The ‘ABC’s and 123’s’ of Classical Apologetics: A Response to Our Presuppositional Brothers

By Adam Tucker

Recently, I had the truly great privilege of providing color commentary for my friend and mentor, long-time SES professor Dr. Richard Howe, as we had a lively dialog with two presuppositional brothers from the T.A.G. You’re It podcast. You can watch the full dialog here. Dave and Ray Ray, our interlocutors, were very gracious, and it was an enjoyable conversation about our differences in apologetic methodology. They made a few comments referencing an unsaved man’s ability to reason about spiritual realities to which I would like to comment.

Specifically, Dave paraphrased Romans 3 when he said, “For me, this debate starts and ends with a biblical anthropology. … No one’s righteous, no not one. No one understands. No one seeks for God. In light of those expressions, the ability for man to reason becomes, in my mind, becomes a natural problem … [or] a theological problem.” He went on to say, “Again, the ability for man to reason things that are spiritual, again, 1 Cor. 2:14, that’s talking about spiritual realities in 1 Cor. 2:14. Yeah, a man can tie his shoe, and do math, and do brain surgery. He can know his ABC’s and 123’s. But the fact that he cannot reason true spiritual things is a problem.” 

This line of reasoning continued throughout the conversation when Dave finally said, “Let’s go back to Romans 8. … How far do you take human free will and human ability to participate in autonomous reasoning? I would say that when it comes to spiritual things, they don’t exist. … Going to Romans 8 again, the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God. The individual who you’re engaging [in apologetic argumentation], if you don’t engage them as one who is hostile towards God, and in fact you depend on the idea that they’re going to somehow be led to the triune God of Scripture, that’s where the major difference is to me.”

Ray Ray concluded, “I would say, is it God-honoring to put Him in a dock and let the rebellious sinner be the judge over His existence? … Even the question to me, ‘Does God exist?,’ and you’re going to give it to somebody that’s in rebellion against Him, you’re going to be like, ‘OK here’s all the evidence you God-hater.’”

It is my contention that Dave and Ray Ray, like many presuppositionalists, wrongly equate spiritual realities (i.e. the Gospel and the overall Christian message) with truths about God’s existence and the overall apologetics task. This is a mistake. As classical apologists, we would maintain that an unbeliever cannot accept spiritual realities apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. However, if a man can “know his ABC’s and 123’s” then he can know and comprehend truths about the existence and nature of God among other things. Let us briefly examine why the passages mentioned above do not support the presuppositional position.

Romans 3

Based on the context of our discussion, it seems as though Dave is specifically equating man’s ability to understand in Romans 3 with man’s ability to understand arguments for the existence of God in general. But what is the context of this passage?

Romans 3 immediately follows some of the clearest affirmations of general revelation (knowledge about God gained from man’s inherent ability to reason) found in the Scriptures. In Romans 1 Paul explicitly states that man knows the existence and nature of God through things that are made (i.e. physical reality). Romans 2 explicitly states that people do not need direct laws from God to know right and wrong. In other words, man can know truths about God because he can “know his ABC’s and 123’s.” Were man not to have access to, or the ability to understand, this general revelation God would be unjust in holding people accountable for their sinfulness and claiming that man is “without excuse.” So what exactly is Paul saying man cannot understand in Romans 3?

Either Paul is contradicting himself, or it would seem that he is referring to something other than general revelation that man does not understand. He is making the point that all men, both Jew and Greek, are under sin and cannot by their own willfulness be righteous in God’s sight. Through general revelation, man is capable of knowing God’s existence and nature in addition to his own sinfulness. However, without God’s special revelation delivered via prophets and apostles (i.e. the Gospel and the overall Christian message), in addition to the work of the Holy Spirit, man is not capable of fulfilling the Law or understanding how to be reconciled with God. Paul states in Rom. 3:21-22, “But now, apart from the law, God’s righteousness has been revealed—attested by the Law and the Prophets—that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe …” (HCSB). In other words, Romans 3 is not referring to man’s ability to reason per se, even though it is true, that sinful man will not of his own accord know or welcome the truths of the Gospel.

