Results tagged “Apologetics” from Reformation21 Blog

Affirming Ignorance, Certainty and Intellectual Death


In Col 3:10, the apostle Paul describes one of the most stunning aspects of the Spirit's re-creative work in uniting us by faith to the risen Christ. In that verse, we read that the natural man is, by that Spirit, suddenly and irrevocably "renewed in knowledge after the image of Him who created him." 

This raises a key question: what does it mean to be "renewed in knowledge"?  Hodge answers admirably by clarifying the significance of the Greek preposition: "This renovation is said to be εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν, not in knowledge, much less by knowledge, but unto knowledge, so that he knows. Knowledge is the effect of the renovation spoken of" (Systematic Theology, 2:99). This is a renewal that issues in knowledge, a newfound knowledge that that is altogether true because it reflects the mind of God ("after the image of Him who created him").  In short, it is a God-given knowledge that self-consciously relates all created things to the God who gives this world its meaning and purpose.  

Prior to our fellowship with Christ, we knew things (and for some of us, many things) only so well, and in spite of our sinful impulse to deny the beauty and coherence of this dazzling theater of divine glory. But now in Christ we are enabled to see the world for what it really is and seek to live accordingly.  As Hodge goes on to say, "The knowledge here is not mere cognition. It is full, accurate, living, or practical knowledge" (ibid., 100). It is the kind of Spirit-fueled knowledge that qualifies the Christian to judge all things rightly (1 Cor 2:15), especially the goodness and majesty of God in Christ (John 17:3). As Francis Schaeffer might say, it is a true knowledge of true truth.

Lest the postmoderns pounce, we must be clear that such saving epistemic renewal in no way derives from an autonomous appropriation of self-evident principles, nor does it transform Christians into paragons of genius. But neither does it lead to wimpish shoulder-shrugging as we blissfully affirm one other's ignorance! Rather, by this epistemic recreation in the Christian the Spirit infallibly and progressively opens to him the infinite implications of Christ's triumph as far as the curse is found (John 16:13), resulting in deepening praise and increasing humility in the hearts of those who bow before the One who is Truth itself (John 14:6). Contrary to the shifting winds of our hyper-hermeneutical age, we can indeed have certainty concerning the things taught by the Spirit (Luke 1:4; cf. Acts 2:36). 

With such truth in mind (!), I heartily recommend listening to a chapel message by Dr. James Anderson of RTS-Charlotte--wonderfully titled, "The  Atheist's Guide to Intellectual Suicide." In this crisp, 30-minute message, Dr. Anderson very helpfully unpacks the biblical teaching that the atheist's denial of God's self-revelation is, as Dr. Anderson provocatively puts it, "the philosophical equivalent of lopping your head off." In fact, to the extent an atheist still speaks, he shows himself not only to be intellectually moribund, but self-contradictory as well. Don't believe it? Have a listen for yourself! While I might quibble with Dr. Anderson's language of common sense (preferring instead the language of common grace) your time will be well spent.

*This post originally appeared at Reformation21 in September of 2012. 

Van Til's Limiting Concept


I have recently been wading into the thought of the 20th century Reformed theologian Cornelius Van Til in order to consider his use of the term "limiting concept." These words appear throughout his collected works, both in his full-length books and his shorter articles. Our ability to define them is therefore key to understanding both Van Til and his successors in the theological world. I will attempt to explain this notion for you, and I must begin by stating that it was not Van Til who first developed it.

Kant's View of the Limiting Concept

The principle of a limiting concept was first suggested by Immanuel Kant, the famous German philosopher. Kant's influence was so great that nearly every philosopher who has come after him has been forced to respond to his work in some way, either by integrating it into his or her own philosophical program or reacting against it. It is nearly impossible to overstate Kant's influence on the thought patterns of the modern world, and one of the things he is best known for is his differentiation of the phenomenal and the noumenal in his work Critique of Pure Reason.

Kantian terminology can be very difficult to understand, and I certainly do not claim to be an expert, but I will give it a go. The phenomenal world, according to Kant, is that which can be perceived with our senses. In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant associates the phenomenal with "sensuous intuitions"1 and "the medium of sense".2 But Kant also draws a distinction between "external objects in space" which "might be a mere delusion" and "the object of my internal perception" which "is undeniably real".3 So far, perhaps so confusing.

Of greater interest to us is the noumenal world (also referred to as "the true world"), which is beyond the power of the human senses to perceive or experience. The key Kantian term here is the "thing in itself", first mentioned in this passage:

"That space and time are only forms of sensible intuition, and hence are only conditions of the existence of things as phenomena; that, moreover, we have no conceptions of the understanding, and, consequently, no elements for the cognition of things, except in so far as a corresponding intuition can be given to these conceptions; that, accordingly, we can have no cognition of an object, as a thing in itself, but only as an object of sensible intuition, that is, as phenomenon--all this is proved in the analytical part of the Critique..."4 

What you should take away from that paragraph is Kant's clear statement that we can only know an object as a sensible intuition or phenomenon--that is, we can only know what our senses perceive. Anything beyond that is not a phenomenon, but a noumenon or thing in itself.

"Noumenon, plural Noumena, in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the thing-in-itself (das Ding an sich) as opposed to what Kant called the phenomenon--the thing as it appears to an observer. Though the noumenal holds the contents of the intelligible world, Kant claimed that man's speculative reason can only know phenomena and can never penetrate to the noumenon. Man, however, is not altogether excluded from the noumenal because practical reason--i.e., the capacity for acting as a moral agent--makes no sense unless a noumenal world is postulated in which freedom, God, and immortality abide."5 

From that encyclopedia definition, we can see that in Kant's philosophy God, the spiritual dimension, and abstract concepts belong to the noumenal world rather than the phenomenal world. They are therefore not subject to the perceptive powers of "pure reason" but can only be considered part of "practical reason", the medium through which we act as moral agents, again referring back to that encyclopedia definition.

Now, you will be hard pressed to find the term "limiting concept" in Critique of Pure Reason, but you will find many references to the limits placed upon human reason and sensibility. That which falls beyond the limits of our experience would, for Kant, be a limiting concept. Therefore, as God belongs to the noumenal world along with every other thing in itself, he must be considered a limiting concept.

William Edgar argues in his notes to the second edition of Cornelius Van Til's Introduction to Systematic Theology that, "For Kant, a limiting concept means a barrier beyond which human reason cannot go. God, as a concept, limits human thought, whether or not he exists."6 Note the interesting wrinkle that what exists in the true world of the noumenal may be either God or simply the idea of God, but it limits us in both cases.

Kant was living in the midst of the Scientific Revolution, and one general interpretation of his philosophy is that he hoped to preserve God (or simply belief in God) by placing him in this other realm which is not subject to the dictates of pure reason. The result was that God became essentially unknowable in Kantian philosophy. One might even say, according to this viewpoint, that his existence is non-confirmable.

Van Til's View of the Limiting Concept

Against this definition of Kant, we must raise the definition of Cornelius Van Til. In his works, Van Til attributed the origin of the term to Kant but also stated that the Christian notion of a limiting concept was completely different.

"If we hold to a theology of the apparently paradoxical we must also hold, by consequence, to the Christian notion of a limiting concept. The non-Christian notion of the limiting concept has been developed on the basis of the non-Christian conception of mystery. By contrast we may think of the Christian notion of the limiting concept as based upon the Christian conception of mystery. The non-Christian notion of the limiting concept is the product of would-be autonomous man who seeks to legislate for all reality, but bows before the irrational as that which he has not yet rationalized. The Christian notion of the limiting concept is the product of the creature who seeks to set forth in systematic form something of the revelation of the Creator."7 

Note here that when Van Til speaks of a "non-Christian notion of the limiting concept", he is thinking back to Kant and other philosophers. Particularly disagreeable to Van Til was the method of thought known as dialecticism, but some extra explanation is needed here. The dialectic method of logic goes all the way back to ancient Greece, where it was employed by Socrates. Two different people would debate, hence the term dialectic, which in the original Greek simply referred to conversation. (Compare with the word dialect.) However, later philosophers such as Kant and G.W.F. Hegel adjusted the meaning of dialecticism to fit their own needs. It gradually came to refer to a process by which two opposing ideas are brought into conflict with one another until they form a synthesis.

By the time Van Til came on the scene, he perceived a dialectical school of theology that was taking hold. He objected to the tendency of this viewpoint to place the relative and the absolute in conflict with one another and to accept outright contradiction within theology. In one passage, he bemoaned, "I know it is the fashion of dialectical theology taught at the New Princeton, based as it is on existential philosophy, to reject the idea of God as he is in himself except as a limiting concept. But then that is not the theology of Hepp, of Machen, of Calvin, of Paul."8 The "New Princeton" was Princeton Theological Seminary, the institution from which Van Til had departed due to its liberalization.

In his work Common Grace and the Gospel, Van Til explained how the proper Christian view of paradox--that is, two spiritual truths that stand in apparent tension with one another--differs from the outright contradiction of the dialectic school.

"It might seem at first glance as though we were willing, with the dialectical theologians, to accept the really contradictory. Yet such is not the case. In fact we hold that our position is the only position that saves one from the necessity of ultimately accepting the really contradictory. We argue that unless we may hold to the presupposition of the self-contained ontological trinity, human rationality itself is a mirage. But to hold to this position requires us to say that while we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory we embrace with passion the idea of the apparently contradictory. It is through the latter alone that we can reject the former."9 (italics in original)

Van Til was prepared to embrace the apparently contradictory in theology, which we might call the paradoxical. In the passage above, he provides the "self-contained ontological trinity" as an example. Christians confess that the Triune God is one God in three Persons, or to speak more technically, the divine substance is equally shared by the three Persons without creating any parts in the Godhead. Speaking this way can seem nonsensical to human beings. How can one thing also be three things? Well, it is not three things. It is one thing, but it is three Persons. This is a clear paradox from a human perspective: two truths arranged in apparent tension with one another, beyond the power of human reason to fully comprehend.

A Muslim would charge that this view of a Trinitarian God is an outright contradiction rather than simply an apparent one. Indeed, Muslims often state that Christians worship three Gods, knowingly or unknowingly. Unitarians have gone the opposite route of removing the personal distinctions altogether. But Van Til would argue that the paradox must be embraced, for the Trinitarian God is not an outright contradiction, but only an apparent one. It is just this kind of theological paradox that caused Van Til to coin the term limiting concept to refer to two truths which must be understood in relation to one another.

According to Van Til, a limiting concept "should never be employed to do duty by itself,"10 but must be viewed in light of its paired limiting concept. Such a concept is "apparently paradoxical"11 and "incomplete without its correlative". 12 Indeed, two limiting concepts should "be regarded as implying one another."13 

In his explanatory notes on Van Til's Introduction to Systematic Theology, William Edgar writes, "A 'limiting concept' for Van Til is one that needs another if it is to be properly understood. It implies a complementarity. For example, one part of the Bible will not be properly understood without the other parts."14 K. Scott Oliphint also discusses the term in his notes on The Defense of the Faith.

"Though for Kant a limiting concept presupposed his agnosticism with respect to our knowledge of the noumenal, for Van Til a limiting concept is that which is, at one and the same time, determined and defined by another, limiting, concept. Thus, the doctrine of election is a limiting concept with respect to our choices. It should be remembered that limiting concepts are not necessarily on a par with each other. God's election precedes our choices. Given creation, however, one (freedom) is defined and determined by the other (election)."15 

It should be noted that at various points in his writings, Van Til uses the terms "limiting or supplementative concepts" as well as "limiting notion" fairly synonymously. Whether this reflects an ongoing development in his thought or simply an effort to better explain his meaning, I cannot say.

What is of greater interest is the variety of examples Van Til gives of limiting concepts in theology. Here are just a few that are mentioned in the three works I have referenced.

  • Predestination and free agency
  • Regenerate and unregenerate consciousness
  • Different portions of scripture
  • Natural and supernatural revelation
  • Innate and acquired knowledge of God

Many more could certainly be mined from the totality of Van Til's work.

Conclusion: A Useful Concept?

Van Til's notion of the limiting concept is useful to us to the extent that it helps reveal how apparent contradictions in scripture or theology can be harmonized with one another. However, like so many theological principles, the limiting concept could be misapplied, in this case allowing for what Van Til would consider outright (rather than apparent) contradiction. Again, I am not suggesting that a proper use of limiting concepts would produce this result, but rather an improper use.

A key part of Van Til's Christian notion of the limiting concept requires us to harmonize different scriptural passages by considering them to be limiting concepts of one another. For example, when Paul writes that "man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law" (Romans 3:28) and James writes that "faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself", (James 2:17) we understand that those two passages only present an apparent contradiction. In reality, they are in harmony with one another. However, simply acknowledging that fact does not tell us which passage should be understood more "literally" (to use a popular but somewhat misleading term), or if they may in fact be addressing two different circumstances.

Clearly, the task of interpretation is not entirely removed by appeal to the limiting concept. Therefore, when you see the words limiting concept being used to discuss theology, take care to note the type of hermeneutic the author is using to harmonize the apparent contradictions of scripture, and whether it is indeed the correct one.

There you have it. Go forth and read!

All scripture passages are from the 1995 New American Standard Bible, copyright the Lockman Foundation.


1. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason, Aegitas Kindle Edition (Toronto: Aegitas Digital Publishing, 2016), 40.

2.  Kant 57

3.  Kant 51

4.  Kant 15

5.  "Noumenon" in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed 10 July 2019.

6. Van Til, Cornelius. An Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God, Second Edition, ed. William Edgar (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2007), 68, n. 25.

7.  Van Til, Cornelius. Common Grace and the Gospel (Nutley, NJ: P&R, 1972), 11.

8.  Van Til, Cornelius. The Defense of the Faith, Fourth Edition, ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2008), 396.

9.  Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 9.

10.  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 68.

11.  Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 11.

12.  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 171.

13.  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 136.

14.  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 136, n. 51.

15.  Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 71, n. 46.

The Right Side of History?


The expression "on the right side of history" is an important tool today used by the progressive elite to silence biblically faithful Christians. Never mind that it rests on significant religious assumptions. After all, no one can prove that history is inexorably going somewhere. Large segments of the world's population reject this idea. The better part of the non-Christian world believes that history is circular. Since it can't be proved that history is going somewhere, it is de facto a religious assumption. The progressives hold it by faith, and by doing so they are acting contrary to their own secular presuppositions.

Nevertheless, we are grateful that the progressives now agree with Christians that history is heading somewhere, and that it's end will be just and morally beneficial. Nevertheless, they have borrowed this assumption from the Christian worldview, and now ironically uses it to pound us into submission. Believers have solid grounds to push back.

Whenever someone says "I am on the right side of history" they are presuming that their understanding of right and wrong is the same as whoever or whatever is in control of history. Since a large number of those who have adopted this phrase are self-avowed atheists, agnostics, or religious liberals their use of this phrase is fundamental hypocrisy. If there is no personal God, history is going nowhere, or at best it is moving randomly. And even if it is going somewhere, on the basis of the left's confessed worldview, they should have no way of knowing where it is going.

In effect the speaker is saying, "If you're smart, you will get on my side before it's too late, before the inevitability of history tramples you under its hobnailed boots." The secular world assumes "that history marches with them," writes Jay Nordlinger. "Get out of the way or be crushed."1 The phrase is used to bully those who doubt the rightness or wrongness of gay marriage, abortion, firearm ownership, LGBT rights, taxing the rich, ending the death penalty, advancing socialism or a variety of any other progressive causes.

A Need for Humility

However, because most that have employed this expression in the past have been dead wrong, it would behoove the secular world to use it with humility. For example, The French Revolution at the end of the 18th century was utterly convinced that it was on the "right side of history." It dissolved the French Monarchy, and devastated Europe with the Napoleonic Wars, but the progressive changes that the "revolution" assumed were on the "right side of history" were dead on arrival within a few decades.

Oxford historian Andrew Roberts observes that the phrase, "the right side of history" is "profoundly Marxian."2  The followers of Karl Marx insisted that a Communist Worker's Paradise was history's inevitable terminus. Alas, as I write there are only a handful of Communists countries remaining, and communism will soon be shown to have been, not on the right side of history, but on the dust bin of history.  Jesse Jackson, while running for president in 1984 said that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua were on the "right side of history." The Sandinistas are now a soon-to-be-forgotten footnote to history, and it has only been a few decades.

The truth is just the opposite. "The right side of history" is a useful expression, but only Christians have a spiritual right, an historical right, and the duty to say that they are on "the right side of history."

A Spiritual Right

First, only Christians have a spiritual right to this phrase. The God of the Bible is the God of history. He created time and space "ex nihilo." Because only He is in control of history, only He can determine the future. That is one reason God fortells the future through the prophets--to prove to us that he is in control of the future--that it is actually going somewhere, and that only He knows when and where it will arrive.

For example, through the prophet Isaiah, several decades before it happened, God predicted the destruction of Israel at the hand of Assyria. He called the Assyrians a "tool" of judgment (Isaiah 10:5-19). Then, 150 years before it happened, he predicted that Babylon, whom he would also raise up, would destroy Judah and Jerusalem (Isaiah 14:3-23). Then around 740 BC, 250 years before it happened, he predicted that Cyrus, king of Persia, would return the Jews from captivity. All of these events occurred exactly as predicted.

