Tag Archives: Cornelius Van Til

Book Review: The Story of Reality

The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important That Happens in Between, Gregory Koukl.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.  Paperback, 198 pages, $15.99 USD.

There are two types of apologetics books:  there are the ones that tell you about defending the faith and then there are the ones that show you how to defend the faith.  Greg Koukl’s new book falls into the latter category.  It’s a book written with two main types of readers in mind.  It’s for Christians who are struggling for answers to the big questions that come with the Christian faith.  It’s also written for unbelievers who are open to considering the claims of the Christian faith.  For both readers (and others), I think Koukl has something powerful to offer.

The Story of Reality is a basic overview of most of the key elements of a Christian worldview.  When I say it’s basic, I mean that it’s not written at a highly academic level.  A high school or college student should be able to manage it.  However, behind the basic level of communication, one familiar with the issues will recognize that Koukl is no slouch.  The deeper stuff is in his grasp, but he has distilled it into something readily understood.

The concept of “worldview” is increasingly being criticized in Christian circles as something created by modern philosophy.  Perhaps it’s for this reason that Koukl recasts the notion in terms of a story.  In this story, there are characters and there is a plot.  The main characters are God and man.  The plot involves creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.  But unlike other stories, the Christian story (laid out in the Bible) is objectively true — it is reality.  Koukl addresses other competing “stories” such as materialism, mysticism/pantheism, and Islam.  He critiques these stories and shows how they’re inadequate for explaining the state of things as we see them.  He then also provides ample argumentation to illustrate that it’s only the Christian story (or worldview) that can be true.  Christianity is true because of the impossibility of the contrary.

Readers familiar with Reformed presuppositional apologetics will recognize what Koukl is doing.  His method is generally in that school.  As I’ve noted before (in my review of his previous book Tactics), Koukl is a student of Francis Schaeffer, who in turn had been a student of Cornelius Van Til.  Van Til was one of the pioneers of Reformed presuppositional apologetics.  One of the key features of that school is a commitment to the place of Scripture in apologetics, not only as a foundation, but also as part of the actual method.  Similarly, throughout The Story of Reality, Koukl is constantly either quoting or, more often, paraphrasing the Bible.  This is highly commendable!

This is not to say that Koukl is always consistently in the Reformed school of apologetics.  There are a couple of places where I put some question marks.  In chapter 21, he discusses faith.  He correctly notes that faith, in itself, does not save.  Rather, faith is the instrument through which we are saved.  Then he writes this:

This is why reason and evidence matter in the story.  It is critical to get certain facts right.  Put simply — reason assesses, faith trusts.  That is the relationship of reason to faith.  Reason helps us know what is actually true, leading to accurate belief.  Faith is our step of trust to rely on what we have good reason to believe is so.  (page 137)

There is some truth in this.  You can say that faith needs and uses reason as a tool.  However, there are also important limits to this.  Above all, the unregenerate mind misuses and abuses reason because of sin.  Unregenerate reason is not going to assess facts correctly.  Deadened by sin, reason does not help you know what is actually true.  Moreover, even when regeneration comes into the picture, human reason is going to run stuck with certain pieces of the Christian worldview (or story).  Think of the Trinity.  Reason assesses that doctrine and says, “Sorry, it doesn’t make sense.”  Does faith then stop trusting?   Faith has reasons for believing in the Trinity, but those reasons come down to the faithfulness and reliability of the One who revealed it to us, not the logical self-evidence of it.

There were a few other questionable statements.  In this blog post, I interacted with his suggestion on page 51 that the Big Bang is compatible with Genesis.  In chapter 11, he opines that the Bible teaches that animals have souls.  The biblical evidence offered for this is debatable.

I also want to draw attention to an omission.  The subtitle tells us that the book will tell us “everything important that happens in between” the beginning and the end.  But in Koukl’s story, an important part is missing.  It’s the part where the lives of believers are transformed by the gospel.  It’s the part where the Holy Spirit works to change us and make us into new people who take every thought captive for Christ in every area of life.  I was hoping to read at least a paragraph, preferably a chapter, about that vital and wonderful part of the Story.  It’s incomplete without it.

