Crossing the Chasm

Crossing the Chasm

Last month we began to consider the mode of "persuasion" as a central aspect of our defense of Christianity. We ended our previous article with the affirmation that the Word of God must be our foundation in apologetics. That's where we stand when we engage in a defense of the faith. We don't pretend to stand on the same platform as those to whom we speak. Whatever platform the unbeliever attempts to mount is nothing more than a mist; one may think that it feels, at times, like it is something substantial, but, in reality, its supposed strength is only an illusion, nothing more than a midsummer's madness.

How then can there be any persuasion when the foundation on which we stand is diametrically opposed to any on which the unbeliever pretends to stand? In our defense of Christianity, where two different foundations and worldviews are in play, how can we avoid anything but a shouting match? Surely the unbeliever does not, because he will not, stand on the Word of God. And just as surely believers cannot stand where unbelievers pretend to be. Doesn't this antithesis between believer and unbeliever make apologetics impossible? Persuasion seems a fool's errand if there is no common ground on which a believer can stand together with an unbeliever.

The great Dutch thinker Abraham Kuyper was adamant in his affirmation of the antithesis between those who are regenerate and those who are not. His adamantine commitment to "two kinds of men" has deep and strong roots in Reformed theology. Scripture is clear that there are two, and only two, covenant heads. Those covenant heads represent each and every person's relationship to the Triune God. There is no third covenant head. There is no other representative "link" to God. Each and every person, from the beginning of time into eternity future, is either in Adam, and thus under God's wrath, or in Christ, and thus under grace.

Kuyper saw this truth, and attempted to draw out its implications for theology, and for his understanding of "worldview." When Kuyper was invited to deliver the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898, he decided to lecture on the implications of a Christian worldview for theology, but also for science, art and politics, and other areas of cultural activity. His Lectures on Calvinism is the published result of those Stone Lectures.

As Kuyper was writing and developing his Stone Lectures, he would send them to Princeton, specifically to B. B. Warfield, for translation into English (a task which Warfield began but, due to time constraints, eventually delegated). In the course of Warfield's reading of Kuyper, in the latter's Stone Lectures and other writings, Warfield became concerned that Kuyper's understanding of the antithesis lead inexorably to the notion of an immense and unbridgeable chasm between regenerate and unregenerate; a chasm that, in the end, could not be crossed.

For example, asked Warfield, how could an unbelieving scientist work together with a regenerate scientist if there are, as Kuyper taught, "two kinds of science"? Or, to put it another way, just what exactly is the unbelieving scientist doing when he engages in unbelieving science, if it is the case (as it is) that only Christianity can provide the justification for the scientific enterprise?

Warfield was (rightly) concerned with the implications of Kuyper's notion of the antithesis. His concern focused, not only in science and other cultural activities, but in apologetics as well. In Kuyper's massive three-volume work, Encyclopædie der Heilige Godgeleerdheid (Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology, of which, part of volume one, and volume two are translated as Principles of Sacred Theology), as Kuyper attempts to lay out the taxonomy of the theological encyclopedia, apologetics is reduced, in Warfield's terms, to a "subdivision of a subdivision." One will encounter a discussion of apologetics in these volumes only by persevering to volume three, where Kuyper devotes (more or less) a scant ten pages to the subject.

The reason, as Warfield makes clear in his interaction with Kuyper, why apologetics is assigned such a minuscule and insignificant role in those volumes, is due, said Warfield, to Kuyper's "misprision of apologetics." Kuyper's application of the antithesis to the discipline of apologetics reduced that discipline as one which deals, primarily, with "pseudo-philosophy." In Kuyper's view, the antithesis between belief and unbelief allowed for no substantial or broadly applicable bridge between the two. The role of apologetics was simply to show the errors of false philosophical thinking.

In some ways, Kuyper's view is understandable. He was peering into the past discussions of apologetics -- in Aquinas and others who had followed him -- and he was, rightly, seeing significant theological compromise in much of what had been done previously. Kuyper knew that it was not possible, for example, for an apologetic argument to begin with a supposedly neutral notion of reason, as Thomas (and Thomists) had taught. Nor could apologetics appeal to an agreed upon view of "evidences" for theism or for Christianity. The antithesis demanded that Christians stand, and remain, on their own solid ground of God's comprehensive revelation in and to creation, and in his Word. To begin, then, to attempt to "reason" with the unbeliever seemed theologically problematic, given the antithesis between those in Adam and those in Christ.

