Tag Archives: presuppositional apologetics

An Admiring Look at the Greatest Popularizer of Reformed Theology

R.C. Sproul: A Life, Stephen J. Nichols.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2021.  Hardcover, 371 pages.

Back in the early 90s, there was a fuss in the pages of our denominational magazine over what one of the pastors was doing with his catechism students.  This pastor was having his youth listen to tapes of an “outside” Reformed theologian.  That theologian was R.C. Sproul.  As I recall, that was my first introduction to his name.  A short time later I was browsing the theology stacks in the Rutherford Library at the University of Alberta.  For a public university, the U of A actually had a remarkable collection of Reformed theology works.  I spotted a book by R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God.  I borrowed the book and wolfed it down in short order.  I was impressed, not with Sproul, but with God’s holiness.  Especially the explanation of Isaiah 6 left me in awe of the Holy One.

Part of the legacy of R.C. Sproul was his profound gift to make Reformed theology accessible to everyone.  When he died in 2017, many spoke of the way God used him to convey biblical truths clearly and effectively.  This biography, the first, highlights the life and work of the man I’d call the greatest popularizer of Reformed theology. He had a knack for making complex things simple. Here’s a great sample of the man in action:

The author, Stephen J. Nichols, was a friend and admirer of Sproul.  Nichols’ affection is impossible to disguise.  As is often the case with this sort of less-than-arms-length biography, we get a good understanding of the main lines of Sproul’s life and influence, but we don’t really see the man “warts and all.”  This biography is edifying and informative, but the author’s relationship to his subject (and the Sproul family) brings in a measure of restraint to what he can and does tell.  I’m sure someone in the future will write a scholarly, critical biography telling us a fuller picture of the Sproul story.

Sproul was involved with several important stories during his lifetime.  One was the struggle for biblical inerrancy beginning in the 1970s.  Sproul was a pivotal figure in the establishment of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.  He wrote the first draft of the articles of affirmation and denial for the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  Nichols devotes a whole chapter to this topic. 

There’s also a whole chapter dedicated to Sproul’s defence of the biblical doctrine of justification.  A document was released in 1994 entitled, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT).  Some of the original signers of this statement were close friends of Sproul, especially Charles Colson and J.I. Packer.  ECT compromised on the doctrine of justification, how we’re declared righteous by God.  Sproul and others pointed out how ECT’s compromise formulations left out the crucial element of imputation – i.e. that Christ’s righteousness is credited to us by God.  Sadly, the controversy over ECT ended Sproul’s friendships with Colson and Packer.  The story, as told by Nichols, inspires readers to discern which hills are truly worth dying on.  If justification isn’t worth it, what is?

It’s hard not to love R.C. Sproul.  I loved him before reading this biography and I love him more after.  That doesn’t mean I’ve always agreed with everything he’s stood for.  Apologetics is one area where I have to respectfully disagree with him.  Nichols stresses Sproul’s contributions to the revival of what we call classical apologetics.  This approach stresses the use of rational arguments to argue towards God, and from there towards the God of the Bible, and from there towards the truth of Christianity.  Contrasted with classical apologetics is Reformed, presuppositional apologetics.  This approach argues for the truth of the Christian worldview taken as a whole by pointing out that unless Christianity is true, no reasoning is even possible.  This was the approach championed by Cornelius Van Til.

On the topic of apologetics, this biography leaves me with some questions.  According to Nichols, Sproul went to seminary “committed to presuppositional apologetics” (p.59), but had his mind changed by John Gerstner.  One of his most influential college professors had been a student of Van Til and, apparently, impacted the young Sproul.  Here’s the important thing to realize:  presuppositional apologetics is inextricably bonded to Reformed theology.  You can be an Arminian and hold to classical apologetics, but it should be impossible to be an Arminian and hold to Reformed apologetics.  That’s why I’m confused when Nichols writes the following:  “R.C. went to PTS [Pittsburgh Theological Seminary] a presuppositionalist and a non-Calvinist” (p.63). If he really was a presuppositionalist, he can’t have had a very good understanding of it if he still wasn’t Reformed.  It gets more interesting, because later in the book, we discover that Sproul spent time visiting with Cornelius Van Til at his home in Philadelphia.  Yet, when you read his (co-authored) book Classical Apologetics and its critique of Van Til, it seems Sproul didn’t really understand him.

