Tag Archives: Greg Bahnsen

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 this 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.


Are All Sins Equal?

Weigh scale balance

I’ve noticed that Christians sometimes soft pedal the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality by arguing that all sins are the same.  In other words, my extra-marital heterosexual lust is no less a sin than the gay person’s homosexual lust.  Sin is sin and it is all equally wicked.

In a sense this is true.  It’s true in the sense of every sin being equally deserving of God’s wrath.  What to us is a small trifling sin is in the eyes of God a tremendous offense.  This is directly related to the holy majesty of the one sinned against.  If you sin even slightly against infinitely holy majesty, you incur an infinite debt.  But this line of discussion can’t go very far since, in the nature of the case, we’re not just slight sinners — see Romans 3:10-18.

As true as it is that every sin equally deserves God’s wrath, it is equally true that Scripture teaches that some sins are worse than others in God’s sight.  This is immediately evident from the Old Testament law.  Some sins, like blasphemy, were punishable with death, whereas others received lighter penalties.  In Ezekiel 8:6, God points out to Ezekiel the great idolatrous abominations in Jerusalem.  Then he says, “But you will see still greater abominations.”  There are great abominations, and then there are greater abominations.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism captures the biblical teaching on this in QA 83:

Q.  Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?

A.  Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

The Westminster Larger Catechism in QA 151 expands on this and explains what the aggravations are.  They fall under four broad categories:  from the persons offending, from the parties offended, from the nature and quality of the offence, and from circumstances of time and place.  So, if you’re an older Christian who should know better or an office bearer, your sin carries more weight.  If your sin was against a weaker brother, your sin is worse.  If you broke several commandments in one go, that’s to be regarded as more heinous.  If your sin was committed publicly, that’s worse than if it was committed privately.

As a quick aside, you might be wondering whether this is touched on in the Heidelberg Catechism.  Well, it is, but just not directly.  Some sins being worse than others is implied in Lord’s Day 36 on the third commandment.  We confess that “no sin is greater or provokes God’s wrath more than the blaspheming of his name.  That is why he commanded it to be punished with death.”  So, blasphemy is worse than, say, adultery or false witness.  Some sins are worse than others.

There is no doubt that Scripture describes homosexual lusts and behaviour as abominable (Lev. 20:13).  The Bible uses strong language about these sins to impress upon us how God regards these things as completely contrary to his design for the human race.  While heterosexual extra- and non-marital lusts and behaviours are sinful, they retain something of what is natural in that they involve the opposite sex.  Homosexual lusts and behaviour are worse because they bring in the additional element of overturning what the Creator God designed to be natural.  This is what the Bible is saying in Romans 1:26-27 — it speaks of trading in natural relations for unnatural.

However, when we speak about sins in terms of their heinousness, we ought always to remember that there is, in Scripture, a sin that is even worse than a homosexual lifestyle.  As Greg Bahnsen once described it, “there is a sin worse than sodomy” in the Bible.  It’s found in Matthew 10.  Jesus sent out his apostles to preach and teach amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” — God’s covenant people.  While they did that, the possibility was there that they would meet with unbelief.  In such a case, they were to shake the dust off their feet as they left that town — signifying that these people are unclean.  Then Jesus adds in verse 15, “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”  Sodom and Gomorrah were notorious for their sexual immorality and “unnatural desire” (Jude 7).  Christ was saying that there is something far worse than what Sodom and Gomorrah did:  to be a child of the covenant and to reject the Saviour.  To have God call you his own, for him to send you the Saviour with the glad tidings of the gospel, and for you to reject him — that is something God calls worse than homosexuality.  It’s a warning to people in the church today.

Realize this:  we all have sins great and small sinking us into the depths.  Yet, no matter what our sins are, there is a Saviour whose atoning work is sufficient to wipe it all out.  The saving work of Jesus is there for all who feel the weight of their sin and long for that burden to be lifted.  Even as we speak about some sins which are more heinous than others, let’s also always speak about the grace which is super-abounding in Jesus Christ.

 


You Twist the Bible!

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Each year I teach young people in my pre-confession class how to defend their faith.  I’ve long been convinced that they need to know not only what they believe, but why.  They should be able to give good reasons for their faith — in line with 1 Peter 3:15.  So I teach a unit on apologetics.  Ever since starting, I’ve used Richard Pratt’s Every Thought Captive (ETC) as the textbook.  There are a lot of things I like about ETC, but especially the last few chapters are weak in some respects.  I’ve been on the lookout for something to replace it.

I’m just about finished Tactics by Gregory Koukl and I think I’ve finally found something better than ETC.  I was a bit skeptical at first about whether it would be compatible with a Reformed approach to apologetics, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  It’s more focused on the practical side of engaging unbelievers and their arguments, and so far I’ve found little to quibble with.

