God of the "Whats" and the "Hows"

Scott Oliphint
In our last article, we saw that the objection of circular reasoning in a Covenantal approach to apologetics has actually been a standard objection to Reformed thinking for centuries. Objections like this one are understandable, given that the ones offering them are, for the most part, outside the pale of Reformed theology. Whether we want to recognize it or not, our theology dictates our apologetic methodology. Responses to a "Classical" approach to apologetics, given its home in Arminian theology, need, first of all, to find their home in Reformed theology. Any disagreement on apologetic approaches is, first of all, a disagreement of theology. The debate, therefore, should be of a biblical and theological nature, and not primarily philosophical.

This month, and (at least) the next (we'll need at least two articles to flesh out our response), we face an objection that assumes a certain, basic, awareness of philosophical jargon. I hope, however, to explain these philosophical categories in theological terms so that anyone unfamiliar with the philosophical terms might nevertheless recognize their theological importance and usefulness.

The next (oft-repeated but rarely argued) objection that we want to highlight is, as it is most often put, found in the distinction between epistemology and metaphysics (or ontology).[1] The problem inherent in this "distinction" is put this way:
While [the Covenantal and Classical approaches to apologetics] appear to agree ontologically, they differ epistemologically. Both are in accord on the necessity of the Christian view of God being the ontological ground for all meaning and truth (what). However, one would have to agree with the Classical view that how we know this is true [sic]. Here it seems that some sort of rational argument is needed epistemologically to establish one view over the other. In the final analysis, the Presuppositionalist has not successfully refuted the charge that it confuses epistemology and ontology.[2]
The rub, for the Classical apologist, appears to be related to how we know something, which itself is related to how we argue in our defense of Christianity. As we have seen, this "how" is in distinction from the what. Classical apologists would, as would any Christian, happily acknowledge that God is the author and sustainer of all things in creation (what). This is the ontological point. By that, I take it, they mean to affirm that the principle, or source, of the existence or being (principium essendi), of all things is the Triune God. He created all things, and he continues to sustain all things in this world.

The point of disagreement, then, is in the area of knowledge (how). This is what is called the "epistemological" component of the debate. The problem can be a little murky. The problem is not that all knowledge presupposes God. Both apologetic approaches, I think, would agree on that. Since God sustains all things, he sustains our knowledge as well. The objection is that a Covenantal approach confuses the distinction between the what and the how because we haven't adequately or properly taken into account just exactly how we know things. We think, so the objection goes, that just because God is the presupposition behind all that exists, in that He created and sustains all things, that He is also the presupposition behind how we know what we know.

The "Classical" apologetic approach argues that we must move away from this ontological principium, and from the foundational priority of God and his creating/sustaining activity, in order to get at the "how we know" question. The contention above is that in apologetics, "some sort of rational argument is needed epistemologically to establish one view over the other." So much could be said about this, but we will try to focus on a salient point or two.

It may come as a surprise, but the fact of the matter is that there has never been an aversion to rational argument in a Covenantal approach to apologetics; the notion that we must argue with those who oppose Christianity is embedded in the approach itself, but with a couple of important differences. First, with respect to "argument," Cornelius Van Til, in discussing what it means to reason by presupposition, says:
...the Reformed apologist maintains that there is an absolutely valid argument for the existence of God and for the truth of Christian theism. He cannot do less without virtually admitting that God's revelation to man is not clear. It is fatal for the Reformed apologist to admit that man has done justice to the objective evidence if he comes to any other conclusion than that of the truth of Christian theism.[3]
What is affirmed here must be repeated, especially in light of the repeated objections to the contrary. To quote: "there is an absolutely valid argument for the existence of God and for the truth of Christian theism." That argument can start anywhere and move in a number of different directions, all of which conclude with God's existence. But there is, and must be, an argument. And the argument for Christianity is "absolutely valid." 

The problem in arguing for the Christian faith, then, is not in the argument itself, nor is it in some kind of antipathy to that which is "rational." The problem is in the one to whom the argument is given.

Here we can begin to highlight some positive principles of a Covenantal approach, especially as it relates to the problem of knowledge. In doing so, we also highlight the fact that a proper defense of Christianity requires a view of "reality" and of "evidence" that is consistent with Christianity and that does not oppose it. It might help to further elaborate two points from the above citation.

First, the Covenantal apologist "maintains that there is an absolutely valid argument for the existence of God" because, if he does not, he admits that God's revelation to man is not clear. Here we have in mind God's general revelation to man (although God's special revelation is perspicuous as well), which is clear and clearly understood by all people. This point is one that Classical approaches seem either to ignore or to minimize in such a way that it does not function at all in their apologetic approach. 

This may be the case because the reality and universality of God's clear, and clearly understood, revelation is a particularly Reformed understanding of God's general revelation; it requires a consistently Reformed theology. But, we should note, it runs much deeper than that. It is a particularly Reformed approach to God's general revelation because it is an incontrovertibly biblical truth.

