My Interview with Backpack Radio: Myth of Neutrality

The folks at Backpack Radio were kind enough to invite me to be a guest on their program tonight. If you missed the live stream, you can still listen to the recorded show by clicking here.

You can also listen to my previous guest appearance on the show by clicking here.

Make sure to check out all the other cool programs from Backpack Radio, and “thank you” again to the guys at BPR!

A Christian Philosopher’s Thoughts On “God’s Not Dead”

A Movie I Should Love

I am, by the grace of God, a Christian.

I am also, by the grace of God, a Christian philosopher.

I have, by the grace of God, survived the rigors of a non-Christian education in philosophy.

Finally I have, by the grace of God, participated in a number of public moderated debates on the existence of God with professing atheists.

The movie God’s Not Dead seems to be right up my alley. A lot of people have suggested I go see it. I probably will.

But I am not looking forward to it. In fact, the trailer alone really concerns me. Here is the movie trailer followed by some reasons why the trailer concerns me.

 

 

To Me, It’s So Postmodern

If you want to make what you say really palatable to society at large just add two little words to the beginning of everything you say. Those two words are “to me.”

You see, as soon as you preface your statements with the words “to me” you make the truth of those statements relative to you. Let me explain.

If you say, “God exists,” then you have stated, quite simply, that God exists, and that God exists out there, outside of you, and that He exists for everyone as it were, and not just for you.

But if you say, “To me, God exists,” then you have stated something quite different. You have stated that God exists, but not that God exists out there, outside of you. You have said nothing about whether or not God exists for everyone. Rather, you have only claimed that God exists for you.

Another way to put it is that you have said, in the second instance above, that your truth is that God exists. Other people may have other “truths” about God’s existence, but for you,God exists.

This is postmodern thinking pure and simple. Postmodernism is a pervasive anti-Christian philosophy. In postmodernism, truth is relative. Truth depends upon our beliefs. But that’s crazy. Just because I believe I can fly does not mean I can actually fly.

Moreover, in our society truth is often thought of as subjective. This means that truth depends upon our emotions. Truth has nothing to do with whether or not a statement is factual. If something feels good, then it is true. Sound familiar?

At least three instances of postmodern thinking loom large in the trailer.

At the 10 second mark in the trailer, a woman stands in front of the Christian Contemporary Music group Newsboys. She mockingly says, “In a few minutes you guys are going to go out there and sing about God and Jesus as if they are as real as you and me.”

Much to my disappointment, Michael Tait, the lead singer for Newsboys, replies, “To us, they are as real.”

No Mike! Truth does not depend on your feelings. Truth is not relative to you. “God and Jesus” are not just real to you. God and Jesus are real, period. (By the way, I am not sure why, but the phrase “God and Jesus” is used throughout this trailer in such a way that it sounds as though Jesus is not God.)

At the 1:30 mark in the trailer, the main character, “Josh Wheaton,” referring to God, says, “To me, He’s not dead.”

No Josh! Truth does not depend on your feelings. Truth is not relative to you. God is not just alive to you. God is alive, period!

At the 2:12 mark in the trailer, the Newsboys sing, “God’s not dead, He’s surely alive. He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion.”

No Newsboys! Truth does not depend on your feelings. Truth is not relative to you. God is not just alive inside of you. God is alive, period!

God is Never on Trial, We Are

At the 1:40 mark in the trailer Josh boasts, “We’re going to put God on trial.” The great Christian author and apologist C.S. Lewis was spot on in his description of this mixed up methodology.

The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the bench and God is in the dock.

Not only is this approach to defending the existence of God methodologically problematic (for reasons I will not get into here), but it is exceedingly arrogant. Romans 9.20 comes to mind. “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” God is not to be judged by us. We are to be judged by Him. God is not on trial. We are on trial.

But I Can’t Judge a Movie by Its Trailer

Or can I? The two methodological concerns I have pointed out above are significant concerns. They are, in and of themselves, enough to destroy the apologetic value of this movie. Based on the trailer, I would have a hard time recommending this movie to young, impressionable Christians. Perhaps the movie will change my mind, but I doubt it. I have three other comments not mentioned above. I discuss them below.

First, what is the target audience for this film? The Christian? The non-Christian? The academic community? The target audience is not immediately clear to me.

Second, those who believe the statement “God is Dead” is some sort of rallying cry that atheists run about and spout (or require on student “papers” for a passing grade) need to do a bit more research into the origin and meaning of the phrase.

Third, at the 2:27 mark in the movie trailer Josh claims, “Science supports His existence, so why do you hate him?” If this line indicates anything about the philosophical substance of the movie, then the movie is awful. Aside from the fact that Josh is talking about science in a philosophy class, and aside from the suspicion that Josh has not actually provided solid scientific evidence to “support” the existence of God, why does Josh think his question about the professor’s supposed hatred of God has anything to do with scientific support for God’s existence? Plenty of scientific reasoning supports my existence, but that does not prevent people from hating me. (For example, if you liked God’s Not Dead, then you probably dislike me at the moment.) More importantly, why does Josh feel it necessary to physically move toward the professor in a threatening manner, screaming at him as he does so? If a student were to approach me the way this “Christian” approaches his philosophy professor in this movie trailer, I would promptly dismiss class and call campus security. (Then again, I’m no Hercules.)

If God’s Not Dead teaches Christian students to fear their professors (and, gasp, philosophy professors in particular), and if it teaches them to make relative statements, and if it teaches them to think sinful students and professors are in a position to put the Creator on trial, and if it teaches Christian students to respond to unbelieving professors the way Josh approaches his atheist professor, then God’s Not Dead is just generally unhelpful. Perhaps I will change my tune once I see the movie. But I’m not getting my hopes up.

 

 

 

Review – Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith by K. Scott Oliphint

Thank you Crossway for the review copy of this book. Thank you Dr. Oliphint for the heads up and sneak peek at this work.

Oliphint, K. Scott. Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013. pp. 277. $19.99.

