Category Archives: Apologetics

Vos and Van Til: How Wide the Divide?

I’ve been asked by several folk to share my thoughts on J. V. Fesko’s article, “The Scholastic Epistemology of Geerhardus Vos.” (Side note: I’m very pleased to welcome Dr. Fesko as a colleague following his recent appointment to the faculty at RTS Jackson! The following comments are offered respectfully and in the spirit of Proverbs 27:17. Semper reformanda!)

Geerhardus VosA great deal could be said in response to the various points Fesko raises in his essay, but I’ll restrict myself to some remarks on his core argument and a few other related matters. Fesko’s main target is the “Vosian Van Til thesis” which maintains that “Van Til and Vos had the same view of epistemology,” that there’s a “symbiotic relationship between Vos and Van Til,” and that “Van Til learned a unique epistemology from Vos.” Fesko readily concedes that Van Til was significantly influenced by Vos, but he wants to challenge the stronger claim that Van Til adopted a distinctive epistemology from Vos which served as a kind of course-correction for Reformed philosophy and apologetics.

Fesko’s central argument can be easily summarized:

  1. Vos (and the historic Reformed tradition) affirmed both natural theology and the traditional scholastic distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘mixed’ articles of faith.
  2. Van Til rejected both of the above.
  3. Therefore (contra the Vosian Van Til thesis) there’s significant discontinuity between Vos and Van Til. Vos stands in line with the historic Reformed tradition; Van Til does not.

There’s also a subsidiary argument, which I won’t assess here:

  1. Vos approved of Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
  2. Van Til criticized Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
  3. Therefore, Van Til’s epistemology isn’t in line with Vos’s.

Some comments:

1. It’s important to recognize the scope and nature of Fesko’s argument. It’s really an argument against the claims of certain Van Tilians. It isn’t a refutation of any distinctive element of Van Til’s thought. (I don’t mean to suggest it was intended to be, but some might fail to recognize what the argument, if sound, would actually prove.)

2. Along the same lines, we should acknowledge that the article is an exercise in historical theology: it concerns the intellectual relationship between two Reformed thinkers (and also their relationship to earlier Reformed theologians). Historical claims do not establish philosophical or theological theses. Fesko’s argument tells us little if anything about whether Vos’s position, Van Til’s position, or some other position is the right position to hold. The mere fact that Theologian A’s position aligns with Theologian B’s position, or stands in continuity with Tradition C, doesn’t as such give us any reason to agree with A, B, or C.

3. Some readers will take (and have taken) the article to provide support for Reformed scholasticism or Reformed Thomism. But again, I think that misses the scope of the argument. Nothing in the article constitutes a defense of scholasticism or Thomism as such. For example, there’s nothing here that vindicates the use of Aristotelian metaphysics or Aquinas’s nature-grace scheme.

4. The article refers to “Van Tillians” as though that’s a homogeneous group partly defined by a commitment to the Vosian Van Til thesis. But there have been considerable disagreements among self-described Van Tilians about how to interpret Van Til’s claims and implement his apologetic program. Van Tilians are no more a homogeneous group than Thomists. Fesko takes the claims of William Dennison and Lane Tipton to be representative of all Van Tilians. But on what grounds? Why think they speak for everyone who endorses a Van Tilian approach to apologetics (especially with respect to historical theses about lines of intellectual influence)?

Moving to matters of more substance:

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The Most Reluctant Convert

I recently had the opportunity to attend a performance of C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert here in the Queen City. Having read some reviews, and knowing a little about the Fellowship for Performing Arts, I had high expectations beforehand. I was in for a surprise, though: it was even better than I expected.

C.S. Lewis OnstageMax McLean’s performance as Lewis was exceptional. The script (written by McLean, drawing mainly from Lewis’s autobiography, letters, and books) was also superb, seamlessly weaving some of Lewis’s best-known apologetic arguments into the (long) story of his conversion. Like its subject, it manages to be both intellectually serious and (at times) irreverently humorous. Fans of Lewis’s writings will be delighted to hear many famous passages spoken from the horse’s mouth, as it were. Indeed, McLean’s “Jack” is so convincing and the narrative so engaging that several times I caught myself forgetting that this was ‘only’ a performance and not an audience with the Oxford don himself. (I guess that’s one of the highest compliments an actor can receive.)

