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Behavioral Apologetics

Brian L. De Jong

You may have encountered them yourself—I know that I have. They are neither the “Thoroughly Reformed” nor the “Barely Reformed.” These are the “Pugnaciously Reformed.” Whether by the chip on their shoulder, or the curl on their lip, they are not difficult to spot. Such folk are theological wrecking balls out to demonstrate that they are RIGHT. Sadly, they sometimes employ the tools of presuppositional apologetics to win argument after argument as they vanquish their foes. Their rude air of intellectual superiority and their self-congratulatory manner upset, offend, and insult their victims.

What ought never to be, is at times distressingly common in the Reformed community. As arguments are won, people are lost. In the name of apologetical correctness, the reputation of the Savior is dragged through the mud by overeager advocates of truth. Never pausing to consider the damage they are doing, these apologists are missing a key ingredient to biblical/covenantal apologetics—the behavioral component.

Good behavior is an indispensable ingredient for sound apologetical practice if one wishes effectively to defend the faith. This is true in a general sense, and it is particularly the case in our apologetical methodology. In this article I wish to explore how good behavior fuels our defense of the faith. I also would give special attention to how Dr. Van Til and his successors have recognized the behavioral aspect of apologetics. I hope to conclude with some thoughts on how to use your good behavior to your apologetical advantage.

Our basic calling as Christians is to be a holy people, even as the Lord our God is holy. We must share in his holiness if we hope to see the Lord. God has given his law of liberty to guide us in godly living. The “third use” of the law is vitally important for our spiritual development as believers. James reminds us in the first chapter of his epistle that it is not enough merely to hear the Word. We must do what it says if we would live the righteous life that God desires.

This directly relates to the process of sanctification—that slow but steady growth in grace, as we put off the old man and put on the new man. By the inward work of the Holy Spirit, we are being increasingly conformed to the image of Christ. The more we resemble our Elder Brother, the more our lives are distinct from the world around us. The gap between our conduct and that of the pagan culture should be increasing, not decreasing. The fact of being set apart unto God is gradually manifested in our experience. The concept of a disobedient Christian is really a contradiction in terms, albeit a sadly common occurrence.

This general obligation intensifies when we focus upon church officers, and especially upon ministers of the gospel. According to 1 Timothy 3, the overseer must be above reproach, temperate, prudent, respectable, not pugnacious, but gentle and peaceable. This holds true not only for relationships within the church, but he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. Paul echoes these expectations in Titus 1:7–9, saying the overseer

must be above reproach. He must notbe arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violentor greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.He musthold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction insounddoctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

If a man does not possess these qualities, he is not fit to be ordained for service. If a minister lacks these attributes, it will undermine his ministry and give cause for the unbeliever to dismiss the truth. So while good behavior is generally needful for all Christian apologists, it is doubly necessary for ordained apologists.

Looking at that classic passage on apologetics in 1 Peter 3:15–16, we find this behavioral emphasis woven through the context. Reaching back into the previous chapter, we find these words: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12).

Good conduct on the part of Christians has two effects. First, it blunts the criticism of the Gentiles. They speak against Christians as evildoers, and the honorable behavior of the Christian gives the lie to their accusations. More importantly, the excellent conduct of believers will cause the Gentiles to glorify God on the day of visitation. Having observed the good deeds of those whom they slander, they will be forced to admit that God is true, and that his servants have lived holy lives.

This emphasis comes up a few verses later in 2:15–16 when Peter says, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”

Again it is the good behavior that silences the ignorance of foolish people. When God’s children use their liberty to serve the Lord, God is glorified. Were they to exploit their freedom as a cover-up for evil actions, God’s name would be dishonored among the heathen.

This call to good behavior includes situations where suffering ensues. While it is not commendable to suffer for our sinful conduct, it is laudable to patiently endure ill treatment for doing what is right. Through the remainder of chapter 2, Peter shows us the example of Christ. Jesus suffered for no cause in his own personal conduct. His behavior was pristine, yet he did not revile in return for the ill treatment he received. In this he purposefully left an example for believers, so that we might follow in his steps.

Moving into chapter 3, Peter counsels wives to embody respectful and pure conduct (v .2). Likewise husbands must behave honorably toward their wives. He then sums up in these words in chapter 3:8–9, “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” What is all this but a call to good behavior?

Peter’s summary is then reinforced with a quotation from Psalm 34, which states the believer must “turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it” (1 Pet. 3:11). The quotation concludes with a promise and a solemn warning: “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (v. 12). All of that revolves around the concept of behavior—either doing good or practicing evil.

A rhetorical question in 3:13–14 continues to drive the point home: “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” This is the immediate context for the charge to sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always ready to make a defense to everyone. Notice how seamlessly Peter moves from good conduct to defending the faith.