Despite my criticisms, overall this is a well-written and well-argued book.  Koukl deftly anticipates questions and objections.  He uses helpful illustrations.  The chapters are of such a length as not to be intimidating.  If you know an unbeliever who is showing interest in the faith, I’d suggest buying two copies — one for yourself, and one for her or him.  Offer to read it together and discuss it.  You’d for sure find yourself enriched and, who knows, perhaps it would be God’s instrument to work faith in the heart of your friend too.

 


Top Ten Influential Books

There’s this thing on Facebook where people are invited to share the top ten influential books in their lives.  A while back I was tagged for this too.  It didn’t take much thought — I had my top ten in ten minutes.  For my own future reference, and perhaps to point you in the direction of some good books too, I thought I would post it over here as well.

1. The Word of God — a light for my path, wisdom from above, good news for a great sinner.
2. The Defense of the Faith (3rd edition), by Cornelius Van Til. This book and its biblical approach has been foundational for everything, not just apologetics.
3. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, by J. I. Packer. Combined with the next volume, this set me to learn from the Puritans.
4. Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were, by Leland Ryken. This busted all kinds of preconceived notions of the Puritans.
5. All Things for Good, by Thomas Watson. This is the first Puritan book I read. It’s powerful!
6. Expository Preaching with Word Pictures, by Jack Hughes. This one unfolds the method behind Watson’s genius and applies it to preaching today.
7. Christ-Centered Preaching, by Bryan Chapell. The book my seminary preaching prof dissed, but which many of us loved and learned lots from.
8. The Christian Soldier, by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. This helped to bridge the gap between my military ambitions and the desire to serve in a different army.
9. Competent to Counsel, by Jay Adams. How do you apply Van Til’s presuppositionalism to counselling? Adams made a good initial effort to show us.
10. War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin, by Carlos M. N. Eire. Was the Regulative Principle of Worship invented by the Puritans? No, Eire demonstrates that its pedigree goes back to at least Geneva.

There are lots of other books, but I’d say that those 10 were definitely some of the biggest ones in my life so far.


A Special Sort of Unbelief

Recently many concerns have been expressed about the direction of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  Our sister churches were entertaining a proposal regarding women in office and this caused alarm and dismay with many of us.  This proposal was only the most recent in a string of disturbing events, books, statements to media, and articles.  Many fervent prayers have been offered up for our sister churches, praying that God would lead them in the right direction.  My purpose in this article is not to comment on the Dutch situation as such.  Rather, I want us to consider where we’re at.  Sometimes our Dutch brothers and sisters can be heard saying things like, “You just wait 10 or 15 years.  Then you’ll see things our way.  The immigrant churches are always lagging behind, but they will catch up.”  Could there be some truth to this?  For example, could the seeds for something like women in office have already been planted and permitted to grow among us?

Looking Back

Back in the early 1990s, I was a student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.  The Gateway was the student newspaper and a prominent writer there was an up and coming law student named Ezra Levant.  Perhaps partly through his influence, The Gateway was remarkably open to publishing a variety of perspectives, including openly Christian ones.  Homosexuality was a hot topic for discussion already in those days and I wrote something for The Gateway presenting the biblical perspective.  This was published and I was not dragged before a human rights commission.

However, what I wrote did stir up a response from a group on campus, the Student Christian Movement (SCM).  The students involved with SCM were mostly affiliated with the United Church, though perhaps there were some Anglicans and others as well.  SCM wrote something for The Gateway arguing that the perspective I expressed was not representative of all Christians.  They affirmed that many Christians have no problem with homosexual behaviour and see it as a healthy form of human sexuality.  They offered a pamphlet to interested readers that would explain their position further.  I took them up on this offer.  Let me share some quotes from that pamphlet:

While the Bible obviously is familiar with homosexual relations, it seems to know little about homosexuality as such; this may be one of the reasons why homosexual acts are condemned as wilful transgressions of God’s orders for God’s people.