Anyway, all this to say, I highly recommend The Most Reluctant Convert. The tour continues through August, and if it’s coming to a city near you, please do yourself a favor and attend a performance. Take a friend too. Although the show unashamedly represents a Christian perspective, it isn’t preachy, cringey, or intellectually superficial. It presents exactly what it purports to: the fascinating intellectual and spiritual journey of one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the twentieth century.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of the show (and one in short supply these days) was summed up nicely by the usher who saw us out of the auditorium:

“Makes you think, doesn’t it?”

Yes, it does.

Iron-Man Dualism

One common argument against substance (mind-body) dualism runs as follows. We know that consciousness is dependent on the brain, because when the brain is damaged it adversely affects consciousness and mental function. (You can prove this point to yourself experimentally by hitting yourself hard on the head with a brick.) Furthermore, it is argued, when brain function ceases altogether, consciousness disappears. (Don’t try to prove this latter point to yourself experimentally; just take it on trust.) Therefore, contra substance dualism, the mind — if it’s a real entity at all — must be ontologically dependent on the physical structures of the brain. We should be physicalists of some kind.

I come across this argument all the time in the writings of naturalists, but it strikes me as a blatant non sequitur. At most it shows that there’s a causal relationship between the mind and the body, which substance dualists insist upon anyway. (The so-called “interaction problem,” which is concerned with how there can be causation between physical and non-physical substances, is a different challenge to dualism, one I don’t propose to address here.) The fact that increasing damage to the brain leads to increasing mental impairment doesn’t at all imply that the mind cannot exist apart from the brain.

Here’s an analogy to elucidate why that’s so. Imagine a spaceship of the kind familiar from sci-fi movies. In this spaceship, the cockpit doubles up as an escape pod. In normal operation, the cockpit is attached to the main ship; whenever the ship moves, the cockpit moves with it, just as it should. If the ship is attacked with (say) photon torpedoes, the cockpit is buffeted about along with the rest of the spacecraft. When the ship is damaged, all of its systems can be affected; thus the operation of the cockpit can be impaired by damage to the ship in which it is housed.

If the ship becomes so badly damaged that it can’t move at all, the cockpit is stuck along with it, since it’s fixed to the ship. But if the spaceship is completely blown apart, the cockpit functions as an escape pod: it can detach from the doomed ship, and once detached, it can move freely again. (In line with a Christian eschatology, we could even extend the analogy such that if the parts of the ship are recovered and reassembled, the cockpit can be reattached — but that’s not necessary for the point I’m making here.)

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The Deity of Christ and the First Table of the Law

One of the standard arguments for the deity of Christ runs as follows:

  1. The First Commandment demands that we worship no other gods besides the Lord God (Exod. 20:3; Deut. 6:13; Matt. 4:10).
  2. Jesus is (rightly) worshiped by his disciples (Matt. 14:33; 28:9; 28:17; Luke 24:52; Rev. 5:11-14).
  3. Therefore, the worship of Jesus must be the worship of the Lord God.

Since it’s very difficult to reject premise 2 while accepting the authority of the New Testament, some unitarians (those who deny the deity of Christ) concede the point but counter that worshiping Jesus doesn’t violate the First Commandment even though Jesus is a mere creature. They suggest that the commandment needs to be understood in the context of Ancient Near Eastern polytheism. What the commandment forbids is the worship of other gods in addition to the Lord God (specifically pagan gods such as Baal, Molech, etc.). The worship of Jesus doesn’t involve any such thing (so it is argued) because the one true God is being worshiped through Jesus, by God’s own designation. Jesus is God’s unique agent and mediator of salvation, and therefore the worship due to God for his works of salvation can be appropriately mediated by Jesus. In short, to worship Jesus is to worship God indirectly rather than directly. Jesus is the proper medium for the worship of God. But that doesn’t require us to say that Jesus is equal to God.

One difficulty with this response is that it neglects the close connection between the First and the Second Commandment. Both commandments are concerned with the proper worship of God, but in different respects. The First Commandment says, in effect, that we must worship the true God only: no worship of false gods. The Second Commandment says, in effect, that we must worship the true God truly: no false worship of the true God. The paradigmatic case of the latter sin is worshiping God through creaturely images (cf. Deut. 4:15-17).