If the connection is not obvious enough from the context, it can’t be missed in these words in verse 16, “yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” The manner of our apologetical ministry must be “with gentleness and respect.” More broadly, we must maintain a good conscience in our apologetical work. Why? Because our opponents will slander and revile us for our good behavior in Christ. But this false charge will lead to their shame when our excellent conduct becomes unmistakably obvious. No honest person will believe their wicked reports because our good behavior has been observed by witnesses who can attest to our purity. So if you suffer for doing what is right in your efforts to defend the faith—well and good.

Van Til and His Successors

For Cornelius Van Til, the need to be gentle and reverent in apologetics was important. In his book analyzing the thought of Van Til, John Frame states, “Van Til was fond of the slogan suaviter in modo, fortiter in re: gentle in the manner of presentation, powerful in substance. As we have seen, his writings are not always suaviter in modo, but this one [“Why I Believe in God”] is a good example of that principle.”[1]

In his pamphlet entitled “Toward A Reformed Apologetics,” Van Til references his motto when he says:

Finally, it is my hope for the future, as it has always been my hope in the past, that I may present Christ without compromise to men who are dead in trespasses and sins, that they might have life and that they might worship and serve the Creator more than the creature. Rather than wedding Christianity to the philosophies of Aristotle or Kant, we must openly challenge the apostate philosophic constructions of men by which they seek to suppress the truth about God, themselves, and the world. To be sure, it is the grace of God which we proclaim to men, and we must proclaim the gospel suaviter in modo, but nevertheless, we have not been true to Christ if we do not say with Paul: “Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe (I Cor. 1:20–21). We are children of the King. To us, not to the world, do all things belong. It is only if we demand of men complete submission to the living Christ of the Scriptures in every area of their lives, that we have presented to men the claims of the Lord Christ without compromise. It is only then that we are truly biblical first and speculative afterwards. Only then are we working toward a Reformed apologetic.[2]

In an unpublished manuscript on the Ten Commandments, Van Til applies the ninth commandment particularly to officers when he writes:

For office-bearers and especially for ministers it is necessary to remember at this juncture that in order to develop truthfulness they must seek to elicit confessions of untruthfulness by a friendly tactful method. To be suaviter in modo benefits him who himself lives in a glass house. Any pretense at perfection in accomplishment will repel instead of attract. Thus one does not develop but rather retards the development of truthfulness.[3]

In the tenth chapter of A Christian Theory of Knowledge Van Til links this gentle methodology to Calvinism, saying:

If one follows Calvin there are no such troubles. Then one begins with the fact that the world is what the Bible says it is. One then makes the claims of God upon men without apologies though always suaviter in modo. One knows that there is hidden underneath the surface display of every man a sense of deity. One therefore gives that sense of deity an opportunity to rise in rebellion against the oppression under which it suffers by the new man of the covenant breaker. One makes no deal with this new man. One shows that on his assumptions all things are meaningless. Science would be impossible; knowledge of anything in any field would be impossible. No fact could be distinguished from any other fact. No law could be said to be law with respect to facts. The whole manipulation of factual experience would be like the idling of a motor that is not in gear. Thus every fact—not some facts—every fact clearly and not probably proves the truth of Christian theism. If Christian theism is not true then nothing is true. Is the God of the Bible satisfied if his servants say anything less?[4]

This is not to say that Van Til always practiced this gentle and reverent approach, as Frame recognized. In the pamphlet already mentioned, there is a remarkable section entitled “Retractions and Clarifications.” With transparent honesty, Van Til critiques himself on this score:

Have I been consistent with myself in the writings mentioned in this pamphlet? Should not I now retract certain statements made in earlier days? Would not I approach the subjects on which I have written differently now, if I could? When I ask myself such questions as these, I think that as far as the manner of presentation is concerned, I have often not lived up to my own motto on this point of suaviter in modo. I beg forgiveness of those whom I have hurt because of this sin of mine. Then, so far as content is concerned, I have often not lived up to my own motto on this point either. I have not always made perfectly clear that in presenting Christ to lost men, we must present Him for what He is. He has told us what He is in the Scriptures. Apparently I have given occasion for people to think that I am speculative or philosophical first and biblical afterwards.[5]

Two scholars who have followed in Van Til’s footsteps also saw the need for a gentle and reverent method in confronting unbelievers. Greg Bahnsen comments on this in his massive work, Van Til’s Apologetic, Readings and Analysis:

Thus, Peter, aware of the different ways an argument can be conducted, specifically reminded his readers to offer their reasoned defense “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). Paul wrote: “The Lord’s servant must not quarrel, but be gentle toward all, apt to teach, forbearing, in meekness correcting those who oppose themselves” (2 Tim. 2:24–25). The proponents of conflicting viewpoints can trade arguments and engage in intellectual dispute in a manner that exhibits or leads to being puffed up—something that Paul censures in a multitude of ways throughout 1 Corinthians (especially as it stems from a lust for persuasive words of worldly wisdom, 2:4–5). However, there is nothing in the nature of the case which requires argumentation to be conducted in a proud and unloving fashion. Apologetics can be pursued with a humble boldness, one which displays true concern for the error of the unbeliever’s thinking and the destructiveness of his ways. This does not mean giving even an inch on any issue of truth over which we disagree with the unbeliever. But it does mean, as Dr. Van Til would always say, that we keep buying the next cup of coffee for our opponent.[6]