Most importantly, in great detail, centuries before it happened, through his prophets, God predicted the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. How could God do this? God could do this because he alone is in total control of history. His ability to predict the future certifies this truth. (See Isaiah 44:7-8, 45:21, 46:9-10 for God's claim to be Lord of History). Since he alone knows the beginning from the end, only those aligned with his will and purposes have a spiritual right to say that they are on the "right side of history."

A Historical Right

Second, only Christians have a historical right to this phrase. Since the time of Christ, the Christian religion has dominated world history. God also predicted that this would be the case.

Jesus likened his kingdom to a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, which would slowly mature throughout history into a dominant tree in whom the birds (symbolizing the nations) would eventually make their nests (Matthew 13:31-32). And, in fact, this is exactly what has happened. From where did the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, and political freedom arise? Western Christian culture. From what culture have the dominant nations come in the last millennium? Not from Muslim culture. Not from Hindu, Buddhist, or Shinto culture. Not from the Enlightenment Culture. Why not? Because only Christ is the Lord of History. Because Jesus died and rose from the dead, God has given him "all authority in heaven and on earth," and he exercises that authority on behalf of cultures sympathetic to, and influenced by, his gospel.

That is why only Christians have an historical right to the phrase, "The right side of history."

A Moral Duty

Last, Christians have a moral duty to use this phrase. There is a "right side of history," and it has a terminus--a Day of Final Judgment. On that Day those not reconciled to God by faith in the work of his Son Jesus Christ will "enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth" (Isaiah 2:19). Though we may find this an unpleasant thought, it does not for a second mitigate its truthfulness.

A day of final reckoning quickly approaches. Will you, your loved ones, and your friends be on "the right side of history?" Wise men and women tremble at the thought of being on the wrong side.

For this reason, God's people--and only God's people--have a moral imperative to use this term. Why aren't we? Why do we cower in fear before our opponents when they talk about being on the "right side of history?" In other words, we need to urge our neighbors to be on the right side of history--the biblical side of history.

I sometimes fear that the culture warriors are motivated more than we, and this should not be the case. Why? Because eternity hangs in the balance. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ," warned the great apostle, "so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil" (2 Corinthians 5:10). 

In the end, the progressive spokespersons are correct. There is a right side of history. But they must first admit that their own worldview gives them no right to use this phrase. They have essentially borrowed from the Christian worldview. According to Scripture, only true Christians are on the right side of history.

The only people on the "right side of history" are those who have humbled themselves, confessed their sin, and believed the gospel. Gospel grace has taught them "to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age." We alone hope in the true culmination of history, "the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:12-13). On that Day God will create New Heavens and a New Earth. There those on the "right side of history" will join him with "joy inexpressible and full of glory" (1 Peter 1:8).

Only Christians have a spiritual right, an historical right, and the moral duty to say they are on "the right side of history." Let's use this phrase with solemnity, humility, and perseverance.

1. National "The Right Side of History," March 31, 2011, Jay Nordlinger

2. National Review, Nordlinger

When Dead Men Speak...


I just finished watching the TV miniseries Chernobyl. I was brought to tears by the end of the series. In the final episode (spoiler alert, the reactor explodes), Legasov, the nuclear expert rises to speak before the Soviet tribunal tasked with determining whose fault the explosion of Chernobyl was. Legasov is a dying man. He had stood in the shadow of Chernobyl during the cleanup as untold amounts of radiation rained down upon him. At one point he acknowledged that just being in that place basically meant he would only live another five years, tops.

And Legasov stands to speak before the court. The truth is, the explosion happened, in part because of ambitious bureaucrats who disregarded the safety of others. But it happened ultimately because the Soviet government decided to cut corners and save a little money. He has been instructed by the KGB that he must not say this. He may not tell the truth. It will embarrass mother Russia.

And in a pivotal scene he decides to tell the truth even though the KGB will likely imprison or torture him. He tells the truth because he believes it will save countless lives. He tells the truth because he hopes it will motivate the Soviet government to make a change... to repair the 16 other RBMK reactors all over the Soviet Union so that nothing like Chernobyl would ever happen again. And as he stands to speak he decides to tell the truth. And we as the viewer know why he can tell the truth: because he knows that he is dying. What can they do to Legasov that the radiation has not already done? What can they do to this dying man who already is living with a death sentence? What more can they take from him? His life? He's already lost it.

Legasov can tell the truth because he is a dead man. And dead men can tell the truth, and Chernobyl ends on this note of the importance of truth and the price of lies.

This idea has me thinking about current events, especially this month. With the arrival of Gay Pride month lots of brands have begun to send the signal that they have heard the cultural message and are prepared to signal that they are on what they believe will be the "right side of history." Logos are being painted with rainbow imagery. Messages are being posted to indicate that this house has paid the cultural tax and is no enemy of the sexual LGBT revolution.

I attended a Christian liberal arts college--it was relatively conservative. I had classmates with lots of different perspectives when it came to Christianity, and I knew many of them to be what I would uncharitably term "weak kneed" in the face of the authority of Scripture, the nature of God, and of course biblical teaching on human sexuality. Many of those friends are predictably flying the rainbow flag this month. Then I had other friends I did not expect to see caving on this issue--friends I was close to and thought I knew to be firm in their biblical convictions. I thought that, of all those people I know, at least they would care nothing about what the world thinks of them. However, as it has turned out in some cases, I was wrong. This unexpected effect of the rising tide of sexual revolution has left me surprised and sorrowful. For the first time since I was in college, I feel as though the rising tide has swept my comrades out to sea, and I wonder how many more will be next.

I know that there have always been times when God's people felt like the only ones holding the line in the face of immense pressure. As He said to Elijah, I know that the Lord would say today, "I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal." That is what I know. I see those faithful ones in my own denomination who are holding the line. And yet at this moment I cannot resist the feeling that the cultural revolution really is really is sweeping up those who formerly held fast to the Scriptures... it really is the new standard of the day. The pressure is immense. 

Like Legasov, I can tell the truth because I am a dead man. Yes, the KGB is standing right over there telling me I'd better speak the party line or else. But I can tell the truth because I am a dead man. I may live another 50 years, and those could become deeply unpleasant years for someone who believes that God gives us morality, not the urges and opinions of the mob. Yes, that mob may compare me to a Nazi or white supremacist (the worst of them already do). Yes, my children will be insulted (if they are faithful) and potentially mistreated because they believe God and not man. No, I will never get a glowing obituary in the New York Times when I die, celebrating my courage and bravery to question the old dusty truths that modernity has long since rejected in favor of a more enlightened perspective that attacks Scripture while pacifying the mob.

I may never receive that respect...those accolades...and--to be honest--the part of me that does want to be lauded by the crowds grimaces at the thought - who wants to die a villain? Nevertheless, I know that I have a few breaths to speak as "a dying man to dying men." The radiation may not take me, but the grave is coming nonetheless. If it isn't an RBMK reactor that takes me it will be something else. I am a dead man. And we are all dead men. And once we are in the grave, the accolades of society, the weeping masses who were inspired by our bravery in questioning God's Word, and the pundits who respected and applauded us for promoting and spreading lies will give us no comfort. In that moment, all that will matter is the truth: were we willing to speak it, did we believe it, and what will happen to us now? In that sense, death is the great equalizer, isn't it? No more mob justice to bully us into submission, no more angry placard carrying protestors to shout us down until we repent. Just the clean court of truth and justice: "What was the truth, and did we tell it?"

Christians, let me encourage you, God has saved for himself seven thousand who haven't bowed the knee to Baal. Resolve to be part of that faithful group and speak truth to a society full of lies because you are already dead men.

Reforming Apologetics


J.V. Fesko, Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019. 250pp. Paperback.

Christians often polarize one another over their approaches to apologetics. While different apologetic schools compete for dominance in Reformed churches, contextual studies of classic Reformed thought on the subject are often missing from current conversations. John Fesko seeks to fill this gap by exploring and retrieving classic Reformed ideas and bringing them to bear on modern debates. His particular focus is on retrieving the "book of nature primarily for use in defending the faith" (4). He argues ultimately that we should use the book of nature in conjunction with the book of Scripture to follow the example of our Reformed fathers in the task of defending the faith. Even those who disagree with Fesko will have to reckon seriously with his careful and wide-reaching historical and biblical analysis.

Fesko develops his subject clearly and well. In eight chapters he takes readers through the light of nature, common notions, John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, the concept of Christian worldview, transcendental arguments, dualisms, and the book of nature as it comes to bear on apologetics. From the perspectives of systematic and historical theology, Fesko seeks to recover a classical Reformed approach to defending the faith, with a special emphasis on the use of natural theology in apologetics (xii). He devotes particular attention to the idealist background and historical context of the thought of Herman Dooyeweerd and Cornelius Van Til, offering both appreciation and critique along the way. One great strength of Fesko's research is that while he appeals to specific authors to guide his narrative, he does not rely on them exclusively. He draws from a vast amount of contemporary authors to show clear trajectories, and diversity, among the theologians he cites. This makes his conclusions more solid and satisfying, especially with regard to the teaching of classic Reformed orthodoxy. Another useful, though likely controversial, aspect of this book is that the author not only places Reformed authors in context, but he evaluates Van Til and others in context as well. He shows ably why older Reformed authors accepted the idea of common notions in fallen people by virtue of the remnants of the image of God in them as well as why later post-Enlightenment authors rejected these ideas. Appropriately, he closes his book with an exhortation to humility and Christ-likeness in our apologetic endeavors (215-218).

Fesko's treatment of Thomas Aquinas is particularly illuminating. Most Reformed historical theologians and systematicians do not have first hand knowledge of Aquinas's writings. Fesko remedies this to a large extent by bringing Aquinas into conversation both with Reformed historical theology and contemporary apologetics. While critiquing Van Til's reading of Aquinas as overly dependent on secondary literature, he argues that "Van Til and Aquinas have more in common than most assume" (72). Both rested on the foundation of Scripture and of faith seeking understanding (95). Both also used the language and categories of the philosophy of their times. The fact that Thomas wrote his Summa as a guide to understand Scripture, which he augmented with his biblical lectures, corroborates this idea beyond the evidence Fesko provides. Calvin later followed a similar method. Agree or disagree with Fesko, understanding Aquinas on his own terms and in his own context is an important piece of our Catholic Christian legacy that must enter into such discussions.

This book has been well-anticipated and I have rarely seen a book gain more attention prior to its publication. It is a good model of how to present historical ideas in their contexts and to bring them into conversation with contemporary issues without sacrificing proper historical method. Fesko's research may prove earth-shattering to some and at least earth-quaking to others. His arguments from primary sources are compelling and they ring true with this reviewer's own research in classic Reformed authors as well as Thomas Aquinas. Whether or not one fully agrees with the author's conclusions about apologetics, readers of every persuasion cannot afford to pass it by as they grapple with the implications of Reformed theology for defending the faith.

Ryan M. McGraw

Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary


Dogmatic Art


As I've been reading through G.K. Chesterton's book Heretics, I was interested to happen upon his treatment of dogmatism and the arts. Reflecting on his consideration of the life and work of Rudyard Kipling, Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, Chesterton wrote:

"The fiercest dogmatists can make the best artists. In the fin de siecle atmosphere every one was crying out that literature should be free from all causes and all ethical creeds. Art was to produce only exquisite workmanship, and it was especially the note of those days to demand brilliant plays and brilliant short stories. And when they got them, they got them from a couple of moralists. The best short stories were written by a man trying to preach Imperialism. The best plays were written by a man trying to preach Socialism. All the art of all the artists looked tiny and tedious beside the art which was a byproduct of propaganda.

The reason, indeed, is very simple. A man cannot be wise enough to be a great artist without being wise enough to wish to be a philosopher. A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it."1

The simple profundity of this observation ought not be missed. While many of us have bought into a late-modern narrative that the art world is essentially subjective, visual and feeling-driven, we should remember that--as Chesterton noted--"the fiercest dogmatists" have made the best artists. There is something deeply philosophical, ethical and thought-provoking about the most renown art. Which, if I have understood the point correctly, means that when Christians engage in the world of artistic workmanship, there ought to be a transcendent excellence to what they produce. After all, theology is nothing other than divinely inspired philosophy--enabling us to rightly interpret and portray the world and its inhabitants as God intended. 

1. G.K. Chesterton Heretics (New York: John Lane Company, 1905) pp. 288-289

Reason, Revelation and the Resurrection


I recently read a short article on Biologos entitled On What Basis Should A Scientist Accept The Resurrection? A composite piece written by a number of Biologos contributors, the article sets out an argument for the basis for and authority upon which the scientist should accept an historical resurrection. The authors encourage the scientist to "evaluate data." They explain, "an open-minded person will find impressive historical evidence consistent with the resurrection." Again, "But for those who are open, such evidence provides a reasonable basis for belief, so that, as the Gospel of John says, 'believing, you may have life in His [Jesus's] name' (John 20:31)." The article purports to assess and evaluate the historical data for the resurrection. This available data is the ground upon which scientists and "open minded" people should believe in the resurrection and thus follow Christ. While all of this sounds reasonable, several methodological and presuppositional problems arise from the arguments make in the article.

First, the presupposition that some are "open minded." Given its view of origins, Biologos is not known for its rigorous biblical anthropology. Thus, its designation that some are open- minded enough to be swayed by good historical evidence really misses the Biblical mark. We see here the bent of these brethren: seeking to make the gospel palatable and credible to a reasonable but unbelieving mind, they have, in Bultmann-esque style, stripped the Bible of anything that might cause modern man an offense (can you say 'resurrection'?). In place is a presentation of independent, historical evidence, which will sway the open-minded. Excising the supernatural work of Father, Son and Spirit in the resurrection of Christ, they direct the reader to simply look at evidences to the resurrection, as if by independent and reasonable examination of such, one will come to saving faith. Scripture's diagnosis of man is just not that positive (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Eph. 2:1; 1 Cor. 2:14ff). That is the first problem. 

The second problem is that the authors' historical evidence, in some cases, is exceedingly weak. Said weakness is revealed in arguments from silence and conjecture. These arguments are, by no means, persuasive: "Had the body been stolen, it would have been relatively easy to locate the body but that never happened;" and "The quickest way to discredit the new Jesus movement would have been to produce physical evidence that Jesus had indeed remained dead. No one did this." The article argues that reasonable people, open-minded people will respond well to such arguments for the resurrection. I am a Christian, and speaking frankly, I don't respond well to such arguments. If those in essential agreement with the historicity of the resurrection do not think the argument sound, how much less the skeptic? Is this really reasonable evidence for reasonable people?

The third problem lies in the fact this historical evidence is derived from, and more frequently goes by a different name: Holy Scripture. The data in the article is called "historical" but it is largely derived from Scripture itself! Details concerning expectations of the Messiah, of the death process of crucifixion and of the empty tomb are all "biblical" data! Now while Scripture is historical, in the article these biblical examples are largely presented as independent sources. However, they do not come to us independent of Scripture, much less independent of God, yet they are held out as "historical" facts without any concession to or apparent realization that they are fundamentally Scriptural evidences. It doesn't take a genius to get past this rhetorical sleight of hand.  

Granted there are some arguments in the article which appear to be genuinely historical: "Virtually all historians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person in 1st Century Palestine." This is grand claim. Which historians believe this? I seriously doubt that a survey of the academy would justify this claim, but at least it is a claim independent of the authority of Scripture. It is, in fact, one of the article's rare historical claims.

Rather, the "evidence" presented in the article is Scripture itself. Why not just say so? Why not simply state, and state boldly that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is chiefly found in Scripture, which in the hands of the Holy Spirit will transform the lives of sinners?  Simply put, for Biologos to base their argument on the authority of Scripture opens them to the mockery and ridicule of a skeptical world, the very same they are trying to avoid.

This seems, rather too much, like having one's cake and eating it. One cannot, with any credibility before the believing or unbelieving world, cite Scriptural evidence for the resurrection while doing everything to avoid using concepts like the authority of Scripture . By all means we may use historical evidences to assist in our understanding of Scripture. We may use archaeology, geology, and the like to assist our interpretation of Scripture. However, Scripture, inspired by God as it is, cannot be made subject to general revelation.

Biologos, as an institution has firmly enthroned their interpretation of natural revelation over that of special revelation. This article is itself historical evidence of the subjugation of special revelation by these kinds of arguments.

I applaud Biologos's attempt to reach the lost and declare truth to them. I hope it is true that their motivations for such are honorable and God-honoring. Yet, attempts like this do not help their agenda; rather, they hinder it. In short, they, and we - the church - must do much better than this. Allowing Scripture to be Scripture, trusting what God has said He can and will do in it and through, seems to me a far better platform upon which to base our apologetics and evangelism.

To Know Ourselves...


Calvin's Institutes opens with a strikingly important sentence--crafted first by a young man in his mid-twenties and only fine tuned between its first appearance in 1536 and its final expression a few years before his death. Wisdom--the knowledge coupled with practical understanding and piety that is the underlying concern of the entire project--involves knowing God and knowing ourselves. Truly to know ourselves we need to know God; come to know God and at last we see ourselves in our true context.

