Application and Practicality

There seems to be, at least in my experience, a common objection to Covenantal apologetics that goes something like this. Emphasizing all of these arcane and/or obscure concepts, focusing on theology proper; it just doesn’t address the real world practically. There is no application to be made – it’s all theoretical. There are a few variants, and I’ll bring up a couple. First, the objection is made that we are being “obscure” – Bahnsen, as you may know, addresses this in “Always Ready,” along with an admonishment against “obscurantist arrogance.” Here’s an excerpt.

“In the last study we heard three common arguments which are directed against the position of biblical presuppositionalism. The first was that it amounted to arrogance and intellectual pride. It demands that every single thought be brought under subjection to Christ, for otherwise foolish ignorance will result. It teaches that men who will not begin with a fear of God cannot attain genuine knowledge of anything. It criticizes the attitude of scholarly neutrality towards God’s word. In the battle with unbelief it demands unconditional surrender by the non-Christian and deprecates compromise in Christian thinkers who wish to take a more “reasonable” or “enlightened” approach. Now, it is asked, what could generate such a stringent outlook except undue commendation of one’s own thoughts and abilities? Overwhelming self-esteem!

How is the presuppositionalist to respond? Should he defend obscurantist arrogance? Or should he confess that he had become dangerously close to the vertigo of self-aggrandizement? Both approaches have been variously pursued in Christian circles in past years. Both have done disservice to the Christian witness, one failing to evidence requisite and appropriate Spiritual fruit, the other failing to set forth the full and appropriate rigor of Scriptural thinking.

Therefore, presuppositional epistemology demands two attitudes. Both attitudes are inherent in the very position. First, the presuppositionalist must be bold, for knowledge is impossible aside from presupposing God’s truth. Second, he must be humble, for the reason why he presupposes God’s truth (and the only way any man can come to such a presupposition) resides in the grace of God alone. The fear of the Lord is foundational to wisdom, and hence the wise man must be humble. The Christian scholar, then, must evidence a humble boldness in his confrontation with others in the world of thought.”[1]

Essentially, our response is to say that though we may err, the essential position we espouse is a bold one – and boldness is often mistaken for arrogance. When we say that there is nothing that does not fall under the Lordship of Christ, this is often taken as “proof” that we’re too big for our britches! The easy answer to that, of course, is that Christ is, in fact, Lord of all, and that our proclamation of this truth is nothing less than Biblical – and nothing more! This addresses the charge of “arrogance” – but we must also be careful not to substitute our own autonomous opinion for that expressed in Scripture. This may be one of the most common problems we face – so we must always be mindful of that, and strive for humility.

What do we say to the charge of obscurity? In one sense, it is difficult to escape the charge of obscurity in our present culture. The typical level of dialogue is such that when we speak of the subjects of theology or philosophy, it is almost inevitable that we will be introducing a fairly large segment of our interlocutors to these subjects for the first time. This isn’t to laud our own erudition – after all, we ourselves were introduced to it at one point. In my experience, however, there is a rather steep learning curve that must be engaged before the conversation will really bear fruit, because there is a truly massive gap in education concerning what Christian doctrine is, and what the various disciplines of philosophy have historically had to say versus the general knowledge level that our interlocutors have of either subject.

Inevitably, this will lead to the charge that we are relying on the ignorance of our opponents to “score points” in some fashion. This charge, however, is groundless – and here’s why. When we “lay our cards out on the table”, part of this process is to ensure that whoever we are speaking to is fully conversant with what we believe, and why. When we do so, we are just as much engaged in teaching as we are in defense. This is one reason why it is sometimes imperative that the apologist be a spiritually gifted teacher. In other cases, it is not.  We all should be, however, able to explain the faith.  In the process of laying out what we believe, we are also presenting our argument. In order to understand our argument, and for our opponent to understand what it is they are objecting to, we will typically have to explain what it is that they are obligated to deal with. In turn, they need to adequately explain what it is that they believe. Only in such a context can any meaningful discussion take place. So, far from an attempt to “score points” on our opponent, we are in fact teaching them what all we are saying means, and how it all relates to the Biblical witness. This is important in a plethora of ways, but it renders the objections you will see later fairly moot, as well. When we speak of epistemology, it’s not in order to say “gotcha” – it’s in order to explain, as one example, how only within Christianity can epistemology be intelligible – and sadly, explaining this will typically mean explaining what both Christianity and epistemology actually are. We all wish this were not the case, but it’s all too often true.

