can turn to establish that authority. What we are left to do is to show, from that authority, why it should be trusted. And, as the Confession says, the arguments that Scripture is authoritative are abundant and manifold in Scripture itself.
As this section concludes, however, it affirms that the only way someone will be convinced of Scripture's authority is "from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts." But just here is where the richness and glory of Christian apologetics (as with evangelism and preaching) is most encouraging. The full persuasion of Scripture's character takes an act of the Holy Spirit. But that act comes as the Spirit bears witness "by and with the Word." So, it is just as we testify and argue about Scripture's majesty, its coherence, its perfection, etc. from Scripture that we have a guarantee of the Spirit's sovereign activity. The use of biblical truth in arguments is the only context in which the Spirit Himself has promised to move. Why would we use anything else for an argument?
Apologetically, we can see that one of our goals should be to speak biblical truth into any and every context of unbelief. The more one is exposed to the truth of God, the more occasions there are for the power (Word and Spirit) of God to work. One of the objections to this approach has been that it is illegitimate to appeal to an authority that both parties in the discussion do not accept. But that objection confuses the matter, and neglects to recognize the nature of the debate. The very reason that there is a debate is because we begin with competing foundational authorities. We don't accept the unbeliever's authority, even as he does not accept ours. Since there is no such thing as a "neutral" authority (over what would a "neutral" authority have authority?), we both employ our accepted authority in order to make our case.
3. The third crucial idea, following from what we have just said, that must be understood is that there is no argument, in and of itself, that will bring someone from unbelief to Christianity. Since I teach apologetics, people from time to time have wanted to remind me that "nobody was ever argued into the kingdom." Sometimes, this reminder comes from men in pastoral ministry. I take their good counsel as an opportunity to provide some counsel of my own, so I sometimes say, "You're right; no one was ever argued into the kingdom. But, guess what, pastor. No one was ever preached into the kingdom, either."
In other words, there is no exclusively human activity - preaching, evangelism, or apologetics - that will guarantee a positive response. People come into the kingdom, when they do, by the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word, as we present that Word to them. There is no other God-ordained way for people to know Christ.
This truth keeps us from being triumphalist about any approach or method in apologetics. It also keeps us from straying from the only possible foundation for defending the Christian faith. That foundation is and must remain the authoritative revelation of God. If that is our foundation, there are as many ways and approaches to defending Christianity as there are facts in God's world.
Paul defended the Christian faith on Mars Hill in Acts 17:16ff. We may look at that defense in more detail in another article. Worth noting, however, was the response that Paul received after his address on the Aereopagus (Acts 17:32-34):
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, "We will hear you again about this." So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
Was Paul successful at Athens? He was, because his responsibility before God was to present the truth of God to his audience. But, anyone attending Paul's address on that day, without eyes to see, might have been less than impressed with Paul's presentation. Sure, there were some who believed, but the mockery that brought about the address in the first place (see Acts 17:18-19) continued, and others didn't have enough information from Paul; they needed to hear more.
But isn't this the way it should be? If our defense of Christianity, in and of itself, brought about conversion, wouldn't we be our own authority, and thus the polar opposite of what we're called to be? Non-specialists and young children not only understand this, they oftentimes grasp it more quickly and readily than many "specialists." Scripture is its own authority. It is God's authority; He alone is truth itself, and He is the only divine author of Scripture. A defense of Christianity is a communication of the Word of God, and of the Word Himself, which the Spirit uses to subdue Christ's enemies and bring them to Him. Is there anything else that God has ordained to call people out of darkness and into His marvelous light?