The thought--as commentators on the Institutes point out--is not entirely original.  But its roots (as they do not always note) go way beyond the Augustinian tradition of theology, to the opening chapter of the Bible.  God made man as his image (Gen. 1:26). Our creation, our very being, is defined by that relationship to him. Living makes sense and gives joy only when we live out that relationship before him.  So the question "What is man?" must be answered by a sentence that has a reference to God in it.

When, in the pursuit of the project of the self, we a priori exclude the person of God we not only cut ourselves off from knowing him, but from knowing ourselves. The project ends in frustration.  Fulfilled life requires that we know God in Jesus Christ (Jn 17:3).  By implication, exclude him and we lose all sense of proportion. For when we measure ourselves by ourselves we turn out to be the ideal height! But when we are persuaded that God is the fountain of every good, and we seek and find him (or are found by him), then, says Calvin, we begin to taste "complete happiness." Only then will we gladly give ourselves to the Lord. 

Who Is He?

If my first question about God is "What is he?" then I am already mistaken. The really important question is "Who is he?" "What is God like?" The biblical answer is that he is the fountain of all good and that he reveals himself as such in creation.  Yes he is a Judge. The naïve reader would expect Calvin to stress that! But grasp this: God is in himself so very good that "even if there were no Hell Christian believers would shudder to offend him." Yes, he  is that good!

Of course, all men know there is a God. (And, paradoxically, idolatry is one of the clearest proofs of that.) For a certain knowledge of him (albeit not covenant fellowship, not saving knowledge) is inescapable.

For one thing, we are his image. The sense of dependence on him and duty to him is engraved in us and can never be effaced, albeit we repress and stifle it. The echoes of our destiny and calling to live as God's image can never be silenced, never finally repressed, no matter how hard we try.

Moreover since the entire created cosmos is the theater of his revealed glory, there is no "where" we can go without being confronted by his handiwork. His autograph is everywhere. There is no "where" to hide. Take the wings of the morning, travel faster than the speed of light to the uttermost parts of the earth--and his revelation awaits us the moment we land!  It is not just in Brooklyn that there is No Last Exit! But why would we ever want to escape from the God who is the fountain of all good?

Who are We?

Man is God's image. The implanted knowledge of God is universal. Yes, perverted and fragmented by the fall, but still real..  It gives rise to the seed of religion, notes Calvin.  An instinct to praise and worship is inbuilt in all men.  Testimony to it is seen in distorted form in idolatry (whether devotion to possessions or to the Philadelphia 76rs!) as well as in true worship. In a thousand different ways humanity manifests its lesser devotions. For if we will not worship the Creator we must worship something--the creature (Romans 1:25).  As Milton imaginatively expresses it in Paradise Lost, having refused to bow to the Lord and his word, as Eve turns from the tree whose fruit she has stolen "she low obeisance made"--she who refused to worship the Creator (as C S Lewis pointed out in his Preface to Paradise Lost) now worships a vegetable!

In one way or another, as Calvin notes, recognition of God cannot be finally repressed and at times will be forced out of the mouths of even the reprobate. They cannot consistently maintain their denials of him. At the memorial service for the "atheist" British novelist Sir Kingsley Amis, his son Martin related how his father had been asked by the Russian author Yevgeni Yevtushenko if it were true he was an atheist. Sir Kingsley tellingly replied: "Yes. But it is more than that.  You see, I hate him!"

If indeed we are both surrounded and invaded by the revelation of God, the unbeliever's denial of God's existence will eventually show itself for what it really is--a refusal of Him.  We should always be on the lookout for that loose thread in the tapestry of the unbeliever's life and speech. It may require patience, but it may prove to be vital.

The heavens declare God's glory, and so the astronomer is also a theologian who explores the Book of Nature in which God has inscribed his glory. But "what is man that you care for him?" means that the anatomist who explores the intricate, even microscopic details of the human body, also studies the revelation of God.  Above and within man, God shows that he is our Father.  This is Calvin's heartbeat!  For, he notes, "no one gives himself freely and willingly to God's service unless, having tasted his fatherly love, he is drawn to worship and love him in return" (I. V. 3).

We have within ourselves a veritable divine "workshop."  Yet instead of praising him men swell with pride in themselves and find reasons for rejecting the revelation God has given to them.  Instead of acknowledging the true and living God men "substitute nature for God."

We have all seen or heard it.  A secular naturalist engages in the activities Calvin here describes--whether by exploring the heavens or investigating things on earth. Insects and animals with the most limited mental capacity are said to engage in all kinds of detailed logical thinking as they develop coping mechanisms in a hostile environment. And as the program ends the naturalist comments "And so again we find ourselves saying 'Isn't Mother Nature wonderful?"

But who, one might ask, is Mother Nature? Why is her name always capitalized? On what logic has our agnostic or atheist presenter smuggled in his or her appeal to the transcendent? How profoundly true are Paul's words that men exchange the truth about God for the lie. Mother Nature? Or, Father God?

*This post is an adaptation of several posts in a series first published at Reformation21 in 2009.



With Anatheism: Returning to God after God, Richard Kearney carries on a tradition of philosophy "after the death of God." Building upon philosophers such as Paul Ricoeur and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Kearney finds himself squarely within the continental tradition of philosophy of religion. Kearney opens Anatheism with the following sentiment:

"What comes after God? What follows in the wake of our letting go of God? What emerges out of that night of not-knowing, that moment of abandoning and abandonment? Especially for those who--after ridding themselves of "God"--still seek God? That is the question I wish to pursue in this volume. And, so doing, I propose the possibility of a third way beyond the extremes of dogmatic theism and militant atheism: those polar opposites of certainty that have maimed so many minds and souls in our history. This third option, the wager of faith beyond faith, I call anatheism. Ana-theos, God after God. Ana-theism: another word for another way of seeking and sounding the things we consider sacred but can never fully fathom or prove. Another idiom for receiving back what we've given up as if we were encountering it for the first time. Just as Abraham received back Isaac as gift, having given him up as patriarchal project. In short, another way of retuning to a God beyond or beneath the God we thought we possessed."2

In other words, Kearney's anatheistic "wager"3 consists in "The return to God after the disappearance of God"4 because there are said to be too many problems with the traditional God of "the Abrahamic faiths."5 Kearney later writes, "...ana-theism is neither antitheism nor antiatheism but a form of post-theism that allows us to revisit the sacred in the midst of the secular."6 It becomes clear that in the midst of twentieth century evil, for Kearney, there must be some sort of reinventing of the wheel when it comes to God, and anatheism allows for this deconstruction and reconstruction of God.7 Kearney proposes then, a post-religious turn which seeks the best of how the different religions of the world have spoken of God, specifically with regard to "hospitality toward the Stranger."8

Criticizing this way of thinking must be done with gentleness as is commanded in Scripture and must be given a special care given the sensitivity of this issue. As noted above, this whole discussion in some ways revolves around the question of evil and is written through a post-war lens.9 However, it is not difficult to see that this proposed idea is really without basis.

Kearney bases his thesis on the problem of evil; however, without the God of the Bible there is no ground for calling anything evil. Kearney's entire proposal involves something of a subjectivity, as it is asking the question of how people might go to God after they have rejected God. This however, has much more to do with verbally referring to something or someone as God than affirming an actual God. And if there is no ultimate God, then there can be no foundation for good or evil. If there is no absolute God, then there is no absolute evil and no absolute good.

The biblical God, however, does in fact give definition to goodness because He is goodness. Psalm 34:8 says, "Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!" According to Scripture, God does not simply possess goodness, He is good. The Belgic Confession affirms as much when it says in article one, "We all believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God-- eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, almighty; completely wise, just, and good, and the overflowing source of all good." Not only is God good, but He is the "overflowing source of all good." Because He is the ultimate good, there is no good apart from Him. Everything that has goodness receives this goodness from Him. And if He is ultimate good, then there is no basis for anything "not good" if He does not exist.

Kearney argues that he is not really saying anything new10--and that much is certainly true. Men have always sought to make the very same turn from the true God to a god of their own imagination. Romans 1:25 testifies to this when it speaks of those who "exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator." To exchange the God of the Bible for a god more palatable and comprehensible to man is the natural inclination of the human heart. But there is hope only in the true God--the God who is truly good, the God who is truly sovereign and the God who truly exists.

Though it is the tendency of every man to seek to devise a god in his own image, the God of the Bible and of the Reformed Confessions presents the only true alternative to this way of thinking. The God of the Bible, according to the Scripture, has dealt with evil at the Cross of Christ, where Jesus took our sin upon himself. When we see the horrors of the past century, we should look to the Cross. It is in the Cross that we truly see a God who hates evil. It is also in the Cross that we truly see the kind of hospitality and love that Kearney is ultimately seeking--Christ Jesus came into the world to die for sinners. He died for those who were truly estranged. It is in this Jesus and this Jesus alone that one may truly find a shelter and a home.

1. Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Returning to God After God (West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 2010).

2. Ibid, 23 (electronic edition).

3. Ibid, 24.

4. Ibid, 25.

5. Ibid, 24.

6. Ibid, 82.

7. Ibid, 83.

8. Ibid, 219.

9. Ibid, 83-84.

10. Ibid, 28.

James Richey is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. He currently serves as the director of youth ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Pooler, GA. 

It's Not About Kaepernick


To mark the 30th anniversary of its groundbreaking 'Just Do It' ad campaign, the Nike corporation recently announced a new campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, unarguably one of the most polarizing figures in America today, with the slogan: "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."

At first glance, the exhortation by the Oregon-based corporate behemoth seems rather harmless and innocuous. In fact, give it a quick perusal while you're busy making dinner, paying bills online, or toying around with your favorite smartphone app and the entreaty comes across as downright positive, affirming, and motivating. After all, we all believe in something, don't we? Who of us wants to be viewed as merely coasting through life with no sense of conviction or creed to help us navigate a world that all too often proves itself to be morally and ethically rudderless?

Notwithstanding the aesthetic significance of this advertising shibboleth as a successful marketing ploy or motivational axiom, what I find most concerning is the fundamental question the statement inherently begets. That is, should believing in "something," regardless of its veracity or legitimacy, be considered a virtue in and of itself (as Nike® seems to think)?

In Scripture, the word 'believe' first appears in Gen. 45:26. It is the Hebrew verb 'aman and denotes having a firm and settled assurance in that which has been established as objectively true. During His first trial before Pontius Pilate, Jesus declared, "I have come into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice (Jn. 18:37)", to which Pilate retorted, "What is truth (Jn. 18:38)?"


What is truth?

Throughout Scripture, the concept of belief is always presented within the paradigm of placing one's faith in something or someone against the backdrop of that which is objectively true (e.g. 1 Jn. 4:1).

Belief is not an abstract notion that embraces the open-ended idea that the principles and precepts in which we place our faith should be of no consideration with regard to fidelity or trustworthiness. In other words, if we are to believe in something, that "something" in which we believe should definitively convey truth.

The 15th century German reformer, Martin Luther, once said, "Every man must do two things alone: he must do his own believing and his own dying."

Luther is right.

But what makes Luther's truism so profound is that it is because each of us must do our own dying that what we believe is so eternally crucial. Which is exactly why the Nike® declarative must not get a pass. For the question must be asked and answered: why should I believe in something and why can't that something in which I believe be anything I choose?

Additionally, the 19th Century Princeton theologian A.A. Hodge once wrote, "No one truth is rightly held till it is clearly conceived and stated, and no single truth is adequately comprehended till it is viewed in harmonious relations to all the other truths of the system of which Christ is the center."

If you think the new Nike® campaign slogan is about Colin Kaepernick, I humbly ask that you think again.

Belief has consequences, both in this life and in the next (Gen. 2:17, 3:1-24, 3:36; Rom. 6:23; Gal. 6:7-8). So, if you're going to be believe in something, it should be what is true, not what is emotionally or egocentrically ambiguous or opaque. For as the Spin Doctors cautioned in the chorus of their 1996 release You've Got To Believe In Something:

You've got to believe in something,
It's a lonely universe.
Be careful what you wish for,
'Cause your improvement might be worse.

Defending the Resurrection


Though age would be rapidly catching up with him, some people believe that Elvis Presley is still alive. Despite certified death certificates, a very public, photographed funeral, and no verified appearances after the date of his death, fans insist: Elvis lives.

How many people view the resurrection of Christ similarly to conspiracy theories about Elvis? Is there compelling evidence that Christ actually rose from the dead? Or, is the story repeated simply because people wish him to not be dead? The stakes are high. Without the resurrection of Jesus Christianity is empty and those who adhere to the faith "are of all men the most pitiable" (1 Cor. 15:14, 19).

Here are seven reasons to believe in the resurrection, not as a wish, but as a historical event.

 The Argument of the Supernatural

Those who dismiss all things supernatural "naturally" oppose the plausibility of Christ's resurrection. But honesty compels us to admit that our world, at many points, resists naturalistic explanation. Ruling out the possibility of supernatural phenomena is not a scientific exercise; it is an act of faith. Unless we begin with closed minds that dismiss the supernatural and resist the power of evidence, we will have no constraining reason to doubt the resurrection. Paul's question to the Roman skeptic Agrippa, is worth pondering: "Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead?" (Acts 26:8).

The Accuracy of Scripture

If the Bible were a religious fable designed to persuade readers to trust in a made-up God, then why are certain (indeed, many) events included? Why would the Bible record the utterly despicable actions of Jacob's son Judah with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 38)? Why would Moses (Numbers 20), Jonah (Jonah 1:3), and John (John 20:9) write about their own moral failures? God included these events in the Bible because they actually happened and played a meaningful role in the story of God's redemption. The Bible was written by eyewitnesses, historians, and recipients of reliable oral tradition (Cf. Luke 1:1-4), all inspired by God's Spirit, to record an accurate summary of God's rescue work (John 20:30-31).

The Apostles' Changed Lives

The powerful change in the lives of Jesus' closest associates is totally inexplicable apart from his resurrection. After Christ's death the disciples' dreams were dashed. When the women explained that they had seen Jesus alive, post-crucifixion, "their words seemed to [the eleven] like idle tales, and they did not believe them" (Luke 24:11). Before Christ's death the disciples scattered. Yet after seeing the death-wounds on Jesus' living body, most of the disciples sealed their faith in Christ by a martyr's death. Prior to Jesus' death and resurrection, Peter lacked the courage to speak about Christ, even to a servant girl (John 18:15-18). Afterward he boldly preached Christ before thousands of critics (see Acts 2; cf. 1 Cor. 15:9-10). During his earthly ministry Jesus' own brothers "did not believe in him" (John 7:5). Yet two of them--James, and Jude--later authored Bible books promoting the glory of the risen Jesus. Only the resurrection explains this change. 

The Abandoned Tomb

Critics have never solved the riddle of the empty tomb. By piercing his side with a sword the Roman soldiers guaranteed that Jesus was dead when they placed him in the tomb. Later rumors that this Jesus was alive and well would have been extremely simple to disprove; Pilate could have ordered the body exhumed and shown to witnesses. Christianity would have become a historical footnote that instant. But Jesus' dead body was no more.

Did the disciples steal the body as the Jews claimed (Matt. 27:62-66, 28:11-15)? That is, did a handful of fearful, doubtful, disloyal fishermen overpower war-hardened Roman guards, dislodge the huge stone from tomb's mouth, and steal a dead body without leaving any evidence? Even if so, it would have done no good. Jesus promised to rise from the dead as Jonah emerged from the whale; visibly and bodily. He never promised he would escape the tomb to remain forever incognito.

Jesus' Post-Crucifixion Appearances

Jesus' post-resurrection appearances debunk the theory of the stolen body. The Bible records seven different resurrection appearances in several locations over the course of forty days. Jesus appeared to over 500 eyewitnesses at one event. During Paul's day half of these witnesses were still alive (1 Cor. 15:6). Paul reminds us that the things concerning Jesus were "not done in a corner" (v. 26). Because of the testimony of witnesses denying Jesus' resurrection is as plausible as denying the holocaust.

The Advance of the Church

Jesus promised that he would rise from the dead, ascend into heaven, and pour out his Spirit; and that this would change people's lives. This prophesy is fulfilled every day. Each day, around the world, hundreds of people experience resurrection power for the first time; they become "raised with Christ" and start seeking "those things which are above" (Col. 3:1). It is impossible to explain--apart from the power of the living Christ--how the church has survived and grown despite frequent persecution and internal faithlessness.

The Affirmation of the Holy Spirit

A blind friend once challenged me to explain the concept of colors. I tried. But I could not cause him to see. Some people, by the practice of faith, believe God's testimony. Others do not, regardless of what they are told.

In the end, believers do not need to evaluate or test God's words. The Spirit proves them in our hearts. As Calvin wrote, "For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed with the inward testimony of the Spirit...Enlightened by [God], we no longer believe, either on our own judgment or that of others, that the Scriptures are from God; but, in a way superior to human judgment, feel perfectly assured...that [Scripture] came to us...from God's very mouth."

We have every reason to believe that Christ has indeed been raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20).

Being Apologetic About Jordan Peterson


If you have been previously unaware of Jordan Peterson's existence and the discussion surrounding him, worry no more--the evangelical blogosphere has been working overtime to enlighten you. In fact it could be considered a major feat to have missed this debate in its entirety. I tried to resist myself, but the tide of emails, texts, YouTube videos, and blogs overcame the usual defenses.