1 Corinthians 2:14

This same thought is repeated in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Recall that when referencing 1 Cor. 2:14 Dave said, “But the fact that he cannot reason true spiritual things is a problem.” Again, in the context of our discussion, Dave seems to be equating “spiritual things” with general revelation and claiming that the unbeliever cannot understand arguments for God’s existence. But this is unwarranted and misleading.

In his widely used commentary on First Corinthians, Anthony Thiselton remarks,

“God’s wisdom is ‘secret,’ or known only to God (v. 11b) in the sense that talk of ‘spirituality’ and ‘wisdom’ comes to nothing unless God’s Holy Spirit activates the message of the cross and brings it home afresh. Hence Paul employs language which the Spirit teaches, interpreting things of the Spirit to people of the Spirit (v. 13). … ‘The person who lives on an entirely human level’ (v. 14) translates psychikos de anthrōpos. Such a person lives on the level of mere human life force (Greek psychē), not in response to the action of the Holy Spirit (pneuma). Paul’s next words corroborate this: ‘such a person does not receive the things of the Spirit … because they are discerned spiritually’ (v. 14).”¹

Craig Blomberg follows this line of thinking when he writes, 

“The KJV is well-known for its translation, ‘the natural man.’ In other words, this is a person in his ordinary, unredeemed state of earthly existence, which he inherited from the Fall. Such a person ‘does not accept’ Christian truths. This phrase makes it clear that the ‘understanding’ described in verse 14b is not primarily cognitive but volitional. … The contrasts in verses 13–16 have received widespread abuse in the history of the church. As with 1:18–20, they cannot be used to legitimate anti-intellectualism, although they certainly oppose all forms of godless intellectualism. Nor do they justify attempts at interpreting God’s will, including his revelation in the Scriptures, apart from standard, common-sense principles of hermeneutics. … The ‘understanding’ these non-Christians do not possess is what the Bible consistently considers to be the fullest kind of understanding: a willingness to act on and obey the word of God (cf. v. 14a).”²

In other words, like in Romans 3, the spiritual truth referenced in 1 Cor. 2:14 refers to the Gospel and the overall Christian message, not truths available to all men via general revelation. As classical apologists, we completely agree that the unbeliever cannot “act on and obey” the Word of God apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. This does nothing to distinguish the classical and the presuppositional system.

Romans 8

That finally brings us to Romans 8 where Dave said, “Going to Romans 8 again, the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God. The individual who you’re engaging [in apologetic argumentation], if you don’t engage them as one who is hostile towards God … that’s where the major difference is to me.” Once again, however, Dave is illegitimately equating man’s knowledge of the truths of general revelation with man’s inability to submit to God’s Law and free himself from sin.

Commenting on 1 Cor. 3:1-3, Thiselton writes,

“The term that we translate ‘people moved by entirely human drives’ (Greek sarkinos, v. 1) must be distinguished from its parallel in Greek, psychikos anthrōpos, which we translated in 2:14 as the ‘person who lives on an entirely human level.’ Both terms stand in contrast to ‘of the [Holy] Spirit’ or ‘spiritual.’ They broadly mean unspiritual. But psychikos reflects the more neutral associations of the life energy of simply being human, without openness to the saving action of the Holy Spirit. The Greek words sarkinos and sarkikos (vv. 1 and 3) are traditionally translated ‘of the flesh’ (v. 3, NRSV), and reflect the more strongly rebellious thrust of the mind of the flesh that is ‘hostile to God’ (Rom. 8:7, NRSV). When it is used in this way as an explicitly theological term, it denotes ‘the self in pursuit of its own ends’ or ‘life pursued in independence from God.’”³

Paul explained, in the first two chapters of Romans, that all men are capable of knowing truths from general revelation whether they accept them or not. This is the human state reflected in psychikos. On the other hand, Romans 8 specifically uses a derivative of the theological term sarkinos which refers to the willful state of rejecting the Gospel and the Christian message. No apologetic method is capable of changing someone’s will. As we’ve already said, the classical apologist completely agrees that man cannot come to a saving knowledge of God apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.

