Things I’ve Learned From Debating My Dad About Apologetic Method

Post Icon

My dad and I have been lovingly debating different apologetic methods for a few years now. We talk, text, email, and direct message about it. I tend to be in the classical apologetics corner, and he in the presuppositional apologetics corner. We have long since exceeded the “12th round” with no clear winner. Although, of course, I’m sure we both think we have won the most rounds.

In brief, the classical school of apologetics uses theistic arguments to establish the existence of God (e.g., the cosmological argument) and then uses historical arguments to establish the truth of Christianity (e.g., the argument for the resurrection). By contrast, the presuppositional school’s method is to show that knowledge and rationality necessarily presuppose or depend upon the existence of the Christian God—and that no other worldview can account for these realities.[1]

Honestly, my dad and I are closer because of these exchanges, which have challenged us to think deeper about and improve our respective positions. And, in the end, it appears our positions aren’t as far apart as we might have thought.

I want to share some things I have learned from “sparring” with my dad about apologetics—most of which we have come to agree on.

Starting Points Matter

Because of our shared theology, my dad and I both believe that apart from Christ, people are spiritually lost, dead, blind, sick, etc. Consequently, we agree that unbelievers’ reasoning capacities are severely impaired by sin—especially concerning spiritual matters. As Paul says, apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, we all “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18). So, just as “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3), no one reasons to the correct conclusions about God’s existence and nature except by the Holy Spirit. In other words, we don’t receive or interpret general revelation correctly unless the gospel has first renewed our hearts and minds.[2]

However, good arguments, like a warm meal, can establish a more hospitable environment in which to share the gospel.

It’s not that unbelievers don’t have reasoning powers; it’s that because of their fallen condition, they won’t use those powers to do anything other than suppress the truth about God.[3] Apart from the “corrective lenses” of special revelation, no one would ever have an accurate natural theology, and apart from regeneration, no one would ever embrace an accurate natural theology.[4] Only a redeemed man or woman can do natural theology correctly, as evidenced by the diversity of conclusions drawn by those engaging in the discipline. Yahweh, the Unmoved Mover, Brahman, and Allah are not the same being.

I think the presuppositionalists are right on this score: the orientation of our hearts towards God in covenantal surrender or rebellion will necessarily determine the outcome of our inferences regarding God’s existence and what we take to be self-evident. There is no such thing as neutral reason.

God Uses Good Arguments  

Does this mean that the whole apologetics enterprise is potentially superfluous? Or are the arguments from natural theology (e.g., cosmological, teleological, moral, ontological, etc.) and other Christian evidences worthless when engaging unbelievers? I don’t think so. That’s where I believe the classical school is more correct than Van Tillian Presuppositionalism: God regularly uses good arguments for His existence and the central claims of the gospel to draw people to Himself.[5]

Two popular examples would be how God used the historical evidence for the resurrection and the reliability of the New Testament to bring Lee Strobel to faith, and how He used the moral argument to help bring Francis Collins to faith. You could say that natural theology and Christian evidences played the role of John the Baptist in these instances by preparing the way for the gospel.

Of course, the cosmological or ontological argument won’t directly result in someone professing faith in Jesus, but then again, neither will feeding the orphan, the poor, and the widow. However, good arguments, like a warm meal, can establish a more hospitable environment in which to share the gospel. Indeed, sharing good arguments with unbelievers is engaging in what we might call intellectual mercy ministry: it’s meeting a practical need in hopes that they will “glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). The blind man doesn’t see what you see, but that doesn’t mean there is no value in describing what you see to him, especially if you know that what you are sharing might make him more open to hearing about the sight-restoring surgery you are going to try to persuade him to receive.

A Mediating Position

There is a tendency for the classical apologetics tribe to overlook or minimize the significance of proximate (the orientation of the human heart) and ultimate (the triune God of Christian theism as revealed in Scripture) starting points when it comes to rationality. And there is a tendency for the presuppositional tribe to camp out on those starting points and never start down the path of natural theology, even once their compass is rightly directed (or at least not to deploy natural theology with unbelievers).[6]

It seems to me that these two schools of thought are not mutually exclusive. We can and should combine the best insights of both schools. God intends for us to mine general revelation for natural theology, but we need the “corrective lenses” of special revelation to mine well.[7] That said, general revelation is not special revelation, and natural theology is not revealed theology. We can do both with the confidence that God will use both as part of the process of bringing unbelievers to salvation.

Never miss an episode, article, or study.

Sign up for the CFC Newsletter now!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


[1] In keeping with Cornelius Van Til (the father of Presuppositionalism), presuppositionalists argue transcendentally. Robert Stern says that “transcendental arguments are taken to be distinctive in involving a certain sort of claim, namely that X is a necessary condition for the possibility of Y– where then, given that Y is the case, it logically follows that X must be the case too.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, www.iep.utm.edu/trans-ar.

[2] C.E.B. Cranfield writes, “A real self-disclosure of God has indeed taken place and is always occurring, and men ought to have recognized, but in fact have not recognized Him.” Cranfield, Romans, Volume I, 116.

[3] Everyone is culpable for suppressing the plain truth about God, whether that is the truth that should be known about God through the “light of reason” and/or the “exercise of reason.” Suppression doesn’t look the same for everyone, as Paul acknowledges (Romans 2:12), but everyone is without excuse.

[4] Natural theology refers to that limited knowledge of God which was/is “discernible through creation, probably intuitively, and perhaps also as a result of contemplation of the created order.” Colin Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 95.

[5] As Martin Luther claimed, reason has a ministerial as opposed to a magisterial role in relation to the gospel. Reason does not stand in authority over special revelation but stands under the authority of special revelation and is in its service.

[6] Presuppositionalists often fail to acknowledge that apart from the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, unbelievers will suppress the truth of the transcendental argument just as much as the traditional arguments for God’s existence.

[7] John Frame, a proponent of something close to a mediating position, writes, “Sometimes I take the existence of God as basic and use it to prove other things, such as the rational order of the universe. At other times I take the rational order of the universe as basic and use it to prove the existence of God. Those beliefs are mutually implicatory. God’s existence implies that the universe is rational, and the rationality of the universe presupposes (and therefore implies) the existence of God. So for me, the existence of God can be taken as a properly basic belief, but it is also the conclusion of many good arguments.” Five Views on Apologetics, edited by Stanley N. Gundry and Steven B. Cowan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 79.

  • apologetics
  • philosophy
  • Readers Choice Nominees 2023
  • theology
Jonathan Darville

Jono Darville is a former Global Master Trainer with The Center for Leadership Studies and Co-Leader of the New York branch of Models for Christ (an international non-profit bringing the gospel to the fashion industry). Due to a decade-plus long battle with chronic illness, Jono almost lost his life in 2017. After spending a number of years bed-bound, God graciously intervened in 2020, using UNC Hospital to restore Jono’s health. Jono is now finishing an M.A. in the Philosophy of Religion at SEBTS, while serving as a Ruling Elder and Youth Director at Peace Church in Cary, NC. He and his wife, Jillian, have one son, Jono Jr.

More to Explore

Never miss an episode, article, or study.

Sign up for the Christ and Culture newsletter now!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.