As we have seen in previous articles, Scripture is clear, in Romans 1:18ff., that God's revelation, coming to us as it does from the entirety of creation, both within and without us, instills in all people a true and definite knowledge of God for which we, all of us together, are accountable. This is what Calvin called the sensus divinitatis. All people know God because God's revelation to them is clear, and clearly seen (Rom. 1:19-20). Not only so, but, in order to know God as he reveals himself in and through all of creation it is requisite that we know creation itself, and that we know it as created. This means that we must and do know the universe outside of us, as well as ourselves, as created, i.e., as dependent on the true God (whom we all know). And we know these things because God reveals them. The how of knowledge must begin with God's revelation, his constant and universal revealing activity in and through creation.

This biblical, Reformed, emphasis entails that any person to whom we defend the faith is one who already and always knows the true God, and they know God by knowing creation. Since that is the case, any argument we give for the truth of Christianity must take account of the knowledge that is already given by God, and continues to be given, in and through all of creation. In taking account of this God-given-and-giving knowledge, we dare not approach those who oppose Christianity as if they are not aware of such things. We speak and defend the faith to image-bearers who know God. This truth may not need to be stated to them explicitly, but it cannot be ignored as we speak. We cannot take at face value the unbeliever's diagnosis of his own condition. Neither can we think that his "rationality" is neutral with respect to his relationship to God, which leads to the second point in the quote above.

We affirm that, "It is fatal for the Reformed apologist to admit that man has done justice to the objective evidence if he comes to any other conclusion than that of the truth of Christian theism." This is a fundamental epistemological (how) point, which itself entails the sensus divinitatis. After Scripture establishes the fact that all people know the true God, it goes on to argue that, as we remain in Adam, we always and everywhere suppress the truth that God continually gives us. Our suppression of that truth takes myriad forms, but, in general, it looks something like this: one who is in Adam knows but suppresses the fact that he is a creature of God, and thus owes him worship. He also knows but suppresses what God requires of him, and he knows that a failure to meet those requirements results in death. Yet he persists in his disobedience, and heartily approves those who join him in his culpable rebellion (Rom. 1:32). 

He approaches life, therefore, with a steadfast refusal to acknowledge what he knows to be the case. Instead, he pretends to be autonomous. He takes all that God gives and he seeks to give it an interpretation that divorces itself from the One who has given it to him in the first place, and on whom it, and he, depend. So, for example, he is happy to observe the beautiful colors of the trees in autumn, but he will not -- culpably will not -- acknowledge what he knows is true, that such things have their source and genesis in God's gracious and faithful covenant promises to his creatures, and to creation. So, he knows, but he will not admit that he knows. He affirms all that he can, as long as his affirmations do not have God as their focus. He affirms the trees, their beauty, the regularity of the seasons, etc., but none of it, according to him, can come from, or reveal, the true God (whom he actually knows via these things).

We might ask, using the Classical apologist's categories, how do we know such things? What is the most basic epistemological principle (principium) on which we depend in order to know? We know things, of course, by observing them, by using the life and breath that God gives to see them. But, more foundationally, we know things because God, who alone is the reason we can know his creation, connects the subject (the person) to the object (the trees, for example). We know because, by and through creation, God is revealing himself (and thus, in knowing creation we also know God); and we know them because, in establishing his covenant between himself and man, God tied man inextricably to himself and to creation. 

So, the how of knowing is as much dependent on God's activity of revealing himself as the what is dependent on God's activity of revealing himself as creator and sustainer. In order to know correctly, therefore, we must affirm and recognize what God has told us about the world and everything in it. Instead, when we remain in Adam, we know, but refuse; we suppress the central and crucial truth that provides our knowledge in the first place. 

We know that which we suppress. In order to suppress the truth, you must first be in possession of it. In apologetics (because in theology), we must recognize that man's every step, in Adam, is a step of more and more suppression of the truth in unrighteousness; he presumes upon the grace of God, taking what God gives and twisting its meaning, giving it his own perverted interpretation, pretending such things are "just there" for the taking. This is man's view of the trees, the colors, the seasons, and of everything else.

Next month, we will want to continue this discussion. For now, we have tried to respond to the objection of a confusion of what and how. The response to our objectors, put simply, is that the same God who creates and sustains the what, is also intimately, pervasively and continually involved in the how. We only know because the One who knows is the One who reveals. I can't imagine any more forceful, more basic, more rational argument than that. Without that argument, people are left only to themselves and their delusions. And if the history of epistemology has shown anything, it is that the millennia-long search for knowledge perpetually produces the same agnostic answer, "I don't know." If that is true, then a good, rational, argument for the Christian faith is that only in that faith can one have true and certain knowledge.

K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013)


[1] Norman L. Geisler, "Reviews," Christian Apologetics Journal 11, No. 2, (Fall 2013), 172. We use this article as representative of a (so-called) "Classical" approach to apologetics. It is not so much the author that we have in view here, but the apologetic approach to which the author and many others adhere.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cornelius Van Til, Defense of the Faith, ed. K. Scott Oliphint, 4th ed. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2008), pp.126-27.