At best, the story of Sodom is very slim evidence for the notion that homosexuality is considered a ‘sin’ in the Bible.

Today we know a great deal more about the motives behind people’s actions than did the biblical writers.  Economics and psychology have given us insights into behaviour that Paul did not have.

…homosexuality is no ‘sin’ unless it becomes a false god…human sexuality is sinful only if it stands in the way of love and justice.

Essentially, the SCM pamphlet said, “Yes, we know what the Bible says, but we know more than the biblical writers and so we can readily accommodate homosexuality in our ethical beliefs.”

I wrote a response to this pamphlet.  I argued that the Bible itself claims to be the inspired and inerrant Word of God, not merely the religious or ethical views of human biblical writers which you can take or leave. Therefore, the Bible has to be our starting point and we have to take the Bible seriously on its own terms.  Scripture is quite clear about the sinful nature of homosexual practice.  For instance, the SCM pamphlet argued that the great evil in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was the fact that they were so inhospitable.  That position conveniently ignores the clear teaching of Scripture in Jude 7.  That leaves readers with three options:  you can accept that clear teaching, you can pervert it to fit your own agenda, or you can argue that the biblical writers were ignorant.  SCM’s approach was a blend of the latter two options, depending on what was convenient.  In the end, however, one can only say that this was a sort of unbelief when it came to the text of the Bible.

The university environment was often hostile to an acceptance of the Bible as the Word of God.   That hostility was what led me to begin studying apologetics, the defense of the faith.  Through some study of the Christian Reconstruction movement, I had come across the name of Cornelius Van Til as a teacher of Reformed apologetics.  I read his book The Defense of the Faith and it blew me away.  He argued that any defense of Christianity has to start with the Word of God.  The inerrant Word must always be our foundation and starting place.  Early in my academic career, then, I became convinced that our Reformed faith requires us to honour the Word of God by putting it first in every field of study, whether apologetics or anything else.  To do otherwise is to betray our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord of all wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3) – it would be a sort of unbelief.

This bit of biography illustrates where I’m coming from.  I have long been convinced that the Bible is the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God that must be our starting place in any endeavour.  As Proverbs 3:5,6 puts it, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  We acknowledge him by honouring his Word and giving it priority in everything!  As Psalm 36:9 says, “…in your light do we see light.”  It’s in the light of God’s Word that we find our way in any endeavour, including academic pursuits.  That has been my conviction and I have also sought to apply that conviction to issues like homosexuality.

Today

That conviction has been repeatedly challenged and it still is.  The thing that has changed is that the challenges no longer come from outside, but from within.  For example, I recently received an e-mail from a Dutch ministerial colleague.  He chided me for simply wanting to accept the plain teaching of Scripture regarding origins.  He expressed his surprise that a doctor of theology would simply urge people to believe what the Bible plainly teaches.  He argued that I need to take into account the conclusions of science as well.  After all, science has made it clear that the Bible cannot be taken at face value on questions pertaining to origins.  Moreover, many young people will not accept that answer, he told me.  They will turn away from the church if you tell them to just believe what the Bible says about this.  When I introduced him to the idea of simply believing and starting with the Word of God (as taught by Cornelius Van Til), he indicated that he had never heard of that concept before.  Sadly, he was not convinced.

Now we could say, “That’s not surprising, coming from the Netherlands.”  However, this allergy to starting with the Word of God exists among us in Canada as well and this is no secret.  We have those among us who are either open to theistic evolution or actually hold to some form of theistic evolution.  Theistic evolution is the idea that God used evolutionary processes to create human beings and other creatures.  This teaching exists among us.  It can only exist among us for the exact same reasons that the Student Christian Movement could hold that homosexual behaviour is not an abomination before God.  Either the text of Scripture is twisted to support the teaching, or the text of Scripture is dismissed as being ignorant of contemporary scientific knowledge.  Either way, what we have again is a special form of unbelief when it comes to the Word of God.  It’s a refusal to humbly come before the Word with faith and accept it at face value as the faithful and inerrant Word of our Father.  Something else is put before his Word.  This unbelief already exists among us in the Canadian Reformed Churches and it is the seed which, unless rooted up, will grow into other forms of heterodoxy.