The Ten CommandmentsThe golden calf incident (Exod. 32:1-20) serves as an object lesson in false worship. Not only do the Israelites worship false gods (note the plurals in vv. 1 and 4) they also worship the true God falsely (note v. 5, where Aaron pathetically tries to redeem the idolatrous worship by turning it into “a feast to the Lord”; apparently his strategy was to make the worship of the golden calf an indirect worship of the Lord). However we interpret the thinking of Aaron and the Israelites here, it’s clear enough that the first two commandments are being violated. (Compare the later idolatry of Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12:25-33 which obviously parallels the incident in Exodus 32; in both cases the idolatrous image-worship is rationalized as Yahweh-worship.)

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An Observation About the Tuggy-Brown Debate

Last week Dr. Dale Tuggy debated Dr. Michael Brown on the question, “Is the God of the Bible the Father alone?” (Tuggy affirmed; Brown denied.) The entire debate, including Q&A, can be viewed here. A print version of Tuggy’s opening statement can be found here. Brown’s opening statement can be read here.

Tuggy-Brown Debate

I thought it was a very useful, high-quality debate between two smart, serious people who stuck to the arguments and treated each other with respect. Tuggy and Brown are quite different in their skill sets, theological methodologies, and speaking styles, which made for an interesting match-up.

I have only one observation to make here, which I haven’t seen noted elsewhere. Throughout the debate, from his opening to his closing statement, Tuggy pressed the claims that the NT doesn’t reflect a trinitarian theology (as he defines it) and that Brown hadn’t offered an intelligible “Trinity theory” (or any Trinity theory at all, for that matter). But note the question that framed the debate:

Is the God of the Bible the Father alone?

Tuggy’s task was to argue that the God of the Bible is the Father alone. Brown’s task was to argue that the God of the Bible isn’t the Father alone. To win the debate, Brown didn’t have to defend trinitarianism or any particular theory of the Trinity. He only had to show that the God of the Bible is identified with someone other than the Father, such as the Son or the Spirit. In fact, Brown targeted nearly all of his ammunition on showing that the Bible identifies the Son with Yahweh and attributes to the Son things that imply his equality with the Father as to deity (the Son is eternal, creator of all things, shares the glory of the Father, receives the same worship as the Father, etc.). You can review Brown’s opening statement to confirm that this was his main emphasis.

Strange as it may sound, given the specific proposition being debated, Brown could have adopted a modalist position and still won the argument! (Interestingly, Tuggy suggested a few times that Brown was in fact expressing a form of modalism, albeit unwittingly. Even if Tuggy were right about that, it would have been beside the point in the context of the debate.) Brown’s task wasn’t to defend the specific claim that there is one God who exists in three distinct persons, still less to defend some metaphysical model for that claim. Indeed, he expressed reservations about adopting creedal language (“persons”) rather than biblical language. I don’t share those reservations, but again, that’s beside the point here.

All Brown had to do was argue that the Bible teaches the full deity of Christ, i.e., that the Son is divine in the same sense that the Father is divine. In my judgment Brown did argue that persuasively, and Tuggy’s alternative interpretations of the key texts seemed stretched (e.g., Heb. 1:10-12 and Col. 1:15-17 are really speaking about the new creation; the logos in John’s prologue is something like God’s eternal wisdom rather than the preexistent Son who became flesh). For that reason, even while admitting my own biases, I’d say Brown won this round.

When Progressive Ideologies Collide

Can a man have an abortion?

I imagine most of my readers will think that question has a very obvious answer, so obvious that the question is merely rhetorical. Even so, it may turn out to be the rock upon which progressivism dashes itself to pieces. Indeed, it could become as troublesome for progressives as the question “Is the pope Catholic?” has now become for Roman Catholics.