Introduction

K. Scott Oliphint serves at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia as professor of apologetics and systematic theology. Like his predecessor, Cornelius Van Til, Oliphint places much greater emphasis upon the particularities of apologetic methodology than do most other apologists. The importance of apologetic methodology follows from the significance of the systematic theology Christians set out to defend. And with twenty-five endorsements from a variety of pastors and academics including Richard B. Gaffin Jr., R. Albert Mohler Jr., Stephen J. Wellum, Bob Kauflin, James N. Anderson, Douglas Wilson, Nathan Sasser and Richard L. Pratt Jr., the book promises appeal for a rather broad audience despite (and probably because of) its insistence upon theological precision.

Oliphint’s book consists of seven chapters. A Foreword by William Edgar and an Introduction precede the first chapter of the book, “Always Ready,” which consists of five sections, “Christian Truth,” “Required to Respond,” “What Is Covenantal Apologetics?,” “The Ten Tenets,” and “Tenets and Texts.” The second chapter, “Set Christ Apart as Lord” is divided into three sections, “I AM,” “Condescension and Apologetics,” and “He Who Is Not with Me.” The third chapter is called “Proof to All Men” and has five sections, “Paul at Athens,” “Where Shall I Flee?,” “Proving the Proofs,” “What a Burden,” and “How Do You Know?” The fourth chapter, “We Persuade Others” consists of “‘Trivial’ Matters” and “Conclusion.” The fifth chapter, “We Destroy Arguments: The Achilles Heel” contains discussions about “The Good Fight,” “Negative Apologetics,” and “Positive Apologetics,” and the sixth, “Walk in Wisdom toward Outsiders,” focuses on “The Wisdom of Persuasion,” “The Spirit of Persuasion,” “Dennett, Dawkins, and Doubt,” and “A Concluding Word to the Wise.” Finally, the seventh chapter is titled, “You Are Very Religious” and includes sections called, “Idol Worship,” “God Is (Not?) Great,” and a “Conclusion.” The book includes a bibliography and general index as well as a Scripture index.

Summary

Oliphint’s book begins with a scene from a conference on the relationship between faith and reason (23). Oliphint provides an account of how he critiqued the philosophy of Immanuel Kant before transitioning into a presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the real Immanuel (23). Obviously, such a presentation does not go over well at a philosophy conference. While philosophy conferences typically emphasize intellectual tickles, Oliphint was arguing for heart transplants. Oliphint was arguing for epistemological success that could be obtained only through total transformation grounded by faith in the revelation of God (23).

According to Oliphint another presenter, troubled by the implications of Oliphint’s argument, complained of the circularity involved in accepting the authority of the Bible on its own say-so. Oliphint’s reply helps the reader understand a core element of a covenantal apologetic.

I admitted to him that I certainly was arguing in (some kind of) a circle. I was arguing that unless they accepted the Bible for what it said, and what it was, there would be no real solution to the faith and reason problem. Then I made clear to them that they were all asking that their own views, based on their own reasoning and sources, be accepted as true. In every case, I said to them, every other presenter appealed to his own final authority. “So,” I asked them, “on what basis should I accept your circle over mine?” (24)

Professor Oliphint’s insightful point was met with an awkward silence, followed by a change in subject (24). Nevertheless, the point would rest in the background throughout the rest of the night, even as others shared sophisticated arguments for generic theism which resulted in a great deal less controversy than Oliphint’s Christ-centered, Gospel-centered, revelation-based call for epistemological repentance (24).

Having shared the aforementioned account of his covenantal apologetic in action, Oliphint supplies the reader with what he intends to accomplish in his book on the method. Oliphint hopes to accomplish a number of goals, including providing a new label for his method in an effort to clarify its concepts and moving past mere talk of principles to the actual implication of their practice (25). Oliphint describes his work as a “translation” rather than an “introduction,” for he intends to “translate the language, concepts, and ideas set forth in Van Til’s Reformed apologetic into language, terms, and concepts that are more accessible,” and to “translate much of what is meant in Van Til’s own writings from their often philosophical and technical contexts to a more basic biblical and theological context” (26). Thus, Oliphint’s goal is to teach a Van Tilian method of apologetics without the fancy language and with a preference for biblical or theological, rather than philosophical, emphases. Oliphint admits differences with Van Til, but only in terms of language and style, rather than central concerns (26). According to Oliphint, Scripture and Reformed theology constitute the substance of language and style in his own translation of presuppositional or covenantal apologetics (26). Indeed, “In most everything I say in the dialogs, all that is needed is a thoughtful commitment to the truths given to us in Scripture, and then the practice of probing the assumptions and foundations of any opposing position will come more readily” (27). Throughout his chapters, Oliphint also seeks to satisfy the dual goal of explaining “the focus of our approach and then, through sample dialogs, show the approach ‘in action’” (27).

This, then, is the bottom line truth that must be central in everything that we discuss —Christianity is true, so anything opposing it is false. This means that whatever opposition we face as Christians, it is, by definition, an opposition that is false. Even if we have no idea what the central tenets or teachings are in such opposition, we know at the outset that it cannot sustain itself in God’s world. The rest of this book is an attempt to explain the implications of that central truth. (27)

Finally, Oliphint explains that he is not convinced that any critiques of Van Til’s approach with which he is familiar are convincing enough to him that Van Til’s basic method should be changed (27-28). With these goals and clarifications at the forefront of the discussion, Oliphint begins bridging a gap through his translation of covenantal apologetics from the words and world of Cornelius Van Til to our own.

The first chapter of the book defines Christian apologetics as “the application of biblical truth to unbelief” (29). Though the work of apologetics is often obscured and complicated by various factors, apologetics need not be any more difficult than as described above (29). Hence, in Oliphint’s work “what we will set out to do, first of all, is to lay out the primary biblical and theological principles that must be a part of any covenantal defense of Christianity and then to demonstrate how these principles might be applied against certain objections” (29-30). While no one, or even five ways exist whereby a Christian might respond to every objection of every unbeliever in every circumstance, “in each and every case, what must be understood are the fundamental biblical and theological tenets or principles that guide, direct, and apply to whatever attacks, objections, and questions may come to the Christian” (30). The principles are a bit like a fence, while many particular responses are available within that fence (30).

