New/Old Reformed Apologetics Resources

As a 21 year old young man I was singularly blessed. My introduction to apologetics (the defense of the faith) was directly to Reformed apologetics. In God’s providence, no one told me to read Josh McDowell, William Lane Craig or even Lee Strobel. No, when I came to apologetics, I was brought directly to Cornelius Van Til. My first book on apologetics was Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith (Third Edition). I devoured it over the course of a couple weeks during my first summer off from university. It set my mind ablaze. I started telling everyone who’d listen about Reformed, presuppositional apologetics. You couldn’t shut me up about it.

How I was introduced to Van Til is a peculiar story. It involves a number of Canadian Reformed folks in northern Alberta who were enamoured with a movement known as Christian Reconstructionism. One of the planks of Christian Reconstruction is theonomy. One of the things theonomy teaches is that there is a continuing divine obligation for civil government today “to obey and enforce the relevant laws of the Old Testament, including the penal sanctions specified by the just Judge of all the earth” (Bahnsen, By This Standard, 4). As a young man, I was introduced to this notion and attempted to engage it critically.

However, another plank of Christian Reconstruction is the Reformed, presuppositional apologetics pioneered by Cornelius Van Til. I was reading theonomists and they often mentioned Van Til’s apologetic method. So, one day in mid-1994, I was visiting Reg Barrow at Still Waters Revival Books. SWRB at that time was not only the chief purveyor of Christian Reconstructionism in Canada, but also one of the best sources for Reformed books in general, certainly in Edmonton. At SWRB I spotted Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith. I recalled his name from the theonomists I’d been reading, but was also fresh out of my first year of university and licking my wounds from battles with secularists in academia. I needed this book.

After finishing The Defense of the Faith, I started reading anything else by Van Til I could get my hands on. I noticed that Van Til had students, some better than others. To my mind, there was no better student of Van Til’s apologetics than Greg Bahnsen, especially after I listened to his epic debate with Gordon Stein. I subscribed to Bahnsen’s “Penpoint” newsletters, sent via snail mail back in the day. One thing led to another and, after my B.A., I was even enrolled in the M.A. in Apologetics program at the Southern California Center for Christian Studies for a brief time. However, I didn’t get to study with Bahnsen himself — he died from complications during heart surgery in December 1995.

That was 25 years ago. Over this past quarter-century, Bahnsen’s work on apologetics has been available. Several books were published posthumously, including his magnificent Van Til’s Apologetic. Many of his articles on apologetics (and other subjects) have been freely available all along. But this past week, finally, after 25 years, all of Bahnsen’s recordings are being made freely available (previously only available for sale). This includes all his individual lectures and lecture series on apologetics.

At the moment, you can already download MP3s for free from Covenant Media Foundation here. Apparently, arrangements have been made with two other organizations to also host material from Greg Bahnsen, though the material isn’t yet available. One of those is the Bahnsen Project. The other is Apologia Studios (associated with Jeff Durbin/James White). My understanding is that these two organizations will remaster the audio recordings so they’re of a higher quality.

The other day I heard someone describe our day as a “golden age” for Reformed apologetics. Certainly the wealth of available resources is unparalleled. If you want to learn apologetics from a Reformed perspective, it’s all out there. You are without excuse if you ignore it.

A final disclaimer: Greg Bahnsen was a theonomist — in fact, he popularized the term with his Theonomy in Christian Ethics. By recommending him as a teacher of apologetics, I’m not endorsing every jot and tittle of his political ethics. Still, there’s just no denying the obvious: he was and remains one of the best teachers of Reformed apologetics. Van Til himself is heavy going for many people, but Bahnsen had a way to bring it home. Do yourself a favour and listen to one of his lecture series on apologetics. You won’t regret it!


Book Review: Fill the Earth

Fill the Earth: The Creation Mandate and the Church’s Call to Missions, Matthew Newkirk.  Eugene:  Pickwick Publications, 2020.  Softcover, 328 pages.

When it comes to what the Bible says about mission, where do your thoughts immediately go?  If you’re like most Christians, it’d probably be the Great Commission, especially the version found at the end of Matthew 28.  We’re accustomed to thinking almost entirely in terms of Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all nations.  However, the Bible’s teaching about mission reaches far beyond the Great Commission.  In fact, as Matthew Newkirk persuasively argues, it stretches back to Genesis and forward to Revelation.

Matt Newkirk has his ordination credentials in the Presbyterian Church in America.  He serves in Japan, teaching Old Testament at Christ Bible Seminary in Nagoya.  He received his seminary training at Reformed Theological Seminary and also holds a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Wheaton College.