Here in Australia, things are heating up for a plebiscite later this year regarding same-sex marriage and there are those wishing to silence the voice of Bible-believing Christians.  Koukl has something to offer believers as they face hostility from “progressives.”  Australian Christians may face the kind of scenario described here and Koukl shows a good way to respond.   This extended quote comes from chapter 6:

Once in a dorm lounge at Ohio State University, a student asked me about the Bible and homosexuality.  When I cited some texts, he quickly dismissed them.  “People twist the Bible all the time to make it say whatever they want,” he sniffed.

I don’t recall my specific response to him that evening.  I do remember, though, that I was not satisfied with my answer.  On the drive back to my hotel, I gave the conversation a little more thought.  I realized it made little sense to argue with his comment as it stood.  It was uncontroversial.  People do twist Bible verses all the time.  It is one of my own chief complaints.  Something else was going on though, and I couldn’t put my finger on it at first.

Suddenly it dawned on me.  The student’s point wasn’t really that some people twist the Bible.  His point was that I was twisting the Bible.  Yet he hadn’t demonstrated this.  He had not shown where I’d gotten off track.  Rather, he didn’t like point, so he dismissed it with a some-people-twist-the-Bible dodge.

I quickly wrote out a short dialogue using questions intended to surface that problem.  I also tried to anticipate his responses and how I would use them to advance my point.

Here is what I came up with:

“People twist the Bible all the time to make it say whatever they want.”

“Well, you’re right about that.  It bugs me, too.  But your comment confuses me a little.  What does it have to do with the point I just made about homosexuality?”

“Well, you’re doing the same thing.”

“Oh, so you think I’m twisting the Bible right now.”

“That’s right.”

“Okay, now I understand what you’re getting at, but I’m still confused.”

“Why?”

“Because it seems to me you can’t know that I’m twisting the Bible just by pointing out that other people have twisted it, can you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that in this conversation you’re going to have to do more than simply point out that other people twist the Bible.  What do you think that might be?”

“I don’t know.  What?”

“You need to show that I’m actually twisting the verses?  Have you ever studied the passages I referred to?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know I’m twisting them?”  (Tactics, 94-95)

Koukl’s approach here is helpful in exposing ignorance.  A lot of people have been told that “fundamentalist Christians” twist the Bible to support their views on homosexuality, and because a professor, teacher, media figure, or some other authority said it, it is automatically accepted as true.  Many people have never studied the matter for themselves and we should call them on coming to the table with that basic failure.

However, it may happen that you will meet someone who claims to have studied the passages in question.  In this post from 2014, I describe my experience as a university student in the 90s.  These days, more than ever, you do need to be prepared to face people who claim to be Christians, but have no qualms about homosexuality and the entire LBTQ enterprise.  You will meet liberal revisionists who believe that they can be Christians and affirm sexual perversity.  They’re often familiar with the passages and they think they know how to square a circle.  To prepare for answering them, read (and then bookmark) this helpful essay by Dr. Greg Bahnsen.   Bahnsen will give you what you need to answer back, “Who’s really twisting Scripture here?”


Confessional Conferences for Reformed Unity

Back in the early 1990s, a unique effort was made to address several  pressing issues facing Reformed and Presbyterian churches.  The issues of concern were primarily egalitarianism (leading to women in ecclesiastical offices) and evolution.  This period saw a mass exodus from the Christian Reformed Church over these very issues and ones related to them.  From concerned CRC and ex-CRC churches, an organization developed which eventually became known as the Alliance of Reformed Churches.  The ARC was approached to convene a series of conferences aimed at developing a confessional approach to the above-mentioned issues of concern.  The hope was that confessional documents could be developed which would provide the basis for doctrinal unity between various Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America.  The ARC agreed to take this on.

The first Confessional Conference was held in July of 1993.  Christian Renewal reported on it in the September 13, 1993 issue.  Attendance was not all that impressive.  Some of the noteworthy individuals in attendance were Dr. John Byl, Dr. Margaret Helder, and Dr. Nelson Kloosterman.  Attendees came from Orthodox Presbyterian, Christian Reformed (and ex-CRC), PCA, Canadian Reformed, and other churches.  The 1993 meeting reviewed a document prepared by the organizing committee on hermeneutics.  Several speeches were also presented on the subject of creation and evolution.  The intention was that a confessional document on creation would be prepared and presented at the next conference in 1994.

I have been unable to find much about the 1994 conference.  It was scheduled to be held July 13-16.  From this report, it appears that it was held, but the attendance continued to be disappointing.  Another conference was supposed to be held in 1995 to discuss ecclesiology, but because of the attendance issue, it was scrapped.  One never hears about the Confessional Conferences again.