Beginning with the Trinity and creation, Oliphint paints a picture of Christian truth, including the fall of humanity into sin and each individual’s position in either Adam or Christ (30-33). Christian truth entails our “task of defending and commending the truth of Christianity,” otherwise known as apologetics (33-38). After providing some exegesis of 1 Peter 3.15 with a heavy emphasis upon the lordship of Christ as the basis of apologetics, Oliphint proceeds to defend his use of the label “Covenantal Apologetics” for his approach to apologetics (38-56). The term “apologetics” is a biblical term akin to “justification” or “sanctification,” hence; studying apologetics involves studying texts which are relevant to the term (38). It follows that apologetics are not only Christian in nature, but theologically-based (38). Though such an approach to apologetics is popularly known as “presuppositionalism,” Oliphint argues that the label “needs once and for all to be laid to rest” (38). Regarding the label of presuppositionalism, he explains, “It has served its purpose well, but it is no longer descriptively useful, and it offers, now, more confusion than clarity when the subject of apologetics arises” (38).

Why change the label to “covenantal”? Oliphint answers this question by providing an overview of the concept of covenant as it appears in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Romans 1, John Calvin, and the psychology of the unbeliever (38-47). Applying the overview of the concept of covenant to the apologetic endeavor clarifies the goal of a covenantal apologetic.

It seeks to take the truth of Scripture as the proper diagnosis of the unbelieving condition and challenge the unbeliever to make sense of the world he has made. Scripture tells us that a world built on the foundation of unbelief does not exist; it is a figment of an unbelieving imagination, and thus is basically irrational. (46)

The philosophical term for the aforementioned approach is “transcendental,” which pertains to the “preconditions” of knowledge and behavior (46). According to Oliphint, “This approach, then, tries to make obvious both the presuppositions of the unbelieving position itself and the covenantal presuppositions that are at work in order to challenge the unbelieving position at its root” (47). The covenantal apologetic approach is summarized by Oliphint in ten tenets (47-56). The ten tenets are stated at the end of the first chapter as follows:

1. The faith that we are defending must begin with, and necessarily include, the Triune God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — who, as God, condescends to create and to redeem.

2. God’s covenantal revelation is authoritative by virtue of what it is, and any Covenantal, Christian apologetic will necessarily stand on, and utilize, that authority in order to defend Christianity.

3. It is the truth of God’s revelation, together with the work of the Holy Spirit, that brings about a covenantal change from one who is in Adam to one who is in Christ.

4. Man (male and female) as image of God is in covenant with the Triune God, for eternity.

5. All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations.

6. Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ, see that truth for what it is.

7. There is an absolute, covenantal antithesis between Christian theism and any other, opposing, position. Thus, Christianity is true and anything opposing it is false.

8. Suppression of the truth, like the depravity of sin, is total but not absolute. Thus, every unbelieving position will necessarily have within it ideas, concepts, notions, etc that it has taken and wrenched from its true, Christian context.

9. The true, covenantal, knowledge of God in man, together with God’s universal mercy, allows for persuasion in apologetics.

10. Every fact and experience is what it is by virtue of the covenantal all-controlling plan and purpose of God. (55)

These ten tenets are not exhaustive, but will be present in a covenantal apologetic, and should be kept in mind as Oliphint seeks to apply them in the remainder of his book.

The second chapter summarizes much of Oliphint’s earlier work, God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God and applies it to apologetics (57-85). The chapter is thus heavily theological, beginning with a discussion of the names of God and theology proper, and moving into Christology, an example of the condescension of God par excellence (58-66). Oliphint points out that the lordship of Christ is essential not just to apologetics, but “it is central to the gospel and to the very truth of God, and for that reason alone it should be a central aspect of our own thinking and living in the world, to the glory of God” (66). Oliphint contrasts this view of the world with Kantian philosophy (66-71). Next, he uses a feud between atheist Richard Dawkins and other skeptics as reported by Brandon K. Thorp to illustrate how ad hominem can be a valuable, non-fallacious way of arguing, using what he calls the “Quicksand Quotient” (72-77). Oliphint explains, “In applying the Quicksand Quotient, we attempt to show that the position that we are opposing is sinking sand and cannot stand on its own” (76). One way to show that a position cannot stand is to contrast it with the Christian view, but this does little more in terms of persuasion than to indicate a disagreement between two positions (76). Indeed, “The other, more persuasive and effective way to apply the Quicksand Quotient is to show that the position, based on its own principles, cannot stand” (77). Once the Quicksand Quotient is applied, Christianity is persuasively proclaimed as the viable alternative (77). Turning the Quicksand Quotient back on the Christian position, per an argument from Anthony Kenny against the doctrine of God, Oliphint shows why all of the theology he outlined prior to this point in the book is crucial to understand when defending Christianity against attacks from unbelievers (77-85).

In the third chapter Oliphint takes the ten tenets presented in the preceding chapter and applies them to the matter of proof (87). In an attempt to further clarify a covenantal apologetic, the aforementioned principles are explained through biblical texts and history (87-122). The Apostle Paul’s apologetic encounter at Athens in Acts 17 is examined, followed by King David’s recognition that he could not flee from the presence of God in Psalm 139 (87-93). Not only is the presence of God inescapable, but his image is as well.

If we remain in our sins, in Adam, we are judged and condemned because we are God’s   image. If we come to Christ, by grace through faith, there is no condemnation because, in Christ, the image of God which we are is being renewed (cf. Eph.4:24; Col. 3:10). Being “image of God,” therefore, is one of the most basic covenantal categories for us (tenet 4). It is a universal truth about us, from the beginning of creation and into eternity future (93).

Two aspects of the lordship of God and two analogous aspects of the lordship of humans created in God’s image are included in the discussion on the image of God (94-97). Paul relies not only upon the reality of the image of God in his address at Athens, but the unwavering intensity of God’s revelation. Oliphint explains, “God is not hindered by our pretended contexts and supposed barriers.”

His revelation comes through; it bombards us externally and internally. He continues, always and everywhere, to reveal himself to those who are his image. And that revelation always and everywhere meets its mark and accomplishes its goal. As image, we know him, and that knowledge makes us covenantally accountable to him (tenet 5). (97-98)

Oliphint bolsters his argument concerning the knowledge of God through addressing John Calvin’s sensus divinitatis as derived from Romans 1-2 (98-104). The importance of these topics cannot be overemphasized, for “they must inform any and every attempt to defend the Christian faith” (104).

