Exposing the Darkness: A Call for Presuppositional Elenctics, Part 1

Brian L. De Jong

A parable from modern times: When I was first ordained as a minister, I served as a campus minister to international students at the University of Florida in Gainesville. During my two years there, I became interested in their football team. Since then I have followed the ups and downs of Gator football. During the Tim Tebow years, the Gators marched up and down the field at will, scoring touchdowns and collecting national championship trophies with apparent ease. After Tebow’s graduation, and the departure of coach Urban Meyer, the university hired a defense minded coach. In the coming years, that coach built a ferocious defense that was annually ranked among the nation’s best. At the same time, the offense became more and more offensive to fans, seemingly unable to master the mechanics of the forward pass. Calling their offensive unit “inept” would be a generous assessment. Each week a sportswriter at the local newspaper would “grade the Gators” for their game performance. While the defense frequently got As, the grades for the offense ranged from D to F most weeks. Not surprisingly, no championships were won during those years.

It often seems that the Reformed world is not that different. In presuppositional apologetics we have a ferocious defense. When it is practiced rightly, it stops the unbeliever in his tracks and leaves even outspoken atheists spluttering. But where is the offense? Do we know how to attack the unbelief of unbelievers? I think we fail miserably on the “offensive side of the ball.”

The reason for this lack of offense is due to ignorance of the science of elenctics. Elenctics is a much neglected facet of the Christian life, of gospel ministry, and of presuppositional apologetics. Indeed, the very term “elenctics” is unfamiliar to most believers, although it is a thoroughly scriptural concept. David Hesselgrave has called elenctics “a neglected subject in contemporary theology”[1]

In these articles I propose to correct this oversight by introducing the reader to the concept of elenctics. In part 1 we will consider a definition of elenctics, sketch some of its chief characteristics, and consider a three-pronged model for ministry. In part 2, we will look in depth at the biblical foundations of the concept of elenctics.

In my estimation, the practice of elenctics should be central to our engagement with the world around us—a world that is increasingly covered in the thick darkness of unbelief, skepticism, cynicism, and creeping secularism. When it is properly grasped, elenctics will enable us to let our light so shine before men that they may see our good works, that the wickedness of this evil age will be effectively exposed, that the darkness of sin will be scattered, and that our Heavenly Father might be more properly glorified.

The term “elenctics” comes from the Greek verb ἐλέγχω (elengchō), which means “1. to bring to light, expose, set forth; 2. to convict or convince someone of something; 3. to reprove, correct; 4. to punish, discipline.”[2]

 Dutch missiologist J. H. Bavinck explains the development of the term in An Introduction to the Science of Missions:

In Homer the verb has the meaning of “to bring to shame.” It is connected with the word elengchos that signifies shame. It later underwent a certain change so that the emphasis fell more upon the conviction of guilt, the demonstration of guilt. It is this later significance that it has in the New Testament. Its meaning is entirely ethical and religious.[3]

Consider the following occurrences of the verb ἐλέγχω (elengchō) in the New Testament:

John 16:8, “And when he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict (ἐλέγξει elengxei) the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.”

Hebrews 12:5, “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved (ἐλεγχόμενος elengchomenos) by him.’ ”

John 3:20, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed (ἐλεγχθῇ elengchthē).”

1 Timothy 5:20, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke (ἔλεγχε elengche) them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”

2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof (ἐλεγμόν elengmon), for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

Titus 1:9, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke (ἐλέγχειν elengchein) those who contradict it.”

Titus 1:13, “This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke (ἔλεγχε elengche) them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.”

Titus 2:15, “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke (ἔλεγχε elengche) with all authority. Let no one disregard you.”

Ephesians 5:11, 13, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose (ἐλέγχετε elenchete) them .... But when anything is exposed (ἐλεγχόμενα elengchomena) by the light, it becomes visible.”

Luke 3:19, “But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved (ἐλεγχόμενος elenchomenos) by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done.”

