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Lord Defender: Jesus Christ as Apologist

Brian L. De Jong

Recently I attended a large conference for Evangelical theologians. Most of those in attendance came from the academic world, so I was not surprised to find myself sitting next to a seminary professor at the conference banquet.

Since this brother taught apologetics at a respected institution, I determined to pose a question. “Have you read anything that analyzes the apologetics of Jesus?” I asked. He pondered the question for a few moments, and then answered in the negative. Judging from his reaction, I wondered if the thought had ever crossed his mind. Not wanting to pursue an awkward conversation, I dropped the matter.

My new friend, however, was still thinking about my query. He seemed flummoxed by this thought, and tried to determine what I was really driving at. The conversation turned in an odd direction as he made slightly dismissive statements about “WWJD,” (what would Jesus do?) supposing that was my angle.

The question was legitimate and the response typical. Has anyone seriously considered Jesus Christ as an apologist? Scour most textbooks on apologetics, and you will see what I mean. The only relevant book I have discovered is The Apologetics of Jesus by Norman Geisler and Patrick Zukeran,[1] though it is of limited value.

The presuppositions of Geisler and Zukeran are revealed in the final chapter, entitled “Jesus’ Apologetic Method.” First, they state that

it is not surprising that Jesus was not a presuppositional apologist. That would have entailed beginning his apologetics with the Triune God, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and then reasoning from there.[2]

Shortly after this they conclude:

From the summary of the evidence presented earlier (chaps. 1–8), it is clear that if Jesus had spelled out his apologetics systematically, he would have held to a classical apologetics system. His thought contained all the elements of classical apologetics.[3]

Douglas Groothuis likewise pursues the thesis in an article[4] and two books,[5] although he clearly doesn’t exhaust the subject. He helpfully demonstrates how Jesus employed various forms of logical argumentation in his disputes with the Jewish authorities of his day. Yet because Groothuis also dismisses the presuppositional approach, he fails to fully appreciate the profundity of Jesus’s methodology.

To my knowledge, there has been no extended engagement with this concept by a presuppositionalist. Greg Bahnsen grappled briefly with this idea when he wrote:

In all our apologetical endeavors we must honor Christ as Lord over our thinking and argumentation. He alone must occupy this unique position of Lordship in our minds, for He must be set apart to that function.

Bahnsen then inferred that “the content and logic of our apologetic comes from the word of Christ our Lord.”[6] Yet, like so many others, Bahnsen fails to explore Jesus’s own apologetical theory, method and practice.

Although presuppositional and classical apologists disagree on many things, they would agree that 1 Peter 3:15 is a key passage for the task of defending the faith. Both sides of this intramural dispute stress the duty of always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks for an account of the hope that is in us. So far, so good!

Both camps typically overlook an obvious implication of Peter’s prerequisite—to sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Without recognizing the Lordship of Christ over every aspect of human experience, we can offer but a truncated defense of Christian truth.

Specifically, Reformed apologists sometimes fail to explicitly acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Lord of apologetics. If his sovereign authority and power extend to every square inch of the creation, then he must necessarily be the sovereign Lord of apologetical theory, method, and practice.

I believe it is time for presuppositional apologists to plumb the depths of our Savior’s apologetic—especially as it is revealed in the four gospels. He is the Lord Defender of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. This inquiry is needful for many reasons.

Such a study is appropriate because Jesus understood apologetics completely. His knowledge was thorough, exhaustive, and perfect, and thus he comprehended every component of apologetical theory and how those components interacted. Our Savior had an exhaustive knowledge of apologetics, elenctics, and evangelism, and how these three aspects of ministry worked together to challenge unbelievers to repent and believe.

Similarly, he alone possessed a perfect apologetical methodology, and there was no inconsistency between his theory and his practice. He knew how to effectively use questions to provoke thought. He employed stories to draw people into a consideration of the truth. He added miracles as confirming signs, challenging the Jews that even if they did not believe him, they should at least believe the works that he did. Christ employed a perfect blend of history, theology, and ethics in his pedagogy. He understood the role of imagination and persuasion in dealing with weak and ignorant sinners. He was neither too strong or too weak, too soft in his approach or too hard. He also maintained the perfect balance and blend in dealing with real people.

Likewise, no one ever better comprehended the true condition of sinners. Jesus well understood the noetic effects of sin, and the darkened mindset of fallen man. John 2:24–25 states, “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people, and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” Christ was never fooled by the tricks employed by his opponents to trap him in his words.

It is also correct to say that Jesus did apologetics perfectly. To paraphrase the Jews in Mark 1:22, “No one ever defended the faith like this man—with authority, not as the scribes.” Because he was sinless, he never squandered a single opportunity to demonstrate and defend the rational coherence of revealed truth. His arguments were never based on fallacies, nor were his assumptions ever inaccurate. Moreover, Jesus always maintained the proper priorities and balance in his apologetical encounters, never allowing himself to become distracted by trivialities.