For the uninitiated, Peterson is a Canadian secular depth psychologist who has been making waves over the last few months for his controversial yet articulate stands on social issues, witty advice, and ability to command any room into which he walks (David Robertson provides a good introduction). Peterson appeals mainly to the growing masses of disaffected young men who tend to struggle with lack of direction and self-worth--men we see all too often in the church today.

Yet some Christians see far more in him than just this. At the celebratory end of the spectrum, a few argue that Peterson represents the archetype of an emotionally intelligent pastor, one who has been strong where our accepted pastoral wisdom has been weak.   At the critical end, some wonder whether Peterson's work is just a thinly veiled application of Nietzsche's transvaluation of values or a justification of pride-as-virtue. That is quite the difference. Which begs the question: what in the world are we to do with the likes of Jordan Peterson?

That evangelicals often reach diametrically opposed evaluations of secular resources is nothing new. Think about Harry Potter or "secular music" or the debates over what media Christians can use. That we keep ending up in widely divergent places on such crucial issues however should at least raise our eyebrows. Perhaps something bigger is going on here. Perhaps such surface level differences signal deeper theological and structural issues in our communities--issues that revolve around how we understand common grace and common ground.

Much ink has been spilled trying to explain why Peterson is so popular with evangelicals. I think I can offer one more reason: Peterson is a respected secular scholar who is affirming important biblical truths in non-biblical ways. This second part also explains why Peterson is so unpopular with some. For example, in his 12 Rules for Life, he comes out in favor of things like corporal punishment in parenting (Prov. 13.24), but argues for this from a common-sense and ultimately authoritarian point of view. As a Christian counselor myself, I find that these kinds of arguments breed inner conflict by affirming the truth in seemingly secular ways. On the one hand, finding a secular voice who affirms Christian values is extremely rare and exciting; on the other, Peterson's methods appear suspect.

And this is where evangelicals usually end up on issues like this: one side voices support for the common grace truth that can be found in a "thing" and the other side protests that the "thing" in view is fueled by basic presuppositions and methodology that necessarily disqualify whatever good can be found in it. It is exceedingly difficult to move beyond these poles once they have been reached. Not only is it hard to do this conceptually (for each position leaves no real room for compromise) but it is also difficult to do this personally. Try convincing a convinced homeschooler that public school options are sometimes acceptable, and vice versa!

On one hand, Peterson advocates for the importance of religion and traditional modes of living, campaigns for sanity in gender roles more courageously and clearly than most celebrity Christians, and sounds curiously biblical on many issues. Maybe he can even teach pastors a thing or two about equanimity, style, and approach. So we should allow our brothers and sisters to voice their tempered support for thinkers like Peterson. Calvin would have had it that way. Speaking on these kinds of people, he says that "so far as they do no harm, they are useful and profitable" and that "Christ declares that we ought to reckon as friends those who are not open enemies."

However, Peterson's worldview is steeped in Jungian archetypal mythology, mixed with a dash of evolutionary psychology. Although he references the Bible, he makes sustained arguments from other religious streams of thought as well. More often than not, Peterson argues from "is" to "ought," using evolutionary developments as guidelines for successful living (cf. Peterson's love for lobsters in 12 Rules). A complete or even moderate buy in by Christians to these principles could end in unmitigated disaster, and we should listen to those brothers and sisters who warn us of this. Calvin faithfully guides as always: "whoever does not assist [in establishing the Kingdom of God] is...opposed to [Christ]." Where secular resources oppose or do not assist the advancement of God's kingdom, at these points they must be opposed themselves.

Categorizing a thinker or system of thought based upon this schema can be exceedingly difficult. Part of the reason for this is that balancing extremes is naturally difficult, as is the task of identifying what constitutes opposition to the gospel. Does a system of thought oppose the gospel, fail to assist its spread, or actually advance it? Peterson is maddening in this regard, for he does all three at times, sometimes even in the same thought!

Perhaps the chief difficulty, however, is our own lack of uniformity of understanding regarding our approach to common grace and common ground in the Reformed tradition. We often (rightly) argue that non-Christian modes of thinking find no common ground with Christian ones. As the non-Christian is diametrically opposed to God in his unrighteousness, so will his thoughts, being born out of the root of rebellion and tainted with sin, end up opposed to God. Of course, the unbeliever will often stumble upon true things, but this is due to God's common grace.

The problem with such a line of reasoning is not the line of reasoning itself--this is perfectly legitimate. The problem is the attitude we so often draw from it; namely, that we must therefore publicly and equally oppose all things non-Christian. This orientation does not actually follow from the insistence that there is no common ground between believer and non-believer. Put another way, opposition of belief does not always necessitate opposition in disposition.

How can this be? First, this is so because it is actually consistent with presuppositional thought. Calling common grace discoveries good is simply saying "Amen!" back to the God who enabled them in the first place. Even more than this, affirming the good and calling out the bad appears to be one of Jesus' favorite ways of engaging the lost. Of the many examples of this, Mark 12.28-34 is the most instructive. After a scribe comes up to Jesus and speaks correctly about the law, Jesus tells him that "you are not far from the kingdom of God." This is a double-edged statement, for Jesus is simultaneously telling this man that there is much good in his thinking and yet that it is not good enough. It is also a brilliant response, for it perfectly balances the call to affirm and challenge non-believing thought.

This does not mean that there isn't a time and place to strongly condemn evil thinking and doing; Jesus does as much in many places. But it is a call to consider the evangelistic import of how we respond to secular resources. Will Jordan Peterson come to Christ if our response to him is exclusively negative? What of his followers? More pointedly, would we have come to God if His response to us had been exclusively negative (Rom. 5.8)?

In The Pursuit of Holiness, Jerry Bridges tells the story of Henry Trumbull's train ride with a drunkard. Each time the drunkard took a swig, he offered one to Trumbull, who each time politely declined. Finally, the drunkard exclaimed, "You must think I'm a pretty rough fellow." In response, Trumbull said "I think you're a very generous hearted fellow," which then opened a door for him to share the gospel. We can only wonder what kind of opportunities we might gain to speak the hard truths of the gospel to seculars if we just led off with the right foot.

Brian Mesimer is a counselor at the counseling center of First Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Columbia, SC. 

Aquinas Reconsidered (Part 3)


It is in Oliphint's final critique of Aquinas' views on natural reason and philosophy in their relation to theology that the source of his misreading of Aquinas becomes clear. The assumption that Aquinas, given his attachment to Aristotle, attempted to merge two antithetical principia comes from Cornelius Van Til. In addition, the assumption that Aquinas' Aristotelianism stood in the way of a resolution of the question of essence and existence "so central to Thomas's metaphysical system" also comes from Van Til (pp. 51-53, 88-89), even as Oliphint identifies the writings of Van Til as "the best overall assessment and critique of Thomism" (p. 139). Oliphint summarizes Van Til as arguing that "reason, apart from grace, can deal only with essences and not with existence," and then cites Van Til as viewing Aquinas' purported attempt to move from "the language of essences into that of existences" as rendered impossible "without suppressing reason" (p. 51). Van Til concludes the impossibility of merging pagan Aristotle and Christian theology--as if this is what Aquinas were doing--and, on the mistaken assumption that Aristotelian philosophy is a philosophy of "abstract essences," posits the further impossibility of a "transposition from the realm of abstract essences to that of existence."1

The rather natural question that arises is where do Van Til and Oliphint find the claim that reason, apart from grace, can only deal with essences and not with existence? It certainly is not a legitimate inference from Aquinas' thought. It also would be, at best, rather difficult to work through Aristotle's treatises on physics, the categories, generation, and the history of animals and conclude that, for Aristotle, reason does not deal with existence but only with essences. The basis for Van Til's and Oliphint's view is probably an assimilation of Aristotle to Plato, who assumed it is the idea, namely the form or essence, that is the proper object of knowledge. But Aristotle, unlike Plato, did not allow that ideas or essences can be separate from substantial existence.2 Aristotle's view does yield the conclusion that the knowledge of things consists in their definition, the definition being the idea or essence that applies to a class of existents, which in turn leads to a the question of how one has knowledge of particulars or individuals--a rather different issue than that claimed by Van Til. There is, moreover, a considerable scholarly literature that discusses the issue and that concludes that Aristotle's philosophy does deal with the knowledge of particulars.

The Van Tilian claim is also demonstrably wrong in the case of Aquinas. Copleston notes, rather pointedly, that it is "not true to say that the intellect, according to St. Thomas, has no knowledge of corporeal particulars." As Copleston continues, this primary object of the intellect is not the abstracted universal "as such" but the universal as abstracted from the particular.4 Aquinas rests this view, moreover, on a distinction between sensory and intellective knowing. The primary object of the intellect is the form or universal that has been abstracted from the particular, with the particular external object being known by the intellect indirectly, by means of the abstracted universal--but also with the external object being directly and concretely known to sense.5

These considerations not only of Van Til's misconceptions but specifically of what Aristotle and Aquinas understood concerning knowledge of essences and of things or particulars, brings us back to the impact of Exodus 3:14 on metaphysics and, accordingly, on the framing of a Christian philosophy. Aquinas' approach, in focusing on the identity of the First Mover as "He who is," the existent One, opens up a philosophy that can argue creation ex nihilo and a doctrine of providence, specifically on the ground that the One in whom there is no real distinction between essence and existence can know the essences of potential things and confer existence.

In order to deny this reading of Aquinas, Van Til even goes so far as to bifurcate Aquinas into a philosopher and a theologian attempting to the synthesize unsynthesizables--Aristotle's pure essence that does not create and the biblical God, the One who is, who does create.6 But, as indicated above, even taking McInerny's approach to the preambles as correct, the proofs in the Summa theologiae remain the philosophical arguments of a Christian. The proofs, moreover, do not attempt, as Oliphint and Van Til claim, to simply merge an Aristotelian absolute Thought with the God of creation: on the contrary, they draw on Aristotelian views of causality and motion but argue in a non-Aristotelian manner to a divine first cause who, as necessary Being, creates a contingent order out of nothing. In other words, Aquinas draws together the truths concerning causality and a First Mover known to Aristotle, highly useful in demonstrating that the existence of God can be known to reason, and truths of the biblical revelation concerning God--on the ground that rational and revealed truths, as true, cannot disagree.

Van Til's claim of impossibility rests on his own presuppositions cast over Aristotelian thought and Aquinas' arguments: after assuming a radical antithesis, worthy of a Harnackian, between Greek philosophy and biblical revelation, Van Til imposes his own conclusion on the direction that any Aristotelian argumentation must take and then reads his conclusion concerning Aristotelian thought into his reading of Aquinas--without acknowledging that neither Aquinas nor, in fact, the Christian tradition from the second century onward, including Reformed orthodoxy and the Westminster Confession of Faith, shared his presuppositions about the character and use of natural reason.

There are, in sum, several fundamental problems with Oliphint's work on Aquinas that stand in the way of the book serving a useful purpose. The first of these problems is simply that Oliphint's argumentation evidences major misreadings and misunderstandings of the thought of Thomas Aquinas on such issues as the relation of reason and revelation, the noetic effects of sin, the praeambula fidei, the analogia entis, the nature and character of the proofs of the existence of God, and the relation of the doctrine of divine simplicity to the doctrine of the Trinity. The second, related problem is that his argumentation rests largely on the thought of Cornelius Van Til, who by no stretch of the imagination can be viewed as a competent analyst of the thought of Aquinas. The end-result of their readings is a mangled interpretation of Aquinas that impedes genuine access to his thought and actually stands in the way of legitimate interpretation. Third, inasmuch as the Westminster Confession of Faith and Reformed Orthodoxy in general are largely in agreement with Aquinas on issues of epistemology, natural theology, doctrine of God, and, indeed, apologetics, Oliphint's and Van Til's views at best stand at the margin of what can be called Reformed and, at worst, create a kind of sectarian theology and philosophy that is out of accord with the older Reformed tradition and its confessions.

1. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Philippsburg: P&R, 2008), p. 155; cited in Oliphint, Aquinas, p. 51.

2. Cf. e.g., Aristotle, Metaphysics, I.9, 991b, 1-9; with ibid., VII.5-6, 1031a, 1-19.

3. E.g., Harold F. Cherniss, Aristotle's Criticism of Plato and the Academy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1944), pp. 221 n131, 236-239; Walter Leszl, "Knowledge of the Universal and Knowledge of the Particular in Aristotle," in Review of Metaphysics, 26/2 (1972), pp. 278-313; Joseph Owens, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics: A Study in the Greek Background of Medieval Thought, 3rd ed. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1978), pp. 426-432; Robert Heinaman, "Knowledge of Substance in Aristotle," in Journal of Hellenic Studies, 101 (1981), pp. 63-77.

4. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 9 vols. (Westminster, MD.: Newman Press, 1946-1974), II, p. 391, citing Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia, q.86, a.1; cf. Joseph Owens, "Aquinas on Knowing Existence," in St. Thomas Aquinas on the Existence of God: The Collected Papers of Joseph Owens, ed. John R. Cattan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980), pp. 23-26, 29, etc.

5. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia, q.86, a.1, ad 4.

6. Van Til, Defense of the Faith, p. 156.

7. A more detailed essay-review of Oliphint's work is forthcoming in Calvin Theological Journal.

Richard A. Muller
Senior Fellow, Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research
P. J. Zondervan Professor of Historical Theology, Emeritus
Calvin Theological Seminary

*This is the third and final installement of Dr. Muller's review of Dr. Oliphint's book on Aquinas. You can find the previous posts in this series here

Several readers have asked if Dr. Oliphint will be giving a response to this review of his work. Prior to posting these three articles, I emailed Dr. Oliphint to let him know that we were publishing a review of his book which was critical in important respects. In that same email I told him that we would welcome and consider any response he produced. Up to this point, he has chosen not to respond. -- Jonathan Master

Aquinas Reconsidered (Part 2)


Oliphint's discussion of Aquinas' view of God draws heavily on the claims of Cornelius Van Til, one of whose basic points of critique is that Aquinas' "idea of the analogy of being compromises the biblical doctrine of creation."1 In Van Til's view,  the notion of an analogy of being comes directly from Aristotle and reduces the distinction between the Creator and the creature by adopting the Greek philosophical assumption that "all being is essentially one" and that "all individual beings are being to the extent that they participate in this one ultimate being."2 What Van Til missed is that if Aquinas assumed "all being" is "essentially one," he would have had no need for analogy and simply identified the same attributes in God and in human beings as predicated univocally. But since Aquinas clearly affirms the Creator-creature distinction, resting on creation ex nihilo, he argued for non-univocal, namely analogical predication. Failure to understand the connection between Aquinas' understanding of analogy and his doctrine of creation is also characteristic of Oliphint's critique.

Oliphint also makes several crucial mistakes in his interpretation of Aquinas' proofs of the existence of God. He dismisses Aquinas' use of Exodus 3:14 as insufficient to show the Christian context in which the proofs are deployed on the rather slim ground that, had Aquinas really intended to be biblical, he would not simply have cited the verse he would have "shown how the content of revelation grounded his arguments" instead of proceeding by "natural reason."3 But citation of texts, presumably interpreted exegetically elsewhere, is a common practice, and this understanding of Exodus 3:14, rooted in Augustine, was a commonplace--not, by the way, available to "natural reason."

Nor is the citation of Exodus 3:14 the only indication of a theological and biblical backdrop to the proofs: in the first article, on whether the existence of God is self evident, Aquinas bases his argument with an objection drawn from John of Damascus' De fide orthodoxa and John 14:6--and then counters the objections with a point from Aristotle's Metaphysics interpreted by way of a reference to Psalm 52:1. In the second article, whether it can be demonstrated that God exists, draws objections from Hebrews 11:1 and from John of Damascus, countering them with a citation of Romans 1:20. Then, when Aquinas poses the question leading to the proofs of whether God exists, he offers no references in his objections and counters them with Exodus 3:14. The process of argument is on the basis of reason, but the argument with the objectors is an argument among Christians.

The second mistake is also categorical one: it concerns the issue of precisely what Aquinas thought he was proving. Oliphint represents Cajetan as teaching that the "proofs only demonstrated properties that could apply to a god, but not to God himself," (p. 90, n77) but what Cajetan actually held was that the proofs do not demonstrate the existence of God "per se" but "quasi per accidens," his point being that the proofs establish properties that, as Aquinas himself put it, "everyone understands to be God."4 These are not merely possible properties of "a god"--they are the presumed properties of the one and only God.

