RTS-Charlotte on YouTube

My future employer, Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, recently posted three short promotional videos on YouTube. If you’re considering a seminary education that is at once biblical, confessional, scholarly, and practical, please take a look at these promos (embedded below the fold). If you’d like to chat about what RTS-Charlotte offers, please don’t hesitate to contact me or the campus president, Dr Michael Milton.

Fallacy Files #1: Dawkins on “The Argument From Beauty”

The God Delusion was one of my favourite reads in 2006. It’s a fantastic book, although not for the reasons the author intended. For not only does it illustrate in glorious technicolour the intellectual superficiality of modern atheistic apologetics, it’s also a treasure trove of fallacies for anyone seeking case studies for a course in logic. Abusive ad hominem, argumentum ad populum, ignoratio elenchi, equivocation — the attentive reader can find all these and more.

Here’s a particularly blatant example of petitio principii — that is, begging the question — from chapter 3. Dawkins is attempting to knock down one by one what he takes to be the most influential or popular arguments for the existence of God (understood in the classical theistic sense). What follows is his pocket-sized refutation of “the argument from beauty”:

I have given up counting the number of times I receive the more or less truculent challenge: ‘How do you account for Shakespeare, then?’ (Substitute Shubert, Michelangelo, etc. to taste.) The argument will be so familiar, I needn’t document it further. But the logic behind it is never spelled out, and the more you think about it the more vacuous you realize it to be. Obviously Beethoven’s late quartets are sublime. So are Shakespeare’s sonnets. They are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn’t. They do not prove the existence of God; they prove the existence of Beethoven and of Shakespeare. (p. 86)

Now, leave aside the fact that Dawkins’ only source for this argument is anecdotal. It’s reasonably clear that the argument he has in mind runs along these lines:

  1. Beethoven’s quartets, Shakespeare’s sonnets, etc., are beautiful.
  2. If there were no God, then there would be no beauty (and thus no beautiful things).
  3. Therefore, there is a God.

Clearly the premise enlisted to do the heavy lifting in this argument is the conditional (2). One might explore why anyone would believe (2) to be true; indeed, that would be the most obvious route to discrediting the argument. A few promising lines of support for (2) spring to mind (for example, one might reason that metaphysical naturalism is the most consistent alternative to classical theism, but also conclude that there is no place for abstract entities, or objective aesthetic norms, or mental states such as perception, within a strictly naturalistic ontology). In any case, surely a responsible evaluation of “the argument from beauty” ought to probe a little deeper; it ought to ask why the argument is so common (if indeed it is) and what sort of reasoning typically lies behind it. At a minimum, it ought to try to present the most credible version of the argument. (If there’s no credible version of the argument, why waste ink on it?)

But the world’s leading public intellectual of 2004 has a far more streamlined refutation up his sleeve. Here, in essence, is his counter to the Beethoven/Shakespeare argument:

“They are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn’t.”

Yes, that’s it, folks. Dawkins’ refutation of the notion that beauty point us to God is merely to assert, without any argument, that beauty doesn’t depend on God. In other words, to beg the question entirely.

Faith’s Reasons for Believing

The following is the unexpurgated version of a review of Robert L. Reymond’s Faith’s Reasons for Believing (Mentor/Christian Focus, 2008) published in Themelios 33:2 (September 2008). (The published version had to be trimmed to around 1000 words.)


Question: What do you get if you cross Gordon Clark’s apologetic with Cornelius Van Til’s apologetic and sprinkle it liberally (so to speak) with J. Gresham Machen’s historical evidences? Answer: Something like the case for the Christian faith recommended by Robert Reymond in Faith’s Reasons for Believing.

The subtitle gives a fair impression of its purpose and tone: “An Apologetic Antidote to Mindless Christianity (and to Thoughtless Atheism)”. Reymond’s goal is to counter not only the attacks of “militant atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, but also the “mindless Christianity” of believers who are unable or unwilling to offer any reasons for the faith they profess.