Fill the Earth can aptly be described as an exercise in biblical theology.  By “biblical theology,” I don’t mean “orthodox theology” (although it is).  “Biblical theology” is a field of study often regarded as having been pioneered by Geerhardus Vos.  Vos described biblical theology as “that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.”  God’s revelation is embedded in history and involves a historical progression.  Biblical theology describes that, often by taking a topic or concept and tracing its development through the Scriptures.  In this case, it’s mission.    

There have been previous attempts to wed biblical theology and mission, Greg Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission being one of the most well-known.  Newkirk builds on the work of Beale and others.  He convincingly demonstrates that not only is mission bound up with the story line of the Bible, but it’s also intrinsic to the church founded in Genesis and which continues through and past the book of Revelation.

One of the notable features of this book is its detailed exegesis of numerous Scripture passages.  While he’s tracing out the big picture, Newkirk also has the exegete’s penchant for detail.  Some of the detail gets technical, but most readers without advanced theological training should still be able to follow his arguments.  Not unexpectedly, the level of detail also means that, at times, other students of Scripture are going to disagree.  For example, Newkirk argues that the book of Jonah is only missional “insofar as it exhorts Israel to repent from their hardened and disobedient posture towards God’s Word and respond to him faithfully” (141).  I can fully agree that it is missional in that regard, but I find it difficult to ignore the fact that Jonah is sent out by God to a foreign nation with a call to repentance.  There appears to be an incipient form of centrifugal mission here pointing ahead to what will unfold in the New Testament.  Aside from some of these debatable points of detail, I find Newkirk’s overall trajectory to be cogent, namely that Scripture teaches our mission to be “to fill the earth as God’s representatives and thereby demonstrate that his kingship extends over the entire earth” (18).

Most of Fill the Earth is taken up with making that case.  However, Newkirk concludes with a chapter explaining how his argument bears on the work of mission today.  Let me share some of the questions addressed (without giving away the answers):

  • Is mission merely a reactive response to the presence of sin in the world? 
  • Is non-expansionistic ministry legitimately classified as “missions”? 
  • Is missions fundamentally cross-cultural?
  • In light of what Scripture teaches, how should we evaluate the trend towards seeing the nations coming to us and therefore concluding that we need not send out missionaries to places without a sufficient indigenous gospel witness? 

The cumulative argument made in this book has a bearing on how each of those questions (and more) are answered.     

This book is thought-provoking – Newkirk helpfully challenged some of my previously held notions of what the Bible teaches about mission.  If you’ve done any reading in the field of missiology, you’ll know how difficult it is to find books which not only take the Bible seriously as the Word of God, but also go in for the deep dive.  But to advance the field of missiology in a God-honouring way, that’s exactly what we need, and that’s exactly what Matt Newkirk has provided


The Accompanist as Prophet? — Excerpt from Aiming to Please

Jan Zwart

The following is an excerpt from Aiming to Please, chapter 16.  Aiming to Please:  A Guide to Reformed Worship can be purchased from Amazon and many other online retailers around the world.

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The Accompanist as Prophet?

If we have accompaniment, the accompanist has an important role in our worship service.  As just intimated, poor accompaniment is worse than no accompaniment.  We want our accompanists to aim to please the LORD along with the entire congregation.  There has to be a pursuit of excellence in the craft of accompaniment.  When this is done, we should be thankful and encourage our accompanists.

Regrettably, in our tradition there has sometimes been inordinate language when it comes to accompanists, and especially organists.  Sometimes the organist has been described as a “prophet” and his playing as “prophesying from the organ bench.”  It seems that this rhetoric traces back to the famous Dutch organist Jan Zwart.  According to Deddens, Zwart spoke of “prophesying during the worship service, before and after the sermon, in a language the people can understand.”  Reformed theologian Klaas Schilder took over this language in describing Zwart posthumously:  “His life’s work was to prophesy from the organ bench, and when we say that we give true expression to what motivated this man.”  Deddens appreciated this rhetoric and took it over as well.

The major problem with this description of the accompanist is that it does not stand up to biblical scrutiny.  In the Bible, prophecy is almost always about words.  A prophet without words is unheard of.  There are instances where prophets performed prophetic acts, but these were exceptional, and even these acts never occurred in isolation from their words.  Both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, prophecy is verbal.  When Lord’s Day 12 of the Catechism says we are anointed to be prophets who confess the name of Christ, it is referring to a verbal activity.  During and after the Reformation, preaching was sometimes called “prophesying” – because it had to do with words.  The idea of a musical instrument being a means of prophecy is unheard of, biblically and historically.

While certainly appreciating the work of accompanists (more on that in a moment), let us also be modest about what they are doing.  If one wants to employ the language of the three-fold office of all believers to describe accompanists, then it would be better to refer to them in priestly terms.  With their accompaniment, they are offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving with the rest of the congregation.  That is something which can be done both with and without words.