From the number of these passages, their relative significance, and the strength of their exhortations, we can see that elenctics is not a peripheral practice on the edges of Christianity. In fact, this is an essential component of Christian ministry if such ministry is to be considered thoroughly biblical.

The concept of elenctics, then, finds its roots in the New Testament. The discipline of elenctics, however, was first articulated by Abraham Kuyper in his Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology.[4] In a class on elenctics taught at Westminster Theological Seminary, Professor Harvey Conn argued that Kuyper saw elenctics as a defensive science and tended to treat it in isolation from apologetics. In Kuyper’s thought elenctics became an abstract intellectual tool for changing epistemologies rather than a missionary instrument for changing people.

Kuyper’s concept was later developed by two prominent Dutch theologians: J. H. Bavinck and Cornelius Van Til. Bavinck’s contributions on elenctics were greater than Van Til's, although Van Til's work in apologetics dovetails nicely with elenctics.

In his introduction, Bavinck takes elenctics in a different direction from Kuyper. Bavinck places elenctics in a more intimate relation with missions and practical theology, thus avoiding Kuyper's weaknesses. Bavinck writes:

Elenctics is strongly controlled by the missionary motive. It is not primarily a defense against the dangerous power of non-Christian religions, but it is rather itself a direct attack upon them. As we have already seen, elenctics calls the non-Christian religions to a position of responsibility, and attempts to convince their adherents of sin and to move them to repentance and conversion.[5]

Bavinck's missionary thrust is further seen when he says “In all elenctics the concern is always with the all-important question: ‘What have you done with God?’ ” [6] He adds, “Elengchein does not in the first place refer to arguments which show the absurdity of heathendom. Its primary meaning refers to the conviction and unmasking of sin, and to the call to responsibility.” [7]

Van Til, in his apologetics, deals with a similar concept:

The natural man at bottom knows that he is the creature of God. He knows that he should live to the glory of God. He knows that in all that he does he should stress that the field of reality which he investigates has the stamp of God's ownership upon it. But he suppresses his knowledge of himself as he truly is. He is the man with the iron mask. A true method of apologetics must seek to tear off that iron mask.[8]

The unmasking of the non-Christian in order to call him to repentance and faith is the method of both Bavinck and Van Til. This is the high water mark for elenctic theory, up to this point in history. Others, including Donald McGavran,[9] John Stott,[10] and Samuel Zwemer[11] have touched on the subject, but none have surpassed the Dutch theologians.

What, then, would be a working definition of elenctics? Bavinck defines elenctics as “the science which unmasks to heathendom all false religions as sin against God, and it calls heathendom to a knowledge of the only true God.”[12]

In another place he adds, “Elenctics is the science concerned with a very special aspect of the approach: our direct attack upon non-Christian religiosity in order to call a man to repentance.”[13]

Abraham Kuyper saw elenctics as Christian ethics in their antithetical relationship to pseudo-Christianity, pseudo-religion, and pseudo-philosophy. Elenctics is the Christian response to such false thought.

Harvie Conn taught:

Elenctics for Kuyper is the discipline setting Christian faith and life over against false religions. Kuyper tried to reject any neutral understanding of elenctics. Elenctics presumes the inadequacy and falsehood of religions over against the absoluteness and purity of the Christian faith.[14]

Conn himself treated elenctics as a theory of approach to the world religions. He saw it as more closely connected to apologetics than to missions. He did not, however, equate elenctics with apologetics nor did he make it merely a subdivision of apologetics.

For our purposes, I propose to define elenctics as the offensive counterpart to apologetics. Whereas apologetics is “the vindication of the Christian philosophy of life against various forms of the non-Christian philosophy of life,”[15] elenctics is the direct attack upon the various forms of the non-Christian philosophy of life. It is the public exposing of sin as sin, and the call for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

Having understood a definition of elenctics, let us next consider some leading characteristics of elenctics.