But, even in his agreement with Kuyper on the radical effects of sin, Warfield saw a serious problem in Kuyper's application of the antithesis, and argued, against Kuyper, that apologetics must be at the beginning of our theological thinking, and not at the end. He contended that the "truth question" was of utmost importance, and that there was no use, in a theological curriculum, in dealing with exegesis, theology, church history, etc., before the question of truth had even been broached. So, said Warfield, apologetics must be front and center for any Christian, because in everything else that we affirm and believe we depend for those affirmations and beliefs on the notion of truth.

Because of Kuyper's strong emphasis on the antithesis, Warfield was reading Kuyper's notion of "two kinds of men (and thus of science, etc.)" as a metaphysical notion. That is, he was understanding Kuyper as arguing for an antithesis of disciplines, so that there would be Christian science, which, when it was engaged, would be an entirely different activity and enterprise than non-Christian science. For Kuyper (so thought Warfield) the disciplines themselves were thought to be, in every way, antithetical.

This was not Kuyper's actual view, though Warfield can be forgiven for thinking that it was. Kuyper recognized that there was a "grammar" to science, as there was with any other discipline, to which any person, Christian or not, must adhere. It was not the discipline itself that constituted the antithesis. But, given the antithesis, there must be some foundational differences between believer and unbeliever, even when each is engaged in the same discipline, and even when each might produce the same results.

Van Til attempted to stand on the shoulders of these two Reformed giants in order to see a bit farther. When Van Til was explaining his apologetic approach in the context of the debate between Warfield and Kuyper on the antithesis, he made clear just exactly where he agreed/disagreed with Warfield and where he agreed/disagreed with Kuyper. He rejected some aspects of each of them, but he incorporated much from his theological mentors. There is no question, as Kuyper made clear and as Van Til agreed, that there is an absolute antithesis between belief and unbelief. The antithesis is not one of degree, as if those in Adam were only partly opposed to God, or partly in rebellion against him. But, he also agreed with Warfield, in that there can be no question that the antithesis does not thereby render our reasoning and arguing with those who are in Adam irrelevant or otherwise foolish. The "truth question" must be front and center.

If persuasion requires some kind of communicative and conceptual "connection" between a believer and an unbeliever, how can we continue to affirm an absolute antithesis? We must affirm, with Kuyper and Van Til, that the antithesis is absolute. That is, our identity before God is embedded, foundationally, in our covenant head, either Christ or Adam. This point cannot be negotiable. When all men stand before Christ on the last day, the judgment of their status as sheep or goats will include their covenant status, as being either in Christ or in Adam. 

But we must also agree with Warfield that the antithesis does not truncate or unduly limit communication between believer and unbeliever. The theological reason for that is that behind this covenantal antithesis, is the universal status of all men everywhere as image of God

So, perhaps we could categorize it like this: First, when God created man (male and female) he determined that we would be, from that point into eternity, image of God. So, our most basic (i.e., metaphysical) constitution, as people, is that we are image of God. This, of course, is itself covenantal language. It means that we are in relation to God (just as any image is what it is only in relation to the original). That relationship constitutes our most basic status as people. It is that status that is presupposed when we find ourselves united to one of two covenant heads. So, we could say, all men are metaphysically image of God and are, because image, covenantally united either to Adam or to Christ.

There is, then, something universal, something always and everywhere true of each and every person, that itself grounds each person's relationship to Adam or to Christ. That something is the image of God. Though that image is broken, marred, twisted, distorted, perverted and all but buried because of the horrendous effects of sin in us, it is never erased; it continues to constitute us as responsible creatures coram Deo. It is this image of God that provides the bridge between those who are in Adam and those who are in Christ.

Second, given that we are image of God, the character or content of that image is inextricably linked to the covenant head to which we are related. In Adam, and before the fall, we were all, given Adam's representative status, related to God according to the Covenant of Works. If Adam had obeyed, we, in him, would have shared in the life that such obedience would have earned. Since Adam did not obey, we all are, by nature, children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). But being children of wrath presupposes that we are image of God.

Those who, by grace through faith, are saved, are those who are now in Christ. We now belong to our covenant head, Jesus Christ, and we are being renewed unto knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24) in him. But that renewal presupposes that we are, first of all, image of God.

We can begin to see, then, that the mode (or principle) of persuasion finds its home in our constitution as image of God. It does not in any way discount, subvert or otherwise undermine the real, absolute and determinative antithesis that constitutes our current relationship to God. But it recognizes central and crucial aspects of what it means to be image, and it takes advantage of that truth in the process of communication. 

In our next article, we will elaborate on the content of our constitution as image, and begin to see just how it is, as God's covenant creatures, those who are, by grace, in Christ, can cross the chasm to those who are in Adam, and thus persuasively present and defend the truth of God as it is found in Christ.

Dr. K. Scott Oliphint is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary.