Does The Noetic Effect Render Evidential And Classical Apologetics Wrongheaded?




Some Christian theologians think that using the classical and evidential approaches to Christian Apologetics is wrong headed because sin has tainted the thinking ability of humankind. Sin distorts our ability to think, they say, so when examining which worldviews to adhere to, we shouldn’t rely on reason, but simply on the inner witness of The Holy Spirit and a good preaching of the gospel, expecting God to open our eyes to the truth of His Word. Or if we do allow apologetics into our approach to winning unbelievers, these theologians will say, we should only use the presuppositional approach. Romans 1 is a text these guys often appeal to support that; the crucial verse for their point is in verses 21-22 “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.” (Romans 1:21-22, emphasis mine). What should we think of the argument that because human reason is flawed – corrupted by the sin nature -- that therefore we can’t base our belief on reasons or evidence, or that we shouldn’t need reasons to believe, and that we should avoid a philosophical approach to apologetics and focus more on a scriptural approach?

While I think God’s inner witness can be proper epistemological warrant for a believer, I think that the argument that evidential and classical apologetics should be abandoned is a non-sequitor. For readers not philosophically minded, non-sequitor is a Latin term. It means that an argument does not result in the conclusion that the defender of the argument claims that it does. In this case, I think the Noetic Effect argument against evidential apologetics is a failure. Here are several reasons why:

*It could be that Romans 1 is about what happens to unbelievers who continually suppress evidence for God’s existence.

It could be that the passage often cited in support of the Noetic Effect argument isn’t talking about man’s thinking being corrupted by the sin nature in general, but that certain peoples’ thinking are corrupted by a particular type of sin; namely the sin of continuing to reject God. The context of Romans 1:21 certainly seems to support this.

"The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools" - Romans 1:18-22

Verses 19-20 say that God’s existence is overwhelmingly obvious because the created world bares signs of intelligent design. Anyone observing the natural world will be able to infer that God exists. In fact, people won’t just be able to infer that God exists, but they’ll actually have to work very hard at not making that inference. Indeed, that’s what Paul says that unbelievers do in verse 18: Paul says people “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” In other words, people don’t believe God exists because they talk themselves out of believing that He exists (i.e “suppressing the truth”). Paul then goes on to say that although they subconsciously know God exists, they don’t acknowledge Him and that their thoughts became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

Why did their thoughts become futile? Why did their hearts become darkened? Was it because of the sin nature which we all share (Romans 5) or was it because of the particular sin of continuing to talk themselves out of God’s existence? I submit to you that it’s the latter rather than the former. The darkened thoughts are a result of ongoing suppression of the truth.

*Secondly, Our Thinking Processes May Be Tainted By Sin, But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Useless

I actually agree that the noetic effect causes our thinking ability to not be at 100%, but it doesn’t follow that because our thinking is corrupted by sin that therefore it’s completely useless in helping us find out truth. I believe we can rely on our thinking and rationality to a certain extent in examining evidence and examining arguments, trying to reason to a conclusion, and if we have good reasons to believe the premises in a valid argument are true, then we should embrace the conclusion as well.

All that follows from the noetic effect is that we should be cautious with our reasoning. We should realize that our cognitive faculties aren’t perfect, and we should be very careful when examining rational arguments. Realizing that our faculties are imperfect, we approach conclusions with reserve, always open to the possibility that we could be wrong.  It’s also the case that we should be diligent in exposing our own presuppositions to ourselves. Presuppositions are assumptions you bring to an investigation. We all have them, but sometimes presuppositions can get in the way of reaching a proper conclusion. For example, atheist scientists who presuppose that God did not play a role in the creation of life will always interpret the evidence in light of those presuppositions. This is why even though the evidence for creationism and intelligent design is extremely powerful, it isn’t the dominant view in science (to see why I think the evidence is so powerful, look at my blog posts titled “The Kalam Cosmological Argument”, “The Fine Tuning Argument For God’s Existence (Updated Version)”, “G, A, T, C – God Arranged The Code”, and my blog post on Irreducible Complexity, and my blog post titled “Why I’m Skeptical Of Darwinian Evolution”). I find most of the pro-evolution arguments very weak because most of them can be interpreted another way that is totally consistent with special creation. One example that’s coming to mind right now is the homology argument – that the similarities in the bone structure of animals proves that they shared a common ancestor. If you don’t presuppose atheism, then you could interpret the evidence of homology as God using similar-but-modified design plans.

We do have presuppositions, and we should be careful to make sure they don’t get in the way. If we work at it, we can realize what presuppositions we have, and put them off to the side so that we can properly interpret the evidence.

The detective J. Warner Wallace did this back when he was an atheist. In his book Cold Case Christianity he recounts realizing that he presupposed his atheistic worldview when looking at the evidence for God’s existence. He chose to suspend that presupposition, and to look at the evidence with an open mind. In an article titled Why Do Two People See the Same Evidence Differently? Wallace writes “I was a philosophical naturalist, and my presupposition prevented me from taking seriously any claim of a miraculous event, including the many miracles recorded in scripture. I never examined my presupposition; in fact I seldom thought about it at all. That’s the way presuppositions work. They are so subtle and foundational most of us fail to either recognize or challenge them. But this is where decision-making truly lies: Not at the point where we first encounter the evidence, but back at the foundational level of our accepted presuppositions. If you want to chart a new course or make a foundational transformation in your thinking, you probably won’t get there by examining the evidence with more vigor. Instead, you’ll need to examine your presuppositions.”

