Tag Archives: presuppositional apologetics

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.

 


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.

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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.


New Article Added

Last year, I was asked to write a critique of Tim Keller’s apologetical method for a Dutch magazine.  I’d been reflecting on this for a number of years, but for various reasons didn’t write much about it, except on my blog.  But since I was asked and there was an interest, I decided to do it.  The article was written in English and then later translated into Dutch.  Unfortunately, it was never published in the magazine for which it was originally written.  The editors did not agree with my evaluation.  However, Reformed Perspective decided to publish the original English version and, after being badgered by a couple of people, I’m now making it available here.   If you’d like to learn more about Reformed, presuppositional apologetics, you should find this book helpful.  


Collision

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.