The nature and limitation of proofs are discussed, with the conclusion that it is a broader set “of truths, concepts, assumptions, and ideas surrounding proofs that we are concerned to articulate and to make clear in the context of a covenantal apologetic” (105-108). Proof is not enough. Not only that, but we should “seek to provide justifying reasons, both empirical and nonempirical, for the ‘larger set’ that surrounds any proof” (108). It follows from what has been said that Christians should not shy away from attempting to satisfy the ‘burden of proof’ when applicable, though the concept is not as clear-cut as many make it out to be, and though unbelievers may often try to shy away from it themselves (109-110). Oliphint provides a practical example of the use of proof within a covenantal apologetic by contrasting two conversations regarding a Thomistic argument from causality, one involving a Thomist apologist and the other a covenantal apologist (110-122).

The fourth chapter of the work is a detailed explanation of the art of persuasion (123-160). Oliphint reviews the trivium of older education, which included grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric (123-126). While these three areas are no longer found in education the way they once were, they are still essential to proper thinking (126). Such tools of proper thinking help with the task of persuasion, which is to be preferred more than demonstrative proofs, given our theology (126-136).  Oliphint takes W.K. Clifford to task by pointing out “There simply cannot be sufficient evidential propositions ad infinitum” (128). Indeed, “There has to be some ‘place’ – some proposition, some concept, some idea, some foundation of authority – that is sufficient to carry the conceptual weight of what we claim to know, believe, and hold” (128). During the Reformation, Scripture supplied the aforementioned foundation (128-129). However, another foundation outside of Scripture was the sensus divinitatis or “sense of deity,” which provides a “point of contact” between believer and unbeliever (129-130). Finally, Oliphint believes in the foundation of “God’s universal mercy over all that he has made” (130). According to Oliphint, “The first aspect of God’s universal mercy includes the fact that God’s attitude towards his creatures made in his image is one of wrath, because of sin (Rom. 1:18), but is also one of mercy and kindness toward them,” “The second aspect of God’s universal mercy has to do with the restraint of sin in the lives of individuals and of society,” and the third “includes the fact that the unregenerate can perform ‘righteous’ acts, even though still slaves to sin” (131-136). Oliphint labels the aforementioned theological truths “a theological ‘trivium’ – the principial nature of Scripture, the sensus divinitatis (i.e., knowledge of God), and God’s universal mercy – that provide the foundation for a biblical view of persuasion in apologetics” (137).

Oliphint shifts to a discussion of the trivium of persuasion taken from Aristotle (139). This trivium includes “the ethos of persuasion, which means, generally, one’s character,” the pathos, or partisanship, and the logos, which “focuses our attention on the actual arguments, including the content of those arguments, that we aim to present to a given audience” (139-158). Oliphint concludes this chapter by asserting that “our goal is to communicate, as persuasively as we are able, the truth of God himself, as that truth finds its focus in the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us” (159). Further, “Because arguments of persuasion have to take into account the pathos of persuasion, there will not be just one way, or just one set of truths, or one answer given, in every apologetic encounter” (159-160).

After some exegesis and application surrounding 2 Corinthians 10.5 at the beginning of the fifth chapter, Oliphint explains that “Positively, the task of apologetics is to commend the Christian faith to those who are affected by, even enslaved to, unbelief,” and “Negatively, the task of apologetics is to refute challenges to the truth of the Christian position” (161-165). Though these two apologetic tasks can, and should, be offered together, they are also distinct from one another (165). Oliphint launches into a lengthy discussion of answering the problem of evil as an example of negative apologetics (165-176). The hypothetical unbeliever’s objection is successfully dismantled. However, Oliphint then offers an example of positive apologetics by continuing with an explanation of the problem of evil from the Christian position, based squarely in the historical orthodox Christian position surrounding the condescension of God in Jesus Christ (176-192).

In the sixth chapter, Oliphint exegetes from the book of Colossians, emphasizing the importance of an earlier comment that the trivium cannot be understood through neutrality, but only in accordance with Scripture (193-198). Exegesis of several passages of Scripture is set forth in relation to Oliphint’s claim that apologetics might be thought of as “premeditated evangelism” (198-206). Oliphint proposes a sample response to the likes of evolutionists Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins to conclude the chapter (207-224).

Oliphint begins the seventh chapter of his book conceding that dealing with other specific religions is more complicated than dealing with obvious forms of unbelief like atheism (225). Oliphint explains, “In a false religion (and here we’re using the term religion in its usual sense), we are dealing with people who have committed themselves to a god, who spend their lives in service to this god, and who have divine direction, in some form or other, that tells them who they are and what they are to do” (225). Oliphint believes that every false religion has within it “a parody or errant copy of Christianity at work” (225). Here, as elsewhere, Oliphint turns first to the Bible to address other religions (226-227). He works from the Apostle Paul’s response to other religions, tying it to the principles he has developed throughout the book, and applying them to unbelieving religions (227-233). Oliphint introduces three categories by which the apologist may more easily understand the apologetic task when it comes to other religions (230). First, “we must be acutely aware of exactly who the god of the other religion is,” “Second, it will help us to see how the false religion deals with its god’s relationship to creation,” and “Third, if we can understand something of the false religion’s theory of revelation, that understanding may serve us well” (230-231). Oliphint also notes the importance of the gospel in the context of apologetics with adherents to false religions (231-233).

Before moving on to a discussion between a Christian and a Muslim, Oliphint explains, “the most persistent question that I receive when I am teaching or explaining the covenantal approach to apologetics is, ‘What about a Muslim? Couldn’t a Muslim stand on the Qur’an as his principial ground and defend his faith in the same way that you say Christians should? Doesn’t a Muslim presuppose his own Bible and defend Islam by the same method?’” (233) Oliphint also notes that the sample dialogues he provides are increasingly complex (233). Thus Oliphint introduces the concepts of necessity and contingency, writing, “Put simply, anything necessary is something that must be, and anything contingent is something that might  be but does not have to be” (234). God is necessary, and all else is contingent (234). Oliphint explains, “Christianity has always believed that God remains who he is (as he must, since he cannot deny himself) even while he relates and commits himself to creation, and specifically to man, who alone is made in his image” (234). He continues as follows:

That relationship that God unilaterally initiated required that God take on characteristics   (e.g., grace, wrath) that he would not have taken on had there been no creation. If he had not created, he would not have occasion to be gracious or wrathful toward us.