Proper Honour for Accompanists

If an accompanist takes his or her work seriously, there can be quite a bit of preparation involved with each service.  Moreover, a serious accompanist might even be a professional musician with years of training.  A lot of time and money may have been invested in honing their musical craft.  This ought to be honoured and recognized.

That can be done in different ways, of course.  One way would be for the pastor regularly to pray for the accompanist(s) in his congregation.  Another would be for there to be occasional acknowledgement of the accompanist in the church bulletin or perhaps at a congregational meeting.  Still another way would be to ask the accompanist to help the congregation in understanding music in worship.  Accompanists have the musical understanding and skills that many of us do not, and asking them to share their insights also shows respect for them and their craft.  Let them teach us.

It is also appropriate to show our gratitude to our accompanists with an honorarium.  This recognizes the time, energy, and financial commitment they have made to pursue excellence in accompanying our singing.  Churches that do not offer an honorarium to their accompanists can sometimes struggle to find accompaniment, especially if there are other churches nearby which do offer honorariums.

Now someone might object and say, “A lot of us do volunteer work in the church and we don’t get paid for it.  So why should the accompanist get paid?”  There are two things to say in response.  First, the accompanist is not being “paid” for their labours.  He or she is not an employee of the church, at least not typically.  The accompanist is a volunteer, offering his or her services for the glory of God.  Second, unlike most other volunteer work in the church, the accompanist has spent a lot of his or her time, energy, and money on learning to play well.  Continuing to play well also requires investments, including the purchase of sheet music.  Accompaniment is different than the other volunteer work done in the church.  A modest honorarium recognizes this.


It Makes No Sense

Once there was a young man hanging out with his friends.  They were bored so they decided to do something exciting.  One of the people in the neighbourhood had some pear trees.  He was one of those people obsessive about his trees.  He didn’t want people on his property taking his pears.  In other words, he was the perfect target for these bored young people.  They jumped the fence, snuck into his yard, and stole a bunch of his pears.  They ran back out as quickly as they could, hoping not to get caught — or maybe to get caught and make a close escape.  Once they made their get-away, they looked at the pears.  They were ugly and inedible.  They threw the pears to some pigs.

The young man was Augustine, who later became known as one of the church fathers.  He wrote about this in his classic book Confessions – which, if you’ve never read it, you really need to.  It’s the most readable book by Augustine and tremendously edifying.  Augustine reflected on the pear incident in Confessions.  Why did he do it?  Simply, he says, for “the excitement of stealing and doing something wrong.”  Augustine goes on to write about how sin is always irrational and self-destructive, and yet we love it just the same.  This is what he says:

I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself.  It was foul, and I loved it.  I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself….I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake.

Augustine did this when he was still an unbeliever.  He wasn’t converted to Christ until much later.  But if you read further in his Confessions, it becomes clear how the irrational and self-destructive nature of sin hounded him his whole life, even after becoming a Christian.  He’s really honest about that.

I can relate and I’m sure you can too, if you’ve given it any thought.  Why do we sin?  If we’d stop and think for a moment, we’d see the utter stupidity of what we’re doing.  But sin blinds us.  It makes us deaf to reason.  Sin turns us into fools.  We know God is holy.  We know he hates sin.  We know he will punish sin with unquenchable wrath.  Yet we do it.  We sin every day with our thoughts, our words, and our actions.

Now the gospel tells us that God will forgive all our sins through Christ and so we go to Christ to escape the coming wrath.  We’re assured of forgiveness through him.  You’d think that would make us into people filled with love and thanksgiving, people wanting to obey and please our Father in heaven who has loved us so much.  Yet instead, so often, we forget his love, we trample on the gospel, and still want to do things our own way.  Does it make any sense?  Not to me.  And yet, sin has compelled me and sin will compel me.  The same is true for you.  For all of us, we’re burdened with the utter irrationality of our wickedness.  For a Christian, it’s totally frustrating.

But let me encourage you.  If you see the senselessness of sin, take heart because this is God’s work in you with his Holy Spirit.  If sin frustrates you, it’s because God has opened your eyes through regeneration.  The way forward involves awareness of your plight and God grants that gift to all his children.

God doesn’t stop there.  The Holy Spirit also works with the Word so there is actual growth in our lives.  True Christians can and will make progress in holiness.  The growth may be slow and many times it can be imperceptible.  Sometimes, sadly, Christians backslide too.  Nevertheless, the overall trend in a Christian’s godliness is upward.  That’s something we want, something we strive for, and something God graciously grants.  By God’s grace, we are being set free from the senselessness of sin.  We are on our way to a place and state where everything we do, say, and think will finally make sense.


Is the God of the Bible a Genocidal Maniac?

I love the stuff they’re putting out on this channel.  Reformed Wiki has good, solid teaching on Reformed apologetics, both the theory and practice.  This one fits with the latter category.