The first characteristic of elenctics is that it is spiritual. By this I mean that elenctics is the work of the Holy Spirit upon the human spirit. As we saw in John 16:8, the Holy Spirit is said to elencticize the world. Bavinck comments:

The Holy Spirit is actually the only conceivable subject of this verb, for the conviction of sin exceeds all human ability. Only the Holy Spirit can do this, even though he can and will use us as instruments in his hand. Taken in this sense, elenctics is the science which is concerned with the conviction of sin. In a special sense then it is the science which unmasks to heathendom all false religions as sin against God, and it calls heathendom to a knowledge of the only true God. To be able to do this well and truthfully it is necessary to have a responsible knowledge of false religions, but one must also be able to lay bare the deepest motifs. Elenctics is possible only on the basis of a veritable self-knowledge, which is kindled in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.[16]

Van Til also stresses the work of the Holy Spirit in elenctics when he says:

It is upon the power of the Holy Spirit that the Reformed preacher relies when he tells men that they are lost in sin and in need of a Savior. The Reformed preacher does not tone down his message in order that it may find acceptance with the natural man. He does not say that his message is less certainly true because of its non-acceptance by the natural man. The natural man is, by virtue of his creation in the image of God, always accessible to the truth; accessible to the penetration of the truth by the Spirit of God. Apologetics, like systematics, is valuable to the precise extent that it presses the truth upon the attention of the natural man. The natural man must be blasted out of his hideouts, his caves, his last lurking places.[17]

Secondly, elenctics is intrapersonal. If a Christian is not undergoing the elenctic work of the Spirit in his own life, he will not be able to effectively elencticize others. Indeed, the Christian ought to search his own heart and life for sin against God. The Christian is commanded to put off the old man with his practices—to mortify his own sin. Only then will he be able to help others deal properly with their sin. As Bavinck says, “Elenctics can actually occur only if one recognizes and unmasks these same undercurrents within himself.”[18]

Third, elenctics is interpersonal. Bavinck notes that knowing a religious system is never enough. We must know what the particular adherent believes and experiences. We must deal not with abstract religious and philosophical systems, but with an individual person's understanding and expression of his religion. Only by asking appropriate questions can we determine what the person actually believes, and what he experiences. Then we can begin to formulate an elenctic plan.

Fourth, elenctics is contextual. Bavinck rightly says:

Abstract, disembodied and history-less sinners do not exist; only very concrete sinners exist, whose sinful life is determined and characterized by all sorts of cultural and historical factors; by poverty, hunger, superstition, traditions, chronic illnesses, tribal morality, and thousands of other things. I must bring the gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ to the whole man, in his concrete existence, in his everyday environment.[19]

Fifth, elenctics is full-orbed. Man is organically united in his essential being. His physical existence cannot be divorced from his spiritual life, his body is not separate from his soul, or vice versa. The elenctic approach must recognize the organic unity of man, and by word and deed encounter the whole man in his total depravity. We must bring the whole counsel of God to bear upon his entire sinful condition, settling for nothing less than wholehearted repentance and thorough-going faith in Jesus Christ.

Sixth, elenctics must be both narrow and broad. An individual sinner’s particular sins must be exposed as sin, and that specific person should be called to individualized repentance. But it is also true that the sinful worldviews of large groupings of humanity must be exposed, dissected and refuted. For instance, not only should an individual Muslim be shown that his personal rejection of Christ is wrong and requires repentance and faith, but the religious system of Islam must also be evaluated, critiqued and disproven as a system. Elenctics can and should be practiced both specifically and generally at a micro level and a macro level.

Seventh, elenctics must be patient, humble, and gracious. Especially in the Pastoral Epistles, patience, humility, and graciousness are presupposed for the effective overseer. As elenctic work is part of every pastor's duty, the humility and patience of a pastor must undergird his elenctic encounters. He extends the grace and mercy of God as he helps sinners to recognize their sin and to repent and believe. This can only happen, again, if we are regularly performing elenctics upon ourselves.