That leads me to one last point of critique on the apologetics theme.  In 1977, there was a debate between R.C. Sproul and Greg Bahnsen on apologetical method – classical versus presuppositional apologetics.  You can find this debate online here.  Bahnsen was a formidable debater and, even though it was brotherly and cordial, by the end Sproul was conceding Bahnsen’s key points.  Sadly, Stephen Nichols doesn’t mention this debate at all.  I’m left wondering:  what did Sproul think about that debate in the following years?  If Sproul conceded those points during the debate in 1977, how does one explain the publication of Classical Apologetics in 1984, in which Sproul reasserts the claims he had to earlier walk back?  I’m perplexed.   

Sproul did have a change of mind on several matters through his lifetime.  One of those mentioned by Nichols is the meaning of the word “day” in Genesis 1-2.  Sproul came around to the conclusion that “day” there is essentially what we understand as a day today.  However, it would’ve been interesting if Nichols had shared how Sproul changed his thinking and how that was received by others.

I couldn’t put this biography down.  It’s engaging and well-written.  If you’ve ever read anything by Sproul or heard any of his talks, this volume will give you a greater appreciation for him and what God did through him.  And if you’ve never been blessed by Sproul’s lifetime of promoting Reformed theology, this will be a great introduction.                 


Follow the Evidence?

There was a refrain frequently heard on early episodes of TV’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.  Gus Grissom was training rookie crime scene investigators, sharing with them his many years of experience in the field.  Grissom would often say, “Follow the evidence…”  The understanding was that just following the evidence would lead to the perpetrator of the crime.  Following the evidence would lead to the truth. 

In the world of TV crime scene investigation, that might usually work as a sound philosophy.  Even there occasionally writers and producers have explored the possibility that the evidence can be tainted by factors related to those investigating it.  The evidence isn’t always interpreted objectively and thus conclusions (right or wrong) can still ultimately be reached on the basis of prejudice or gut feeling.  The philosophy sounds good in principle, but it doesn’t always work out in practice.

Moving into the real world, the principle of “follow the evidence” is the basic philosophy behind much of Christian apologetics today.  Walk into a vanilla Christian bookstore these days and if they have an apologetics section, likely everything there will be based on this principle.  Lee Strobel is popular with his The Case for a Creator, The Case for Faith, and The Case for Christ.  I won’t discount everything he writes in these books, but it should be noted that his basic principle is the same as CSI Grissom:  follow the evidence.  The same is true for the majority of others writing on the subject of apologetics today.  For that reason alone, this principle needs critical evaluation.

In discussions about theistic evolution, the allegation has sometimes been made that young university students are sent into turmoil when encountering the evidence for evolution.  As the story has it, these Christian students were taught creation science at home, church, and school.  They were told how the evidence made it clear that God had created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing) in six ordinary days some thousands of years ago, not millions or billions.  Arriving at university, they encounter a different batch of evidences not previously considered.  This sends their faith into a tailspin and, so the story goes, some of them even end up committing suicide.            

On a superficial level, we can join in bemoaning this approach to such issues.  We can agree that something has gone awry with those young university students.  From the perspective of theistic evolutionists, the problem rests with creation science producing faulty evidence because of certain faith convictions regarding creation.  From our perspective, staking your faith on extra-biblical evidences is always problematic.  Let me explain why.

The Theological Background of Evidential Apologetics      

Evidential apologetics is a method of defending the faith which rests upon the use of evidence.  This system of apologetics is usually traced back to Joseph Butler (1692-1752), an Anglican bishop.  Butler lived during the time of the Enlightenment, also known as “The Age of Reason.”  Serious challenges were being posed against the Christian faith.  Rationalism, the belief that reason could provide the basis of all knowledge, had infiltrated not only society, but also many churches.  Even Reformed theology was affected (or better: infected). 

Butler recognized that Enlightenment philosophy endangered the Christian faith.  In particular, he saw the danger deism posed.  Deism is the belief that God is a clockmaker.  He created the universe and then wound it up like a clock.  He removed himself from it and is no longer intimately involved with it.  According to deism, God takes an arms-length approach to the world.  Butler rightly saw that this philosophy was in conflict with the teachings of the Bible.     

