Taking up Your Burden (of Proof)

August 25, 2016

by Scott Oliphint

Often when we are seeking to persuade others to the Christian faith, a common assertion levied against a believer is that the burden of proof for God’s existence rests on the believer, not the unbeliever. Is that truly the case? Should we feel this burden?

The primary thing to keep in mind in this regard is that the burden of proof is a loose and ever-shifting concept, not as concrete as some would like to think. One book on critical thinking defines the “burden of proof” in this way: “The burden of proof rests most heavily on the side of the issue that, from the point of view of educated common sense, is most implausible or unusual or unbelievable.” If we are used to reading with a biblically critical eye, a number of questions will immediately come to mind with respect to this definition. What, we could ask, is “the point of view of educated common sense”? This phrase can be taken generally, of course, so that we can affirm much that is “common” to our experience. The problem, however, is that what is “common” is also fraught with sin and confusion, so that “common sense,” from the point of view of the actual world that God created and controls, is often senseless.

We could ask the question of the adjectives used. What is plausible or implausible with respect to foundational questions about Christianity and its objectors is, more often than not, in the eye of the beholder. So also for what is “unusual” or “unbelievable.”

Taking on the Burden of Proof

All of this said, however, we should not shirk from taking on the burden of proof when appropriate. We should expect that for anyone “in Adam,” the Christian truths that we propose will seem to be implausible or unusual; indeed, many of those truths are unusual for those whose lives are characterized by a constant suppression of the truth. Not only should we be anxious to take on the burden of proof; we also recognize that there are evidential and rational “proofs” for God’s existence in every fact of the world, both within us and outside of us. The opportunity to point out those facts is something for which we hope in our discussions, so we will gladly assume the burden of proof when we can.

But we can also legitimately ask our interlocutors to make sense of their own positions in the context of their arguments. Evolutionary arguments tend to shy away from the clear and obvious fact that human beings have minds that are vastly superior to anything that exists in the animal kingdom. And given a standard notion of causality and its interconnection to its effects, it would be highly unusual if that which is mindless caused people with highly developed, even uniquely developed, minds. The burden rests legitimately on the one who thinks such things have occurred, given that there are no evidential examples of such occurrences.

We should not be frightened, then, or unduly offended or defensive if those to whom we speak thrust the burden of proof on us. We should happily accept it and then proceed to explain just how all that is has its final, foundational, and comprehensive explanation in the triune God who created it.

The notion of “burden of proof” also implies that the one on whom the burden rests will be able to give an argument for his position. This, too, we should welcome, as long as we keep in mind the function of proof and argumentation in persuasion.

We need to make clear that the arguments we give will be in support of what we know to be the case, and will not, because they cannot, proceed on the basis of some kind of neutral notion of rationality or evidence. If what our opponents are clamoring for, in requiring that the burden of proof be ours, is a consent-compelling syllogism, therefore, we can remind them that there are arguments in abundance that move beyond mere syllogism. We can help them to see that some “proofs” operate more in the context of persuasion than of demonstration. This is nothing new; it is part of the warp and woof of argumentation.

This piece is adapted from K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 109–110. Used with permission of the publisher.

Scott Oliphint

Dr. Oliphint (PhD, Westminster) is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at WTS.

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