From one perspective, the Confessional Conferences could be regarded as a failure.  However, it was not a waste of time or effort.  Today we still have two important documents that came from these conferences.  These documents should receive more attention.  The first is a Reformed Confession Regarding Hermeneutics.  The second is a Reformed Confession Regarding Creation.  These are both drafts primarily written by the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  Both are precise and faithful summaries of biblical teaching on these important issues.  They feature affirmations of the correct teaching and denials of various false teachings.  They are well-worth reading and studying.

Why did the Confessional Conferences fail?  Obviously the attendance was an issue, indicating a general lack of interest in North American Presbyterian and Reformed churches.  Worse yet, there was especially a lack of interest from the membership of the Alliance of Reformed Churches itself — the very organization which agreed to organize these conferences.  Moreover, the ARC was the vehicle engineering the launch of the United Reformed Churches.  That took place in 1996.  Much time and energy was being directed towards establishing a new federation and, understandably, there seems to have been little appetite for a broader outlook on unity.

Could an idea like this be revived today?  For example, could NAPARC be the vehicle to convene a new series of confessional conferences?  We have to be realistic.  I rather doubt that the appetite would be there any more today than it was in the early 1990s.  Just observe that, since then, there have been further developments in various NAPARC churches.  For instance, on the issue of creation and evolution, the URCNA took a position at Synod Escondido 2001.  The RCUS has also taken a firm position, as have others.  While it sounds like a good idea on paper, the reality is that the desire for developing a common confessional approach to these matters is going to be weak.  Churches faced with some of these contemporary theological challenges today are going to be best off investing their time and energy with an “in-house” approach.


Book Review: Popologetics (1)

Popologetics(1)

Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective, Ted Turnau, Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2012.  Paperback, 346 pages, $20.89.

It was 1992 and there was a lot of time to spend on the bus between home and university.  From time to time, one of my good friends from high school would be on the same bus and we would get to talking about all kinds of different things.  On one occasion, we got into a rather intense debate about whether Christians should watch movies.  There is this phenomenon known as the “cage phase.”  People, mostly on the younger side, discover the Reformed faith and they become intolerable – they should be put in a cage, hence “cage phase.”  I had been a rather worldly young man in my teen years.  Having finally become serious about my faith, I was going through my own cage phase.  It seemed to me that a true Reformed believer must abandon popular culture completely.  Hence, no movies, no rock music (I threw out hundreds of tapes), no TV, no worldly books, absolutely nothing that smacks of the world.  It must be all or nothing.  My friend on the bus disagreed, although from what I remember his reasons were not particularly Christian or well thought out.

It took a few years for this cage phase to wane.  Along the way, I began to develop a more balanced and biblical view of popular culture.  I can look back now and see how it happened step-by-step.  I discovered the writings of Cornelius Van Til and Reformed apologetics.  I read some essays by John Frame applying Van Til’s teachings to popular culture.  I had to take a fine arts option in university and art and music were definitely out, since I’m neither artistic nor musical.  That left film studies.  In Film Studies 200, I learned that film is not merely entertainment, but also art in its own right.  By the time I graduated from university, I could again appreciate various aspects of popular culture.  I began writing cultural critiques for Reformed Perspective magazine, critiques of movies like Star Wars and musicians like Tom Cochrane, Bryan Adams, and Shania Twain.

All of this is to say that the issues discussed in this book by Ted Turnau resonate with me.  I’ve been thinking about them for over twenty years already.  What should Christians do with popular culture?  Do we thoughtlessly embrace it as the background for our daily lives?  Do we reject it altogether, since it comes from the world and the world is given over to sin?  Or is there another way, a better way?  Ted Turnau is convinced that there is a better and more thoughtful way for Christians to engage popular culture, a way which will serve our neighbours best and also give more glory to God.

Ted Turnau is an American teaching cultural studies in the Czech Republic.  He has a Ph.D. in apologetics from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  That brings me to the first important characteristic of this book:  it is an application of Reformed apologetics to the field of popular culture.  Several times throughout the author indicates his indebtedness to Reformed apologists such as Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen.  Just like Jason Lisle applied Reformed apologetics to the question of origins in his book, The Ultimate Proof of Creation, Ted Turnau seeks to apply it to how we think about movies, music, TV, and other forms of pop culture.  As I mentioned, others (like John Frame) have done this before, but only in a limited way.  To my knowledge, this is the only book-length attempt.  Turnau lays out the book’s purpose in the Introduction:  “…this book is for those who want to be able to give an intelligent, warmhearted, biblical answer back to the worldviews presented in popular culture” (xvii).  Does Turnau succeed in what he sets out to do?

Click here for Part 2