Tag Archives: Cornelius Van Til

Jay Adams, Pioneer of Nouthetic Counselling, Dies at 91

Jay Adams died on November 14, 2020.  He was 91 years old.  If his name is familiar, it’s probably because of his association with counselling.  Adams was the pioneer of nouthetic Christian counselling, a theory of counselling based on what the Bible teaches about sin, human nature, and the dynamics of meaningful change.  However, Jay Adams deserves to be remembered for more than just his contributions to Christian counselling.  Let’s briefly survey his life and work.

Training and Ministry

Adams studied theology at Reformed Episcopal Seminary in Philadelphia – he actually began studying there at the age of 15.  He later received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University and Masters in Sacred Theology from Temple University.  Completing his academic training, Adams was awarded a Ph.D. in speech from the University of Missouri.

From 1963-1983, he taught pastoral theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  Prior to that, he pastored a number of Presbyterian churches, including an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation.  Over the last decades of his life, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church held his ministerial credentials.  He was the founder of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) as well as the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors and the Institute for Nouthetic Studies.   

Basic Orientation

I began reading Jay Adams as a university student.  One thing that immediately impressed me was his real commitment to Scripture and the Reformed faith.  He always took the Bible seriously.  Whatever topic he was writing on, from Christian living to counselling to preaching, sola Scriptura was his touchstone.  You might not agree with his exegesis or conclusions (I certainly haven’t always), but you have to agree that this is at least the right approach. 

Adams was following in the footsteps of Cornelius Van Til.  Van Til argued that Reformed principles, drawn from Scripture, must be consistently applied in apologetics.  Jay Adams took that approach and applied it to pastoral theology.  The starting point and governing standard must always be the Word of God. Prior to Adams, this hadn’t been fully recognized in Christian counselling.

Critics

Not everyone was enthusiastic about Adams’ approach, especially as it applied to counselling.  For example, in 1977, an article appeared in Clarion by Dutch theologian Cornelis Trimp.  The article (originally a lecture delivered at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary) expressed some appreciation for Adams, but was overall quite critical.  Trimp’s critique would be influential in the Canadian Reformed Churches for years to come. 

In 1999, I had the opportunity to meet Jay Adams briefly at a conference in Buffalo where he was speaking.  I specifically asked him about Trimp’s critique and what he thought of it.  He said that he thought it was unfair that Trimp based his critique on just one early book, Competent to Counsel.  After Competent to Counsel and before Trimp’s critique was published, Adams wrote several more books where he explained himself further and answered many of the criticisms Trimp offered.                     

Other critics raised questions about Adams’ concept of habituation.  In Adams’ thinking, habitual actions are automatic, second nature, and unconscious.  They can be good or bad, which is to say that they have a moral character.  In 2003, George W. Schwab wrote an important article for the Journal of Biblical Counseling in which he persuasively argued that Adams was more influenced by O. Hobart Mowrer and William Glasser than by Scripture in formulating his views on habituation.

His Abiding Contribution

Keep in mind that Adams wrote well over 100 books.  When you write that much, you can expect that there will be disagreements and critiques – and there were many of them.  Some of the critiques had more to do with Adams’ tone or style, sometimes perceived as too strident or too forceful.  Some of the critiques were unfair or prejudicial, while others were on point and advanced the discussion.  Many of Adams’ successors at CCEF, men like the late David Powlison, used Adams’ basic biblical approach and helped move Christian counselling forward.  They all owe a debt of gratitude to Adams for getting the discussion going.     

My life and ministry have certainly been enriched by Jay Adams.  Perhaps he has something to offer you too.  Let me make some suggestions to finish off:Competent to Counsel was one of Adams’ earliest books, published in 1970.  It is an important book, but it leaves many questions hanging.  If you’re interested in understanding the basics of his nouthetic counselling methodology, a better place to start would be A Theology of Christian Counseling: More Than Redemption.   A good follow-up would be How to Help People Change: The Four-Step Biblical Process.  A couple of other books that are more directed to the regular “person in the pew”:  What To Do On Thursday: A Layman’s Guide to the Practical Use of the Scriptures and The Biblical View of Self-Esteem, Self-Love, Self-Image.  Preachers and aspiring preachers need to read his Preaching with Purpose and Truth Applied:  Application in Preaching.


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!


Want to Learn More About Apologetics?

Cornelius Van Til

Apologetics is about learning how to defend the Christian faith/worldview.  These days it’s getting easier than ever to learn about this important subject from some of the best teachers.  Just let me share three important resources:

Reformed Forum offers a free online course, Introduction to the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til.  Taught by Dr. Lane Tipton, the course appears to be a great entry to understanding this pioneer of Reformed apologetics.

There’s a fairly recent YouTube channel that’s producing great content teaching and illustrating Reformed apologetics.  Reformed Wiki includes the famous Bahnsen/Stein debate:

Last of all, there’s a Facebook group:  Reformed Presuppositional Apologetics.  The group currently has nearly 6000 members, including some of the leading Reformed apologists of our day.  If you’re new to apologetics, it’s a great place to watch, learn, and discuss.  It’s one of the reasons I continue to find it hard to say “farewell” to Facebook.