This does, however, raise a very good point. There is a time and a place for everything under the sun. Showing off your education is not the point, no matter how smart you are. If you have a great vocabulary, that’s wonderful. Using as many 2 dollar words as humanly possible in the smallest space is probably not going to be ultimately helpful, however – it’s just showing off. For another, there really is a tendency with some to make *every* conversation completely about epistemology, no matter what the immediate starting point was – and quite often, this is not a good thing. The point is to make sure that the relevant information is communicated to your conversation partner so that they understand what you mean, and how it relates to everything else in Christian theology. Keep that in mind. On the other hand, we all have different audiences for different things we write. When I write a paper, I tend to have an audience in mind that already knows the basics of my position. When I write a post such as this, I try to incorporate information for a variety of audiences. On Facebook, it’s much the same, as another example. You can’t always know who your audience is going to be. Sometimes, an introductory student will run into a post with advanced information that he’s not yet equipped to process. Sometimes an advanced student will run across a post geared more toward introductory students, and only glean a few useful bits from it. When we are conversing, however, we are gearing our conversation to that particular person. We are actively seeking their level, so that we can match our presentation to what they are able to process, then expand their knowledge from that point.

On the other hand, the Scripture requires us to expect certain things of those to whom we speak. If the charge is made that “obscurity” is always bad, then it seems to follow that the more ignorant our conversational partner is, the worse the charge of “obscurity” will be, and the more we’ll be liable! We know, however, that no man is without excuse. We know that all men know God, and know that they are responsible before Him. If we, as apologists, are also teaching the doctrines of Christianity as we make our argument, in my experience we will also be disarming the majority of unbelieving objections in the process. Our solution to the charge of obscurity is that we typically do far more teaching than we do arguing. That’s just fine with us. If someone wants to call that needless obscurity, there’s not much we can do about their opinion. Most objections are either to unbelieving misconceptions of Christian doctrine – or objections to bad doctrine. This brings us to a corollary of the objection to obscurity.

Is Covenantal apologetics practical? If you have to explain all of these things to whoever you’re speaking to, how on earth is this is a practical method? I’d simply reply that we can’t expect any unbeliever to 1) Have put forth the time to truly understand Christian theology (Pro 18:2) 2) Have understood it properly without a teacher (Rom 10:14) or 3) To honestly portray it, even if he has been taught the rudiments previously. (1 Cor 2:14) Additionally, be aware that the proper answer to practically any objection will require an answer drawn from the full-orbed Scriptural witness. Such an answer will quite necessarily be exegetical (or at least expositional), draw on many disciplines within Christian theology, and involve a consistently systematic theology. In order to truly grasp how your answer works, you will often have to explain how Christianity works. This, I would submit to you, is the essence of practicality. Not only are you arguing, but you’re explaining how the argument works, and the context that it works in.

Here’s another corollary objection: Covenantal apologetics doesn’t have an application to real people’s concerns and/or the early church didn’t engage in this sort of argument – they dealt with people where they were. First off, this seems to be a rather subjective objection. Whatever these people may be concerned about, Scripture has a response to their concern. Covenantal apologetics, as I often say, is Sola Scriptura in an apologetic context. So, whatever the “real concern” that someone has, Scripture has a response we both can and must offer to it. Dodging this very real doctrinal truth typically has disastrous consequences, so by no means should we ever do so. Second, whatever is meant by application, it shouldn’t come before our apologetic – because our apologetic is a defense of *the faith* – and you have no application apart from that which is applied. In other contexts, this is called the relationship between imperative and indicative, or theos and ethos. When we are confronted with an issue, there are typically two ways to address it. The first way to address it is to go looking for a practice that fits. The second way to address it is to find a principle that fits. We shouldn’t be looking from an ethos for a theos, or from an indicative for an imperative – or from a practice for a principle. The “do” is never the justification for the “should”. The should is always the justification for the do. Jared Wilson put it well a few years back;

“We have to seriously fight what I call the “cult of application.” The church almost entirely reads Scripture through a “how does this apply to me” filter. That’s one of the best ways to get Scripture wrong.