In 1736, Butler published a book entitled The Analogy of Religion.  This work was a response to deism.  It was a defense of the faith.  Butler aimed to show there are no sound objections to the Christian religion.  He said all the evidence, especially the evidence in the natural world, points to the very probable truth of Christianity.  As long as a person doesn’t ignore the abundance of evidence, he or she shouldn’t reject the Bible or any of its teachings.  Unprejudiced minds, said Butler, would see the design inherent in the world and almost inevitably reach the conclusion that there is a Creator.  A fair evaluation of the external evidence would likely push the open-minded unbeliever to accept the Bible.  Butler purposed to demonstrate the truth of the Bible through facts, evidence and logic – and he believed it was not only possible to do this, but also pleasing to God.

When evaluating Butler’s approach, we have to remember the importance of what we call presuppositions.  These are our most non-negotiable beliefs or assumptions about the way the world really is.  Butler was an Arminian and one of his presuppositions was that man hadn’t fallen so far as to completely corrupt his thinking.  He didn’t confess the doctrine of pervasive (or total) depravity found in the Canons of Dort, but repudiated it.  This had consequences for his system of apologetics.  So did another related presupposition:  the freedom of the will of fallen man.  According to Butler and other Arminians, fallen man retains free will to choose for or against God.  He need only use his faculties rightly in order to make the right choice. 

While Butler saw the dangers of the Enlightenment and wanted to combat deism in particular, the weapons of his warfare were earthly and unscriptural.  We might wish that Butler was a mere footnote in the history of Christian apologetics, but unfortunately his approach became widely accepted.  Much of what we see today in non-Reformed (“evangelical”) apologetics finds its historical roots in the Arminian apologetics of this Anglican.

Evidential apologetics, historically and in its modern form, makes its case based not only on the evidence (and the nature of evidence), but also on a certain understanding of human nature.  According to this system, human nature isn’t pervasively depraved.  The human intellect isn’t fallen or dead in sin, only weakened or sick.  Neutrality isn’t only possible, but a reality.  When confronted with the evidence, and with perhaps a little help from God, an unprejudiced person will recognize the truth and turn to the Bible and believe it.  This is Arminian theology applied to apologetics.              

Unfortunately, this system has been appropriated by many involved with creation science.  Many creation scientists have been Arminian in their theological convictions, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise.  It’s only consistent for Arminians to adopt evidential apologetics, whether in general, or whether specially applied to the question of origins.  Inconsistency emerges when Reformed believers adopt this approach.  “Following the evidence” isn’t our way.      

A Biblical Approach

When we approach the question of evidence, we need to do so with biblical presuppositions.  There are several of them we could discuss.  However, in the interests of time and space, let me restrict our discussion to two of the most important.  These are the presuppositions — the non-negotiable beliefs that will govern how we consider the place and use of evidence in apologetics.

The first is our confession regarding the nature of fallen man.  As Ephesians 2:1 puts it, the unregenerate person is dead in transgressions and sins.  This spiritual death extends to all the parts of a fallen human being:  heart, mind, and will are all without a sign of life.  When it comes to the Christian faith, fallen humanity doesn’t have the capacity to interpret the evidence rightly.  What fallen people need is regeneration.  They need to be made alive by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit needs to open eyes so that they may see, understand, and believe.  The Holy Spirit does this work of regeneration through the Word of God.  Therefore, the Word of God, not external evidences, needs to be the focus of our apologetical efforts.  From a Reformed perspective, apologetics involves bringing the Word of God to bear on unbelief to expose its futility and to vindicate and commend the Christian worldview.     

A second necessary presupposition builds on that.  We always start with a belief that the Bible is God’s inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word.  Those doctrinal positions are not conclusions that we reach through reasoning and proofs.  They are held in faith.  We hold to what is called the self-attesting authority of Scripture.  That means the Bible attests or confirms its own authority.  It doesn’t need to be proven.  The Bible claims to be the Word of God and we receive it as such.  This is a settled truth for Christians.  Therefore, the Bible is the basis and standard for all our apologetics.  We’re defending the Bible and the biblical worldview, but the Bible is also the guide for how we defend the Bible.  The Bible gives us the means and strategies to use in defending the Bible.

