Lutheran and Reformed Apologetics: An Overview

You know there it ends. Yo, it depends on where you start

– Everlast, What It’s Like.

You’ve all been there before: that algebraic formula that starts with the logical precision of a Vulcan only to wind up looking worse than Lady Gaga’s wardrobe by the end of the equation.

It happens in theology too. Errors in the doctrine of original sin, for example, result in relics and altar calls instead of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Errors in Christology result in Dr. Pepper and Doritos instead of Jesus’ body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and a real absence instead of Jesus’ real presence. It depends on where you start.

Apologetics is no different. Where one begins the argument will determine where the we lead the non-believer in the course of the discussion: to the cross and the certainty of Jesus’ death and resurrection in history or doubt in the very nature of truth and historical investigation altogether. Using poor methods leads both speaker and hearer astray from the overarching goal of apologetics – the proclamation of Christ Crucified – and ultimately undermines Christian proclamation of the Gospel.

Everyone does apologetics. There are good arguments, bad arguments and no arguments. The question is, what is the best method?

Lutherans approach apologetics the way we do because of the way we “do” theology; the Reformed approach apologetics the way they do because they “do” theology the way they do.

Admittedly, the title Lutheran and Reformed Apologetics is vague. Many Lutherans have fallen prey to the presuppositional approach in spite of their rich, evidential apologetic heritage and many in the Reformed camp have embraced evidential apologetics. Broadly speaking however, Lutherans (e.g. John W. Montgomery), approach apologetics evidentially while the Reformed (e.g. Cornelius Van Til), typically employ presuppositional methods.

In Van Til’s own words:

All is yellow to the jaundiced eye. As he speaks of the facts the sinner reports them to himself and others as yellow every one. There are no exceptions to this. And it is the facts as reported to himself, that is as distorted by his own subjective condition, which he assumes to be the facts as they really are. [endnote 1]

 What then more particularly do I mean when by saying that epistemologically the believer and the non-believer have nothing in common? I mean that every sinner looks through colored glasses. And these colored glasses are cemented to his face. He assumes that self-consciousness is intelligible without God-consciousness. He assumes that consciousness of facts is intelligible without consciousness of God. [endnote 2]

 Shall we in the interest of a point of contact admit that man can interpret anything correctly if he virtually leaves God out of the picture? Shall we who wish to prove that nothing can be explained without God, first admit that some things at least can be explained without him? On the contrary we shall show that all explanations without God are futile. [endnote 3]

In other words, there is no common ground between the Christian and the non-Christian. “The apologist must presuppose the truth of Christianity as the proper starting point in apologetics.” [endnote 4]  One must have saving faith before one can understand empirical truth. Consequently, presuppositional apologists begins by arguing that “Unbelievers cannot argue, think or live without presupposing God” thus demonstrating the inadequacy of the unbeliever’s jaundiced vision. [endnote 5]

The question is, once the unbeliever’s worldview is razed what is left in the rubble since the presuppositionalist has already stated that investigation of empirical evidence based on common ground do not exist between the believer and the unbeliever?

This is nothing short of philosophical uncertainty and religious anarchy. Like a one-legged pirate kicking his enemy, there are numerous problems inherent in the presuppositional method:

  1. As John Montgomery observes, “…even if it were possible in some fashion to destroy all existent alternative worldviews but that of orthodox Christianity, the end result would still not be the necessary truth of Christianity; for in a contingent universe, there are an infinite number of possible philosophical positions…” [endnote 6]
  2. The presuppositional apologist burns bridges before he can cross them. In contrast, the evidential apologetic maintains that the non-Christian can understand empirical and biblical evidence. Both Christians and non-Christians must use inductive reasoning to distinguish true and false (i.e. simply crossing the street).
  3. The truth of Christianity – and its evidences – is not locked in some presuppositional closet. Christianity is capable of examination (1 Corinthians 15) for these things did not occur in a corner (Acts 26:26). Jesus was born in the days of Quirinus and crucified under Pontius Pilate.
  4. Where the presuppositionalist makes the case a priori, the evidentialist builds a defense a posteriori, not assuming their conclusion. The former is circular (begging the question), the latter is a biblically sound defense and a well-reasoned argument.
  5. The unbeliever can easily turn the presuppositional cannon back on the Christian, arguing that it is the Christian who has “Jesus goggles” firmly cemented to his head. And until those are removed there is no hope for an intellectual discussion. Conversations of this sort almost always degrade into an esoteric Jerry Springer show, the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.
  6. “By rejecting the fact-oriented alternative, Van Til eliminates in principle the possibility of his opponents’ marshalling evidence against Christian claims. But the victory is entirely pyrrhic, for by accepting aprioristic circularity, he at the same time eliminates all possibility of offering a positive demonstration of the truth of the Christian view.” [endnote 7]

In the end, the presuppositional apologist actually undermines Gospel proclamation while at the same time removing any need to examine the factual, historical nature of the Christian faith. This renders the Christian incapable of making any meaningful claim to truth as distinct from any of the other voices clamoring to fill the ears of the unbeliever.

However, there is a better way: the explicit and implicit method of the Scriptures: Lutheran evidential apologetics. A method which acknowledges:

  1. There is common ground and knowledge. Everyone (Christian and non-Christian) uses factual evidence and inductive reasoning on a daily basis.
  2. There is a joyful marriage between the claims made in the New Testament and the historical, empirical evidence. Jesus Christ lived, died and rose from the dead in the common ground we call history. This provides a good starting point in our discussions with the unbeliever.
  3. And finally, the evidence for the Christian faith is overwhelming and compelling, including both the primary historical documents (i.e. the gospels) – written by eyewitnesses and close associates of eyewitnesses – and corroborating evidence, including that of secular, hostile witnesses.

While the presuppositional apologist can only bring the non-Christian to stare at his feet in despair, Lutheran apologetics brings the unbeliever directly to the foot of the cross in confidence. The unbeliever does not need a priori dogmatism, but the veracious, reliable witness of the Christian proclamation that God has taken on human flesh, entered human history and died and rose again for our justification. There’s no better place to start.






[1] Cornelius Van Til, “Introduction” to The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible by B.B. Warfield (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1948), p. 20.

[2] Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1969), p.295.

[3] Ibid., p. 294.

[4] Steven B. Cowan, general editor. Five Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), p. 18.

[5] Ibid., p. 19.

[6] John Warwick Montgomery, From an essay in Faith Founded on Fact: Essays in Evidential Apologetics, entitled, Once Upon an A Priori (New York: Thomas Inc., Publishers, 1978), p. 119.

[7] Ibid., p. 118.

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