Related to that is the recovery of theology in the church and in the life of the laity. Many believers have no interest in theology and do not consider biblical teachings important or interesting if they don’t automatically apply to their everyday life or have automatic practical implications.”[2]

Many churchgoers have the idea that the primary focus of the church is “make this relevant to me”. The problem is, the most basic thing to learn is that everything doesn’t revolve around you. It’s not about what you WANT to learn, it’s about what you NEED to learn. It’s not especially important whether you WANT to learn about theology proper. It is especially important that you MUST learn about theology proper. In a sense, it is very relevant to you – because you’ll never learn anything else properly if you don’t learn theology properly. Do most churchgoers want to hear that? Not especially. Do they need to hear it? Most especially. The definition of “practical” here needs to be addressed, as well. Whose standard of “practicality” are you using, anyway? By practical, do you mean “I consider it to be important, and useful”, or do you mean “Scripture says it is important, and useful?” If the former, I have to say that your consideration isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. If the latter, I can point you to a whole host of Scriptures that tell us, essentially, that all of Christian knowledge and ethical behavior begin with the knowledge of God, and His doctrines. (Pro 9:10) Application can be all well and good – if defined correctly. Whose definition are we using, anyway? Consider Proverbs 19:2.

“Also it is not good for a person to be without knowledge, And he who hurries his footsteps errs.”

What are you to apply? That which you know. If you don’t have knowledge, you have nothing to apply. You are being rash, and hurrying your way towards error. Application is not the primary goal of the teacher to convey. It is, however, also not the case that we should convey only a bare knowledge; nor is it the case that we only convey a bare knowledge, devoid of application or wisdom. Those who offer this objection, I would submit, seem to have missed the point of what it is we do. What we are to do, and always strive for, is to show the implications of the two worldviews in opposition, or antithesis. Doing so without regard to application of concept to the world it operates in is not only impossible, but implausible. The objection fails, typically, in that it tends to be made without respect to examples of the supposed failure in application or practicality. It is typically made in one of two ways. First, it lists a series of events or scenarios; then it states, without argument, that the method or system fails to deal with these scenarios or events. There is rarely an argument presented for why it supposedly fails in these scenarios – it is simply assumed that it does. This is not a valid objection. Secondly, there is often the objection made that a particular Christian X in history didn’t argue as we do, thus it is untrue that we should argue in this way. Many times an addition is made that person X argued more practically, therefore this method is more beneficial. Where this objection typically fails is that there is no argument offered that person X argued with this different method; or if there is an argument, it is an invalid argument. These objections, as a rule, fall under the “naked assertion” description – they are asserted, but asserted without argument, and demand to be taken as brute fact. Well, we know that there are no brute facts – so the assertion can be treated as a simple assertion, and challenged on those grounds. Should the argument be attempted at that point, you then deal with the elements of the argument, and defeat it.

So, let’s sum this up. When these various objections – be they objections of arrogance, obscurity, or practicality – come up, they should not be treated as automatic defeaters. They should be honestly evaluated, obviously, but don’t get defensive, and don’t instantly attack the objector for objecting, either. You need to address several things. What is meant by the terms used in the objection? Whose standard of “arrogance, obscurity, or practicality” is being used? Lastly, is there an argument being made, or is it an assertion being made that needs an argument to constitute an objection? Above all, go to the Scriptures to answer the objection.

Remember, it’s not application and practicality which determine what it is we do. These terms have a great tendency to be used subjectively, and that has an unfortunate consequence if we succumb to that temptation. What we are engaged in is something of a far greater objective practical value, which has a universal application; we are setting Christianity up against the unbelieving worldview in direct opposition, and making the clash so obvious, and so blindingly clear that the alternatives are plainly seen in stark contrast. It is what Paul did in Athens, what Christ did in Israel, and what Joshua did in the presence of the congregation.

“If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” – Joshua 24:15

There is no neutrality, and no common ground between Christianity and unbelief. Is it practical to point this out? Yes, it is both practical and necessary. Since this is so, it also has universal application.

  1. [1]Bahnsen, Always Ready, 33-36
  2. [2]http://thinklings.org/posts/no-ethos-without-the-theos

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