In taking on these characteristics, he did not cease to be who he is; he did not change into something less than God; indeed, he cannot do that. What he did instead was take on properties that are what they are by virtue of his real and covenantal relationship with creation. The incarnation is the paradigmatic example of this. The Son of God takes on a human nature, but that does not mean that he in any way ceases to be fully and in every way God.

Moreover, God’s (necessary) character, as God, and his (contingent) relationship to creation are not at odds with each other. These two aspects of God’s character are not fighting against each other, but they are brought together and unified by God himself, specifically, by the Holy Spirit (again, think of the incarnation). So, in God, there is no contradiction or incompatibility between his character as God and his character as God with us. (234-235)

Oliphint claims, “These theological truths will be crucial to understand as we look at a specific instance of Islam” (235).

Oliphint’s discussion between a Christian and a Muslim moves quickly through a number of different topics pertaining to both Christianity and Islam (235-258). After dismissing natural theology, the Christian presses the Muslim on the topics of necessity and contingency, parries an objection to the Trinity with a counterargument regarding the supposed unity of Allah, proceeds with questions about the revelatory nature of the Qur’an, pushes the Muslim into a failed defense of a concept of mystery, and ends with the gospel (235-258). The book concludes with a call to holiness, an encouragement to be “mild in manner, strong in matter,” and some exegesis from the book of Joshua concerning the warfare in which every Christian must be engaged (259-262).

Critical Evaluation

Oliphint’s opening scene at the conference is helpful in that it places a personal touch on everything that follows in the book. Additionally, the story assists the reader in silencing any misguided charges of ‘circularity’ lingering at the back of his or her mind that may be based upon preconceived notions or confusion with the material to follow later on in Oliphint’s book. I am onboard with the push to get rid of the label of ‘presuppositionalism’ to describe Van Tilian apologetics. Quite frankly, it’s a terribly unhelpful label, for all of the reasons Oliphint mentions in his book, and probably more. Unfortunately – and I believe Oliphint is keenly aware of this problem – the old label just will not die, and the new one just will not catch on.

If Oliphint makes Van Til more accessible, I am afraid he does not do so to any great extent. Do not misunderstand me. Oliphint is an excellent writer with excellent substance. He has translated Van Til. Van Til can be difficult to understand. All sides admit that. It would be difficult to make Van Til even less accessible than Van Til. In that respect, Oliphint has certainly succeeded regarding accessibility. But Oliphint has his own peculiarities in writing; especially as concerns what appears to be an inductive style of presentation and plenty of terms and concepts with which most readers would not be familiar. And though Oliphint does translate Van Til, the product is unmistakably Oliphint’s translation of Van Til. That’s not a bad thing, but it is worth pointing out that readers are getting Oliphint’s version of Van Til’s method.

The prominence of the ‘image of God’ theme is crucial to any apologetic hoping to make a dent in our current context of unbelief. So is the historical theology with which Oliphint is so familiar. I am also thankful to see a clear introduction to the issue of the burden of proof, and how Oliphint handles that issue, as well as the emphasis on persuasion. Apologists who have embraced some form of the Van Tilian model would do well to listen to Oliphint on these points. Some of the worst problems in the application of Van Til’s method come about by way of neglecting the aforementioned areas. Oliphint’s three principles for approaching other religions are absolutely essential, and it is especially good to see the section about the importance of the gospel in encounters with those who follow other religions. Concerning the explanation of covenantal apologetics and the position of every human being in either Adam or Christ, those who reject covenant theology should simply get over their semantic differences (I know the differences are often much deeper than semantics) with Oliphint and embrace what he and Van Til are saying. Without the fundamental truth of every human being in either Adam or Christ, one loses not only Oliphint and Van Til, but the gospel itself.

One other item Oliphint handles masterfully is providing a justifiable ‘excuse’ as to why Van Til’s method is so often charged with being overly – or even merely – theoretical rather than practical in nature. Covenantal apologetics are not reductionist apologetics. They are not formulaic in nature. These are strengths of the method, not weaknesses. Covenantal apologetics focus on the content of the Christian worldview as expressed in the biblically driven, historically orthodox tradition of Christianity coming out of the Reformation. Oliphint likewise succeeds in striking an almost perfect balance between the biblical, theological, and philosophical in describing and applying his apologetic principles and practices. Oliphint is clear that we know Christianity is true from something other than a vague notion of the ‘impossibility of the contrary.’ In Oliphint’s mind, since we already know Christianity is true, we also know anything opposing it is false. However, Oliphint does not explain how demonstrating that an opposing view is false lends any credence to Christianity as true. I understand we can retreat back to the explanation that persuasion is the goal, or emphasize the importance of stating the content of the Christian worldview, or note the necessary work of the Holy Spirit, but none of these aspects of the apologetic, as necessary as they are, appear to satisfactorily answer the question. Is the Christian simply refuting opposing views to lend inductive corroboration to the truth of the Christian worldview? If not, then what is the persuasive element of the apologetic with respect to critiquing unbelieving philosophies and religions?

As Oliphint mentions in his book, he is familiar with objections to Van Til’s method. He also claims that nothing in those objections convinces him that anything should be changed in Van Til’s basic method. Oliphint does not, however, offer any specific responses to some of the more popular, and even puzzling, objections in question. Further clarification regarding the so-called ‘impossibility of the contrary’ and its role in the apologetic endeavor would have been beneficial to those who do believe there are some worries with Van Til’s basic method. For example, perhaps people generally come to Van Til through Greg L. Bahnsen, and Bahnsen gets Van Til wrong, whether through his emphases or something more substantial. But we are not told. Oliphint does not appear interested in seeking out and responding to every objection brought against Van Til’s method, which is certainly understandable. Not only would such an undertaking consist of a lot of work, it’s not immediately relevant to the purpose of Oliphint’s book. However, the book could have been strengthened by offering some sort of responses to these objections with which Oliphint is familiar. As it stands, he merely alludes to them and dismissively appeals to the nebulous concept of a ‘Reformed theology’ which, for reasons unknown, must be taken apart if the objections are to stand. I just wish Dr. Oliphint would have shown us how this looks in practice, because, quite frankly, I have seen some really good attempts at answering these objections that have failed.

