All Other Ground is Sinking Sand

Scott Oliphint
What I would like for us to begin to think about in this post is a Reformed theology of persuasion in apologetics. Possibly one of the more frustrating aspects of a Covenantal apologetic for some may be that, with any answer to any objection, there always remain questions that could have come up, issues that might have been discussed, objections that were not addressed.

This is not a flaw, but is a natural aspect of the approach itself. And it may be one of the reasons why some find this approach to be so initially daunting. But the reason why there remain gaps in any response to objections is actually a very fruitful, and biblical, reason. It has to do with the way in which we think about apologetics -- a way that has its focus, not so much in demonstrative proofs for God's existence (though those can be used, if needed), but in persuasion.

The reason why we must prefer persuasion in apologetics over an overvaluation of strict, demonstrative proofs is deeply theological; it is a direct implication of the following tenet:
God's covenantal revelation is authoritative by virtue of what it is, and any Covenantal, Christian apologetic will necessarily stand on, and utilize, that authority in order to defend Christianity.
Given this tenet, we can begin to see that the Word of God, as we have it in the canon of Holy Scripture, is our most basic and solid foundation for all that we know, and for all that we want to say in apologetics. That Word is never in any way divorced from God's revelation in creation. But it is the central and most basic principle (principium) upon which anything else that we are going to say, including what we say about natural revelation, must be based.

This notion of a basic and foundational principle flies in the face of some standard approaches to apologetics, approaches that tie rationality to some view of evidence. So-called "evidentialists," argue that everything that we choose to know or believe, in order to be rational, must have behind it sufficient evidence. But that view breaks down in a number of ways. 

For example, there simply cannot be a series of sufficient evidential propositions ad infinitum. There has to be some "place" -- some proposition, some concept, some idea, some foundation of authority -- that is sufficient to carry the conceptual weight of what we claim to know, believe and hold.

We need to be clear here. What we are saying is not simply that reality must be a certain way if we are going to know anything. That much is certainly true; reality must be what Christianity says it is if we are going to know anything. But this is to say that there are ontological criteria that guarantee knowledge. Again, this is certainly true.

But we are saying more than that. What we are affirming is that, given Christian ontological criteria, there are criteria of knowing (i.e., epistemological criteria) that must be met, as well, if we are going to know anything. The two -- the ontological and the epistemological -- cannot be separated; as basic principles, they stand or fall together.

It is for this reason, among others, that the founding fathers of the Reformation placed God's revelation in Scripture as the proper foundation for everything else that we claim to know or believe. They came to that conclusion, in part, in response to the standard medieval view. During the middle ages, there was not sufficient attention given, in general, to the problem of sin as it relates to our reasoning process.

Because the effects of sin were thought, in the middle ages, to be less extensive in their application to us, in that it was thought that sin did not radically affect our reasoning, there was an improper view of the faculty of reason, especially with respect to reason's ability to understand and discern God's revelation, as well as his existence. Reason was thought to be fairly well intact, even after the fall, such that all men followed the same basic rules of thought in the same basic way. 

So, for example, Thomas Aquinas held that the light of natural reason participated in the light of God's own knowledge. (SeeThomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: Latin Text, English Translation, Introduction, Notes, Appendices & Glossary, ed. Thomas Gilby, 60 vols. (London and New York: Eyre & Spottiswoode and McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964), 1.12.11). There is some truth to this, in that, as image of God, we are able to reason. That reasoning, however, is always and everywhere bent toward a denial of the obvious. 

As we have seen in previous posts, the problem in the medieval view was that the effects of sin on our minds was not adequately taken into account. What, for example, does it mean that the mind set on the flesh cannot submit to the law of God (Rom. 8:7)? What does it mean that the natural man is not able to understand the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14f.)?  Does this only imply that those outside of Christ cannot understand or submit to the gospel? Surely it means that. But can those who are dead in trespasses and sins understand anything properly about a world that is created and sustained by God, and in which God is continually revealing himself through his own creation?

For this reason (among others), during the time of the Reformation, there was a radical shift in emphasis, from the medieval focus on the power of reason as a foundation of knowledge, to a central and foundational focus on the power and necessity of Scripture. This focus was the result, in part, of the biblical teaching of sin's power. Depravity was not simply a problem of the will, such that we did not want to choose properly (though that is true); it was a problem of the intellect as well, such that we sinfully reject that which we know. Because of sin's effect on the mind, there was no way that reason could provide a needed epistemological foundation for knowing and believing.

Thus, a central aspect to "re-forming" theology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries included a renewed focus on Scripture as our only foundation for knowing, believing, and for reasoning properly. In a discussion of the difference in prolegomena (doctrine of revelation) between medieval theology and the Reformers, Richard Muller notes: "This view of the problem of knowledge [during the Reformation] is the single most important contribution of the early Reformed writers to the theological prolegomena of orthodox Protestantism. Indeed, it is the doctrinal issue that most forcibly presses the Protestant scholastics toward the modification of the medieval models for theological prolegomena." The "modification" that was set forth by the Reformers, against the medieval view, included the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

This Reformed focus ensured that Scripture, not a general notion of (all) men's reasoning ability, or a neutral notion of evidence, would serve as the ground on which all knowledge, including all theology, and all Christians, must stand. Scripture is the principle upon which everything else that we say, believe, think, argue, etc. must rest. And because it is the most basic and foundational principle, it is not possible to "go behind" that principle in order to demonstrate its status as foundational. Any "going behind" would necessarily show that there was something more foundational on which Scripture itself must rest.

So the first theological foundation that informs the priority of persuasion is the principial status of Scripture. The importance of this can hardly be overstated. Scripture serves as our most basic foundation. It is the place on which we must stand; all other ground is sinking sand.

Dr. K. Scott Oliphint is professor apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book, Covenantal Apologetics, is due out this summer.