Another mistake concerns Oliphint's reading of Aquinas' cosmological proof. Oliphint draws on Stephen Davis to argue that "for any version of the cosmological argument to work, the conclusion must presuppose some aspect of temporal causality" and concludes that since Aquinas' does not place God into a temporal sequence, Aquinas' proof fails (p. 81). Aquinas, however, assumed creation ex nihilo and that there is no time, finite or infinite, before the moment of creation.  Aquinas' view of the impossibility of an infinite sequence of causes, therefore, does not rely on temporal sequence but follows precisely what Davis assumed might produce a valid argument, namely, an essential or ontological sequence of the hierarchy of causes in which contingent being (even if it were in an infinite temporal sequence) is not sufficient to explain its own existence.5 Indeed, contra Oliphint, Davis concludes that Aquinas rightly recognized that "No hierarchical causal series can regress infinitely; it must have a beginning."6

One particular aspect of Aquinas' approach to the traditional notion of divine simplicity comes to the fore in Oliphint's discussion, namely, the relationship between simplicity and the doctrine of the Trinity. His discussion is focused on a distinction between esse and id quod est. Oliphint has the correct translation of id quod est as "that which is," but his definition is wrong: "that which is" does not mean "essence or nature" (pp. 105, 130). Aquinas uses the Boethian esse-id quod est distinction to indicate the same issue as his own essence-existence distinction, which points directly toward Aquinas' stress on God as "He who is" (Exodus 3:14).

Oliphint's Van Tilian critique not only ignores what Aquinas actually argues, it is also quite untenable, whether from a historical, theological, or philosophical perspective. Thus, Oliphint:

If we begin with biblical revelation, however (something that Thomas's natural theology cannot do) we can begin with, instead of the categories of esse and id quod est, the one essence of God as three hypostases, or subsistences. In other words, we can begin, contrary to Aquinas, with the ontological Trinity. With these biblical categories in view, we are able to affirm both that God's essence is who he is and that there is no possibility that he could be otherwise, and that each of the three subsistences can and does act as that one essence (p. 109).

Pace Oliphint, distinction between essentia and subsistentia is not directly given in biblical revelation. It took the church more than three centuries after the close of the canon to arrive at this terminological solution to the problem of divine triunity. Aquinas, moreover, both confesses the doctrine and meditates at length on the issue of one essence in three subistences or hypostases. It is not clear why the post-biblical distinction between essence and subsistence, as used to explain the biblical issue that God is One and is also Father, Son, and Spirit, is any more "biblical" than the distinction between esse and id quod est, as used to explain the biblical point that God is Who He is.

Even with the post-biblical trinitarian language in view, we are quite unable to make clear "that God's essence is who he is and that there is no possibility that he could be otherwise." A series of qualifications of the term essence must be added, including the point that in God there is no real distinction between essence and existence, a point, as Aquinas indicated, that can be gathered from Exodus 3:14. Just setting forth the trinitarian formula of one essence and three hypostases does not satisfy the requirement for affirming, in Oliphint's words, "that each of the three subsistences can and does act as that one essence." Indeed, just to say that each of the three subsistences "can and does act" as one essence itself is a problematic usage that verges on tritheism: the issue of the trinitarian formula is that the three subsistences are the one essence. In order to complete the doctrine and clearly affirm that the three subsistences are the essence in such a way as not to imply composition, the doctrine of simplicity also needs to be present.   And it is present in Aquinas' theology, and was present in the major patristic and Reformed orthodox formulations concerning the Trinity.

All of these aspects of Oliphint's argument are problematic, but they do not quite rise to the level of the underlying problem, namely, that Oliphint confuses epistemology with ontology. Both Aquinas and the Reformed orthodox writers begin with prolegomenal discussions in which Scripture is set forth as the primary authority in doctrinal matters--so that both actually do begin biblically. Neither Aquinas nor the Reformed orthodox begin with the "ontological Trinity" because both recognize that the proper beginning point of knowledge (as distinct but not separate from faith) cannot be a point of doctrine like the Trinity that is neither self-evident nor demonstrable. Oliphint has confused the principium essendi with the principium cognoscendi, and has failed to recognize that cognitive principia, more generally understood, are self-evident, incontestable notions, some directly available to reason, some given by revelation.

To be continued in part 3...

1. Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Nutley: P&R, 1969), p. 160; cf. idem, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (S.l.: Den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1969), p. 60.

2. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 60; idem, Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 160.

3. Oliphint, Aquinas, pp. 60-61, referencing McInerny's reading of the preambles; cf. ibid., pp. 27, 51.

4. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia, q.2, a.3, corpus.

5. Cf. Matthew Levering, Proofs of God: Classical Arguments from Tertullian to Barth (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), p. 66, especially note 165.

6. Stephen T. Davis, God, Reason and Theistic Proofs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), p. 73.

*This is the second post in a short series by Dr. Muller

A Word from an Alliance Board Member


Thomas Martin, member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals board of directors, reflects on the legacy of R.C. Sproul and his relationship with the Alliance:

When James Boice died of liver cancer in June of 2000, his close friend R. C. Sproul was asked to speak at the memorial service. As Sproul rose to the pulpit, he reminded the crowd (as he often did) of a historic parallel. Philip Melanchthon, at Martin Luther's funeral in 1546, compared the death of Luther to the heavenly ascension of Elijah (the prophet whose very name meant "Yahweh is God!"). Melanchthon quoted  Elisha's lament at the loss of his dear friend and mentor: 

"And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.

"And Elisha saw it, and he cried, 'My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof.' And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.

"He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan;

"And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, 'Where is the Lord God of Elijah?' and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over" (2 Kings 2:11-14). 

It took a few hours for the death of R.C. Sproul to sink into my soul. R.C. was a giant, and a true Christian. Imperfect, to be sure, yet a man with a genuine heart and love for Jesus. He exemplified the work of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. In a real sense, I had the feeling that the Alliance came about because Jim Boice wanted others to know R.C. Sproul as he did: a man catholic in spirit, but unbending in the truth of the holy Scriptures.

Now both are gone. Others must carry on, and we shrink from the reality that we no longer have R.C. to share in the work of the Kingdom of God. We want to cry out "My father! My father!" Yet we see him no more. 

We must recall that even in his sorrow, Elisha "took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him." The power of God is not diminished by the loss of God's saints. As John Wesley wrote: "God buries His workers and carries on His work." May the God of Elijah, the God of Jim Boice, and the God of R.C. Sproul carry on His work until Jesus comes again.

-Thomas Martin 

The Alliance is offering free R.C. Sproul MP3 downloads from Alliance conferences spanning over 30 years. Head to for your free download. 



The Christ-Haunted Song


The Scriptures declare that the Lord fills the heavens and the earth (Jer. 23:24); and, that He who made the vast expanses of the starry sky gives to all men "life and breath and all things" (Acts 17:25). Since "all that borrows life from Him are ever in His care," all that we have and possess (including our ability to think and reason in the realm of metaphysical truth) is nothing other than "borrowed capital." John Frame so helpfully sets out the implication of this truth when he writes, "The truth is known and acknowledged by the unbeliever. He has no right to believe or assert truth in terms of his own presuppositions, but only on Christian ones. So his assertions of truth are based on borrowed capital." The truth is inescapable for the unbeliever, though he or she constantly seeks to suppress it in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). No matter how much men and women seek to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, however, the knowledge of God made known to all image bearers (Rom. 1:19) continually resurfaces in their consciences.

This principle is heightened in a culture in which biblical revelation has taken root. One can watch a nature show on television in which a naturalistic (i.e. anti-theistic) worldview undergirds the premises of the show; yet, the show's host refers to the animals on the program as "creatures." Another example is seen in the way in which revisionist attempts to do away with a calendar that centers on the Savior's coming into the world (i.e. B.C. and A.D.) fall as soon as they rise. This has been evident in the art and literature of the Western world, which has been so greatly impacted by Christendom; and, it is true in a special way in places where there has been a high concentration of Christian churches and biblical preaching, such as in Flannery O'Connor's Christ-Haunted South.

I have noticed this to be so to a high degree in much of the secular music that I have listened to throughout my life. For instance, John Lennon's song, "Imagine," encourages the unregenerate to try to imagine that there's no heaven or hell. The irony, of course, is that imaging that such places do not exist is the best attempt men have at suppressing the truth of their reality.

In the months leading up to my conversion in 2001, two songs in particular left me deeply "Christ-haunted." One was the song "Pickin' Up the Pieces" by the Athens, GA band Widespread Panic. It was especially their refrain, "Not wanting to meet my Savior, no not this way," that haunted me. The other song that haunted me at that time was "Faker" by the band Moe. The lyrics that plagued me the most while I was in dark rebellion were these: "I am a faker, pretending along; lost site of my Maker; I will die before I finish this song." Coming from the Christian home in which I had grown up, these words cut to the core of my conscience.

As I now listen to music as a believer, I continue to have the greatest of appreciation for the beauty, creativity and giftedness of so many secular artists; yet, always with an awareness of the "Christ-haunted" nature of most of it. There are times that I wish I could sit down with the numerous musicians whose music I love so much (e.g. John Moreland, J. Tillman, etc.) and talk with them about the Christ they have rejected and the truths of Scripture that they are singing about in overt and suppressive ways in their songs. I often wonder if they are "Christ-haunted" as I was, when they continue to sing their "Christ-haunted" songs. 


Walker Percy on the Bankruptcy of Naturalistic Materialism

About a year ago I took a solo road trip from Jackson, MS to St. Joseph's Abbey in Covington, LA, which is the final resting place of the Roman Catholic novelist, Walker Percy. It was an opportunity to pay my respects to one of my favorite authors.

Though Percy found fame (and a Pulitzer Prize) as a novelist, he also wrote several collections of essays. His book Lost in the Cosmos is among the great works of popular apologetics that most Protestants have never even heard of. It is a fictional handbook that bills itself as "The Last Self-Help Book."

I know many theologically Reformed friends who have a strong appreciation of the writings of Walker Percy, but I know even more who seem to have never heard of him, which is a problem that (in my opinion) needs remedying. What I hope to do is explain one aspect of Percy's thinking that will hopefully cause some to take notice of his writings. Specifically I want to focus on his criticism of naturalistic materialism.

Bankrupt on Two Accounts
For Percy, modern science, with its uncompromising naturalistic materialism is bankrupt on at least two accounts:

First, naturalism cannot provide humanity with meaning or direction. Percy points out that there is something deeply and unavoidably sick about humanity, and we can see it all around us. Yet the current scientific age is more lost than any age ever has been. Naturalism has taken the wheel, and yet all that naturalism can do is point out indicatives about what is observable. It can speak nothing to man's deepest needs beyond survival and physical comfort. In materialistic terms there is no such thing as a consistent "ought" statement regarding humanity's ultimate direction, essence, destiny, or purpose. "You live in a deranged age - more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing" (Lost in the Cosmos). If Percy were alive today, he would probably point to the increasing normality of transgenderism as one symptom of this lostness and confusion.

A purely naturalistic approach cannot with any consistency help man in his lostness--and yet for so many (especially in popular culture and academia) this has become the only option of seeking help.

Percy's second reason why naturalistic materialism is bankrupt is that it regards human beings as an exclusively material organism while expecting it to somehow, and in some sense, transcend said nature. He must be both animal and angel, simultaneously amoral and moral. The naturalistic materialistic age we live in expects homosapiens to see themselves as animals, while transcending that very nature. This transcendence is an unavoidably human need. Unfortunately, naturalism breaks man into constituent parts (angel and beast) but cannot account for a whole man nor harmoniously bring the parts together.

Unhappy People in Comfortable Places
Much of Percy's fiction depicts a confrontation between the comforts science has provided and mankind's inescapable unease in spite of it all. Percy helpfully exposes this unease near the beginning of Lost in the Cosmos:

Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments? Why did Mother Teresa think that affluent Westerners often seemed poorer than the Calcutta poor, the poorest of the poor? The paradox comes to pass because the impoverishments and enrichments of a self in a world are not necessarily the same as the impoverishments and enrichments of an organism in an environment.

Percy's answer to this very real dilemma, informed by his Christian worldview, is that man is a self, not an organism. He is a person, not a mere thing. Just because you input the right information or fulfill desires does not mean that a human being will respond appropriately. As Percy says, science has got man all wrong but due to self-imposed limitations it also cannot do any better. "The organism is needy or not needy accordingly as needs are satisfied or not satisfied by its environment" (Lost in the Cosmos). Now that man's needs are being met by science and commerce, why isn't he at rest and contented? Why are suicide rates so high in the most affluent areas of the world?

Percy's complaint against naturalism is expressive of C.S. Lewis' own insight (though in a slightly different context) when Lewis noted: "In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful" (The Abolition of Man). Naturalism has robbed humanity of the very thing God has given to ground human fulfillment and meaning. We want meaning, but now must find it without transcendence (a tall order indeed)!

It's as much a mistake for man to think of himself in distant, abstract, purely transcendent terms (Percy calls this tendency "angelism") as it is to think of man in animal terms. In his book Love in the Ruins, Percy's protagonist creates a device that heals mankind of his split problem of angelism and animalism. Speaking of his ability to heal this problem the main character says the following:

For the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man...Some day a man will walk into my office as a ghost or beast or ghost-beast and walk out as a man, which is to say sovereign wanderer, lordly exile, worker and waiter and watcher.

There must be a balance between transcendence and immanence. "...the self can be as desperately stranded in the transcendence of theory as in the immanence of consumption" (Lost in the Cosmos). To overcorrect is still to miss the solution. Percy speaks in another way of this balance and need for God as the solution to this dilemma of transcendence and immanence elsewhere in Love in the Ruins: "Dear God, I can see it now, why can't I see it the other times, that is you I love in the beauty of the world and in all the lovely girls and dear good friends, and it is pilgrims we are, wayfarers on a journey, and not pigs, nor angels."

The naturalistic approach to man cannot strike anything resembling the needed balance. There is nothing resembling transcendence in the naturalistic approach to humanity beyond an unaccountable yearning for it. The Christian understanding of man is that he was formed of the dust of the earth but that he himself was created by God as a "living soul" (Gen. 2:7). The cosmos is filled animals and angels, but Humanity is neither; rather, he is unique among all the creatures of the universe--the fleshly bearer of God's image.

Percy's suggestion, of course, is that the Christian understanding of humanity is the answer to this particular dilemma. Humanity's true state, as revealed in Scripture, strikes the balance of transcendence and immanence. The materialistic solution is incapable of meeting mankind's need for transcendence. The mystical approach, similarly, is all transcendence and no immanence. Only in the Christian approach, given to us by revelation from God, do we find the answer to balance in mankind's understanding of himself.

Adam Parker is the Assistant Editor of Reformation 21. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Mdiv.) in Jackson, MS, where he lives with his wife and four children. He is currently looking for a call in the Presbyterian Church in America.
Love is the end (telos) of the apostles' teaching and the first apology for the faith (1 Tim. 1:5). Without love even the most celebrated preacher or apologist is just a noisy gong or clanging cymbal; by love even the least gifted believer can adorn the gospel, shame Christ's opponents, and silence the church's slanderers (1 Cor. 13:1; Tit. 2). There are other ways to shame opponents and silence slanderers than by love, of course, but no other way adorns the gospel and demonstrates the present reality of saving grace while doing so--or demands much self-denial from the would-be apologist.

It's this last bit I'm most interested in here: a peculiar sort of self-denial that love demands of apologists of the faith, which we are all called to be (1 Pet. 3:15). What does love demand of us, for example, when our brother or sister does or says something socially embarrassing or politically impolite or completely uncool in the company we keep or aspire to keep?

Harsh and scathing reactions occasionally encountered on the Christian blogosphere show just how ready we are to throw brothers and sisters who happen to embarrass or disagree with us under the first bus we meet. Love never throws anyone under a bus, last of all a brother or sister in Christ. Seems like that should go without saying and yet it seems like that sometimes needs to be said.

The weird temptation is to think that stiff-arming the embarrassing brother or sister is apologetically expedient. It never is. It may temporarily spare us, in a selfish way, some part of the unpleasantness of being too closely associated with a sister's awkward act or a brother's distasteful statement. Whatever apologetic gain we think we derive from deriding our fellow believer is destroyed through our failure to embrace and love that brother or sister as Christ does. In the end, when we behave this way, we come off more like asinine teens too cool to bear their parents' presence than people who believe the gospel or know God's grace.

But what if those parents are not just insufficiently sophisticated but say and do certain despicable things? What if, for example, they're obliviously racist or what if they are not so obliviously so? Is it then permissible or apologetically expedient to throw them under the nearest bus? (I'm only asking about fellow believers, not those outside the church.)

No doubt, the children must stop eating their parents' sour grapes if they don't want their teeth set on edge (Ezek. 18; cf. Ex 20:5-6). To that end, we must recognize and name the sinful, harmful, and offensive ways of our spiritual parents and break with whatever witness-destroying pattern of life and thought we find coursing through "our history." This is clearly one of several things the overture on civil rights remembrance at the 2015 PCA General Assembly was calling the church to do.

Even as we break with the sinful ways of our spiritual predecessors, however, we must honor them and own them as our parents in the faith along with everything that association entails--the wonderful and the dreadful--accepting the responsibility of rightly disposing of every inherited effect. It's precisely because we are their heirs that we must break with them on this matter and it's precisely as their children that in doing so--doing the right thing, that is--we honor them. The very possibility of doing the right thing, in other words, begins with owning our solidarity with these brothers and sisters in Christ who, like all the redeemed who have ever lived, left us a mixed and conflicted legacy.