We should also pursue this project because we have abundant relevant evidence within the gospel accounts. Not only were there numerous direct encounters between the Savior and unbelieving critics, but his teaching often has obvious relevance for the work of apologetics. Reviewing the gospel of Matthew alone, the following twenty passages could be profitably mined for apologetical gold: Matthew 4:1–11; 9:1–8; 11:1–6; 12:9–14; 12:22–32; 12:38–42; 13:1–43; 15:1–20; 16:1–12; 16:21–23; 19:3–9; 19:16–22; 21:23–27; 21:33–46; 22:15–22; 22:23–33; 22:34–40; 22:41–46; 23:1–36; 26:57–68.

Jesus repeatedly faced opposition from the Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests, scribes, teachers of the law, and elders of the people and even, at times, from the multitudes of his followers. We might understandably ignore this aspect of our Savior’s ministry if there were only a few scattered and inconclusive encounters. But because apologetical opportunities were increasingly numerous as his ministry ripened, and because they fill pages of the gospels, we ought to give them due consideration.

There are also theological reasons for examining the apologetics of Jesus. Colossians 2:3 informs us that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” This leads us to be Christocentric in our theological formulations, and rightly so. If our Savior is the touchstone for truth and the very incarnation of truth itself, we would be shortsighted to attempt to construct a theological system that failed to recognize his primacy in all things. Everything points to him, and everything flows from him—especially in theology.

Accepting that apologetics is a legitimate and vital branch of the theological encyclopedia, why would we not be Christocentric in our apologetics?  Is it correct to view the Apostle Paul as the chief apologist of the church? Should Paul hold ‘first place’ in defending the faith? Doesn’t that position belong logically and theologically to Jesus Christ?  Wouldn’t Paul himself have pointed our eyes to Christ as we search for the perfect example of apologetics in practice?  

Understand that I am not in any way dismissing or diminishing Paul’s fine example or the apologetical value of such passages as Acts 17:16–34. The scriptural accounts of Paul’s apologetical encounters are perfect and Christlike. I am simply suggesting that Paul should take a second place to Christ when it comes to defending the faith. This is in keeping with Paul’s own dictum in I Corinthians 11:1, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” Christ is the great original, and Paul’s example is authoritative in so far as he imitated Christ.

Some might object at this point, insisting that any talk of Jesus as an example is theologically liberal and smacks of moralism, à la Charles Sheldon. I would agree that treating Jesus as merely an example is moralistic and liberal. Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God—very God of very God. Christ’s redemptive work is far more than a mere example of good conduct. That said, 1 Peter 2:21 explicitly states, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps (emphasis added).” The incarnate Redeemer of God’s elect does set an example in many areas for us to follow. To point to Jesus as the Chief Apologist for his church, and to call men to ponder and follow his example is not inappropriate.

Another objection might be raised—namely that Jesus is so far above and beyond us that his example does us little good. While he always understood the tricks and traps of his enemies, we often misunderstand and become confused. He always knew the right thing to say, but we stumble over our words, and are plagued with faulty memories and vast ignorance. How can imperfect creatures like us learn anything from the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable Christ, perfect in all his ways? While this line of thinking may appear cogent, it leads us inescapably to an uncomfortable conclusion. If the disparity between Jesus’s perfections and our imperfections is so great as to nullify our learning from his teaching, then he was wasting his time by teaching us anything at all. Perhaps he should have come to earth solely to die on the cross, rise again, and return to heaven. Those three years of public ministry were for naught if this gap is too great to bridge.

It is here that Calvin’s insights help us greatly. In the Institutes, Calvin argues,

For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.[7]

As in every other area, so also in apologetics. Jesus stoops down to us and accommodates himself to our weaknesses. He gives us a perfect pattern so that we can know how apologetics should properly function when done correctly. This divine archetype should not intimidate us, or suppress our enthusiasm, but lift us up and encourage us in our apologetical encounters.

So as to support my argument and simultaneously prime the pump, let me point out one of the more significant and obvious apologetical encounters of Jesus’s earthly ministry. In Matthew 22 Jesus was ambushed by the Sadducees. Although they denied the doctrine of the resurrection (among other things), they set a trap for Jesus which presupposed the doctrine of the resurrection. In their fictional account, a man died childless, so his brother did his duty by marrying the widow in order to raise up seed for the dead brother. The second man died childless as well. This pattern continued until the seventh and final brother had died. Finally the poor woman died, which lead to the question, “In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her” (Matt. 22:28).

As Groothuis argues, this clever argument put Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. By their scheme, they attempt to force him to choose between Moses’s teaching on the law of levirate marriage, and the concepts of resurrection and the afterlife. They suppose he cannot choose both options, since Moses taught monogamy and not polygamy. Neither could he deny both options and still remain orthodox. Thus they supposed that they had trapped him.