Where does that leave external evidences?  Well, for one thing, we don’t build our system of apologetics upon them.  Instead, our system has to be grounded on the Word of God.  The Word is the supreme authority, not outside evidence.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t promise to regenerate people through external evidences.  He does promise to do that through the Scriptures, though it isn’t inevitable in every case, obviously.  What’s more, because evidence is always interpreted evidence, and the interpretation is always done by sinful minds, evidence must always be evaluated according to the supreme standard of the Word of God.  Since there are no neutral facts or neutral methods for considering the facts, the Word must always be recognized as standing over the facts.  It must be the grid through which the “facts” are sifted. 

There is a place for evidence in apologetics and in the debate about origins.  Evidence from outside the Bible can corroborate the Bible’s teachings.  However, it isn’t the starting place, nor is it the authority.  Moreover, external evidences can be fickle.  What was thought to be evidence in one generation can turn out to have been misinterpreted by the next.  How do you stay off what one writer called “the evidentialist roller coaster”?  How do you stand firm against humanists and theistic evolutionist compromisers?  Not by retreating to evidence, but by standing firm on what the Word of God teaches.  And by evaluating all evidence in the light of the Word of God.  That also means being open to the possibility that external evidences, whether for or against biblical teaching, may be wrongly interpreted.  When it comes to evidences, one should retain a level of skepticism.  After all, creation scientists and humanists/theistic evolutionists are all human beings, prone to sin and to mistakes.  The only firm foundation is the Word of God.              

Conclusion

“Follow the evidence” might be acceptable for fictional TV characters, but in God’s world his children can’t accept this procedure when it comes to apologetics.  To “follow the evidence,” as if we are all neutral observers of the world is to sell out on our fundamental presuppositions.  It’s regrettable that the surge of interest in apologetics has led some in our Reformed community to dabble with evidentialist apologetics.  It’s sad too that we have often imbibed these apologetics as mediated to us through some creation scientists and their organizations.

Thankfully, in the last number of years, some creation scientists have adopted a Reformed, presuppositional approach to the question of origins.  Most notable are Dr. Jonathan Sarfati and Dr. Jason Lisle. Dr. Sarfati is associated with Creation Ministries International, and Dr. Lisle with Answers in Genesis.  Some time ago I reviewed Lisle’s book, The Ultimate Proof: Resolving the Origins Debate, and I commend it to you as a good example of how to apply Reformed apologetics to this issue.  Some of Lisle’s final words in The Ultimate Proof provide a suitable conclusion:  “Our defense of the faith comes from learning to think and to argue in a biblical way.  God is logical, and we should be too.  God tells us that all knowledge is in him (Col. 2:2-3), so we should train ourselves to recognize this fact” (173).


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!


Why is Christianity True?

Why is Christianity true?  How would you answer that question?  A number of attendees at the National Religious Broadcasters convention were asked that question a few years ago.  Their answers were featured on a recently re-broadcast edition of the White Horse Inn radio show.  Almost all of them were some variation on this theme:  Christianity is true because it changed my life.

There are two reasons why that’s a lousy answer.

First, it’s an answer a Mormon could give.  A Mormon could say, “Mormonism is true because it changed my life.  I was once a drug addict, I became a Mormon, and my life was changed.”  Likely there are Muslims who could say the same thing.  The truth or falsity of Christianity (or any religion for that matter) has nothing to do with whether or not it will change your life.  Something is objectively true or objectively false, regardless of your subjective personal experience.  People’s lives can be changed, even profoundly so, by things that aren’t true.

Second, what happens if someone’s changed life returns to the way it was before?  Think of the Parable of the Sower.  Jesus spoke about the seed that fell on the rocky ground.  This represents someone who “hears the word and immediately receives it with joy.”  Such a one lasts for a while, but when there’s trouble, “immediately he falls away.”  In such a case, if Christianity was true because it changed that person’s life, if that person’s life goes back to the way it was, does that mean Christianity is now false?

You see, pointing to our own lives is a poor way to answer why Christianity is true.