Christian solidarity is something love demands of every apologist who attempts to deal with the sins of those who preceded us and is why those who follow us will have to deal with ours too one day. Love never asks of a brother or sister or father or mother in the faith, "What do I have to do with them?" or "What business of mine is their sin?" Jesus made our sin his business, freely associating with and embracing his sinful people, and he is not ashamed to call the despicable likes of me his brother (Heb. 2:11, cf. 11:16). That's what love does: despising the shame, love denies itself and bears and endures all things; and we adorn the gospel and begin to acquire apologetic credibility only insofar as we do the same.

The question of religious or spiritual unity between Christians and Muslims has come up in recent days, largely in response to political debate over the danger of admitting Muslims into our country.  On one extreme was the purported statement by Liberty University President Jerry Fallwell, Jr. that Christians should carry guns so as to kill Muslims.  In response, Wheaton College students wrote of Christians' obligation to pursue unity and solidarity with Muslims based on our shared human dignity.  Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor at Wheaton, , has gone further by donning a Muslim headscarf and declaring not only her human solidarity but her theological solidarity with Muslims.  She validated the proposition that "Muslims and Christians worship the same God."  Reacting to this statement, Wheaton College has suspended Hawkins pending an inquiry into her violation of the college's doctrinal statement.  Wheaton should be commended for acting clearly but also deliberately and fairly in this matter.

There are various issues in this debate that Christians should carefully consider and on which we may legitimately differ.  But whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God is not one of them.  Let me offer three reasons why Christians must steadfastly declare that we do not worship the same God that Muslims do:

1.       The Christian Doctrine of the Trinity.  The Bible proclaims that there is one God in three distinct persons.  Jesus therefore instituted baptism "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt. 28:19).  Muslims vehemently deny and condemn this teaching, seeing it as a fatal compromise of its central tenet of monotheism.  This means that Islam denies the deity of Jesus Christ, saying, "the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God" (Qur'an, sura 4).  This means that Muslims profess belief in a God who is fundamentally different from the God of the Bible in his very nature. 

2.       God Revealed in Christ vs. Mohammed.  In her statement of solidarity with Muslims, Dr. Hawkins stated that Christians and Muslims are both "People of the Book."  The question is, of course, which book?  While Islam shows a certain measure of respect to the Old Testament, it holds that God's chief revelation came through Mohammed, a man of considerable violence.  Christians believe in a God whose chief revelation is through Jesus Christ, God's Son and the world's only Savior, as he is presented by the prophets and apostles in the Bible.  To put it mildly, there is a fundamental difference between those who look to Mohammed versus to Jesus for their belief in God. 

3.       The God of Grace.  The God of Islam shows grace only to those who merit his approval by faith and good works.  The Christian God distinguishes his grace by bestowing it upon the unworthy and defiled.  Paul's teaching that "God justifies the ungodly" (Rom. 4:5) and through Christ's death showed "his love for us while we were still sinners" (Rom. 5:8), is fundamentally at odds with the Muslim belief concerning God.  So while Muslims and Christians both use the terminology of grace, Islam denies the grace of God on which Christians rely for their salvation.

However laudible it may be for Christians to express kindness and human solidarity with members of other religions, the one thing we must never do is deny our faith in the Triune God who is revealed through Jesus Christ, God's Son, who alone died to free us from our sins.  In denying the exclusivity of our faith, apart from all other religions, Christians are not exhibiting the love of Jesus.  At the very heart of our message to the world we must always affirm - all the more so during the Christmas season - that Jesus alone is Savior and Lord.  As John declared, "In him was life, and that life was the light of men" (Jn. 1:4).

Several years ago, while on vacation, I bought a quirky little book by the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville entitled The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Though I knew no work quite like it, the idea the author developed, that atheists can and somehow must be spiritual too, was not new. Another French philosopher and atheologian named Comte--Auguste Comte (1798-1857), father of positivism and sociology--had long ago founded the Religion of Humanity. This alternative faith, or perhaps faith alternative, was intended to supply the social benefits of traditional religion in the positivist utopian societies of tomorrow.

Tomorrow has apparently arrived, minus the utopian bit.

I dropped by my local big-box bookstore here in the heart of America's Bible belt to find a book on how to help cats get along with each other. While there, I stumbled across the end cap of recommended titles from the science and mathematics section. Among the offerings were Sam Harris's Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion and Edward O. Wilson's The Meaning of Human Existence. Both develop a similar idea, that atheists like them who believe God, free will, and the soul are illusions can be just as spiritual as those much-despised religious nuts they seldom tire of dismissing but apparently can't help imitating.

Speaking of religious nuts--specifically the ones who argue America was founded as a Christian nation--well, oddly enough, the "science and mathematics" end cap offered a counterpoint to that perspective too: Matthew Stewart's Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. Stewart argues America was founded by people trying to liberate us from the tyranny of George III and God above. That he's at least partly right is more than some evangelicals are prepared to admit, but the curious thing to me is how important some people on both sides of the debate think it is to make their case.

But perhaps the most telling title of the lot was The Mathematics Devotional assembled by Clifford A. Pickover. It offers a devotion a day for a year, each one spread over a single glossy page. The top half of the page is a psychedelic picture of some sort (usually a fractal), equally suitable for mathematical meditating or dropping acid. Beneath the picture, birthdays of celebrated mathematicians are listed like feast days and followed by a center-justified quote of mathematical interest, served up for the inspiration and enlightenment of the religiously devoted.

Whatever spirituality these theorists conjure to satisfy their cultic fetish, the strange spirit of Comte is lurking in the shadows, complete with there own dogmas, grounding myths, and alternative canon of saints and devotional calendar to enhance spiritual formation.

Wisdom surely mocks these attempts at a godless, sinless, graceless, and soulless spirituality. The very need of their advocates to do something to satisfy their impulse to worship and find some sort of transcendent meaning to life, while refusing to direct their awe Godward with gratitude, betrays them. They sense the universe is more than matter and we are more than biology and the whole cosmos points beyond itself. They have a profound and justly stirred sense of awe, but fall short of referring it to the most awesome of all, settling instead for meditating on artificially-colored photos of fractals and praising the puny genius of creatures who, for all their brilliance, get it wrong more often than right.

That idolatry, and what it does to us, is the testimony of that end cap to our stubborn, divine-image-bearing humanity. Ironically, it vindicates the gospel as Paul unpacked it in Romans and Calvin in the Institutes. Following their lead, Reformed theologians have long predicted that naturalism and secular thought in general would fail us, leading to desperately spun spiritualities and a re-mystification of nature, while most atheologians predicted just the opposite.

2014 may mark the dawn of Comte's tomorrow, but the day we are waking to is just what Reformed thinkers expected it to be. Don't be troubled: keep on believing; and keep on preaching Christ till that far better day breaks.
The primary apologetic value of the efficacy of God's word is obvious: the gospel is the power of God to save everyone who believes and the instrument the Spirit ordinarily uses to bring people to faith and keep and grow them in it. The implication for apologetic method is just as obvious: preach Christ, clearing out whatever bramble obscures a fuller and richer view of of him as you can.

I suppose if it is possible to "preach Christ from envy and rivalry" (Phil 1:15), it is also possible to do so without empathy. But, we are called to preach Christ "out of love," and love takes the questions people raise seriously, even when offered in the form of objections. And, as we have no doubt learned through wrestling with many of these same issues ourselves, the gospel constantly proves itself to be the best answer we have to each question we face. So, every question of this kind, properly considered in a spiritually realistic, empathetic, and intellectually serious way, is an occasion--invitation, really--to further preach Christ.

I say the gospel is the "best answer" because we do not always have the answer we or our neighbors may at first demand. Sometimes we even ask questions impossible for anyone to answer. But, in the gospel, we always have an answer sufficient for faith and life--an answer able to humble, silent, quiet, convert, correct, comfort, encourage, edify, and keep us. All of this belongs to the power of the gospel and is the primary apologetic value of the efficacy of God's word.

The power of God's word to accomplish these things, especially to bring people to faith and keep them in it, is also apologetically valuable in at least two secondary ways. This is an ancient point and here's how Origen, arguing "that the Scriptures are divinely inspired," makes it in De Principiis (written sometime prior to 225):
We may see . . . how that religion itself grew up in a short time, making progress by the punishment and death of its worshippers, by the plundering of their goods, and by the tortures of every kind which they endured; and this result is the more surprising, that even the teachers of it themselves neither were men of skill, nor very numerous; and yet these words are preached throughout the whole world, so that Greeks and Barbarians, wise and foolish, adopt the doctrines of the Christian religion (4.1.2).

The power of the gospel demonstrated in its fruitful advance among all kinds of people throughout the world, not just in the face of but through the means of the sometimes intense suffering of those who believe and the unskilled labors of a relatively few teachers, is astonishing. To Origen's mind, this is a very compelling apology for the faith.
It is no doubtful inference, that it is not by human power or might that the words of Jesus Christ come to prevail with all faith and power over the understandings and souls of all men. For, that these results were both predicted by Him, and established by divine answers proceeding from Him, is clear from His own words (4.1.2).

He then visits several places where Jesus taught that the gospel would go out and bear fruit throughout the world and that his disciples would suffer for their faith, before concluding that,
If these sayings, indeed, had been so uttered by Him, and yet if these predictions had not been fulfilled, they might perhaps appear to be untrue, and not to possess any authority. But now, when His declarations do pass into fulfillment, seeing they were predicted with such power and authority, it is most clearly shown to be true that He, when He was made man, delivered to men the precepts of salvation (4.1.2).

Origen's argument from the observed efficacy of the word of God, evident in the astonishing results of its preaching, argues to two entangled but distinct conclusions: (1) that the gospel is true and (2) that it possesses divine authority.

First, he argues that those results strongly support the truth of what Jesus taught since he predicted precisely what has come to pass. This can be understood somewhat narrowly, along the lines of prophet verification laid out in Deut 17:15-22, where a supposed spokesman for God would be tested by whether predictive words came to pass. Jesus passes this test; now we must pay close attention to everything he says.

It can also be understood in a broader sense, however. Those predictions speak more generally to the power of God's word to produce various kinds of effects. Predictions can be understood as singling out specific results to fix our attention not just on those specific outcomes but on the general efficacy of God's word which is evident all around us in the astonishing results it consistently produces. This is what Luther had in view when he spoke of drinking beer while God's word accomplished the Reformation.

I think if I could ask Origen whether he meant us to take his argument in the narrow or broad sense he would simply answer "Yes," meaning in both senses while implying the distinction was not an issue for him. Fair enough. But those who want to avoid the appearance of playing the dispensational parlor game of matching every cable news alert with some supposed predictive prophecy can still make good apologetic use out of the broader expectations Scripture clearly establishes. Besides, we have an even longer history of the global spread and saving power of the gospel to observe with perhaps even more astonishing results than Origen did. Here, the history of evangelical missions becomes a potent apology by way of the clear biblical expectation that the gospel is powerful to save and will ordinarily bear fruit everywhere it is preached.

According to Origen, however, if Jesus' message is not true then it could not possibly possess any authority, much less divine authority. And just because a word is true does not mean it has divine authority. So, the second conclusion he draws from the evident power of the word is that these astonishing results also demonstrate the divine authority of that word. Thus we have a second apology from the evident efficacy of God's word: not only is it true, but it has the ability to bring to pass or establish whatever it declares and foretells, up to everything God has appointed it to achieve in the world. Only a word spoken with divine authority has that kind of power over reality.

William Evans and the Days of Creation

Prof. William Evans of Erskine College has taken on Al Mohler on the days of creation, among other things. Steve Hays at Triablogue has offered a thorough response here

HT: The Aquila Report

Trueman Debate Video

Since Trueman's assent to stardom as Augustine redivivus, the requests for copies of the debate have almost crashed our server. Ok, so maybe that's a bit of an embellishment, but either way you can watch the debate here:

Last Call for Questions

First, thanks to all of our readers for the excellent questions submitted so far! There's still time to email more questions to

Beginning next month, Dr. Oliphint will post article-length replies to your questions. Thank you again!

Call For Questions

We here at reformation21 pride ourselves on customer service (for examples, look no further than our (failed?) attempts at toning down Levy and posting doctored pics of Trueman). Pursuant to that end, we are calling for your questions for our resident apologetics expert Dr. Oliphint about perplexing questions of the Christian faith.

During the month of April, email your questions to We will select the top questions and Dr. Oliphint will begin answering them next month. The rules are simple: questions must be asked respectfully and you may only submit one. Other than that, ask away!

Going Down? Dawkins, Doubters and Debauchery

Editors' note: A summary of the incident referred to by Dr. Oliphint can be found here.

Richard Dawkins, who is arguably the (non-existent) god of all things atheist, recently found himself on the wrong end of a verbal baseball bat. The story itself drips with so much irony that it's impossible not to get soaked while reading it. To summarize: at a conference of skeptics, one of the lead "dubietants" found herself being propositioned on an elevator at 4 a.m. As is our (post)modern custom, the first thing one does when such traumas occur is blog about it.

The blog, however, didn't meet with universal sympatico. Particularly, it failed to garner the emotional empathy of Dawkins. In a comment on the "skepti-sleeze" incident, Dawkins used the Supreme Skeptic's blog complaint to attempt a taxonomic tirade of world-wide tragedies. Given the mutilation of Muslim women, commented Dawkins, a mere proposition on an elevator at 4 a.m. seems a relatively meaningless and petty complaint.

But Dawkins bit off more skepticism with such comments than his atheist stomach could digest. Even after an apology followed by an apology to the skeptics, he was ill-prepared for the wrath that the rationalist regime rained down on Dawkins. The vitriol was relentless, and Dawkins found his own god-like status in serious question. He simply could not understand how his prioritizing of evil deeds could have caused so much caustic consternation. Of particular interest to me was the article's concluding comment on the Skeptics vs. Dawkins discussion: "That's skeptics." said one writer, "Rational about everything except themselves, self-preservation, and manners."

These skeptics pride themselves on their commitment to rationality and evidence-based reasoning. However, what ought to be perfectly clear in this kerfuffle is that "being rational" is insufficient to deal with things like personal offenses, human preservation, and any statement or belief with an "ought" implied in it. More specifically, "being rational" provides no help or information to someone who is inappropriately propositioned in an elevator. The woman who was propositioned, and who, on her blog, names herself the "Skepchick," assumed that the mere mention of her plight on her blog would rally the rationalist troops with appropriate, rationalist responses. But Dawkins dared to compare the Skepchick's scare with Muslim mutilation and then to imply an (arbitrary) equation of moral equivalence. What Dawkins discovered is that such equations don't compute for the Skepchick and her supporters. How can it be, we could ask, that so many committed to nothing more than being rational and evidential find themselves in such turmoil?

This might be a good place to introduce a sometimes useful apologetic tactic. The use of so-called ad hominem (literally, "to the man") arguments are generally considered to be fallacious. There is no question that such arguments can be fallacious, but there is also no question that logical fallacies are not fallacious in every case. An ad hominem argument, when used in a fallacious way, is an attack on a person's personal character rather than a response to that person's argument. It is, in sum, character assassination. In a charged political atmosphere like the one we in the USA are currently enduring, such arguments are in abundance.

An ad hominem argument that is not fallacious is one in which a person's position is challenged based on what that person himself claims. It is an ad hominem argument because it goes to the challenger's own beliefs; it seeks to question the consistency of what someone believes, argues or maintains in light of other beliefs or arguments that one claims to hold.

So, we could ask, what is it about Dawkins' response that violated the rational or the evidential foundation of the skeptics? Dawkins tried to make the point that the Muslim mutilation of women is a level of evil with which a 4 a.m. request to have coffee on an elevator can hardly compare. Is that an irrational argument? If it is, then the Skepchick might have provided the specific law(s) of reasoning that Dawkins violated. Does it violate a commitment to evidentialism? If so, then it would have been useful to spell out just how evidential principles were transgressed in Dawkins' argument.

Of course, the fact of the matter is that the fact of the matter transcends the rational and the evidential. There is something at work in Dawkins' argument and in the Skepchick's response that goes beyond their basic commitments. The Skepchick (likely unconsciously) realized this point and so, predictably, attributed Dawkins' insensitivity to those things which are beyond his control, and which, at least according to her, motivate everything he says and does; she located the obtuse character of the argument in Dawkins' gender, race and age. The ad hominem question to ask here is just what it is about gender, race and age that violate rationality or evidential reasoning.

No legitimate response will be forthcoming from such a question because none could be. One will search the plethora of logic textbooks in vain if what is hoped for is the discovery of a rational law that would vindicate the Skepchick and her supporters. She had to move beyond her own worldview in order to lodge her lament against Dawkins. She was, consciously or not, depending on principles that did not comport with her supposed basic notions of the rational and the evidential.

There are, then, deep and inviolable forces at work in this debate, forces that go way beyond rationality and evidence. For Dawkins, there is the obvious scale of evil -- what is done to Muslim women is more evil that what was done to the Skepchick. For the Skepchick, there is a code of morality that must be taken with all seriousness when it is she who is violated. So, as the article says, there really does seem to be no common rational or evidential commitment between Dawkins and the Skepchick when it comes to their own personal lives, the way in which they ought to act, and what constitutes acceptable behavior between people.

This is inevitable. As we have said in previous articles, anyone who determines to base his life on something other than the Lordship of Christ, and all that His Lordship entails, will discover that whatever foundation he thinks is holding him up is actually, even if sometimes slowly or imperceptibly, crumbling to dust underneath him. Thus, the ad hominem argument. The supposed basic foundation they have chosen cannot bear the weight of real life in God's world, as God's creatures. It is utterly impotent and so cannot begin to accomplish the task it has been assigned.