As noted in the Summary, much of Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith rests on Oliphint’s earlier work, God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God. Unfortunately, Oliphint did not have the space, and the subject matter of the book did not allow for, a deeper explanation of the theology of that earlier work. Without committing myself to a review of another book, I must confess that parts of God with Us initially disturbed me. Oliphint insists upon ignorance and other limitations in God through constant appeal to Christology. But there is ignorance in Christ by virtue of his human nature – not by virtue of his divine nature. How can God possess the limitations Oliphint ascribes to him apart from the incarnation? Thankfully, as I read on, Oliphint’s case started to sound more reasonable.

As I understand Oliphint, having read and listened to most of his other works, God possesses contingent/covenantal/”God with us” properties due to his having condescended through the act of creation. As he explains especially in the fourth chapter of God With Us, these contingent properties do not constitute a nature, but in Oliphint’s scheme they function analogously to the human nature in Christ. Thus, just as the human nature is an addition to the divine Son in the incarnation, so also God’s contingent properties are an addition to essential/a se/God properties. Oliphint applies Christological categories such as the extra Calvinisticum, communicatio idiomatum, and reduplicative strategy to the doctrine of God in an attempt to render the essential properties of God safe from limitation and hence his overall theology immune from criticism. Per the extra Calvinisticum, the Son acts in and through the divine nature ‘apart’ from the human nature, and so also according to Oliphint God acts in and through the essential divine properties ‘apart’ from the contingent properties. Per the communicatio idiomatum, there is an asymmetrical relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ, and so also with the essential and contingent properties of God. Per the reduplicative strategy, apparently contradictory states of affairs may be predicated of Christ since what is said of Christ is stated with respect to one or the other nature, and so also apparently contradictory statements may be predicated of God (God is omniscient, God is ignorant; God is immutable, God changes) since what is said of God is stated with respect to his essential or contingent properties. Theology proper describes God as he is essentially, and God remains what he is essentially while taking on contingent properties by condescending through covenant relations to his creation. The Christological categories are applied to this theological layout in order to account for the relationship between the essential and contingent properties of God in much the same way as they are to applied to Christ to account for the relationship between the divine and human nature of Christ.

I have some reservations here. For example, Jay Wesley Richards bases his construal of something very similar to Oliphint’s scheme on S5 modal logic, but recently there have been some strong philosophical objections to S5 especially where it is contingent on S4. The relationship of the doctrine of God to possible worlds semantics is not the clearest topic in the world. But setting that aside, just what is it that Oliphint means when he says that God takes on these various contingent properties? How does God ‘condescend’ to his creatures without taking on any physical property or nature? How would Oliphint state the property he would ascribe to God in the place where God ‘comes to know’ something? Since coming to know something presupposes ignorance, let’s say that the property of ignorance is ascribed to God such that, ‘God is ignorant.’ It is easy to see how this property can be ascribed to God if God takes some finite property or nature to himself. But what finite property or nature is it that God takes to himself in the types of accounts that Oliphint hopes to explain? God takes on the property of ignorance in terms of…? (God is ignorant in terms of…?) It must be in terms of something other than God; else the property of ignorance is no addition at all, for the property of ignorance in such an instance just is being ignorant. Perhaps Oliphint would respond that God is ignorant in terms of the contingent realm itself. Since God condescends to a chronology God takes on the property of ignorance in terms of that chronology. Perhaps this is what Oliphint is trying to say. I do not know that he has been specific enough concerning what these properties look like.

Even if Oliphint’s account is coherent, it is not clear that anyone needs to accept it. Theologians of the Reformed tradition as found in Calvin, Turretin, Charnock, and the like, have been widely received for many years as having resolved apparent difficulties with the Creator/creature relationship. Has anyone suggested something like what Oliphint is suggesting? Does Oliphint have catholic corroboration for his account? Are there historical examples of positive support for the position so often relied upon in Covenantal Apologetics? It’s not necessary that Oliphint answer any of these questions, but it might help with the defense of what appears to be a somewhat novel, yet very powerful approach to theology and apologetics.

Conclusion

Lest some horrible misunderstanding arise concerning the critique above, I should state without qualification that Oliphint’s orthodoxy is not in question! Moreover, it’s clear that Oliphint is firmly within the Reformed tradition, and is a faithful expositor of Van Til. While I will almost certainly never contribute as much to the development of covenantal apologetics as Oliphint has, I hope my comments here have been at least somewhat helpful toward that end. In his final chapter, Oliphint summarizes his goals as follows:

What I have proposed throughout this book are principles and practices of a covenantal apologetic. I have attempted to lay out what theological tenets have to be in place in order to think properly about a defense of Christianity. I have also attempted to show, by means of sample dialogs, how those principles and tenets might be applied. My goal throughout has been to elaborate on a covenantal apologetic as the consistently Reformed approach to a defense of Christianity. In so doing, I have argued that persuasion is the best means by which we might defend the faith. (259)

Oliphint is successful in setting forth both principles and exemplary practice of his method of apologetics. He has done so from within the depth and richness of the biblical and historical theology of the Reformation. In a number of dialogues, Oliphint applies what he sets forth in the principles of his book. Perhaps most importantly of all, Oliphint has rescued apologetics from the realm of harsh intellectual competition and pointed us toward the significance of persuasion. My suggestion to those beginning their study of apologetics is to forgo Always Ready and pick up a copy of Covenantal Apologetics instead. You will be glad you did.

Bill Nye on U.S. Denial of Evolution

Bill Nye made some comments concerning evolution that have since gone viral.

There are a lot of questionable claims in Nye’s comments. He believes that the “denial of evolution” is a “world view” that not only will “harm young people” but “hamper scientific progress.”

