Reforming Apologetics (Wrap-Up)

For completeness, here are all the entries in my series reviewing J. V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics:

If you’re pressed for time (and aren’t we all?) you can get the gist of things by reading the entries on “Introduction,” “The Light of Nature,” and “The Book of Nature and Apologetics.” If you’re especially interested in Dr. Fesko’s critiques of the Van Tilian emphasis on ‘worldview’ and Van Til’s advocacy of transcendental argumentation, along with my responses to those critiques, read the entries on chapter 5 and chapter 6.

Reforming ApologeticsMy overall assessment of the book can be summarized as follows: I think Dr. Fesko does a great job of defending the use of natural revelation (“the book of nature”) in apologetics and in showing how the mainstream Reformed tradition has consistently and enthusiastically affirmed such use (albeit with important qualifications related to the noetic effects of sin and the necessary interpretive role of special revelation). However, the major shortcomings of the book are its repeated misinterpretation and mischaracterization of Van Til’s position (and that of other presuppositionalists, such as John Frame and Scott Oliphint) and its failure to establish its thesis that Van Til’s views are significantly at odds with Calvin’s views or with confessional Reformed theology. In fact, given what Dr. Fesko affirms in chapter 8 about a “covenantal epistemology,” and his agreement with Calvin (and Van Til!) on the need to read “the book of nature” through the “corrective lenses of Scripture,” I believe he ought to be more hesitant about aligning himself with the Thomistic (“classical”) approach to natural theology and more sympathetic toward Van Til’s efforts to “reform apologetics” by bringing it more into line with a consistently Reformed epistemology and doctrine of revelation. In any event, it’s good that Reformed brethren are continuing to have these conversations. Let’s be thankful for the significant areas of common ground we affirm, while pursuing better understanding of one another and (by God’s grace) greater convergence over time.

 

Reforming Apologetics (The Book of Nature and Apologetics)

Previous posts:


Summary of Chapter 8

In the final chapter of his book, J. V. Fesko seeks to “present a basic sketch of how the books of nature and Scripture can work in concert in apologetics” and “demonstrate how Christians can stand on the authority of Scripture to present the claims of Christianity while at the same time using and appealing to the book of nature” (pp. 193-94). He proposes to do this in five stages:

  • The first section addresses epistemological starting points, placing epistemology “within the framework of classic covenant theology” and arguing that a “covenant epistemology” has a twofold goal: (1) loving God and (2) the eschatological transformation of the knower. The question of the epistemological consequences of the fall is also discussed.
  • The second concerns the goals of apologetics. What role should intellectual arguments play in one’s apologetic system?
  • The third discusses “the various points of contact that believers and unbelievers share” (p. 194). The redemptive-historical distinction between Christ as Logos and Christ as Mediator will prove important here.
  • The fourth explains “the importance and necessity of employing evidence in the defense of Christianity” (p. 194).
  • The fifth section focuses on “the importance of humility in defending Christianity” over against the exaggerated claims of “some within the Reformed community in the twentieth century” (p. 194).

Bavinck on the Use of Philosophy

Herman Bavinck on the use of non-Christian philosophy in the service of Christian theology:

Initially the Reformation assumed a hostile posture toward scholasticism and philosophy. But it soon changed its mind. Because it was not, nor wanted to be, a sect, it could not do without theology. Even Luther and Melanchthon, therefore, already resumed the use of philosophy and recognized its usefulness. Calvin assumed this high position from the start, saw in philosophy an “outstanding gift of God,” and was followed in this assessment by all Reformed theologians. The question here is not whether theology should make use of a specific philosophical system. Christian theology has never taken over any philosophical system without criticism and given it the stamp of approval. Neither Plato’s nor Aristotle’s philosophy has been held to be the true one by any theologian. That theologians nevertheless preferred these two philosophical systems was due to the fact that these systems best lent themselves to the development and defense of the truth. Present also was the idea that the Greeks and Romans had been accorded a special calling and gift for the life of culture. Still to this day, in fact, our whole civilization is built upon that of Greece and Rome. And Christianity has not destroyed but Christianized and thus consecrated those cultures. Still, theology is not in need of a specific philosophy. It is not per se hostile to any philosophical system and does not, a priori and without criticism, give priority to the philosophy of Plato or of Kant, or vice versa. But it brings along its own criteria, tests all philosophy by them, and takes over what it deems true and useful. What it needs is philosophy in general. In other words, it arrives at scientific theology only by thinking. The only internal principle of knowledge, therefore, is not faith as such, but believing thought, Christian rationality. Faith is self-conscious and sure. It rests in revelation. It includes cognition, but that cognition is completely practical in nature, a knowing (γιγνώσκειν) in the sense of Holy Scripture. Theology, accordingly, does not arise from believers as such; it is not a product of the church as institution; it does not have its origin in the official ministry Christ has given his church. But believers have still another, fuller life than that which comes to expression in the church as institution. They also live as Christians in the family, the state, and society, and pursue the practice of science and art. Many more gifts than are operative in the offices are granted them, gifts of knowledge and wisdom and prophecy. Among them, too, there are those who feel a strong impulse toward study and knowledge, who have received gifts for apprehending and systematizing the truth of God. Thus theology arises in the church of Christ; its subject is not the institutional church but the church as organism, the body of Christ. It is a product of Christian thinking.