In conclusion, what would an elenctic ministry look like? Perhaps the following might be something of a model for carrying out the principles from this study.

The minister of the gospel understands and accepts his duty to defend the Christian faith, to challenge the unbelief of others, and to positively present the good news of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. By understanding apologetics, elenctics, and evangelism, he develops a three-pronged approach.

First, when he encounters the non-Christian, he readily defends the Christian philosophy of life against the attacks of the non-Christian. He does this by implementing the main components of a covenantal, or presuppositional apologetic. He knows his own system thoroughly enough to give a reasonable defense to everyone who questions his commitments, always going to the root issues. He does not answer the fool according to his folly, lest he be like him. Rather, he rigorously defends the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

Secondly, he challenges the non-Christian’s adherence to a false religious and philosophical system. He diagnoses, dissects, and exposes the beliefs of the non-Christian as rebellion against God the Creator. By patiently and persistently interacting with the non-believer, he can determine particular lines of thought and lifestyle. Graciously and winsomely, he can show the unbeliever where and why his perspective is wrong. He can also demonstrate how the unbeliever’s life is sinful and self-defeating. In this sense he is answering the fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Thus, having defended his own religious commitments and also having exposed the non-Christian's commitments, he can present the positive facts of the gospel of Jesus Christ. At every step, whether defending Christianity, exposing unbelief, falsehood, and sin, or presenting the gospel facts, there is a direct and urgent call for repentance and faith. Depending on the power of the Holy Spirit to establish a work of grace in the heart of the unbeliever, he relies upon God alone for the outcome. As he sees the Spirit quickening the unbeliever, all credit, praise, and glory goes to the God who saves. Even when his efforts result in the hardening of an unbelieving acquaintance, praise is given to the sovereign God for his wisdom and justice.

Not only is the minister carrying out such a ministry personally, but he is equipping the saints for the work of ministry. He is training the congregation in this three-pronged approach, and encouraging them as they put this approach into practice. Being a man of prayer, the minister also intercedes to the Lord for the folk among whom he lives and works—both believers and unbelievers.

In all of this, the minister is careful to maintain truly Christian conduct and a good conscience. He speaks and he acts with gentleness and reverence, even when dealing with the provocations and hostility of an unbeliever. The minister’s exemplary behavior stands as a silent witness to all whom he encounters, reinforcing the message he communicates verbally. He realizes all too well that hypocrisy will undermine his testimony and give the unbeliever an excuse for dismissing the truth claims of Christianity. Therefore even when he sins, he is careful to repent, and to exhibit deeds in keeping with repentance. His faith in Christ burns brightly before men as he walks daily by faith in the Son of God. By living in this way, he will put to shame those who revile his good behavior in Christ, and leave them truly without excuse before the Judge of all the earth.


[1] David Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 419.

[2] William F. Arndt, Walter Bauer, F. Wilbur Gingrich, Frederick William Danker, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 249.

[3] J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1960), 221.

[4] Abraham Kuyper, Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology: Its Principles, trans. J. Hendrik De Vries (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898).

[5] Bavinck, Introduction, 232.

[6] Ibid., 223.

[7] Ibid., 226.

[8] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1967), 101.

[9] See Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 223.

[10] See John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1975), 73.

[11] See “Princeton Semiannual Bulletin.”

[12] Bavinck, Introduction, 222.

[13] Ibid., 233.

[14] ???

[15] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976), 1.

[16] Bavinck, Introduction, 222.

[17] Van Til, Defense, 105.

[18] Bavinck, Introduction, 222.

[19] Ibid., 81.

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

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Ordained Servant: May 2016

Fishers of Men

Also in this issue

Christ-Shaped Philosophy: Toward a Union of Spirit, Wisdom, and Word

How Vosian Is Van Til? A Review Article

Reflections on Biblical Counseling: A Review Article

I Will Lift My Eyes unto the Hills by Walter Kaiser Jr.

Lest We Remember


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