Likewise, K. Scott Oliphint interacts with this methodology in his Covenantal Apologetics:

In 1 Peter 3:15, as Peter commands the church to be ready to defend her faith, he is careful to note the ethos in which such a defense must be given. Defend your faith, Peter is saying, “with gentleness and respect.” This reminds us that our defense is not a defense that depends on us; it is not something that is successful only to the extent that our oratory is polished. Rather, it is a defense that recognizes that Christ is Lord, that it is he who accomplishes the purposes that he desires in that defense. We need not, therefore, be hostile or abrasive or pugnacious in our defense. Christ reigns. We serve him. Our defense should reflect Christ’s sovereignty and our willing service to him. To be gentle and respectful does not, of course, obviate boldness. Paul knew that he might have to display such boldness to the Corinthians, even as he implored them with the meekness and gentleness of Christ. But boldness is not caustic or harsh. It stems from our confidence in Christ and his lordship. Boldness, we could say, is meek and gentle confidence in what we have to say. What should also be obvious concerning the ethos of persuasion and what we have not broached to this point, is that in our defense of Christianity, as in the entirety of our Christian lives, we are to be a holy people. We are to mirror the holiness of our Father in heaven. We cannot and should not expect that anyone in our audience will be anxious to listen to us, or be persuaded by us, if our own character is obviously and explicitly immoral or otherwise suspect.[7]

So what can we conclude about this connection between excellent behavior and the defense of the faith? First of all, our apologetical commitments should exist within the larger context of personal holiness. The would-be defender of the faith should make a long-term commitment to growing in his sanctification. There is simply no substitute for personal holiness, and personal holiness cannot be conjured up in a moment. True piety gradually develops over years of ordinary, faithful Christian living.

Second, that process of sanctification should manifest itself in how we treat others—whether believer or unbeliever. Showing kindness, patience, gentleness, and earnest concern can become habitual as we work to display these graces toward our fellow man. We must learn to love our neighbors as ourselves, if we would be of any spiritual assistance to them. This is crucial if we hope to persuade them of the truth we advocate. Persuasion involves more than just proving that “I am right, and you are wrong.” Persuasion is far subtler and nuanced than winning an abstract intellectual argument. As Oliphint reminded us above, “We cannot and should not expect that anyone in our audience will be anxious to listen to us, or be persuaded by us, if our own character is obviously and explicitly immoral or otherwise suspect.”

Third, we should recognize that our manner will impact our message, either for good or for ill. If we live holy lives, we recommend the truth that we defend. Our lifestyle of godliness becomes a silent confirmation of the truth. But if we live scandalously, then our behavior actually contradicts the very truth we defend. Furthermore, we give fodder to the skeptic, who will predictably dismiss our message because of our personal hypocrisy. An absence of personal holiness will cripple the Christian apologist while emboldening the unbeliever in his rejection of the gospel.

As we grow in godliness, we should cultivate an ability to speak to unbelievers in non-threatening ways. This includes going onto their turf and taking an interest in their lives. Waiting for them to come pouring through the doors of our churches will prove a fruitless approach. The task of making disciples presupposes that we are “going.” Whenever we go, wherever we go, as we go, we are to make disciples. In this effort to engage the unbelievers in our communities, we ought to discover where they congregate, and find out what interests them. Becoming all things to all men suggests that we take something of an interest in what matters to them. This is Paul, strolling through the streets of Athens, seeing all of the various altars to the “gods” that the Greeks worshiped, and taking special note of their altar to the “Unknown God.” Paul could then speak intelligently to the Athenians about the Unknown God they claimed to worship.

As we cultivate conversations with our unbelieving neighbors, we need to respect their feelings and not trample carelessly upon them. We should never misrepresent their positions, or belittle them for their unbelief. Question-and-answer dialogue is invaluable as we not only respectfully answer their questions, but we pose our questions to them.

As conversation develops, we should “buy the next cup of coffee.” Picking up the check at a lunch discussion can convey friendly engagement and genuine respect. Doing those things while maintaining the give-and-take of ideas will stimulate deeper disclosure. Thus our gentle approach can be used by the Holy Spirit to bring unbelievers to understand and accept the truth—to become convinced of that gospel which we defend and proclaim.

Endnotes

[1] John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ; P&R, 1995), 331.

[2] Cornelius Van Til, The Works of Cornelius Van Til, 1895–1987, ed. Eric H. Sigward (New York: Labels Army Co., 1997), CD-ROM.

[3] Cornelius Van Til,“The Ninth Commandment: Truth,” in The Ten Commandments (unpublished manuscript, 1933).

[4] Cornelius Van Til, The Works of Cornelius Van Til, 1895–1987, ed. Eric H. Sigward (New York: Labels Army Co., 1997), CD-ROM.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, Readings & Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1998), 32.

[7] K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 144.

Brian L. De Jong is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Ordained Servant Online, March 2017.

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