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Sometime ago Esther O’Reilly from Patheos asked a thought-provoking question: “Has Christian Apologetics Failed?” O’Reilly asks the question in light of the Jordan Peterson phenomenon—a discussion into which I have no desire to enter. Rather, the question itself sparked my thinking about apologetics.

In my judgment, the only way one would think that apologetics had failed is if one invested it with more power than is biblically justified, while simultaneously failing to appreciate the human condition.

Let me explain.

Although I firmly believe Christians should give reasons for the hope that lies within them (1 Pet. 3:15), my interest in apologetics has waned considerably over the years. In sharp contrast to my time in college, I can’t remember the last time I watched a debate or read a book on apologetics.

As a student in Bible College, apologetic methodology was all the rage. Students asked each other questions like, “Are you a classical apologist?” “Do you hold to evidentialism or fideism?” “Are you a presuppositionalist?”

Of course, one does not have to choose a particular methodology. Truthfully, it all depends on the person to whom you’re speaking. That said, I tend to favor presuppositionalism because I think it rightly diagnosis the human heart, properly showcasing the chasm between believers and unbelievers both morally and intellectually.

Here’s why I say that:

Presuppositionalism holds that human beings are not neutral. Therefore, when we engage in any kind of biblical-theological discussion with non-Christians, we’re not talking with disinterested individuals, which means we shouldn’t think it’s a matter of simply presenting evidence. Please understand: Because God uses means to draw people to himself I believe we should present evidence. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think the people to whom we present evidence are objective and unbiased in their assessment of our evidence.

Note how Paul describes the fallen mind of human beings: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God” (Rom. 8:7). A mind “set on the flesh,” describes a mind uninvaded by the Spirit of God. Additionally, in 1 Cor. 2:14 Paul writes “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” In short, those devoid of the Spirit do not accept the things of the Spirit. Still, to fully appreciate Paul’s words requires a longer gaze. Paul does not simply say that believers are unwilling to accept the things of the Spirit. Don’t make him say something he is not saying. He specifically says unbelievers cannot understand spiritual things. In sum, an unbeliever’s problem is greater than simply refusing to acknowledge God. No, their thinking is futile, their minds are darkened, and their hearts are hard (Eph. 4:17–18). That’s what we’re up against.

Note the larger argument Paul makes in 1 Cor. 2:6–16. In this text (along with the broader section of 1:18–3:23 more generally) Paul contrasts the wisdom of God with the wisdom of this age. He discloses that this age is characterized by unbelief and rebellion against God—an unbelief and rebellion that manifests itself both morally and intellectually.

In his insightful article on this passage, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. demonstrates that believers and unbelievers inhabit two different worlds epistemologically.[1] In one particularly memorable section of the article, he notes:

“With the gospel (and its implications) as the point of reference, there is no point of contact epistemologically between believers and unbelievers, however understood—whether by empirical observation or by rational reflection and speculation (‘Jews require signs, Greeks seek wisdom,’ 1:22—the exclusion intended is universal). The notion of such common ground or capacity, rational or otherwise, that can be used to build toward the gospel, or otherwise prepare and dispose unbelievers to accept its truth, is not only not present in this passage; it is alien to it, jarringly so.”[2]

The “wisdom” believers possess is eschatological—it is of the aeon to come, according to Paul. Entrance into this eschatological age comes by way of regeneration. Hence, it’s not an overstatement to say that regeneration catapults one into a new world.[3] True, unbelievers may profit from reading the Bible; they may intellectually comprehend verbal presentations of the gospel. Still, we can’t forget Paul’s words in Rom. 1:18ff. They suppress the truth in unrighteousness; their thinking is futile; their hearts are darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools. “Human beings are foolish,” Tom Schreiner notes, “not in the sense that they are intellectually deficient but in their rejection of God’s lordship over their lives” (see Schreiner’s notes from The ESV Study Bible). In other words, rejecting God’s revelation and his authority in one’s life has certain repercussions.

After all, we live in God’s world, not a world of our own making. Rejecting the truth doesn’t make one wiser; it makes one foolish. If Scripture is not our epistemological norm, then we’re left either swimming in a sea of subjectivism or on the prowl for another form of rationalism. Everyone has a first principle; everyone chooses not to question something.

So, has apologetics failed? You can’t say something’s failed unless you know what it was intended to accomplish in the first place. Therefore, I don’t think we would say it’s failed if we noted its inherent limits at the start, while also taking the human condition into full account. The human condition is such that fallen humanity needs not only argumentation; it needs regeneration.

For my theology on how people change, go here.


[1] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Some Epistemological Reflections on 1 Cor 2:6–16,” Westminster Theological Journal 57 (1995): 103–124.

[2] Ibid., 111.

[3] I noticed recently that this is how theologian Charles Hodge (1797–1878) described the matter. See his Systematic Theology, abridged edition, ed. Edward N. Gross (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), 440.