Source: Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1: Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Baker Academic, 2003), pp. 608-9.

Materialism and Mysteries

Bart EhrmanA friend brought this recent blog post by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman to my attention. Since it intersects with several areas of interest to me, I thought it would be fun to write some commentary on it.

Dr. Ehrman makes four basic points in his post:

  1. He is a metaphysical materialist. He believes that everything that exists is material in nature.
  2. Materialism faces some “enormous conceptual problems.”
  3. Even so, that’s no reason for him to abandon materialism, because every belief-system has its mysteries. Every belief-system has conceptual problems that seem to defy explanation, but it doesn’t follow that it’s unreasonable to hold on to that belief-system.
  4. Moreover, while every belief-system has its mysteries, it can still be the case that some belief-systems are more reasonable than others.

Let’s consider each point in turn.

1. Materialism

After some throat-clearing about not trying to “impose” one’s views on others, Dr. Ehrman writes:

Anyway, as probably fewer members know, I have been more-or-less a complete materialist for about twenty years. I do not believe there is such a thing as a non-material, supernatural realm. There’s the material realm, and that’s it, all the way down.

I used to think that we are (I am) made up of two things: a body and a mind/soul/spirit/whatever you want to call it. I don’t think that anymore.

But for now, I think I am made up of one thing. Matter. I’ve got (by my count) one body, eleven organ systems, 79 organs, roughly 37 trillion (count them!) cells, and god knows how many molecules. And nothing else. If some of those cells die – well they die all the time. If enough of them die in one place at one time, it could be a problem. If one of the organs goes kaput, it could be a very big problem. If one of the vital organs goes, as we used to say in high school, it’s cookies.

So Ehrman is clearly rejecting any version of dualism in favor of a clear-eyed, straight-talking, unabashed materialism. Everything that exists is entirely material in nature, including you and me. There is no soul distinct from the body. There is no mind distinct from the brain.

As I’ll explain shortly, I think this materialist position is demonstrably false, but I have to give Ehrman credit for being so direct and explicit about his position. No mincing words here! No side-stepping or fencing-sitting. I’ve encountered many unbelievers who are eager to criticize other people’s views without ever committing to any specific position themselves. They’re very eager to declare what they don’t believe (and why they don’t believe it) but very reluctant to tell us what they do believe (and why they believe it).

Bart Ehrman is not one of those unbelievers. Kudos to him for nailing his materialist colors firmly to the mast!

Reforming Apologetics (Dualisms)

Previous posts:


Summary of Chapter 7

The purpose of chapter 7 of Reforming Apologetics is to defend natural theology (in the Reformed Thomist tradition) from the charge that it succumbs to “dualistic thinking.” The central target is the Dutch neo-Calvinist thinker Herman Dooyeweerd, although Cornelius Van Til plays a supporting role as another critic who complains about a dualism that afflicts Roman Catholic theology and infects some streams of Reformed theology.

In fact, Dr. Fesko introduces the chapter’s theme by citing Van Til’s accusation that “the Roman Catholic nature-grace dualism compromises both the theological and the apologetic integrity of the scriptural teaching about epistemology” (p. 161). According to Van Til, this “nature-grace dualism is unscriptural, since it leaves a beachhead of autonomous reason, which makes fallen human beings the arbiters of truth” (p. 162). Indeed, Van Til thinks there is a deeper problem:

Van Til contends that Roman Catholic theology falls short of scriptural teaching because it rests on an Aristotelian starting point, a dualistic understanding of man. Hence, Christians must purge dualistic thought from their theology and begin from a pure scriptural starting point. (p. 162)

Similar criticisms come from Cornelius’s nephew, Henry Van Til, in his book The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, and from other “neo-Calvinist theologians and philosophers” such as James K. A. Smith, Albert Wolters, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Brian Walsh, and Richard Middleton. Dr. Fesko traces these criticisms to the influence of Abraham Kuyper, who argued that “since no area of life lies beyond the rule of Christ, all dualistic thought must be excised” (p. 163).

