Can we find common ground with unbelievers?

Dear Friends,
I know this is a broad question, so let me lay down some grounds. I am coming from a presuppositional angle, from assertions made by Cornelius Van Til, which I find very compelling.

Van Til asserts that 1) we cannot find common ground with unbelievers because “their heart was darkened” (Rom 1:21), and “a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit” (1 Cor 2:14) and 2) mainstream modern apologetics (or classical apologetics) - “flowing from the Enlightenment with its commitment to rational autonomy” (1) - can, at best, serve as a secondary supplement.

As I read Van Til, I am convinced that I know these truths because God has first opened my eyes. That all these great rationales given by these legendary apologists make sense and that they are edifying because I accept them to be true in the first place. It’s a circular argument, and Van Til acknowledges that it is. But then again, he would defend his position by saying that all metaphysical claims are circular in the end. It’s like the naturalists only accepting those evidence that fit his/her worldview. Van Til further asserts that because all truths are from God (God is the very definition of truth), you can’t find any truths (or true knowledge) outside God.

Now I am not implying that all these apologetic efforts (in the classical sense) are inherently futile. But their utility seems much more limited than I previously thought. We can’t change minds with apologetics; it’s only the supernatural works of God that can change the heart. In light of this, the best apologetics (again, in the classical sense) can do is point out the logical inconsistencies in the mind of the unbeliever. Gospel must be proclaimed, not reasoned. So I am back to the basics. What does it mean to give a reason, to give an apologia, to the unbeliever?

This doesn’t even scratch the surface of Van Til but I just want to hear your thoughts on Van Til, reformed traditions, presuppositionalism, different apologetic methods including the more conservative types as I couldn’t find too many posted.

(1) Gaffin, Richard, Revelation & Reason, Epistemological Reflections on 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, 2007


Excellent topic.

I consider presuppositions arguments to be a large part of my evangelism online. It is not so much that the arguments themselves are “compelling” but that anyone who works in Christ’s name will bear fruit. As I have seen John Piper say, “No work of evangelism completely fails” (paraphrase). I put a lot of confidence in that and use it to motivate me as my realm of evangelism can be a bit hash as I get all sorts of insults thrown at me on a regular basis. It isn’t even ME who does the convincing so it’s only natural that what I think is compelling is almost always NOT the thing that convinces someone of something I have said. In this way it keeps us humble knowing God is in control AND all we can end up being is a mouthpiece.


@ysohn0228 Great question :slight_smile: I think the answer is an absolutely resounding “Yes”! Unbelievers are humans made in God’s image just as we are and they experience the joys and sorrows of this world as we do. So of course we have experiences in common with them.

However, sharing common experiences is different than sharing the Gospel itself. Van Til clearly believes in the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity and the bondage of the will. I do not agree with that particular doctrine. I believe people can freely choose to seek God.

But rather than focusing on this theological difference, I would like to make the following assertions:

  • regardless of an individual’s role in salvation, God has commanded us to share the Gospel wisely and winsomely in the world around us
  • there are many stories of people whose faith has been strengthened or who have come to faith through apologetics

In light of these facts, I think the most important thing is that we love our neighbor by understanding them better and sharing Gospel wisely as God provides the opportunity. Part of sharing the Gospel well is having a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). I think Tim Keller is a great example of someone who contextualizes the Gospel for his audience well, so I have included some videos from him below.

In summary, I would say that love compels us to share the Gospel as best we are able and leave the rest to God.


Os Guiness discusses ‘Signals of Transcendence’ - events in peoples’ lives that help them go from comfortable unbelievers to seekers. If someone has not experienced a signal of transcendence, their heart may still be closed to God. Now, you could be that signal of transcendence, but I think generally it is very hard to move a person from comfortable unbeliever to a questioning seeker.

Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Blaise Pascal

“But the phrase “make good men wish it were true” gets across that this takes determination and ingenuity. 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.” Tim Keller


Thank you all for your answers.
I find your answers very helpful, and I agree that we should continue to share the gospel with wisdom. And by the way, Sean, I especially agree with your final comment.

At the same time, I see that I need to be more precise with these definitions (terms like ‘common ground’), especially in discussing nuances of theological arguments. Do we share the same experiences more or less? Yes, of course. We are given the same facts. But what differs is our interpretation of those facts. And yes, I am coming with Calvinistic assumptions on the total depravity of man, so that really is the core issue when it comes to how I see these messages being conveyed to unbelievers. So my question was really, given the bondage of the will, how do we effectively approach unbelievers. So, to your comment on people being strengthened or coming to faith through apologetics, I would respond by saying that their eyes have already been opened by God. That was what allowed them to come to faith. But you already know that’s my position, so let’s leave that debate out :slight_smile:

And you are absolutely right; doctrinal differences shouldn’t stop us from witnessing the faith.

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