Tag Archives: Christopher Hitchens

Book Review: Reformed Apologetics (4)

See here for part 1, here for part 2, here for part 3.

Presuppositional apologetics is well-known for its use of the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God (TAG).  Essentially, this argument states that God exists because of the impossibility of the contrary.  We cannot account for anything apart from God.  To hear the best example of this argument in action, listen to the famous 1985 debate between Dr. Greg Bahnsen and Dr. Gordon Stein.

In chapter 6, Fesko concedes that TAG can be a useful argument in the apologist’s toolbox, “but not at the expense of the book of nature” (137).  He does not regard it as a silver-bullet, nor does he see it as “the most biblically pure form of Reformed apologetics” (137).  Rather than being purely biblical, Fesko sees TAG as being more philosophical.  In particular, he sees it as attaching “apologetic methodology to certain idealist concepts” (156).

The chief problem with chapter 6 is that while Fesko acknowledges the presuppositionalist claim that TAG is biblical or even the most biblical way to argue, he never once interacts with the biblical exegesis proffered by presuppositionalists to support that claim.  Instead, he apparently thinks it sufficient to illustrate that TAG has an idealist background.  He reasons that since TAG has an idealist background, the presuppositionalist claim is suspect at best.  However, would it not be fair and reasonable to engage the biblical argumentation that presuppositionalists like Oliphint and Bahnsen present in favour of TAG?  Shouldn’t Scripture be the ultimate arbiter of whether something is scriptural?

Additionally, Fesko fails to engage the presuppositionalist claim that TAG is also the most versatile form of apologetic argumentation.  In fact, he simply posits the opposite.  As mentioned, he acknowledges TAG’s usefulness, but then limits it to arguing with philosophical idealists:  “If the apologist happens to be interacting with a person who is devoted to idealism, then the TAG is a useful tool, but an apologist who happens to be dialoguing with a postmodern who rejects the tenets of idealism would need to employ other tools” (155).  Similarly, he argues that TAG is not going to be useful for apologetical engagement with someone who does not have a coherent worldview “but only an eclectic postmodern assortment of beliefs” (156).  There are two points in response.

First, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  Above I mentioned, the so-called Great Debate between Bahnsen and Stein in 1985.   Anyone who has listened to the debate will concede that Stein was handily trumped by Bahnsen.  Was Stein an idealist?  There are other debates where the outcome was not so clear, but from a Christian perspective we can still be assured the truth was proclaimed and unbelief was exposed for what it is.  I think of the debates between Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens.  Wilson wielded TAG against Hitchens.  Was Hitchens an idealist?  Many more examples could be adduced, some with obvious leanings to a more postmodern philosophy of life.  Now, I suppose Fesko’s point hangs on the definition of “usefulness.”  Does “useful” entail convincing opponents?  Or is “useful” a matter of presenting a solid case for the Christian faith regardless of the outcome?  If we use the latter approach, then it is clear to me at least that TAG has been quite useful in apologetical engagements with non-idealists.

Second, Fesko asserts that TAG is only going to be useful for dialoguing with those who have a “coherent worldview.”  This is missing the whole point of TAG.  TAG argues that, outside of the Christian faith, there are no coherent worldviews.  There are no worldviews that can account for reality as it stands before us.  No worldview save the Christian one can account for morality, laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, love, and so on.  Every worldview besides the Christian one is inconsistent and incoherent.  True, there may be individuals whose worldview is a “postmodern assortment of beliefs” – however, these worldviews are to greater or lesser degrees just as inconsistent and incoherent as the most thorough-going idealist.

There is far more that could be said in critique of Fesko’s critique.  I could discuss his failure to acknowledge Van Til’s crucial distinction between natural theology and natural revelation.  I could discuss whether his understanding of the noetic effects of sin is sufficiently Reformed.  I would heartily dispute his repeated claims that presuppositionalists teach that unbelievers have no knowledge whatsoever.  I might bemoan the lack of meaningful engagement with biblical teachings about the myth of neutrality and the reality of self-deception.  I could contest his insinuation in chapter 8 that presuppositionalism is innately arrogant and immodest.  It could be worthwhile to investigate whether Fesko has done justice to Herman Dooyeweerd in chapter 7 – but I will leave that and the other points to others.

Let me finish my critique with something more about Fesko’s understanding of proofs, evidence, and the so-called book of nature.  In the last chapter, he writes that “Proofs, evidence, and the book of nature do not convert unbelievers, but they are an integral part of God’s revelation and thus necessary, important and useful” (209).  I can readily grant that the “book of nature” understood in the sense of article 2 of the Belgic Confession is part of God’s revelation.  “The creation, preservation, and government of the universe” do lead us to perceive God’s invisible qualities, viz. his eternal power and divine nature.  This is biblical – it comes from Romans 1:20.  However, is it biblical to argue that proofs and evidence are an “integral part of God’s revelation”?   Furthermore, which proofs?  Which evidence?  And how are they “God’s revelation”?

