A Response to Tim Keller and Blaise Pascal

In a nicely written and enjoyable article Tim Keller writes of Blaise Pascal’s advice on the necessary, or at least wise, stages of bringing a person to the way to faith. He writes:

“First, you have to disarm and surprise them. Many people hope Christianity does not make sense on any level. . . . When, however, some presentation of Christian faith—or simply a Christian believer’s character—comes across as well informed, thoughtful, sensible, open-minded, helpful, and generous, then this breaks stereotypes and commands a begrudging respect.”

Next make it attractive, make good men wish [Christianity] were true. . . . We must know our culture—know its hopes—and then show others that only in Christ will their aspirations ever find fulfillment, that only in him will the plot lines of their lives ever have resolution and a happy ending.

If we’ve pointed out such things in an effective way, then some (though surely not all) will say, “If Christianity really can give that, it would be wonderful. Yes, it would be great if it were true. But of course Christianity isn’t. What a shame!”

Keller goes on to conclude with Pascal, “Only then will most people will [sic] sit through any kind of substantial presentation of the evidence and reasons for the truth of Christianity. Now Pascal says to ‘show that it is [true].’ If they have not been brought through stage 1 (being disarmed and surprised by the lives and speech of believers) and stage 2 (seeing the great and attractive promises of God in Christ), their eyes will simply glaze over if you begin talking about ‘the evidence for the resurrection.’”

What you read in that article is a simple, clear representation of rationalistic apologetics—one of three common approaches. This is why he wrote his well-known book Reason for God where he seeks to show the reasonableness of the Christian faith.

I wish to give a simple push-back against what he writes for those who read my blog to consider.  What is described here is simply a form of apologetics known as rationalistic apologetical methodology. It is very popular in the Church and people like Keller is one key reason for it. Who doesn’t want to be articulate and gracious in their interactions with non-Christians for the sake of the gospel? I sure do and it is something we encourage at my church.

But there is a key quibble in the article that is easy to miss but helps shows the theological  presuppositions that drive this argument of Keller’s. “One then will most people will [sic] sit through any kind of substantial presentation [of the gospel].” This is classic “pre-evangelism” and it argues that before a person can really ever hear or respond to the gospel truths and demands that they must be softened up. This is done through our approach and through how they perceive our lifestyles and choices. We are to make the gospel attractive to them.

So what is the problem? At the core of the rationalists argument is the presumption that people can be softened to the gospel and to Christ through the rationalist’s demeanor and argumentation.

This is fine for those who are Arminian in their theology but it is a blatant contradiction to those who hold to a more Calvinistic position (I used those two terms in their popular sense). And it is here that Keller, and many other fine men and women, go astray in my opinion. As one who holds to a form of presuppositionalistic apologetics I see that the fatal flaws in Keller’s position (rationalism) to be many. Here are some key points:

First, it fails to make the key distinction between truth and facts. Facts are not the same as truth in that it is different qualitatively. Truth is ultimately found not something that is neutral and self-existing. Rather, it is found in Jesus Christ who is defined as “the truth” (John 14:6). Without Jesus Christ one cannot truly know truth, only facts. It is much like apart from Jesus Christ one cannot have true life, for in Him alone is life (Colossians 3:4).

Second, it fails to appreciate the fulness of the effects of sin upon the faculties of humanity. We are not merely weakened by sin but rather we are utterly dominated by it in every sense without Jesus Christ. We are slaves to it and as a result we are dead in our sins. We cannot and will not respond to God in a proper manner for we do not have the ability to do so. We walk and live under the power of Satan (see Romans 5:8-10; 6:20a; 8:5-7; Ephesians 2:1-3).

Third, it fails to grasp how apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit mankind is in a state of suppressing the truth rather than considering it carefully and properly. Romans 1:18ff makes this point bluntly and forcefully. The truth of God’s existence is seen clearly in both creation and without our own hearts to the point that we are without excuse. Yet, because of the dominating power of sin, our minds and wills actively suppress it.

So, though I appreciate the article of Keller’s, ultimately it falls short because it implies that if we conduct ourselves in such and such a manner then the person shall somehow break himself free from the constraints that sin has upon him and be able to objectively consider the claims and glory of the gospel. Nothing can be further from the truth. What every Christian must understand is how utterly reliant they are upon the enlivening work of the Holy Spirit to bring an active rebel to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.

UPDATED*** made some editorial changes.

About Matt Henry

Middle-aged pastor trying to figure out how to be missional in his world. Loves his wife, his children, and his dog Bear. I have a love of woodworking even though woodworking doesn't always love me. The name is xagete but is pronounced exegete.

Posted on March 7, 2014, in Bible Observations, Evangelism, gospel, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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