The article is useful in that it points out, in a real-life, tangible way, just what it means when we say that atheists (skeptics included) cannot, on the basis of their own worldview, make a credible judgment on moral issues. Dawkins' argument may make some sense; it certainly seems to be true that the mutilation of women is more serious than a man asking a woman to have coffee, even if the request came at 4 a.m. in an elevator. But in order to make that evaluation, there must also be a cogent understanding of just what and who people are (i.e., image of God), and just why and how it is that such things constitute real, and not just subjective, evil (i.e., because God, as the only and ultimate good, determines what things are evil and what are not). The Skepchick was formally correct in pointing to the unalterable and involuntary aspects of Dawkins' character. But it was not his gender, race or age that motivated his assessment. Rather, contrary to his own announced commitments, Dawkins could only set out the priority of evils he attempted because he knows, deep down, that people are more than rational laws and material composites. They have characteristics that transcend their thinking and their constitution; they are image of God.

Dawkins wouldn't put it that way, of course. He could not do so without a healthy commitment to repent of all that he has stood for. But it is just that repentance, and that alone, that can resolve the tension between Dawkins and the Skepchick. It is, to put it rather bluntly, only repentance that will give to both Dawkins and the Skepchick what they so desperately want -- a cogent and consistent way to understand "themselves, self-preservation, and manners." The solution to the Skepti-Sleeze incident, then, as in all other problems, is to turn to Christ, to set Him apart as Lord. As a matter of fact, nothing could be more rational than that.

A Culpable Case of Amnesia

Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15).

We have been thinking together, in previous posts, about the implications of Peter's command in 1 Peter 3:15. We have seen, first of all, that there is a command. The command is to believe, acknowledge, affirm in our hearts what is actually the case - that is, that Jesus Christ is Lord. In other words, the command is to see the world, all of reality, for what it actually is.

This is no small command, and it requires a lifetime of day to day concentration, meditation, and application. All of the various experiences, tragedies, joys, routines, and challenges that come our way are to be filtered, sooner rather than later, through the golden grid of Christ's Lordship. Part of our sanctification includes seeing what takes place in, to, for and against us as included in the sovereign reign of our faithful Savior, who is the Lord. We may stumble and fall as we progress in holiness, but as in medicine, so also in Christianity -- this is a practice. For the Christian, practice makes perfect, but that perfection awaits the consummation.

Once we have in place the practice of setting Christ apart in our hearts as Lord, we are then in a position where we might do apologetics, or as Peter puts it, "make a defense to everyone who asks." It is the Lordship of Christ, in other words, that explains Christianity. It is that Lordship that provides for us an "account," a "reason,"  the "logic" (the Greek word is logos) for the hope that we have. And it is that Lordship that alone is able to give us true hope.

This means that Christianity has a rationale, it has a reason. It means that there are explanations that we can and should provide as to why we believe what we do. If that is true, then Christianity is, by definition, not a blind faith. It is not something that is opposed to, or without, reason and knowledge, or something that can only be communicated by way of "experience." It requires faith to understand it, but that in no way means that the faith required is in any way a blind faith.
It is also worth considering that any other position, any attempt to live in God's world, as God's image, while rejecting the true God will inevitably lead one to seek and supply a false rationale, an illegitimate reason, an irrational "logic," for one's life. To pick up on our discussion in the last post, if it is the case that anyone opposing Christianity, by necessity, lives in an illusory "world" of their own making, that world will include an illusory rationale for such. It is a part of being God's image that people seek and supply some kind of explanation, some reason, for their lives. In Adam, however, we always get it wrong.

In the movie, Memento (2001), Leonard Shelby wants to avenge the murder of his wife. The problem, however, is that Shelby has contracted a severe form of amnesia; he can only recollect events immediately present to him. He has no memory of the past. Masterfully, the movie begins at the end. The audience, without warning, is placed within the context of Shelby's amnesia, as he works backwards, using notes and other devices, to try to find out just exactly what happened to him and to his wife, and why.

As each mini-segment of Shelby's own experience concludes, it fades from memory just as quickly as another segment begins. In order to make sense of the end, which is where the audience, and Shelby, begin, we have to string together, working backwards, each of the mini-segments of Shelby's life, until we reach the end of the movie, which is really the beginning of Shelby's problems.

If this sounds confusing, it is supposed to. Perhaps no other movie has so successfully placed the audience into the mind of its main character. And because the movie depicts the experiences of anxiety coupled with amnesia, the audience is brought into the handicaps of the main character. The chaos and confusion of his life is experienced by the audience as well. So successful is the movie in creating this experience, it is one of a very few movies that likely needs to be seen more than once.

Shelby's problem was that he was unable to connect his immediate experiences to anything else in his life. Each experience remained an isolated event, without context, cause or connection, and so, without interpretation or explanation. Shelby was passionately searching for a reason for what had happened to him. He needed a way to bring all of his disparate experiences together.

In the movie, there is a beginning point of Shelby's tragedy, and an end. What is most striking about the movie, however, is that both the beginning and the end play a minimal role in Shelby's experience. Rather, what is highlighted in the movie is the fact that Shelby's disjointed and seemingly disconnected experiences are all in desperate need of one primary thing - a rationale. The reason things were happening the way they were was the goal of Shelby's pursuit. He, like the audience, was desperately trying to make sense of each of his individual experiences.

In that way, Memento is a counter-cultural movie. It goes against the naïve notion that our experiences are meaningful just by virtue of what they are. It points to the necessity of a reason for our experiences - a "why" and "wherefore" - if anything that happens "in the middle" is to be of any significance. Experiences cannot provide their own fulfillment, or their own explanation. Experiences are not themselves a rationale.

In his book, God is not Great, the late Christopher Hitchens writes of the uselessness, even the poison, of religion (it should be noted that Hitchens is an equal opportunity despiser; all religions are poison, not just Christianity). In that book, he notes:
Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a world-view, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard - or try to turn back - the measurable advances that we have made.
There is much here, and in the book, however eloquent, with which we disagree. (The title itself is offensive in excelsis.) What we seem to have in this quotation, though, is a confusion with respect to the meaning of the word "explanation." Hitchens thinks that, due to scientific advances, we are now able to explain such things as the origin of our species or the meaning of our lives, by way of the microscope and telescope. He thinks, because of these (and presumably other) inventions, religion has nothing really important left to say. Thus, religion has been neutered; it is no longer needed now that science and reason have progressed to their current evolutionary levels.

But what could Hitchens mean here by "explain"? Whatever he means, he seems to think the telescope and microscope have sufficiently replaced religion in their power of "explanation." He must think, therefore, that by looking at matters in more detail (microscope) or from a wider perspective (telescope), those matters will be adequately accounted for.

But this seems to be confused, even wrong-headed. Haven't our advances in science raised more questions than they have answered? Hasn't our exploration of the universe presented us with quandaries that seem to be irresolvable? Hitchens seems to think, to use an analogy, that one can "explain" the meaning of a word by more and more analysis of each of its letters. Or, he seems to imply that one can "explain" the meaning of life by learning more and more of the physical size and place of planet Earth in the cosmic expanse we call the universe. But this is, at best, misguided.

The question could be asked, to return to our amnesiac in Memento, just how helpful the "telescope and microscope" might have been for Shelby as he sought to fit the pieces of his life together in order to find his wife's murderer. Why didn't Shelby, instead of attempting to "connect the dots" of his various life experiences, just go down to the local rental store and rent a telescope and microscope?

The answer is obvious in the asking. All that a telescope and microscope could have done for Shelby would be to describe, in more detail perhaps, his disparate and disconnected individual experiences. They could never have given Shelby the explanation that he needed in order to make sense of those experiences. Telescopes and microscopes provide no rationale.

So it is with us. Even without amnesia, it is impossible to "connect the dots" of our life experiences without access to something that transcends them. If all we have are the experiences themselves, no amount of telescopic or microscopic analysis will give us anything more than "more of the same." Is there anything that can tell us, not simply what our experiences are, but rather what they mean, or why they are what they are?

Peter's point is that only Christ and His Lordship will do that. Sadly, apart from that, all that's left are telescopes, microscopes and a culpable case of severe amnesia.

Choosing to Walk in a Fog

There are a multitude of ways that one can defend the Christian faith. My last post was meant to highlight one way, a way that has enormous cultural, political, and social implications. It has those implications because it is fundamentally gospel-centered and gospel driven; its focus is not on the cultural, political or social. Its focus is on the redemption that is ours in Christ alone. If that focus is maintained, then the effects downstream will be seen and felt, in a variety of ways and contexts.

As we saw last time, however, it is the clear and steadfast conviction that Christ, and Christ alone, is Lord that motivates such a defense. I well remember in my nascent years as a Christian the debates that were raging over whether we receive Christ as Savior only when we are converted, or whether we receive him as Lord as well. With all due respect to those who endured such debates, they seem silly to me now and are not really worthy of the time and energy they consumed back then.

Peter's point, though (in 1 Peter 3:15), is a bit different from that. In commanding us to set Christ apart as Lord, his point is not whether one has received Christ as Savior, or as Savior and Lord, not at all. Peter's point is that, if one is to be adequately prepared to give an answer for one's Christian faith, the Lordship of Christ must be a solid and unwavering commitment of one's heart.

But why? Again, the answer is as simple as it is profound - because that is what He is. The specific command that Peter gives can be stated more generally. We are to think about, and live in, the world according to what it really is, and not according to how it might at times appear to us. More on this in a minute. As Peter writes to these persecuted and scattered Christians, he recognizes that it must surely be one of their paramount temptations to begin to interpret their circumstances in such a way that Christ is not Lord. It may begin, in the midst of their suffering, to look like someone else is in charge. After all, if Christ were Lord, how could these things be happening?

As a matter of fact, the Lordship of Christ explains why "these things are happening." The Lordship of Christ is the conclusion to His own suffering and humiliation. It is because He was obedient, even to death on a cross, that He has been given the name that is above every name. It is because He suffered that every knee will bow and tongue confess that He is Lord. The road to His exaltation was paved with blood, sweat and tears. If we are to be exalted with Him on that last day, ours will be so paved as well. With all of the attendant mysteries surrounding the suffering of Job, two words from God himself -- "My servant" (Job 1:8, 2:3) -- initiate our understanding of what Job was called to endure. As Job was called to be a suffering servant, Christ was the quintessential Suffering Servant (Is. 53). Those who know their Redeemer lives (Job 19:25), who are called to be united to Him, will be suffering servants with Him.

The Lordship of Christ is basic to our defense of Christianity. Christ now reigns. He is Lord. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. That authority is the prerequisite to the command to make disciples. Without that authority, baptism and disciple-making in and for the church are meaningless. All things have been placed under His feet and Christ has been given as head over all things to the church (Eph. 1:22). The process of history is the process of making Christ's enemies a footstool for His feet. That footstool is being built because He is Lord. Just like Jesus' earthly father, His heavenly Father is a carpenter. He's building a footstool for His Son (see, for example, Acts 2:35, Heb. 1:13, 10:13).

So, wherever you go, to whomever you speak, Christ is Lord there, and He is Lord over that person. Since He is Lord, His truth is truth in every place, and for every person. The same Christ who rules over you, rules over those who oppose Him. The fact that someone has not set Christ apart as Lord in his heart in no way detracts from or undermines the central point that He is Lord. At least two implications of this truth are important to remember.

The first implication is that truth is not relative. Most Christians agree with that point, even if they don't quite understand it. I remember years ago reading Alan Bloom's bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom began that book by noting what was patently obvious then and what is even more pronounced today. He said that there was one cardinal affirmation that every college student believed - "Truth is relative." He went on to say that it was such a part of the fabric of our culture and our way of thinking that it was thought to need no argument; to demand an argument would be to misunderstand the status of that truth. The bedrock conviction that truth is relative, Bloom asserted, was as ingrained in the American psyche as baseball and apple pie; it was the air that we breathed."Truth is relative" -- ironically, that proposition alone seemed to be universally affirmed (thus was, itself, not relative).

The sinful power of self-deception cannot be underestimated in this regard. The power of sin in us makes us adept anosognosiacs (look it up). In our sins, we have an uncanny ability to fashion a world that has all the substance of an ethereal fog. If anything is patently obvious on the face of it, it is that truth cannot be relative. The notion itself betrays a decided lack of self-awareness and a stubborn blindness to the "big picture." At the micro and the macro levels, we live and move and have our being in the God who alone is truth. Anyone who wants to argue that truth is relative betrays, by that argument, that it cannot be. Anyone who wants to hold that truth is relative, but pretends apathy about the matter, and thus eschews argument, is like David Hume who plays backgammon even though he knows that such an act annihilates his own philosophy. So the relativistic air that we think we breathe turns out to be a sleight of hand; it's a magician's illusion.

The point for the Christian, however, and the point to stand on in our apologetic, is that the truth of Christ's Lordship - which not only includes the fact that He now reigns, but also that He has spoken and that all owe allegiance to Him - is true for anyone and everyone. Christ is Lord even over His enemies, and over ours. And part of what this means is that the authority of Scripture, which is the verbal expression of Christ's Lordship, is authoritative even over those who reject it. The Bible is authoritative, not because we accept it as such, but because it is the Word of the risen Lord. It has a claim on all people. Its truth is the truth for every person in every place. Why, then, would we be reluctant to communicate that truth in our apologetics? Perhaps because we have not reckoned with the actual Lordship of Christ. Perhaps we haven't really set Him apart as Lord in our hearts.

The second implication, which we have already broached, is that we must base our defense of Christianity on reality, and reality is what God says it is. What we dare not do in our apologetic is let the enemy choose the weapon. Any enemy worth his salt will choose a weapon that fires in only one direction. But we are called to use the weapons that the Lord himself has given us. "For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds" (2 Cor. 10:4). The weapons of our warfare are divine weapons, and they have their focus in the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17).

Why choose these weapons? Because they are God's weapons, given to us by God so that we can "destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). In other words, they are the real and true weapons that God has given to us to fight the good fight. They are the weapons through which God is building His Son's footstool. They are the weapons that alone have the power to subdue the enemy. They are the weapons that alone are used for footstool construction.

There is more to be said on this point, and more will be said later. But the basic principle is this: our apologetic must proceed on the basis of reality and not on the basis of illusion. We must proceed according to what Christ the Lord has told us, not according to what our enemies have decided is "appropriate." We view our apologetic, and we proceed in it, as in the rest of life, through the 20/20 lenses of Holy Scripture. Anything less would be like choosing to walk in a fog in order to see more clearly.



A non-Christian friend of mine recently returned from a trip overseas. When I asked him how his trip was, he looked me in the eye and, with finger pointing and shaking in my face, steadfastly declared to me, "There is no God."  That was the first thing he wanted me to know. He knew I was a Christian, and he was anxious to give me one more reason why he was not. His reasoning was that, if there were a God, the places that he had seen on his trip would not be in the reechy and augean conditions that characterized so much of what he saw. For him, the suffering that he saw was so overwhelming that it was a sure and certain indication that God could not exist. My response to him was very simple, and it stopped the conversation (at least for a while). I simply said to him, "What makes you think that God is responsible for such things?"

The first epistle of Peter is written to a group of suffering Christians. These are Christians who have been "grieved by various trials" (1:6), they are in exile (1:17) and thus living in places that are foreign to them; they are encouraged not to be surprised when fiery trials come upon them (4:12) - note: not if fiery trials come, but when they do. The Christian perspective on suffering is in diametrical opposition to my friend's. This is not surprising; there is an antithesis between Christian and non-Christian. That antithesis is not theoretical. It applies to the way we think, the way we act and the way we view the world. In the midst of their suffering, Peter gives this command:

...sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (NASB; 1 Peter 3:15).

The command is to "sanctify Christ as Lord." In the previous verse, Peter refers to Isaiah 8:12ff., which includes a command to regard Yahweh as holy. Peter attributes the prerogatives of Yahweh to Jesus Christ. The New Testament application of Isaiah 8:12f. is that Christians, in the midst of their suffering, are to remember and recognize, in their hearts, that Jesus Christ is Lord. Instead of looking at the overwhelming suffering around them and declaring that there is no God, they are rather to declare, "Jesus is Lord." They are to "sanctify" or "set apart" the Lordship of Christ in their hearts by showing his Lordship when suffering comes. Peter then goes on to tell them (and us) that the way to sanctify Christ as Lord - the command to set Christ apart as Lord - is met as we ready ourselves for a defense of that which we believe.

If we are honest with ourselves, it may be that our mindset is more in sync with my friend's oftentimes than with Scripture. It may be that, when suffering comes, or when it threatens to overwhelm us in some way, we may think that belief in God seems foolish. How could God allow such a thing to happen? Why wouldn't he prevent this?

Last month, I had the privilege of teaching in Jakarta, Indonesia for two weeks. Indonesia has the highest Muslim population, by ratio, than any other country in the world; 86% of its population is Muslim. I have no idea what it must be like to live there from day to day, but I had a glimpse of it when I was there. It is impossible to put into words the intensity of the pressures and problems that persist in a country like this, especially if one is a Christian.