There’s a better way.  If someone were to ask me, “Why is Christianity true?”, this is what I would say:  Christianity is true because of the impossibility of the contrary.  What I mean is that the Christian faith and worldview corresponds to reality – the world is exactly the way the Bible says it is.  And the Christian worldview truly accounts for the realities we see around us – it provides a basis for logic, morality, the laws of nature, mathematics, beauty, love, and more.  For example, objective standards of morality are grounded in the immutable character of a holy God.  So, Christianity is objectively true because it has been revealed by the God of truth, the Creator of all reality, the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).  Christianity is objectively true because in its light we see light (Psalm 36:9).

That’s just a short answer, of course.  There’s a lot more that could and should be said.  Books have been written to lay out that case at more length.  If you want to read one, check out K. Scott Oliphint’s Know Why You Believe (reviewed here).

1 Peter 3:15 tells every Christian always to be ready to give an answer for the hope we have in Christ.  Because we’re doing it in service to Christ, surely we’re obligated to make sure we do it in the best possible way.  That means turning away from arguments grounded in fickle and subjective human experiences and turning to arguments grounded in the infallible and inerrant Scriptures.  Sola Scriptura has to be our touchstone in apologetics too.


Book Review: Know Why You Believe

Know Why You Believe, K. Scott Oliphint.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.  Softcover, 221 pages.

There’s a need for different types of books on apologetics.  We need the books on theory – and there are plenty of them.  Several efforts have been made over the years to write books specifically addressed to unbelieving skeptics.  However, so far as I’m aware, there haven’t been too many books written for believers at a popular level.  I’m talking about the kind of book you could give to your teenage son or daughter when they start asking hard questions about the Christian faith.  This is that book.

As a professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, Dr. Scott Oliphint is well-qualified to write this kind of work.  He has a great grasp of the background philosophical and theological issues – and this is evident in his more scholarly apologetics books.  Yet he also has a track record of accessible writing for popular audiences – for example, some years ago I reviewed his great series of biblical studies entitled The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture for Defending Our Faith.  He’s done it again.  Except for a couple of more technical sections, most of Know Why You Believe should be comprehensible to the average reader from young adults upwards.

The book launches with this profound quote from C.S. Lewis at his best:  “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”  That really sets the tone for everything following.  One of the reasons I really love this book and can highly recommend it is because it takes God’s Word seriously.  It takes Psalm 36:9 seriously:  “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.”  God’s light especially shines forth in his Word.  If you want to see clearly, you need to see things God’s way.  This is also true when it comes to the reasons for believing the Christian faith.  The best and most trustworthy reasons come from God himself – the faithful God who never lies.  That’s the basic approach undergirding Know Why You Believe – a biblical, Reformed approach to apologetics.

Oliphint covers 10 questions we might struggle with:

  • Why believe in the Bible?
  • Why believe in God?
  • Why believe in Jesus?
  • Why believe in miracles?
  • Why believe Jesus rose from the dead?
  • Why believe in salvation?
  • Why believe in life after death?
  • Why believe in God in the face of modern science?
  • Why believe in God despite the evil in the world?
  • Why believe in Christianity alone?

Each chapter deals with one of these questions.  It explains the reasons and then also addresses responses or objections that might arise.  There are also “Questions for Reflection” and recommended readings with every chapter.

Just touching on one chapter, the second last deals with the problem of evil.  It describes the problem and then explores two ways in which Christians have tried to address it, albeit unsatisfactorily.  Instead, Oliphint attempts to offer biblical reasons as to how evil can co-exist with a good God.  He points out that God has recognized the problem of evil from before creation.  Furthermore, God created human beings in his image as responsible agents.  When Adam and Eve fell, God rightly judged their sin.  The real blame for evil is on them, not God.  He then points out how God himself has dealt with, is dealing with, and will deal with the problem of evil through his Son Jesus Christ.  This is a good explanation, but Oliphint might have said more.  For instance, he could have added that because God is good, he must have a morally good reason for allowing whatever evil there is to exist.

Not every Christian ponders the deeper questions of why we believe what we do.  But if you or someone you know does, this will be a great read.  It would also make a great gift for consistories to give to young people who make public profession of faith.