If we limit ourselves to the “book of nature,” the Belgic Confession and other historic Reformed symbols attach a limited value to it.  BC article 2 briefly mentions it, but then spends the next five articles on Scripture – the clearer and fuller revelation of God.  When it comes to apologetics, we need to reckon with what Scripture says about itself.  Apologetics is a form of spiritual warfare.  Ephesians 6 speaks about the armour of the Christian soldier.  In that armour there is only one offensive weapon.  It is not “the book of nature” or “evidences and proofs,” but the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17).  Scripture says that Scripture is the weapon for our spiritual warfare.  Our Saviour illustrates the use of that weapon in his temptations.  When tempted by Satan, he did not resort to “the book of nature,” but to the Word of God.  When faced with the lies of unbelief, should not Christians do likewise?

Cornelius Van Til claimed that he was simply standing on the shoulders of others so that he could see further.  He acknowledged his indebtedness to Kuyper, Bavinck, and others who had gone before.  There is a need to be critical when it comes to Van Til’s claims and, indeed, all his teaching.  No man is beyond scrutiny.  The question is:  by what standard do we judge?   Fesko seems more interested in judging Van Til (and presuppositionalism) by historical theology than by the Scriptures.

Writing critiques is hazardous stuff.  Carrying on the Reformed tradition, Van Til was a polemical writer.  He felt compelled to critique theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Joseph Butler at length.  Others have critiqued Van Til’s critique and Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics is just the latest one.  Now I have critiqued Fesko’s critique of Van Til’s critique.  While it is necessary to do it, I sometimes wonder whether we advance the discussion when it is always framed in this negative way.  Fesko automatically puts presuppositionalists like me on the defensive, just as I suppose Van Til has put him on the defensive.  It may have served the church better to write a book with a focus on a positive proposal for Reformed apologetics in our day.  Some critical engagement with theological forebears might still be necessary, but it would put the focus on building up rather than tearing down.


Last week I had the opportunity to teach presuppositional apologetics to a group of 25 university and college students in British Columbia.  They were a great bunch of highly motivated, intelligent, committed young Christians.  Obviously, I had a great time and I think they did too.

I would teach a morning and an afternoon session and then in the evenings they would do something a bit different.  Mark and Jaclynn Penninga came by on Tuesday evening to speak about sexuality and college life.  Jon Dykstra came by on the Wednesday and Thursday evenings to show a couple of films and lead a discussion.  The Thursday evening film was Collision.  I’ve heard lots about it, but I’d never actually watched it.  And because of a family event elsewhere, I didn’t on Thursday night either.  But after I came back to the retreat, Jon and I got to talking.  We made a trade.  I gave him Marilynne Robinson’s Home and he gave me Collision.

I watched it last night.  Before I go on, I want to make a disclaimer.  Greg Bahnsen was arguably the best second-generation Reformed apologist.  He was probably more gifted than Van Til in terms of putting theory into words and definitely when it comes to putting theory into practice.  I’ve learned a lot from Greg Bahnsen and for a time I was even enrolled in the Master of Arts in Apologetics program at the Southern California Center for Christian Studies (where he taught).  But Bahnsen was a theonomist and I’m not.  Similarly, Douglas Wilson is a gifted apologist.  He understands and implements Reformed apologetics.  Yet he is a signatory to the Joint Federal Vision Statement.  Anything positive I might have to say about Wilson here should be not construed as support for all of his thoughts or endeavours outside of the area of apologetics.

Collision is a film documenting a series of encounters between uber-atheist (or anti-theist) Christopher Hitchens and Doug Wilson.  Both are witty, intelligent, and deft communicators.  The film takes place in different settings — a synagogue, a New York college, Westminster Seminary, and a pub.  In between settings we follow a sort of “debate” that took place on a Christian TV station.  The encounters all revolve around the question, “Is Christianity good for the world?”

One of Hitchen’s favourite strategies is to trot out God’s command to destroy the Amalekites.  Hitchens views this as patently evil.  Wilson’s response is that Hitchens has no ground to stand on when he calls something evil.  Hitchens cannot account for good and evil from within his worldview.  Wilson said on a number of occasions, “The universe doesn’t care what we do.”

Who won the debate(s)?  It depends on the grid through which you view it.  In terms of debating ability, Hitchens and Wilson were evenly matched.  Both were well-prepared.  Both are quick on their feet.  Christians would undoubtedly chalk one (or more) up for Wilson, while atheists and skeptics would probably claim an obvious victory for Hitchens.

Generally speaking, the film reinforced what I had been teaching last week.  Sometimes when I teach this material I use the Bahnsen/Stein debate to illustrate — though we usually don’t listen to the whole thing.  I’m still not sure if Collision will replace it.  At a certain point, Wilson speaks about Matthew 24 and he sketches at least a partial preterist interpretation.  He asserts that Jesus Christ returned in 70 A.D. with the destruction of Jerusalem.  I first encountered that argument in David Chilton’s Paradise Restored.  I wasn’t convinced then, and I’m still not.   He speaks about the parable of the prodigal son and tells Hitchens that it’s really about Israel wandering in exile.  Such an interpretation doesn’t do justice to the context where Jesus offended the Pharisees by eating with tax collectors and sinners.  I don’t recall any such misinterpretations of Scripture in the Bahnsen/Stein debate.

Sensitive viewers should note that the soundtrack is a mixture of metal, rap, and a bit of classical.  Also, there is some coarse language.

As a final (less serious) note, as a lifetime member of the Red Green fan club, I couldn’t but help notice the resemblance with Doug Wilson.  But I’m sure someone else has already beaten me to that observation.