The first problem is that Nye never defines for us what he means by “evolution.” He does note that, “Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology,” but again, he does not define what this idea is. He also lists a string of entities he apparently thinks evolution includes, pointing out that, “Here are these ancient dinosaur bones or fossils, here is radioactivity, here are distant stars.” Virtually no one rejects the existence of dinosaur bones or fossils, radioactivity, or distant stars. Perhaps Nye means to say that the “idea of deep time” or “billions of years” is the best or only way to explain the aforementioned entities, but here Nye has started talking about disciplines that are not life science or biology, the disciplines which allegedly rest upon evolution, whatever that is according to Nye.

The second problem is that Nye plays the “children” card. If you have ever spent much time with militant atheists, then you know the drill. Here Nye claims that he is “fine” with adults wanting to “deny evolution” and live in their own world that is, “completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe.” He then pleads with those same adults not to, “make your kids do it.” Why not? “[B]ecause we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can – we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.” Nye should realize that the reason adults might try to persuade their children to believe the way they do is because those adults think they have the truth. Even granting Nye’s comment about voting, what on earth does paying one’s taxes have to do with evolution? This is laughable stuff. And has Nye been living under a rock since his show ended in 1998? Does he not realize that there are plenty of engineers around right now who can “build stuff”?

The third problem follows from the paragraph above. Nye seems to think adults can make children reject evolution and believe in something, “completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe.” And when children do this their, “world view just becomes crazy, just untenable, itself inconsistent.” Moreover one’s, “world just becomes fantastically complicated when you don’t believe in evolution.” Does Nye really think that adults can make children believe in something, “completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe,” “crazy, just untenable, itself inconsistent,” and “fantastically complicated”? That seems rather unlikely. Perhaps his greater concern is that the observations and alleged results of rejecting them are not as clear-cut as he seems to think they are. After all, even Nye praises the United States for its “technological innovation,” “intellectual capital,” and “general understanding of science.” Perhaps the “denial of evolution” that Nye rightfully ascribes to the country is not as detrimental to its health as he rather inconsistently thinks that it is.

The fourth and final problem is Nye’s ignorance of the role of presuppositions evidenced above. We can spend a bit more time on this difficulty. Nye does not seem aware that maybe, just maybe the reason people do not interpret the evidence the same way he does is because they have different presuppositions. Nye throws around bold proclamations about “everything we observe in the universe,” “ancient dinosaur bones or fossils,” “radioactivity,” and “distant stars” as though they prove something in and of themselves. Yet one cannot talk about facts without talking about philosophy of facts. Unfortunately, most scientists today are woefully inadequate when it comes to the realm of philosophy, and will sometimes even deny that their discipline is based quite firmly upon various philosophical principles. The evidences Nye cites do not say anything one way or another all by themselves. Rather, they are interpreted according to the presuppositions one brings to the evidence.

Now what presuppositions might prevent someone from interpreting the evidence the way Nye does? And why do most United States Americans reject evolution? It certainly is not because of scientific ignorance, because Nye credits the USA with a general knowledge of science. It is not because of lack of resources either. Nor is it because of an inclination to reject whatever allegedly authoritative view is out there in science, because Americans don’t reject all, or even most of those. Alvin Plantinga, noting the previous point, hits the nail on the head regarding the reason most Americans reject evolution.

The answer, of course, is obvious: it is because of the entanglement of evolution with religion. The vast majority of Americans reject atheism, and hence also naturalism. A solid majority of  Americans are Christians, and many more (some 88 or 99 percent, depending on the poll you favor) believe in God. But when that choir of experts repeatedly tell us that evolution is incompatible with belief in God, it’s not surprising that many people come to believe that evolution is incompatible with belief in God, and is therefore an enemy of religion. (Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, 53)

Now I am not going to address whether or not it is true that evolution is an enemy of religion. I have made my thoughts on that matter as clear as possible elsewhere. I believe that the answer to that question depends largely upon what one means by “evolution.” As already mentioned, Nye is not clear on that. How might he respond to Plantinga?

He would likely exclaim that when science and religion are in conflict with one another, it is the religion that must go. But that is easier said than done. Beyond societal and emotional causes for belief in God and Christianity in particular, many believers are convinced that the scientific endeavor is impossible apart from a theistic worldview.

For example, what are we to make of the concern of the Scottish skeptic David Hume, who noted, “The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality…That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than the affirmation, that it will rise”? He continued, “As to past experience, it can be allowed to give direct and certain information of those precise objects only, and that precise period of time, which fell under its cognizance: but why this experience  should be extended to future times, and to other objects, which for aught we know, may be only in appearance similar; this is the main question on which I would insist.” Hume was sharp enough to see that inductive inferences involve a mighty assumption that the future will resemble the past. He was honest enough to admit that he had no reason for accepting that same assumption. But if we cannot move beyond the present testimony of our senses, we cannot make predictions concerning anything, and we have lost our basis for the scientific endeavor. Hume destroyed science with his so-called “problem of induction.”

Of course, if one is a Christian, then one believes that God has created and sustains the universe in an orderly fashion, enabling us to be confident about the future behavior of all of nature and the particular things within it, so that we can make successful scientific predictions without worrying about irrationality plaguing us at every step. This is just one example of how belief in God serves as a precondition for the intelligibility of science, rather than as a hindrance to it, as Nye would likely see things.

In my view, Cornelius Van Til is right about the quagmire of evolutionary debate when he writes, “It is quite hopeless to fight evolution in the public schools and think that in doing so you have gone to the bottom of the trouble. Back of evolution lie relativism and impersonalism.” (Cornelius Van Til, Foundations of Christian Education, 9) Back of relativism and impersonalism lie atheism. Naturalistic evolution is a symptom of a deep spiritual problem, not the problem itself.

(Originally posted at Choosing Hats August 29, 2012)

Pragmatic Apologetics?

‘Pragmatism’ pertains to what ‘works.’ Pragmatism is a philosophy of the practical. But what does it mean for something to ‘work’? Work for what? Work to what end?

With some solid goals in place we can see more clearly the practical value of our thoughts, words, and actions. It turns out they have some ‘cash value’ after all. We just have to be careful not to make a sort of ‘silo’ of knowledge pertaining purely to the practical.