Looking Ahead

This is my cri du coeur, my cry from the heart for the Canadian Reformed Churches.  I do not believe that what some of our Dutch brothers and sisters are sayings is necessarily true. I do not believe that it is inevitable that we will be entertaining women in office in the next decade or two.  It does not have to be that way.  But there are two very important things that need to firmly in place for such a development to be stymied.

First, we need to shore up the wide-spread conviction in our churches that the Word of God is to be our starting place in everything.  Members need to hold this conviction and grow in it.  Ministers and elders need to reinforce it among their congregations through teaching and preaching.  We need to maintain a high view of Scripture which includes a child-like faith in its plain and clear meaning, despite whatever unbelieving scholarship may introduce to shake our faith.  We must not be deceived into accepting that we are somehow intellectually lacking because we simply take the Scriptures at face value.

Second, careful vigilance is required with respect to our seminary.  At the moment, we have every reason to be confident in our seminary professors and their teaching.  We can be thankful to God for these faithful men who do have a high view of Scripture and who teach accordingly.  We need to pray that God would continue to keep them faithful.  They are only men and they need strength from above to remain steadfast.  Moreover, these particular men will not be there forever.  The time will come when they need to be replaced and they will need to be replaced with equally faithful men.  When you have a federational seminary, this is of the utmost importance.  Virtually all of our ministers take their theological training in Hamilton.  As a result, if that training is not sound, our churches will not be sound for long either.

Let me conclude with some words of Scripture my father-in-law would often quote.  We would often discuss developments in the Christian Reformed Church, especially relating to women in office and theistic evolution.  He would always say that we need to be humble and be on guard, because Scripture says, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Cor. 10:17).  There is no getting around the clear message of that text.


A Case Against Islam

Islam image

I’ve just finished reading K. Scott Oliphint’s Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practices in Defense of our Faith.  It was a refreshing and in some ways innovative approach to Reformed apologetics following the general trajectory of Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositionalism.  One unique feature of the book is its presentation of several “dialogues” between a Reformed (“covenantal”) apologist and various forms of unbelief or wrong belief.  Wrong belief is what we find countered in chapter 7.  Oliphint demonstrates how Christians might respond to the apologetic challenge of Islam, both exposing its weak points and presenting a better way with Christianity.  I found especially his presentation of the weaknesses of Islamic theism to be compelling.  He argues that we need “show how the religious system of Islam cannot stand of its own rationalistic weight” (258).  I’d like to share the best part of the dialogue between Covenantal Apologist (CA) and the fictional Ishaq Muhammad (IM):

CA:  …if I have heard you correctly, Allah’s will does not in any way constrain him.  Allah does now, and will always do, whatever he wants to do.  And what he wants to do later could be the opposite of what he has revealed through Muhammad.  This is why you can have no guarantees with respect to Allah’s will, which is the sum and substance of Islamic religion.  Is that correct?

IM:  Yes, theoretically, that is correct.  He cannot be constrained because he transcends all.  But Muslims have hope that Allah will delight in our deeds and so bring us to heaven.

CA:  I understand.  But that hope is only an empty hope.  And, like your understanding of mystery, it has no basis in knowledge.  It is, as we like to say, a blind faith.  Since the Qur’an is a revelation of Allah’s will, what he wills to do in the end may be the opposite of his will revealed in the Qur’an.  Correct?

IM:  Yes.  Allah be praised.  That is correct.

CA:  Well, Ishaq, if that is true, then it just may be that what I believe and what you believe are the same thing, though you could never know that.

IM:  What?  This is blasphemy.  I do not believe that Allah is three gods; I do not believe that he has a son.  I reject all that you hold to be true.

