Tag Archives: presuppositional apologetics

SSM Not the Real Issue

If you’re just tuning in, Australia is in the midst of an enormous national discussion on marriage.  Today ballots are being sent to all eligible Australian voters asking whether marriage should be redefined to include same-sex couples.  Voters are to tick the “Yes” or “No” box and then mail it back to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who will announce a result on November 15.  The debate about this matter has been robust but also, sadly, at times uncivil.

Christians need to realize something important about this debate.  The real issue is not marriage.  The abandonment of the traditional view of marriage is just a symptom of a far deeper problem in Australian society (and Western society as a whole).  What we are witnessing is a clash of worldviews.  There is a worldview informed by the Bible, and then there are a host of unbelieving worldviews lined up against that worldview.  It’s not just about one issue — dig a little deeper and you’ll find that there is disagreement about many more things.  In fact, there’s disagreement on almost every fundamental thing.

So what is a worldview?  It’s simply the way one views the world.  It’s a complete package of beliefs about all kinds of important things.  For example, a worldview includes how you perceive history:  does it have a beginning and an end?  Is there someone in control of it?  A worldview includes how you think about ethics or morality:  are there absolute moral standards?  How does one define them?  A worldview includes how you think about God:  is there a personal God, a Creator distinct from his creation yet involved with it?  It involves how you regard humanity:  are we distinct from animals or to be included with them as simply more evolved animals?  It involves all those things, and far more.

The foundation for a Christian worldview is in Proverbs 3:6, “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  The Christian’s worldview starts with wisely acknowledging God and what he says in his Word as public, objective truth.  All unbelieving worldviews start with the human being as an autonomous agent — you’re a law unto yourself.  It’s the Satanic lie told to Eve in the Garden of Eden:  you don’t need God.  You make up your own mind as to what is true and good.  These completely different foundations mean that these worldviews typically go in completely different, usually antithetical, directions.

The Christian believes that there is a personal Triune God and he is not silent.  He has revealed himself in the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.  Unbelieving worldviews are at best skeptical about such a God and the possibility of trustworthy revelation from him.  Christians believe that morality is directly connected to the character of this Triune God.  What is right and wrong is defined by his very nature as revealed in the Bible.  Unbelieving worldviews can be dogmatic about right and wrong too, but ultimately morality is defined either by the whim of the individual or of society — there is no firm foundation for absolute right and wrong.  Christians believe that human beings are creatures.  We were created by God in his image, and therefore all human beings ought to be treated with dignity and respect.  Unbelieving worldviews simply regard human beings as another species in the animal kingdom.  Yes, more highly evolved, but not essentially as of more worth than any of the other animals.  Ironically, despite that view, unbelievers can be quite insistent on human rights, but that kind of talk is just writing cheques that their worldview can’t cash.  Christians also believe that human beings today are fallen creatures, rebels against the Creator who notices rebellion and will punish it.  People need the redemption, healing, and forgiveness available in Jesus Christ.  Unbelieving worldviews maintain that we are all essentially good and getting better.  There’s definitely no need for divine intervention or rescue, because there is no ultimate justice.

When it comes to marriage, Christians come at this from within this total worldview package.  Marriage is included in our total way of looking at the world, a worldview based on God’s revelation in the Bible.  We believe in creation — that God created the first man and the first woman and brought them together in marriage.  He instituted marriage as a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman.  We believe that some things are right and other things are wrong — and it’s not determined by how we feel or what society thinks.  There is an absolute standard for morality that’s been given to humanity in the Bible.  You see, it’s not just a different view of who should be allowed to get married.  We inhabit totally different ways of looking at the world.  If there’s to be a way forward, we have to find a way to identify and discuss those different worldviews.

But how?  Let me make a couple of brief suggestions.

One is that believers be up front about why they stand where they do.  We need to make it clear that we think as we do because we’re Christians and because we have a worldview based on what the Bible teaches.  If unbelievers dig deeper, they’ll find that we have all kinds of disagreeable beliefs about God, humanity, history, biology, ethics — and they’re all part of who we are as Christians.  For us to deny any one part of that package is to deny the whole.  It’s the whole package which gives us a coherent and consistent worldview.

Another suggestion is that we ought to learn the art of asking the types of questions that expose unbelieving worldviews as bankrupt.  For example, when we hear someone talk about “marriage equality” as a human right, then let’s talk about human rights.  Let’s ask where human rights come from, whether they’re absolute, who defines them, why it should be regarded as evil if someone violates them, etc.  We need to ask the questions in such a way that the unbeliever, with his or her answers, is brought to the inevitable conclusion.  For help in learning how to do this effectively, I highly recommend Tactics, by Gregory Koukl (see my review here).

Our ultimate goal is not to win a debate about same-sex “marriage.”  Ultimately, our goal is to persuade people to the Christian faith, to be God’s instruments to lead them to Christ.  We want the unbelievers in our lives to see that their worldview is a vain fantasy that can’t account for the way the world really is.  We want them to flee their destructive fantasies and get into the real world where there is a real God who really reveals himself in the Bible, and who really sent his Son to redeem us from our foolishness.

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…”  — 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

 


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.