Planned Parenthood CampaignersThe central plank of the present-day defense of abortion is that it’s simply a matter of women’s rights. Such is the feminist argument: women should have the same rights and privileges as men when it comes to medical treatments and control over their own bodies. As a representative example, consider this recent opinion piece by Moira Donegan from the US edition of The Guardian. Excerpts, with my emphasis added:

Abortion rights did not fare well in the midterm elections. Alabama voters approved a measure that will grant full legal personhood to fertilized eggs, a move that will massively restrict the rights of pregnant and fertile women and ban all abortions in the state after the fall of Roe v Wade.

Women’s rights groups such as Planned Parenthood and Naral threw their weight behind the effort during the midterm election cycle, choosing candidates committed to ending Hyde for their coveted endorsements.

The argument [for keeping the Hyde amendment] conveniently ignores, too, that women who seek abortions are taxpayers themselves, and the Hyde amendment imposes on them an unequal protection from the state. Since there is no male medical procedure that is banned from federal funding the way that abortion is, men who use Medicaid receive a full range of coverage; women do not. They pay just as much in taxes as their male counterparts, but they do not receive equal benefits.

The argument is simple, even if perverse: the Hyde amendment unjustly discriminates against women because it prevents them from having the same degree of access to tax-funded medical procedures as men. Men receive “a full range of coverage,” but because federal funding for abortions is prohibited, women do not receive “a full range of coverage.”

But note the assumption: only women need abortions. After all, abortion is not a “male medical procedure.”

Is that true? Not if you accept transgenderism, for on that view one’s biological sex is not determinative of one’s gender identity. The fact that you have a uterus and the capacity to bear children doesn’t entail that you are a woman. Consider, for example, this recent story about a “pregnant Kiwi dad-to-be.” (Just do a web search for “pregnant man” — if you dare — for numerous other examples.)

Although the opinion piece above describes Planned Parenthood as a “women’s rights group,” apparently some branches of PP are more ‘woke’ than others:

Some Men Have a Uterus

Think this through. If some men have a uterus, then some men can become pregnant and bear children, in which case some men can have abortions. And if that’s the case — if the core claims of transgenderism are embraced — then abortion can’t be matter of women’s rights after all. Put in the language of the truly woke: the claim that abortion is about women’s rights is cisnormative and thus implicitly transphobic.

One cannot consistently make the feminist argument that abortion rights are fundamentally women’s rights while also conceding the transgender argument that a person’s physiology doesn’t determine whether that person is a man or a woman.

Feminism versus Transgenderism. Who will win?

Hard to say, but it’s going to be a fascinating battle for the rest of us to watch.

Postscript: The fight is turning physical.

Do We Need God to be Good?

This exchange between Christian apologist Andy Bannister and atheist ethicist Peter Singer is worth your time (especially if you watch at 1.25 speed):

A few comments on why it’s a useful discussion:

1. Singer is representative of the modern secular intellectual. Sure, he advocates some highly controversial ethical positions, but his general outlook isn’t fringe. In a sense, he’s only controversial because he’s willing to say openly what he takes to be the logical implications of his worldview. Singer takes for granted the standard naturalistic evolutionary account of human origins. His approach to ethics is a modern, sophisticated version of utilitarianism. He doesn’t have a religious bone in his body, so it would seem, and he doesn’t think there’s the slightest reason to believe in God. I got the impression he could barely conceal his incredulity at Bannister’s views. I suspect he rarely interacts with orthodox Christian intellectuals.

2. Singer trots out the old Euthyphro problem as if it deals a swift death-blow to any divine command theory of ethics, but there’s no evidence that he’s familiar with (or even interested in) the standard responses that have been offered by Christian philosophers. He also thinks the problem of suffering is devastating to any theistic worldview; he can’t begin to understand why an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator would allow the amount and intensity of suffering we find in the world. (Note how much he rests on assumptions about what God would or wouldn’t do. Atheists just can’t help theologizing!) All of this is fairly typical of 21st-century atheist intellectuals: smart and articulate, yet superficial and uninformed in their criticisms of Christian theism.

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The Theological Foundations of Modern Science

Last week I had the privilege of giving the 2018 Tarwater Lecture at Queens University of Charlotte. The title of the lecture: “The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God: The Theological Foundations of Modern Science.” Here’s the video:

Bonus points if you catch the numerical lapsus linguae in the first section!

