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Creating Openings for Faith
The Theological Foundations of Effective Apologetics
Awareness of a sense of emptiness resonates throughout secular culture. One thinks of Boris Becker, the noted tennis player, who came close to taking his own life through being overwhelmed by this sense of hopelessness and emptiness. Even though he was enormously successful, something was missing.
I had won Wimbledon twice before, once as the youngest player. I was rich. I had all the material possessions I needed: money, cars, women, everything.... I know that this is a cliche. It's the old song of the movie and pop stars who commit suicide. They have everything, and yet they are so unhappy.... I had no inner peace. I was a puppet on a string.
Or one thinks of Jack Higgins, a highly successful thriller writer at the top of his profession, author of best-selling novels such as The Eagle Has Landed. He is reported to have been asked what he now knew that he would like to have known when he was a boy. His reply: 'That when you get to the top, there's nothing there.'
Becker and Higgins are excellent witnesses from the world of secular culture to the fact that most people are aware that something is missing from their lives, even if they are not able to put a name to it or may not be able to do anything about it. But the Christian gospel is able to interpret this sense of longing, this feeling of unfulfillment, as an awareness of the absence of God---and thus to prepare the way for its fulfillment.
A. Apologetics Is Grounded in the Doctrines of Creation and Redemption
Through the grace of God, the creation points to its Creator. Through the generosity of God, we have been left with a latent memory of him, capable of stirring us toward a fuller recollection of him. Although there is a fracture between the ideal and the empirical, between the realms of fallen and redeemed creation, the memory of that connection lives on, along with the intimation of its restoration through redemption.
If there is some point of contact already in existence, then apologetics can make use of a God-given starting point in the very nature of the created order itself. The witness to God within his creation, the 'signals of transcendence' (Peter Berger) in human life, can act as a trigger, stimulating people to ask questions about the meaning of life or the reality of God. Those points of contact are meant to be there---and they are meant to be used.
A point of contact is a God-given foothold for divine self-revelation. It is a catalyst, not a substitute, for God's self-revelation. It is like the advance guard of an army, preparing the ground for the major force that follows it. It is like the prestrike of a bolt of lightning, in which a conductive path is established from the earth to the sky so that the massive energy of the lightning can discharge itself fully into the waiting earth. God gives himself in the act of revelation; there is, however, a sense in which he has prepared the ground for that giving: not to preempt it, nor to make it unnecessary, but simply to make it more effective when it finally happens.
But we must be careful. Points of contact are not in themselves adequate to bring people into the kingdom of God. They are merely starting points. Nor are they adequate in themselves to bring people to a specifically Christian faith. They might well point toward the existence of a creative and benevolent supreme being. The connection with 'the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ' (1 Peter 1:3) remains to be made. The apologist must still show that the Christian gospel is consistent with these points of contact, that it is able to explain them, and more than that it is able to deliver all that they promise, turning hints into reality.
Christian apologetics cannot go beyond the boundaries of the biblical insights concerning the revelation of God in his creation, but it must feel able to press on toward those full limits authorized by Scripture. It must do this cautiously, wary of the dangers that lie in the path of an uncritical appeal to creation. Among those dangers, the following may be noted as especially significant.
a. There is a limit to what human reason can discern about God by an appeal to nature. Sin brings with it a propensity for distortion, by which God's revelation in creation is easily changed into an idol of our own making. The egocentricity of human sin, grounded in the fallen human will, expresses itself in the fatal wish of fallen humanity to create God in its own image and likeness, rather than to respond obediently to the self-revelation of God. This disobedience is without excuse (Rom. 1:18--2:16). Yet this flagrant abuse of God's revelation in nature does not discredit a cautious and responsible appeal to nature as pointing beyond itself to the one who created it and who will one day recreate it in glory---that is, God himself.
There is thus a fracture within creation. Fallen human nature can only reflect on a fallen creation. The fallenness of both the beholder and that which is beheld thus introduces a twofold distortion. This is most emphatically not to say that no knowledge of God may be had. Rather, we must admit that this knowledge is imperfect, broken, confused, and darkened, like a cracked mirror or a misty window. Anything that reveals less than the complete picture potentially presents a distorted picture. A 'natural knowledge of God' is thus a distorted knowledge of God. But as a starting point it has real potential and value.
And responsible Christian apologetics makes no claim greater than this: That our perceptions of God from nature can be taken up and transfigured by the Christian revelation, in Christ and through Scripture.
b. How can the infinite ever be disclosed through the finite? How can God, who is infinite, reveal himself through or in nature, which is finite? Early Christian writers were fond of comparing our ability to understand God with looking directly into the midday summer sun. The human mind can no more cope with God than the human eye can handle the intense glare and heat of the sun. So how can a finite and weak creature ever comprehend the Creator?
The most thorough-going response to this question relates to the 'principle of analogy,' an idea deeply grounded in Scripture and given sophisticated theological development in the writings of such individuals as Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. The basic idea can be stated as follows. In creating the world, God leaves his trace upon it. Just as an artist might sign a painting to draw attention to the fact that it is his or her creation, so God has left the imprint of his nature upon the created order. This is no historical accident; it is the self-expression of God in his world. And just as the eye can cope with the brilliance of the sun by looking at it through a piece of dark glass, so God wills to make himself known in a manageable way in his creation.