Why Classical Apologetics?

So what is the point of doing apologetics? As we have seen, the bad philosophy underlying the presuppositional approach to apologetics leads brothers like Dave and Ray Ray to fail to distinguish between man’s knowledge of general revelation versus his knowledge and acceptance of special revelation. We have discussed elsewhere the reasons for this bad philosophy.

If, as both experience and Romans 1-2 clearly affirm, man is able to know how to “tie his shoe, and do math, and do brain surgery [and] know his ABC’s and 123’s,” then man can know truths about general revelation. These truths provide the common ground to which classical apologetics appeals in order to meet the unbeliever where they are and lead them to the cross of Christ. Of course none of these truths constitute the special revelation of the Gospel. General revelation is, however, a necessary precondition for the Gospel to make sense. There can be no Son of God if there is no God. There can be no acts of God (i.e. miracles) if there is not a God who can act. There can be no Word of God if there is not a God who can speak. There can be no sin if there is no good and evil. Everyone, believer and unbeliever, has access to this general revelation because they all “know [their] ABC’s and 123’s.” God will not call people to something that is actually illogical, and He will not bypass their minds on the way to their hearts.

Writing around 200 A.D., the early church father Clement of Alexandria beautifully encapsulated the basic thrust of classical apologetics when he wrote,

“Some, who think themselves naturally gifted, do not wish to touch either philosophy or logic; nay more, they do not wish to learn natural science. They demand bare faith alone, as if they wished, without bestowing any care on the vine, straightway to gather clusters from the first. Now the Lord is figuratively described as the vine, from which, with pains and the art of husbandry, according to the word, the fruit is to be gathered. We must lop, dig, bind, and perform the other operations. The pruning-knife, I should think, and the pick-axe, and the other agricultural implements, are necessary for the culture of the vine, so that it may produce eatable (sic.) fruit. … So also here, I call him truly learned who brings everything to bear on the truth; so that, from geometry, and music, and grammar, and philosophy itself, culling what is useful, he guards the faith against assault.”⁴

However, we do not for a moment pretend that our apologetic arguments and reasons save anyone. Nevertheless, they are the means by which the Holy Spirit works in a man who can “know his ABC’s and 123’s” to lead him to the spiritual truth of the Gospel. As the saying goes, we can lead a horse to water, but we can’t make him drink. Thomas Aquinas put it this way, 

“… we must take note that, though a man is unable, by the movement of his free-will, to merit or acquire the divine grace, nevertheless he can hinder himself from receiving it. … And since it is in the power of the free-will, to hinder or not to hinder the reception of divine grace, he who places an obstacle in the way of his receiving grace is deservedly to be blamed. … thus he who shuts his eyes while the sun is shining is to be blamed if an accident occurs, although he is unable to see unless the sun’s light enable him to do so.”⁵

Apologetics is not putting “God in the dock.” Rather, it is using what is known about physical reality to reason to truths about immaterial realities like the existence and nature of God (Rom. 1). Paul specifically said he was put here for the defense of the Gospel, and every believer is called to engage in this same spiritual warfare on one level or another. As SES co-founder, the late Dr. Norman Geisler, said, “Apologetics is simply to defend the faith and thereby destroy arguments and every proud obstacle against the knowledge of God. It is opening the door, clearing the rubble, and getting rid of the [obstacles] so that people can come to Christ.”

Endnotes

  1. Anthony C. Thiselton, First Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 57–58.
  2. Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 64–67.
  3. Thiselton, 61.
  4. Clement of Alexandria, “The Stromata, or Miscellanies,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 309–310.
  5. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Summa Contra Gentiles, vol. 4 (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1924), 212.

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