What does this have to do with Reformed apologetics? Fesko explains:

The dualism critique, therefore, plays an important role in debates over apologetic methodology and is one more hurdle to clear in order to recover the book of nature. (p. 163)

Fesko acknowledges that there are different versions of the “dualism critique,” but his aim in this chapter is to argue that the critique “rests on an inaccurate evaluation of the historical evidence.” Indeed, attempts to expose unbiblical dualisms in the natural theology tradition are guilty of a “fourfold failure”:

[T]hey separate what theologians merely distinguish, have little or no historical evidence to support them, ultimately rest on questionable philosophical claims rather than biblical exegesis, and employ the debunked hellenization thesis of Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930). (p. 164)

The chapter makes its case, first, by surveying three different types of dualism, and second, by analyzing and rebutting the charges of dualism leveled at Aquinas and some Reformed theologians.

A Conversation with Parker Settecase

In which we discuss the meaning and provenance of Parker’s tattoo, virtual-reality mannequins, two-dimensional people, the word ‘retorsive’, Stroudian objections to transcendental arguments, the ontological status of Bilbo Baggins, and sundry other topics of deep importance.

Audio here. Video (for full tattoo experience) here:

Concise Theology Essays

If you haven’t already done so, you should check out TGC’s Concise Theology series of short essays. It’s an impressive collection and should prove to be an excellent (free!) resource. I’ve already recommended several articles to people who have contacted me with theological questions. (Perhaps some generous donor would be willing to fund translations into Spanish, Mandarin, and Arabic?)

It struck me that a significant number of the essays were contributed by current and former professors at Reformed Theological Seminary, so I’ve taken the liberty of listing them here:

The Bible

The Church

Creation

End Times

God

Salvation

Sin

Systems and Methods of Theology

Let me know if I missed any! (There may be some essays yet to be posted.)

Greg Welty on the Problem of Evil

Why Is There Evil In The World?I posted previously about Greg Welty’s excellent book Why Is There Evil In The World (And So Much Of It)? when it was published a couple of years ago. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, it’s the best lay-level treatment of the problem of evil available today. I recommend it every chance I get.

If you want a taster, you can get it from this short article on the problem of evil, written by Greg for TGC’s Concise Theology series. It’s basically a much-distilled version of the argument Greg lays out in the book. If you like the article, you’ll appreciate the book even more!

Anderson and Beall on Theological Paradoxes

Anyone interested in the topic of theological paradoxes will probably enjoy these two episodes from the freshly-minted Furthering Christendom podcast. In the first, I chat with Tyler McNabb and Mike DeVito about the model I develop and defend in my book Paradox in Christian Theology. In the second episode (recorded the very next day!) Tyler and Mike talk with philosopher JC Beall about his preferred approach to theological paradox.

Dr. Beall has some very kind things to say about my work, even though he ends up taking a different position. I want to preserve classical logic (specifically, the law of non-contradiction) and my model aims to do just that. Thus, on my view, theological paradoxes are merely apparent (not real) contradictions. Beall, on the other hand, wants to bite the bullet (or as he puts it, “knock on the door”!) and say that orthodox Christology is both true and contradictory, which requires one to accept a non-classical logic. (I should add that he thinks there are other, non-theological reasons for questioning classical logic.)

In my conversation with Tyler and Mike, I briefly explained why I prefer my approach over Beall’s, even though we largely agree on the parameters of the problem we’re both seeking to address. Although I didn’t know in advance that Dr. Beall would feature in the immediately following episode, it’s quite interesting to compare my motivations for preserving classical logic with his motivations for rejecting it.

I also found intriguing Dr. Beall’s comments on identity relations within the Trinity toward the end of the video (around the 57-minute mark). Beall expresses his view that logic as such doesn’t contain “an identity predicate” and “identity is not part of logical vocabulary.” I’m inclined to agree with him. I think identity is a substantive metaphysical concept rather than a purely logical one; what’s more, there are different kinds of identity and it’s not obvious which kind holds between the divine substance and each of the divine persons. I’ve suggested that it’s a sui generis kind of identity that has no analogue in the creation. (I’ve discussed this in my book and a few other places.)

Anyway, I enjoyed the conversation and I look forward to reading Dr. Beall’s forthcoming book on the subject.