How did Jesus respond to this assault? What was his defense? The Lord responds with an answer—a rational and reasonable answer to their question. Yet he does not answer their question simply or naively. He argues indirectly by addressing their presuppositions. He also answers in such a way to confront their true needs rather than their proposed problem.

The first thing he says is blunt and true—“You are wrong.” He challenges the validity of their theoretical construct. Their thought process is neither correct nor accurate, but is warped and twisted on the presuppositional level. How could they deny the resurrection and the afterlife, and then posit a story based on the resurrection? Furthermore, their presupposition that life after the resurrection will be largely the same as life before that great day is wrong. Such mistaken thinking must be identified, confronted, and rebuked—exactly as Jesus does!

The reason for their mistaken mindset is twofold—they do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God. Although they claim to be wise in their understanding of God’s Word, their darkened minds have failed to grasp even the elementary truths of the Scriptures. Certainly the resurrection of the dead is one of the basic teachings of God’s Word. Even the Sadducees’ truncated canon taught the resurrection of the dead in such passages as Genesis 22:9–13 (cf. Hebrews 11:17–19). Jesus challenged their supposed grasp of the Scriptures—surely this is a presuppositional critique of the Sadducees.

The second problem is that they failed to understand the power of God. While this could be taken in a personal sense—that they failed to experience the power of God in their own lives—it is more likely that Jesus is continuing his attack on their rejection of the resurrection and the afterlife. Scripture states and Jesus demonstrates that “God is able to raise the dead.” Their theology was aberrant in not allowing for life after death, given that God can do whatsoever he chooses—even raise the dead.

Jesus next declares the truth about the state of men and women in the resurrection. They neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. He categorically refutes the minor premise of their argument by declaring invalid the assumption that resurrected people will be in a married state. The life to come will be very different from the world we now inhabit. Their supposed dilemma rests upon false foundations.

Going on, Jesus persuasively argues from the Scripture to back up his critique. In other words, he exegetically shows how the Scriptures teach life after death and support the resurrection. Reasoning from God’s own statement in Exodus 3:6, Jesus draws a good and necessary inference. Since God said, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”—in the present tense—he must be considered the God of the living. Yet the historical moment when God spoke those words was hundreds of years after the patriarchs had died. How could God declare himself to be the God of those men if they were forever dead and gone? Rather, he is the God of the living as his statement proves. Therefore, those who die in faith yet live, and everyone who believes in Christ will never die.

It might be argued that the text that Jesus chose from Exodus 3 did not teach the doctrine of the resurrection per se. It explicitly establishes the fact that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alive hundreds of years after their deaths were recorded, and their bodies buried in Machpelah. But the text doesn’t “prove” their resurrection from the dead. Here again we see Jesus arguing by presupposition. As D.A. Carson points out:

The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection: both body and soul, they held, perish at death. . . . The Sadducees denied the existence of spirits as thoroughly as they denied the existence of angels (Acts 23:8). Their concern was therefore not to choose between immortality and resurrection but between death as finality and life beyond death, whatever its mode.[8]

Thus Jesus is not supplying a proof text as evidence for the validity of the resurrection, but rather giving a presuppositional challenge to the whole fabric of Sadducee theology.

Throughout this encounter, our Savior employs the two-pronged apologetic of Proverbs 26:4–5. Jesus does not answer the foolish Sadducee according to his folly, lest he be like him. Jesus then answers the fool according to his folly, lest that Sadducee be wise in his own eyes.

Despite Geisler and Zukeran’s claim to the contrary, the Lord does begin by assuming the Triune God as revealed in Holy Scripture, and then reasoning from that vantage point. This passage, and others like it, show The Lord Defender of the faith employing a thoroughly scriptural apologetic to overthrow his opponents.

It is my sincere hope that my brothers who appreciate presuppositional apologetics will take up this thesis and flesh it out to the vindication of the truth, to the benefit of the church, and to the winning of souls for the kingdom of Christ.

Endnotes

[1] Norman L. Geisler and Patrick Zukeran, The Apologetics of Jesus: A Caring Approach to Dealing with Doubters (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009). Kindle edition.

[2] Geisler and Zukeran, Apologetics of Jesus, Kindle locations 1934–1935.

[3] Geisler and Zukeran, Apologetics of Jesus, Kindle locations 1975–1976.

[4] Douglas Groothuis, “Jesus: Philosopher and Apologist,” Christian Research Journal 25, no. 2 (2002), http://www.equip.org/articles/Jesus-philosopher-and-apologist.

[5] Douglas Groothuis, On Jesus, Wadsworth Philosophers Series (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2003). Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011).

[6] Greg Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics Stated and Defended (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision & Covenant, 2008), 26.

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, LCC, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, 1:13:1 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960).

[8] D. A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Matthew, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 8:461–62.

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, January 2015.

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