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.


Book Review: Reforming Apologetics (3)

See here for part 1 and here for part 2.

The concept of “common notions” plays a large role in Fesko’s critique.  Chapter 2 features a treatment of the concept from the perspective of historical theology.  As far as a definition goes, he provides that of Anthony Burgess:  “ ‘The Law of Nature consists in those common notions which are ingrafted in all men’s hearts,’ some of which include the existence of God as well as a general knowledge of the difference between good and evil” (30).

He comes back to this concept in chapter 5.  Here he critiques Van Til’s approach to common notions.  According to Fesko, Van Til “rejected the historic Reformed concept of common notions because he believed it was an example of synthetic thinking” (110).  A little further Fesko states things even more strongly:  “With his rejection of common notions, Van Til departs from the catholic and Reformed faith” (110).  However, this critique fails to persuade.  On the next page, Fesko describes Van Til’s alternative terminology of “common ground” and admits it is difficult to tell the difference from “common notions.”  If that be the case, how can Van Til be described as departing from the Reformed faith because he adopted a different term?  Moreover, Fesko fails to mention other places where Van Til uses (and attempts to refine) the terminology of “common notions.”  For example, in his 1947 book Common Grace, Van Til distinguished between common notions in terms of psychology (which he granted) and in terms of epistemology (which he rejected).  It is not reasonable to conclude that Van Til departed from the Reformed faith because he eventually chose alternative terminology, terminology which he thought to be more accurate.  In Fesko’s mind, it appears that Reformed theologians are bound to the terminology of historic Reformed orthodoxy and can never seek to improve upon it without being accused of forsaking the Reformed faith.

Chapter 5 is a critique of the concept of “worldview.”  This is a concept which is integral to Van Tillian apologetics.  Fesko endeavours to show that the concept is dubious since it has origins in philosophical idealism.  Specifically, his beef is with “historic worldview theory” (HWT).  He claims that “HWT is contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures because it rejects a common doctrine of humanity” (98).  Because we are all created in the image of God, all people have “common notions.”  HWT denies this, according to Fesko.   Moreover, he takes issues with the idea that a worldview “must present an exhaustive explanation of the world.  The Bible does not present an exhaustive view of reality”(98).

The chapter begins with a pass granted to theologians like N.T. Wright and Dennis Johnson, who only hold to a loose idea of a worldview.  Fesko has no difficulty with those who, like Wright, say that a worldview is “the way in which people view reality” (98).  He says that these “uses of the term and concept are benign” (98).  His real problem is with worldview thinking more tightly defined in terms of the rejection of common notions and the claim that worldviews are exhaustive or comprehensive descriptions of reality.

I already noted above that Fesko’s critique of Van Til on common notions does not hit its mark.  At this point, I would add that Fesko fails to reckon with an important distinction in presuppositionalism.  We distinguish between what a worldview says in principle and what individual people think, do, and say in practice.  For example, a materialist worldview in principal stands antithetically opposed to Christianity by affirming that physical matter is all that exists.  However, because of common notions (or whatever other term may be used), in practice, individuals who claim to be materialists often betray their own position.  For example, they cannot account for non-material laws of logic.  Because of this dissonance between principle and practice, there are inconsistencies with both believers and unbelievers.

With regard to the insinuation that HWT leads presuppositionalism to claim an exhaustive, detailed view of reality, there is no evidence to support this.  Fesko makes numerous statements like this:  “The Bible is not a comprehensive survey of world history” (128).  But did Van Til or any other presuppositionalist ever claim that it is?  The biblical worldview is not an “exhaustive” view of reality in the sense that Scripture tells us the details for every field of knowledge.  If that is what HWT claims, then I reject it with Fesko.  But the biblical worldview does supply a basic framework in which to explore and develop every field of knowledge.  There are basic principles supplied in Scripture by which Christians can set out to work in history, science, mathematics, and so on.

The idea of worldview is inescapable.  It is self-evident that everyone has a philosophy of life, even if it is not well-stated or well-thought out.  While reading Fesko’s book, I could not help but notice that even in the world the concept of “worldview” is part of the common (!) vocabulary.  As Christians, we recognize that the Bible presents an objectively true picture of the way things are.  There is a framework in the Bible for how we are to look at the world in which we live, including how we regard ourselves.  In the past, that has simply been described as “Christianity” or “the Christian faith.”  In more recent times, some have taken to describing it as “the Christian story.”

Whether we use “the faith,” “worldview,” or “story,” at the centre of it must be Christ.  This is emphasized in Colossians 1-2, a section of Scripture not discussed by Fesko in this chapter.  In Colosssians 1:17, we read that Christ “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”  In Colossians 2:3, Christ is the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”  It does not say “some of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” but all.  Fesko critiques Van Til and other presuppositionalists for putting Christ at the centre of the Christian worldview, but regardless of his historical critique of HWT, Scripture speaks against Fesko and in favour of Van Til.  If Scripture says that Christ is at the centre, then Christ has to be at the centre, even if that means it appears we are following idealism’s notion of “deducing a system of doctrine from a single concept” (108).

See here for part 4 (the final installment).