Adventures in Branch-Cutting

Here’s a remarkable paragraph from Graham Oppy’s Atheism and Agnosticism, which appears in a discussion of whether theism or naturalism better explains our mental faculties:

Some – e.g. Plantinga (2012) and Reppert (2009) – argue that our reasoning capacities could not be a socially moulded mix of evolutionary adaptations and exaptations. But those arguments assume the reliability of our reasoning capacities in domains in which it is obvious that our reasoning capacities are highly unreliable: philosophy, religion, politics, and the like. When we make a more accurate assessment of the reliability of our reasoning capacities, we see that that assessment supports the claim that our reasoning capacities are a socially moulded mix of evolutionary adaptations and exaptations. (p. 42)

I had to read these sentences several times to confirm that Oppy really was saying what he seemed to be saying. Note two claims being made here:

  1. Plantinga and Reppert’s arguments assume that our reasoning capacities are reliable in the domain of philosophy (among other domains).
  2. That assumption is false.

In fact, Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) does not make that assumption, except in the trivial sense that EAAN is a philosophical argument and thus we have to assume that our capacity for philosophical reasoning is generally reliable if we’re to understand and evaluate the argument (in the same way that we have to assume the general reliability of our sense faculties when reading Plantinga’s books and articles). Plantinga’s argument is this: if naturalism is true, there’s no reason to think that our reasoning capacities are reliably truth-directed in any domain. (Actually, that’s a crude summary of a much more subtle argument, but it will do for now.)

The same goes for Reppert’s various versions of the Argument from Reason. In none of Plantinga and Reppert’s arguments does this unavoidable assumption — that our capacity for philosophical reasoning is generally reliable — feature as an assumption distinctive to the arguments themselves (i.e., in a way that doesn’t apply to philosophical arguments in general).

But the real surprise is that Oppy apparently rejects the assumption. He says it’s obvious (!) that our reasoning capacities are “highly unreliable” in the domain of philosophy. Yet he makes this claim as part of a philosophical rebuttal of Plantinga and Reppert, in the course of a philosophical case for naturalism, in a philosophical book written by a professional philosopher. If our reasoning capacities are highly unreliable in the domain of philosophy, what on earth does Oppy think he’s doing? This isn’t so much cutting the branch you’re sitting on as felling the tree and grinding the stump.

It’s so odd that I feel I must be missing something important.

Still, Oppy’s right about one thing: if our cognitive faculties are the product of undirected naturalistic evolution — which is to say, if evolutionary naturalism is true — then it’s highly unlikely that those faculties are reliable when it comes to philosophical matters. That’s a big problem for philosophical naturalists like Oppy.

All that said, Atheism and Agnosticism is still a useful primer on the subject.

Exploring Islam Teaching Series

Exploring IslamLast year Ligonier Ministries invited me to work with them to produce a new teaching series on Islam. The final product, Exploring Islam, is now available.

Here’s the description from the DVD cover:

Speaking the Truth in Love

What do Muslims believe? With so much diversity in the Muslim world, it is common for people to hold uninformed opinions about Islam. In Exploring Islam, Dr. James Anderson prepares Christians to better witness to their Muslim neighbors with gentleness and respect, as he surveys the central tenets, history, and practices of the Islamic religion. This is a series to stir confidence in the gospel and equip you to speak the truth in love to the Muslims in your community.

The series consists of ten 23-minute presentations:

  1. Why Study Islam?
  2. The Basics of Islam
  3. The Prophet Muhammad
  4. An Introduction to the Qur’an
  5. The Teachings of the Qur’an
  6. Authority in Islam
  7. Diversity in Islam
  8. Christianity & Islam
  9. Contending for Christianity
  10. Sharing the Gospel with Muslims

The first in the series (“Why Study Islam?”) can be viewed for free on the product page.

Apparently the DVDs include Spanish dubbing and closed captioning.

The series should be useful for adult Sunday schools, small groups, campus ministries, church youth groups, and high-school classes. I’m convinced it’s more important than ever before that Christians understand the challenge of Islam and are equipped to engage with Muslims in a well-informed, gospel-centered way. I hope this series will be a helpful resource to that end.

On a personal note, it was a real pleasure to work with Ligonier on this series and to spend time with their team. Their hospitality and professionalism is second to none.