Tag Archives: Reformed apologetics

Meet Cornelius Van Til

One of my favourite authors is Cornelius Van Til.  Van Til was born in the Netherlands in 1896.  While still a child, he immigrated with his family to the United States.  He grew up in the Christian Reformed Church and eventually went on to attend Calvin College and Seminary.  In 1922, it was on to Princeton where he earned master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in 1927.  He spent one year as the pastor of a CRC in Michigan before returning to Princeton as an instructor in apologetics.  Later he became one of the pioneering faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  He taught apologetics there until 1973.  He died in 1987.

Van Til is important because he recognized the need for consistency in apologetics (the defense of the faith).  Up till his day, there was no internally consistent system of Reformed apologetics.  In other words, the apologetics that was taught and practiced up to that point was more consistent with Arminianism and Roman Catholicism than with Reformed theology.  Van Til took the best insights of previous Reformed theologians including John Calvin, B. B. Warfield, Abraham Kuyper and (especially) Herman Bavinck, and brought them together into a consistent approach to defending and promoting the faith of the Scriptures.  This consistent approach begins with recognizing that the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) has to be applied to our method of apologetics.

If you want to read just one book by Van Til, it should be The Defense of the Faith.  However, two caveats are in order:  1) Van Til is not always easy reading.  He wrote for educated laymen and pastors/scholars; 2) If you are going to read The Defense of the Faith, I would suggest the third edition.  There is a more recent fourth edition with notes by K. Scott Oliphint, but that edition tends to focus more on the differences that Van Til had with a number of his critics in the 1950s.  If you’re looking for Van Til to put his beliefs about apologetics into practice, the only thing that’s available is his little booklet Why I Believe in God.  If you want to read about Van Til’s life, the best biography is the one by John R. Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman.  Finally, the best anthology and commentary on Van Til’s work is the massive Van Til’s Apologetic by Greg Bahnsen.

One might quibble with some of Van Til’s statements or formulations, but on the whole he is a reliable and consistently Reformed theologian.  He had two formal faults, however.  One was what I mentioned a moment ago:  clear, effective communication was not his strong suit.  The other is the fact that he so rarely provided the biblical foundations for the case he was making.  It’s not that those biblical foundations weren’t there, but he just didn’t always make them obvious.  That would fall to later generations of his students and followers, especially K. Scott Oliphint and Greg Bahnsen.

I don’t exaggerate when I say that I learned to love the Reformed faith because of Cornelius Van Til.  As a university student I read The Defense of the Faith and I caught Van Til’s infectious love for being Reformed.  Moreover, I realized that Reformed theology, because it is biblical, has the resources within to be able to withstand any assault the world can mount.


Living Sola Scripturally

There are differences between the way houses are often built in Australia and the way they’re built in Canada.  I’m not a builder but even I can see some of these differences.  In many areas of Canada, a house will be built with a basement as the foundation.  However, at least where I live in Australia, most houses are built on top of a flat concrete slab.  But either way they have a solid foundation.  You wouldn’t dream of building without one.

The Protestant Reformation was about getting the church back on a solid foundation.  For the Protestant Reformers there was but one such foundation:  God’s Word.  From that we receive one of the key tenets of the Reformation:  sola Scriptura.   The Bible alone is our foundation.  As the Belgic Confession states in article 7, “Since it is forbidden to add to or take away anything from the Word of God (Deut. 12:32), it is evident that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.” 

It’s quite easy to maintain this principle merely in an abstract fashion.  However, sola Scriptura is meant to be lived.  The Bible is not only the foundation for theology in the academic sense, it’s also meant to be the foundation for the life of the church and the life of every Christian.  Let’s briefly explore two ways of living “sola Scripturally.”

Worship

A moment ago I mentioned the Belgic Confession and what it says about the sufficiency of Scripture.  Interestingly, earlier in article 7, the Confession connects the sufficiency of Scripture to public worship:  “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length.”  It’s in the Belgic Confession because it was a contentious issue in the Reformation.  The Roman Catholic Church didn’t maintain the sufficiency of Scripture and that was reflected in how it approached public worship.  Many practices were introduced into the worship of God which had no warrant from God in his Word.

Contrary to that, the Reformers insisted that God’s Word alone can determine the elements of our public worship.  This eventually came to be known as the Regulative Principle of Worship.  As the Heidelberg Catechism expresses it in QA 96, “We are not…to worship him [God] in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.”  Scripture alone is the foundation for Reformed worship.       

So one of the ways we live “sola Scripturally” is that we aim to worship God only in his ways.  For example, the church can never substitute anything for the preaching of God’s Word.  Scripture commands (2 Tim. 4:2) that we must have preaching – authoritative proclamation by a man ordained for that task.  And Scripture also commands that it be the preaching only of God’s Word.  It can’t be human opinions, nor can it be “preaching” based on what God is supposedly revealing in a TV show or movie.  Perhaps that seems obvious, but sadly, it’s not so obvious to many churches not upholding the Regulative Principle of Worship.    

Apologetics

Over the course of my 20-plus year ministry so far, there’s been a surge of interest in learning how to defend and promote the Christian faith.  Back in my seminary training, apologetics wasn’t even taught and there was a level of suspicion attached to it.  Today that’s changed and it’s all for the better.

However, the Reformed approach to apologetics (pioneered by Cornelius Van Til) is still very much the minority opinion, especially in your vanilla Christian bookstore.  Why this matters has to do with foundations.  Non-Reformed apologetics builds on something other than the Scriptures.  Sometimes it’s human rationality and our ability to evaluate arguments or evidence; at other times it might be our sense perception.  Regardless of the details, we’re looking at an approach that’s building on a foundation of sand.

What distinguishes Reformed apologetics is a commitment to sola Scriptura.  This commitment isn’t just lip service.  We actually go to what God says to find out how to defend and promote what God says.  The Bible holds the content of our apologetics, but it also determines our method.

1 Peter 3:15 is often referred to as the “Magna Carta” of apologetics.  Here the Holy Spirit tells us that we’re always to be prepared to offer a reasoned defence of our faith.  However, the first part of the verse is sometimes overlooked:  “…but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy.”  One of the best ways we can do that in apologetics is by building on the foundation Christ gives in his Word.  We need an apologetical method which is determined by Scripture alone.  Reformed apologetics supplies that method.

Conclusion

The word “Reformed” is often reckoned as short-hand for “Re-formed according to the Bible.”  While true enough, we could improve it by adding one little word: “alone.”  To be Reformed is to be constantly going back to the Bible alone.  The reason we do that is because it’s the only sure foundation for our lives as individuals and collectively as the people of God.  It’s been said that you have to stand somewhere in order to get anywhere.  If the place you’re standing is sinking sand, you’re going nowhere.  But if you’re on solid rock, you’ve got the traction you need.  Only the Word of God provides that.


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!


Is the God of the Bible a Genocidal Maniac?

I love the stuff they’re putting out on this channel.  Reformed Wiki has good, solid teaching on Reformed apologetics, both the theory and practice.  This one fits with the latter category.


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.