By the way, J. Warner Wallace is a hardcore evidentialist (like yours truly). He recognizes our thinking isn’t perfect, and presuppositions can get in the way. Our presuppositions can only hamper our ability to interpret the evidence if we let them, if we choose not to suspend them while investigating, or if we choose to pretend that they’re not there.

*Thirdly, The Noetic Effect Argument Is Self Defeating

If it is the the case that we can’t trust our reasoning in figuring out which worldview we should adhere to, how are we going to understand the presuppositionalist’s argument or an argument for fideism (the two groups who espouse this nonsense)? Is God going to restore our mental capacities just so we can understand the argument? Why couldn't he restore them to understand the other arguments? I think like most of the presuppositional arguments, this just points out a problem and assumes that presuppositionalism is the default solution.

Think about it. These Christians are using their reasoning to dismiss reasoning! They’re using rational argumentation to argue that we shouldn’t use rational argumentation! Their claim is self refuting and therefore untenable!

If we were to put their reasoning in syllogistic form, it would go like this:

1: If The Bible is divinely inspired, whatever is says is true.
2: The Bible is divinely inspired.
3: Therefore whatever it says is true.

1: If Scripture says our reasoning is corrupted, we cannot trust it.
2: Scripture says our reasoning is corrupted (Romans 1, Romans 5, etc.)
3: Therefore, we cannot trust our reasoning.

They’re reasoning to a conclusion. Yes, they are using The Bible to reach their conclusion, but they’re still using rationality nonetheless. They’re reasoning that if The Bible teaches that our sin nature distorts our thinking, we can’t trust it. And since The Bible teaches that our thinking processes are distorted, it follows that we can’t trust it by the logical law of modus ponens. Without using logic, all you could conclude is that our reasoning is distorted by sin. Nothing more. To reach the conclusion, you’d have to add another propositional statement NOT expressed by scripture (i.e “We can’t trust it if this is the case”) and, in conjuction with the statement that The Bible teaches that *this is the case*, you would reason that you can’t trust your reason.

But in that case, we would have to be dismissive (or at the very least skeptical) of the argument that we can’t rely on our reasoning! Again, I’m not denying totally what the fideists and presuppositionalists are saying. I do think the sin nature affects our reasoning to a certain extent, but I don’t think it renders our reasoning faculties unreliable.

Moreover, If You’re Skeptical Or Cautious of Philosophy and/or Science On This Basis, You Would Have To Be Skeptical Or Cautious Of Theology As Well.

If our cognitive faculties are unreliable in the realms of philosophy and science, wouldn’t they be unreliable in the realm of theology as well? After all, people come to false theological conclusions all the time on the basis of their sinful nature. They eisegete the texts and come to the conclusions they want to come to. Think of the universalists and the health-and-wealth crowd for example. Even if sinful motives aren't behind the false interpretation, we still make mistakes. There would be no Arminian-Calvinist debate or pre-trib/post-trib rapture debate if that weren't the case. Should we distrust our own biblical interpretations because our reasoning prevents us from perfectly interpreting the text? No. Like examining evidence and philosophical arguments, we have to approach our conclusions cautiously. We have to be aware that presuppositions can affect our interpretation of The Bible just as they can in interpretations of scientific data or philosophical arguments.

Finally, This View Would Make Living Life Impossible

It would also seem to undermine epistemological justification for coming to non-Christian conclusions as well. For example, arguments arguing for religiously neutral conclusions. If reason is so impaired that we can't trust it, how could you rely on any argument to establish anything? Let’s leave aside worldview investigations for a moment (e.g trying to figure out whether God exists). I’m talking about arguments for religiously neutral conclusions, like which presidential candidate would best to vote for, or whether the library is closed, and things like that. This would seem to make a 3 step syllogism for the library's being closed suspect, for example (e.g (1) If It’s Sunday, the library is closed. (2) It is Sunday. (3) Therefore, the Library is closed). It would make life unlivable because we use reason all the time.

Conclusion: We Can Trust Our Reason

I think we can trust our reasoning despite any effects the sin nature may have placed on it. Because of that, I think the evidential and classical approaches to Christian Apologetics are completely appropriate for an apologist to use. We also mustn't forget that as far as examining the evidence and arguments for Christianity goes, The Holy Spirit works on the hearts and minds of unbelievers so that they will come to Him. God's prevenient grace will illuminate the human mind so that he'll be able to reason properly to the truth (see John 1:9). In summary; imperfect reasoning does not equal unreliable reasoning.

I’ll end with a quote

"The Fall brought about the perversion of human faculties, but it did not destroy those faculties. Human reasoning abilities are affected but not eliminated. This can be seen in the fact that the writers of Scripture often appeal to the minds of unbelievers by citing evidence on behalf of their claims, using logical inferences in building their case and speaking in the language and thought forms of those outside the faith." (J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview, chapter 1)

In other words, there's nothing in our sinfulness that prevents any one of us from having a cerebral faith.