CA:  Yes, I know.  I did not say that you believe what I believe.  What I said is that it may be the case that what you believe and what I believe are the same.  Allah is free to will such a thing.

You will have to admit, Ishaq, that Allah is free enough to decide and to will that he will bring all Christians to heaven and reject all Muslims.  You will also have to agree that he may determine to have a son.  He may, if he so wills, determine that Christian belief is to rewarded eternally and Muslim belief is to be condemned.  If this were true, would you say, ‘Allah be praised’?

This, it seems to me, is the only ‘reasonable’ conclusion to your own religion.  There is nothing in the transcendent necessity of Allah, since that necessity includes his absolute freedom (except, as I have said, not the freedom to relate to anything), that hinders him from accepting all Christians.  So it just may be, based on what you have told me, that Christianity is the true religion and Islam is not, at least from the perspective of Allah’s absolutely free will. (247-248)

This is definitely one of the best examples I’ve seen of Reformed apologetics applied to Islam.

 


Book Review: Popologetics (3)

Popologetics(1)

See here for part 1 and here for part 2.

****************

So, generally speaking, I am on board with Turnau’s approach to popular culture.  However, I do have some questions and concerns.  I also want to raise one point that some readers may struggle with, but with which I personally don’t.

Let me begin with that.  It has to do with common grace.  It was Abraham Kuyper who first popularized this concept, if you can call writing a three-volume theological tour-de-force popularizing.  Kuyper introduced common grace to the Reformed world in his writings, and especially in his three-volume Gemeene Gratie (Common Grace).  Kuyper’s formulation of this doctrine came under intense scrutiny from later Reformed theologians such as Herman Hoeksema and Klaas Schilder.  For those who share the heritage of Hoeksema or Schilder, common grace is at best regarded with suspicion, and at worst with outright rejection.

The doctrine of common grace was assimilated by Cornelius Van Til into his Reformed apologetics.  Van Til argued that, through what has been termed “common grace,” unbelievers are enabled by God to do things that are true, good, and beautiful.  They can do these things despite themselves and their covenant-breaking rebellion.  So, in practical terms, this means that an unbeliever can produce a piece of beautiful music in some genre or other.  When a Christian hears that piece of music, he can praise God for it.  However, Van Til also emphasized another teaching of Kuyper:  the antithesis.  There is a fundamental divide between believers and unbelievers in this world.  There are covenant-breakers and covenant-keepers and there is no neutral ground between them.  The antithesis is a “limiting concept” on common grace.  In principle, unbelievers are at war with God and unable to do anything good, true, or beautiful.  We expect unbelievers to produce fruits consistent with their unbelief.  But, in practice, unbelievers often surprise us.  Sometimes unbelievers make better art, music, and movies than Christians do.  How do we explain that?  It must somehow be a result of God’s work in this world.

One of the critiques sometimes levelled at the concept of common grace has to do with the terminology.  There is some merit to this criticism.  The point has been raised that the Bible does not speak of God’s grace in ways that do not reference salvation.  This is a point well-taken.  While recognizing that God “shines in all that is good,” it would indeed be better to speak of God’s kindness or perhaps his restraining the evil in this world for the sake of the elect.

I raise this point because, since VanTil’s method is premised on an acceptance of common grace, Ted Turnau’s method in Popologetics is too.  But, like Van Til, Turnau also honours the antithesis and uses it as a “limiting concept.”  This is evident, for example, in the questions he proposes to ask as part of his worldview apologetics.  Question 3 reflects common grace:  “What is good and true and beautiful in this world?”  Question 4 works with the antithesis:  “What is false and ugly and perverse in this world (and how can I subvert it)?”  A balanced approach is also evident when he critiques those who hear God’s voice everywhere in popular culture.  We have seen the fruit of a common grace doctrine unrestrained by the antithesis in the Christian Reformed Church, where, like some of the figures mentioned in Turnau’s critique, new revelation beyond the Bible is claimed to be coming from such unlikely places as The Simpsons or U2.  Turnau does not want to go in that direction and I do not think he does in Popologetics.

Click here for part 4.