A few decades ago, Dr. Stephen Tong determined that the best response to the overwhelming suffering and pressure that is replete in Indonesia was to build a Christian church as a testimony to the truth of the gospel. So, in keeping with the law of the land, he applied for a permit to build. He waited and pleaded and waited and pleaded. As expected, his petition was either ignored or delayed - for fifteen years!

When the authorities finally agreed to let him build his church, they insisted that he could not put a cross on it. The cross is a sign of offense to Muslims; it is an affront to their religion, he was told. Dr. Tong told the authorities that he had to put a cross on the church. There was no other way, he argued, to show that this was a Christian church. Whether the authorities relented or not is unclear. What is clear is that a cross sits atop this Indonesian "megachurch," now housing a few thousand Christians on Sunday morning. After preaching to the initial hordes at 7:30 each Sunday morning, Tong moves into the Mandarin service, on a separate floor of the church, and preaches there. Meanwhile, someone is preaching on another floor at the English service.

The church building itself (see picture below), designed by Tong, is cylindrical. As one drives along near the church, visible from any side of the cylinder are carved, in bold relief and written in Latin,  one of the "Solas" of the Reformation - Sola Fide, Solus Christus - or the command to Love God and our neighbors. Tong has made sure that anyone who drives by that building will know what it is. The building itself clearly indicates that Christ alone is Lord.

On Monday thru Friday, over 400 children attend the Christian school that is housed at the church. They are preparing for the future of Christianity in Indonesia. In a Muslim culture, young people of all ages are daily learning about Christ. Not only so, but conductors from around the world reserve the Concert Hall (also designed by Tong) in the church and bring their orchestras to perform in the largest Hall in Indonesia. The Jakarta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Tong, performed on one of the weekends that I was there. The orchestra is composed of some from the church, but others from outside, and many who are Muslims. Dr. Tong conducted the orchestra through Haydn's "Summer" and "Spring," and made sure that the near-capacity audience understood that the music itself was testimony to the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Dr. Tong, and a goodly number of his parishioners, have been prepared to defend their Christian faith; they are ready to give an answer. They have to be ready in a culture that is so hostile to them. They've defended their right to build a Christian church, to have a Christian school, to have a Concert Hall, a museum, a seminary... These things wouldn't happen without a defense of Christianity. They wouldn't happen unless one was convinced that Christ, not Allah, is Lord.

It is impossible for most of us in the West adequately to recognize the tremendous, almost miraculous, developments that have allowed this church to exist. In the midst of an overpowering Muslim presence and control, there stands this enormous church building. To drive by this building and read the words, "Solus Christus" which tower high above the bustle of the city is incredible beyond words.

I wondered, as I tried to take in something so foreign to me, how many Christians in the West would have the same tenacity as Tong, were they in his shoes. Would the hegemony of Islam cause confusion and fear among us? Would Western apologists, in these circumstances, try to form a syzygy with Islam and call it "Together for Theism" - T4T? Would we Westerners, like my friend, in the face of so much suffering, pressure, and persecution conclude that there is no God?

It is difficult to translate my Indonesian experience into a Western context. Whatever the context, however, Peter's admonition is the same. Our responsibility as Christians is to be prepared to give an answer to those who would ask us the reason(s) for our hope.

Perhaps the most significant point of Peter's command is the reason that he gives for it. It is as simple as it is profound: "For Christ also died for sins, once for all..." (3:18). The ironic twist that just is the transposition of the gospel is not that when we see suffering we should conclude that there is no God. Rather, it is that when we see suffering, we should remember that God himself, in the Person of his Son, did exactly that, so that suffering and sin would one day cease. Suffering is clear evidence that Christ is Lord; it is not a testimony against that truth. Dr. Tong recognized that, and defends the faith, giving testimony to Christ in the midst of enormous opposition.

The suffering that is the cross of Christ - the very thing that, on the face of it, might lead us to believe that there is no God - is, as a matter of fact, the deepest expression of his sovereign character as Lord.

Sanctify Christ as Lord, and be ready to give a reason for the great and only hope of the Christian gospel.


The End of Infidelity

Last fall, Steve Hays of Triablogue, did an excellent article for ref21 refuting the collection of new atheist essays published under the title of The End of Christianity (ed. John Loftus).

The book-length refutation of Loftus and company is now available in PDF here. Not only is it a wealth of solid, biblical argumentation, it is also (as any reader of Triablogue can attest) full of wit. Enjoy and share!

Fast and Furious Fulmination

Apologetics is a defense of the Christian faith; the word "apologetics" comes from a Greek word that means defense. In my last article, I mentioned that apologetics has been concerned, perhaps overly or exclusively so, to answer philosophical challenges with philosophical jargon. This emphasis has had two unwelcome consequences. It has led to a marginalizing of apologetics, such that its subject matter is reserved only for the specially-trained; apologetics is the domain of the egghead. It has also led to an over-intellectualizing such that the focus has been almost exclusively on the mind; it has little to do with matters of the heart, with the whole person. Its goal is simply to get us to believe propositions that we do not currently believe. Given these two consequences, it is not difficult to see why apologetics has had little relevance for the church. Like Mt. Ranier, it may be admired from afar, but is rarely taken on (and then only by the 'experts'), and is always cold, windy and barren at the top.

The challenges to the Christian faith, however, are much more diverse, more varied and often more subtle than those often lodged by philosophers. Current challenges to Christianity certainly include philosophical challenges, as well as things like the "new atheism," and those need to be addressed. But, perhaps more difficult, for example, because more subtle and less precise, are the challenges that come from (what a recent article called) the "apatheists," who seem currently to dominate the cultural climate. These are folks who claim they simply don't care about religion at all; their basic attitude to life is, "so what?" Their hero is Alfred E. Newman - "What? Me worry?" Why be concerned about such things as meaning, or the afterlife, or spirituality? Isn't life difficult enough without adding the difficulty of belief in something that is unseen and unprovable? Why in the world should I care about such things?

We would be kidding ourselves if we thought that attitudes like this (and this is just one example) do not challenge Christian belief -- perhaps even our own Christian belief. And wherever there is a challenge to Christianity, apologetics is meant to help address it. So, clearly, setting up base camp in the rarified air of philosophy will not do for apologetics; it must be able to address challenges from all comers and every quarter, and to respond in a way that both truthfully addresses the challenge and also offers the truth of the gospel. And this requires biblical revelation. So, why would anyone think that referencing the truth of biblical revelation in apologetics is out of bounds?

The primary reason, it seems, is that it is assumed that one can only debate or argue with someone on the basis of mutually accepted ideas. This makes some sense, of course. If I decide I want to argue that the moon is made of green cheese and my reason for believing that is that I saw it on the Oprah Winfrey Network, you would have good reason to doubt both the substance and source of my belief. You may cry foul because you refuse to accept as fact anything that is broadcast on OWN.

In discussions and debates about Christianity and its truth, however, the situation is in some significant ways quite unique. We will be discussing that uniqueness as we go along but at least one illustration of it may be helpful here. Whenever we determine to communicate the gospel to our unbelieving friends, the truth that we are communicating is decidedly not shared by those to whom we speak. Not only so, but the source of that truth (Scripture) is, by definition, rejected by them as well. 

On a practical note, this doesn't mean that we strive to communicate that truth in such a way that it is as foreign as possible to our unbelieving friends. Nor does it mean that our goal is to be as offensive and confrontational as we can possibly be. The gospel carries its own offense; it is already a fragrance of death to those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:15), no need to add our own three acres of onions to it. Part of gospel wisdom (Col. 4:5-6) is that we should desire, not simply to tell the truth, but to communicate that truth in a way that might resonate with the listener. We want them to see, not simply that the gospel is true, which it is, but that it is the only truth that will meet them where they are. So, we should try to be persuasive in our communication.

But the fact remains that our communication of the truth of the gospel recognizes that there is no admitted mutual common ground of authority, nor is the content we communicate necessarily shared by the ones to whom we speak. So on what basis do we presume to communicate this truth?

This is the all-important question, for evangelism as well as for apologetics (and for preaching as well). When I ask, "on what basis," I am not asking simply "by what authority." We communicate the gospel because God has commanded it. But when I ask "on what basis" I am asking if there is some common foundation on which we and our unbelieving friends stand in order, really and truly, to effect communication between us. If in our gospel communication we do not share the same authority, the same foundation and the same content, how do we "connect" with our interlocutor? The answer is as profound as it is simple. It is so profound, in fact, that, with respect to apologetics, it has often been almost completely overlooked and ignored. The answer is that we -- all men and every person, always and everywhere, no matter the place or position -- live, move and exist in the God of Scripture, and we know that we do. This is our foundation, it is the real authority behind our apologetics and evangelism.

When we communicate to someone that they have sinned against a holy God and thus owe him repentance, because what we say resonates with what they already know to be the case, the truth of the matter pierces their soul like a laser; it causes their "innards" to register 9 on the Richter scale. We may not be able to detect this response; it may remain on the inside. But like a deadly undercurrent, while the surface may look calm and peaceful, underneath there is fast and furious fulmination. God's truth resonates with every person because God is already, always and everywhere known, and so are his requirements (see Rom 1:18-20, 32; 2:14-15). So, the common ground between the Christian and non-Christian is not, foundationally, what we agree together to affirm, nor is it some assumed common source like the "deliverances of reason" or "laws of thinking" (though on the surface these may look the same). The common ground that we all have is that all that we have, are and know comes from the same Triune God, and we know that it does.

One of the primary things to keep in mind, therefore, in apologetics (as in evangelism) is that God has made himself known in such a way that we, all of us together, know we are his creatures, that we owe him worship, that we have offended him, that our rebellion against him is a capital offense, and that our behavior flies in the face of his holy character.
If this is true, would it change the way we think about a Christian defense? More importantly, would it change how we prepare ourselves to give an answer (cf.1 Peter 3:15)?

Always Ready

Editor's Note: We are excited to welcome Dr. K. Scott Oliphint to the reformation21 blog. Dr. Oliphint is the professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is the author of numerous books, including his most recent title, God With Us (Crossway, 2011). 

One of the things I hope to do in these brief installments is to provide fodder for the mind and heart. Specifically, I hope to offer some food for thought in the area and discipline of biblical apologetics.

There are a number of ways to proffer advice in a short column like this. I could pick out an issue that bothers me and give you the benefit of my ever-increasing years of "wisdom" on how to be "against" that issue. Three interrelated problems come to mind, however, with that kind of approach. First, I'm fairly confident that the "wisdom" I think I have to offer is really nothing more than a short piece of autobiography. Even if you agree with it, it may simply be that we have mutual pet peeves and that you're glad that someone else sees it the way you do. Second, I'm even more confident that most who read this are not really all that interested in my life and problems, at least not in a way that would motivate them to read this. Third, I doubt that your understanding my own take on a particular issue is something that would help in the long run; it's not something that has any lasting value. So, in agreeing to write something here from time to time, I hope to stick to areas and issues that have a firmer grounding that my own idiosyncrasies and issues. In other words, if you come to this page to read about what I think about "x," you should probably click your "back" button, delete this page from your RSS feed and make sure this page is not bookmarked (I've now exhausted my web page vocabulary in one fell swoop).

My goal and method, then, will be to attempt to provide biblical and theological principles that are a part of, and can be applied to, a defense of Christianity. I recognize that such an approach may sound strange to some. A number of years ago a student reported to me that he had just returned from a conference entitled "Defending the Faith."  I asked him what the most significant thing about the conference was and I was surprised at his answer.  He said the thing that most caught his attention was one of the speaker's comments, which went something like this: "This year our topic is apologetics, so you really won't need to have your Bibles with you."  The comment itself, according to this student, was not meant to be humorous or flippant; it was simply a statement of fact.

Such a comment is understandable, though lamentable.  It is understandable given the way in which much, if not most, of apologetics is discussed.  For many, the context and content of apologetics has been first of all philosophical.  Much of apologetic discussions have taken place within philosophical walls, using philosophical arguments, attempting philosophical conclusions.  The language that has been used, the methods of argumentation, the topics chosen for debate, have all been molded and shaped primarily by a philosophical agenda and vocabulary.

In some ways, this makes sense.  There can be a kind of obvious overlap between apologetics and philosophy.  Because philosophy seeks to ask and answer the 'big' questions -- what is the universe like?, who am I?  how can I know anything? what is the nature of right and wrong? -- its concerns are similar to some of the main concerns of the Christian faith.  

Part of the problem, however, has been that philosophy's answers to these concerns have been, for the most part, antagonistic to Christian truth. So, in response, Christian apologists have attempted to give Christian answers to philosophical questions - answers that are often couched in terms that philosophers would use and understand.

Not only so, but some of the attacks that have been lodged against Christianity have come from philosophers. Because philosophy attempts to proceed and argue with sophisticated jargon and erudite elocution, the attacks lodged from philosophy against Christianity will take on that sophistication and erudition. In such cases, it is perfectly acceptable, perhaps even advisable, to respond on the same level. The problem has been that apologetics has become, generally speaking, an exclusively philosophical discipline.  So, it is not surprising that  this student would attend a conference on apologetics and never open his Bible.  What is needed in philosophy are strong reasoning skills, not biblical revelation (or so we're told).

But it is one thing to recognize that Christian apologetics must deal with philosophical attacks, and quite another thing to think that Christian apologetics only or primarily or supremely deals with philosophical attacks. I suspect that most Christians experience attacks on their faith that are much more mundane and banal -- the co-worker who thinks you're out of touch with all things modern, the acquaintance who thinks you odd for opposing gay marriage, the relative who quit calling your for lunch after you turned down his invitation to play golf one Sunday morning. Such things can apply sometimes enormous pressure on our faith; they can take the form of an attack. They can embarrass us, cause us to remain quiet about what we believe, make us avoid such situations altogether. At their worst, such responses to us can cause us to question our faith. What we need are biblical strongholds; we need to think about how to respond to these pressures. We need, as Scripture enjoins us, to be ready to give an answer.

But if apologetics is not meant to access the truth of biblical revelation, if it is merely a philosophical response to philosophical challenges, what use is it when other kinds of attacks come? Or, to put it another way, how can it be that we are meant to defend the truth of Christianity without that truth itself being an integral, central and controlling part of that defense? I hope we can think about that together over the next weeks and months.

Chrysostom, Christians and Critiques

One of the things Christians are increasingly hearing from secular critics is that Christianity is not only wrong, but evil; it's false but also immoral. One of the best responses to this phenomena is a recent book by the guys over at Triablogue, entitled The Infidel Delusion. One thing the author(s) do in this book (which is a response to The Christian Delusion) is point out that Christians have been critiquing the failings of their own far longer - and far better - than unbelievers.

It is interesting that one of the things being saved by grace alone does is alert one to the fact that he is probably the triumphant failure that the Scriptures tell him he is. Yes, we can all admit Christians do some pretty terrible things. But this fact, far from showing Christianity false or immoral, only shows that the Bible's diagnosis of our condition is, in fact, correct.

Chrysostom offers characteristic insight to this condition when he writes, "`Christians damage Christ's cause more than his enemies and foes" (Thanks, Dr. Trueman, for that quote). We don't need a group of atheists to tell us what gigantic failures we are. The Bible does that for us, as all the great Christians of church history have been so keen to demonstrate.

We should therefore be the harshest critics of our own - and ourselves. But there is hope in all this: if we accept the Bible's teaching on our total depravity - acknowledging it, accepting it and not watering it down - well, then the door is open  (so to speak) for radical grace.  Which is exactly what we need - and what God provides in Christ.

I've been reading the late Robert Webber's last book, Who Gets To Narrate the World? Contending for the Christian Story in an Age of Rivals  (IVP, 2008), and came across these lines:

"When we argue [in an evidentialist] way, we overlook the inner authority of the Scripture and seek to support it with an external authority.  Truth is made dependent on something outside the authority of the Bible.  We judge the Bible by bringing it under a discipline:  reason, science, experience or some other field of study.  We must do the opposite--bring all the disciplines under the Word of God, under God's narrative from beginning to end" (87).

With this presuppositionalist foundation, he next employs a presuppositionalist methodology.  As some background, Webber's concern in the book is the external challenge to the Christian narrative, which he identifies as Radical Islam.  (He also takes on the internal challenge of a privatized faith of a Christianity overly accommodated to culture).  Now comes the presuppositional method, which occurs throughout the book and also in a nutshell on page 87.  Webber takes us over to the ground of Radical Islam, considers it, then takes it to its conclusion.  He finds it as a rather lacking narrative of the world; it breaks down.  Then Webber invites us over to the Christian narrative, to consider it, and then to take it to its conclusion. 

In the end, he offers a "wake-up call," as he writes in the introduction, concerning the external and internal challenges in our day.  He also presents a winsome portrayal of the Christian narrative, the only narrative that makes sense of the world:  His (almost last) words in the book:  "There is no narrative that begins to compare with the Christian narrative--in which God enters our suffering to deliver us from sin and death, and to deliver the world from the domain of darkness" (137).  Webber knew he was dying, he had pancreatic cancer, when he wrote this.

REF21 readers might have a bone or two to pick with the work of the late Robert Webber.  Let's just not overlook some significant comments here in his last work.