When we posit pragmatism in terms of the Christian worldview we get a workable philosophy. Nothing is more practical than Christianity. It’s not a sin to point this out in our apologetic encounters, but it is probably a sin not to.

Historical Apologetics?

Biblical apologetics are historical apologetics. What do I mean? At least five points come to mind.

1. Apologetics are not Scripturalist.

Scripturalism is somewhat analogous to Scientism. Scientism has become a major religion in the West. Scientism is the belief that science is the only means to knowledge. (Of course, the claim, ‘Science is the only means to knowledge’ is itself unknowable through science, and hence scientism is self-refuting.) Scripturalism, then, is something like the belief that Scripture, or the Bible, is the only means to knowledge. The difficulty here is that the Bible itself rejects such a claim. Knowledge is available through God’s creation (e.g. Psalm 19, Romans 1.18ff) even outside of the Bible.

While God’s Word must be the very basis upon which apologetic encounters are carried forth, an apologist is more than warranted in using language, illustrations, arguments, and the like which are not immediately found in Scripture. In doing so, the apologist is standing between two worlds, taking the truth of God found in Scripture and applying it to his or her place in history. Apologetics are interpretive, applicative, contextual, constructive. Apologetics do not merely consist  of repeating passages of Scripture over and over again to unbelievers. They are used within one’s historical context.

2. Apologetics have been used throughout history.

They started in the Bible (e.g. Acts 17). They continued to be used in the early church. Justin Martyr is a notable apologist in history. Many others would follow. Apologetics were not always so radically divided from other theological disciplines in the past, because every discipline was a theological discipline. God was the end of knowledge. He still is, but we fail to recognize it in our modern and postmodern mindsets.

Apologetics are nothing new. Famous apologists litter every era of church history. Some of them were very bad, and others were very good. One cannot be dismissive of apologetics if one has any regard for the place of church history in current practice.

3. Apologetics assume the theological is historical.

Theological liberalism involves, among many other things, a rejection of the authority, infallibility, and/or inerrancy of Scripture. ‘Conservative’ Christians often ponder why theological ‘liberalism’ even exists. At least part of the reason liberalism exists is to satisfy apologetic concerns from an unbelieving human perspective. By driving a wedge between faith and reason, religion and science, and theology and history, liberals have attempted to ‘defend’ a version of ‘Christianity’ without really accepting it at all. In theological liberalism, the text of Scripture must be ‘demythologized.’ The supernatural is rejected in favor of a system of ethics based loosely upon the teachings of Jesus as interpreted by those who are themselves attempting to make moral determinations apart from the authority of God. Liberalism is an unbiblical form of apologetics that begins and ends with humans. It works from the ‘bottom up’ instead of from the ‘top down.’

A ‘top down’ approach to apologetics begins with the Bible and works out from there. The Bible knows nothing of a chasm between theology and history. Rather, God reveals Himself in and through the course of history, providentially guiding it and interpreting it for His glory and the good of His people. Some have understood apologetics to be the application of theology to unbelief. And so it is. But the theological is historical.

4. Apologetics assume the historical is theological.

The Bible records a great deal of history. That history is theologically interpreted. But interpreting the historical by the theological is not a practice that should end with the close of the canon of Scripture. Scripture remains the norma normans. Or, to move from the Latin to the cheesy, history is ‘His-story’ of which we are blessed to be a part. The story did not end with the Bible. Interpreting our own predicament in light of Scripture is the only way to be a biblically faithful Christian.

Recognizing that the historical is theological should give way to the prominence of biblical counseling amongst the carefully constructed and cold intellectual arguments used by many apologists. We have a place in God’s story. Since the historical is theological, apologetics are rigorously evidential in nature, but note that evidences cannot be divorced from their theological context and meaning. Cultural apologetics likewise find their home in the recognition that history does not operate in a vacuum, but in accord with the providential plan of God to bless people through following the principles set forth in His Word.

5. Apologetics are informed by historical theology.

People who believe that ‘the Bible, Jesus, and me’ is a good combination to create good doctrine are in reality setting themselves up to start a good cult. The Bible speaks of a Church founded by Jesus to help me understand the Bible. We find ourselves in a radically individualistic society. The rightful place of historical theology in the life of the Christian can hardly be overemphasized. People have read the Bible for thousands of years. They have interpreted it. They have applied its truths to their lives and societies. They have argued about it. They have debated it. They have thought through difficult subjects. God has blessed us with thousands of years of the testimony of the Church to assist us in constructive theology.

We need not jettison the aforementioned work when constructing an apologetic for the Christian faith. There is no question you or anyone else can ask regarding Christianity that has not already been raised and addressed in some form or fashion in church history. Stop being arrogant and start standing on the shoulders of giants. It is precisely because they miss the place of historical theology in apologetics that most unbelievers build such downright awful cases against Christianity. They are not actually attacking Christianity. They do not actually know Christianity. It’s not as though modern unbelievers are the first people to raise the questions or make the attacks they have. They are just generally ignorant of history. Familiarity with the God of history in church history is therefore an essential aspect of an effective biblical apologetic.

‘Biblical Apologetics’?

Perhaps more than any other qualifier, ‘biblical’ has fallen on hard times. The term is far too pious, and not nearly as descriptive as it may initially seem. But I make no apologies for using it. After all, WordPress was offering, there were no other takers, and I am not creative enough to think of a better title for this site.

More than that, one should be able to claim the Bible and not be eyed suspiciously. Right? Although ‘biblical’ does not say nearly enough about what one means by ‘biblical,’ there’s not a better place from which to start in apologetics, is there? I strive to make sure that my apologetics are ‘biblical’ and I make no apologies for that.

What, then, are ‘apologetics’? The term ‘apologetics’ means something like ‘defense.’ (Close enough for horseshoes and close enough for a blog post.) Thus, ‘biblical apologetics’ is an approach to defending something. Christianity.

If one were to set out to defend Christianity, then wouldn’t it make sense to do so from the standpoint of Christianity? If you have built a mighty fortress, and you desire to defend it, you aren’t going to step outside of the fortress to defend it, are you? So also when it comes to Christianity, one must offer a biblical defense of Christianity.

That’s what I intend to do here.

Welcome!