The Works of Cornelius Van Til

According to one leading Reformed theologian, Cornelius Van Til is “the most important Christian thinker of the twentieth century.” If that’s an overstatement, it’s a forgivable one. Van Til’s thought was profound, innovative, and provocative. He wrote voluminously, and his most prominent publications have been variously engaged, praised, and condemned by Christian scholars from practically every point on the theological spectrum. His ‘presuppositionalist’ Christian philosophy with its sharp distinction between analogical thought (“man thinking God’s thoughts after Him”) and autonomous thought (“man is the measure of all things”) has wide-ranging implications for many other disciplines: apologetics, education, systematic theology, biblical hermeneutics, scientific inquiry, counselling — indeed, for any area of human study and endeavour one cares to mention.

In 1997 Logos published The Works of Cornelius Van Til on CD-ROM in their Logos Library System format. For those of us with a more than passing interest in Van Til’s thought, this was a gift from the heavenlies. A labour of love by Eric Sigward (who must have spent hundreds of hours assembling, editing, and formatting its content) the CD-ROM contained 29 of Van Til’s books (including both editions of The Defense of the Faith) and over 200 other articles, pamphlets, reviews, and unpublished manuscripts. It also boasted over 50 hours of audio recordings. In addition to this wealth of content, the Logos Library System provided a fully indexed search facility that enabled complex searches for words and phrases (e.g., display every paragraph in which Van Til used the phrase ‘natural theology’ near the word ‘Arminian’).

At this point, I have to make a shameful confession. The Works of Cornelius Van Til has been utterly indispensable in helping me to sustain a wholly undeserved reputation. By serving as the moderator for the Van Til email discussion list for 8 years, and the maintainer of www.vantil.info for 6 years, it seems I’ve inadvertently given people the impression that I’m an ‘expert’ on all things Van Tilian. (Sadly, this is far from true, but I’ve been reluctant to come clean on the matter until now.) As a consequence, with some regularity I get emails asking me what Van Til thought or wrote on such-and-such a matter. Without the Van Til CD-ROM, my ignorance would be manifest; but with its help, I’m invariably only minutes away from an answer that makes me look like the world’s greatest living authority on the Dutch Calvinist philosopher.

“Can you tell me what Van Til had to say about the New Testament canon?”

“What’s Van Til’s take on the Sermon on the Mount?”

“Did Van Til ever interact with Dietrich Bonhoeffer?”

No problem! (Click, click, tappety-tap, click.) You want citations with that?

Imagine then my delight on learning that Logos have issued an ‘enhanced edition’ of The Works of Cornelius Van Til. All the original content has been preserved, but also updated to take full advantage of the Libronix Digital Library System (the successor to the Logos Library System). The material has been arranged into 40 volumes to facilitate navigation and searching. Furthermore, the new edition includes thousands of indexed hyperlinks to other Libronix resources, such as Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and Barth’s Church Dogmatics. By means of the same technology, it is now possible to find out — in a matter of minutes — in which of his writings Van Til interacts with, for example, Calvin’s discussion of the sensus divinitatis or Barth’s treatment of the doctrine of Scripture. Provided that no one reads this review, I’m confident that my ill-deserved reputation as a Van Til scholar will be secure for many years to come.

Whatever one thinks of Van Til’s work, there’s no denying that The Works of Cornelius Van Til is a fantastic resource. At the time of writing, Logos are offering it on sale at a substantial discount, but I’ve been told that if readers of this review use the magic coupon code ‘VANTIL’ they’ll receive a further 25% discount when they order the product before 31st July 2008. And those who own the original Logos version of the CD-ROM are entitled to a free upgrade.* What more could one ask for? (Did someone say, “The Collected Works of John M. Frame”? Volume 1 is already available; 2 and 3 are the pipeline.)


*As Phil Gons of Logos explained to me: “It is true that owners of the old Logos version of the Works of Van Til get the new version for free. We’ve actually already activated the new version in the Libronix accounts of everyone who owned the old version; however, if someone never made the switch to Libronix, this automatic upgrade wouldn’t have worked for them. They will have to call our customer service (800-875-6467) and have it manually unlocked. There is a qualification, though. The individual must have owned the old version prior to the release of the new version or at least not purchased the old version as a way to get the new version at a significantly reduced rate.”

Meditation on a Good Friday

Luke 23:32-42

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Three crosses on a hill. Three men condemned to die.

If we’re to understand what was so good about ‘Good’ Friday, we need to be able to see something of ourselves represented in all three of those crosses.

On the first cross was a criminal, a sinner, a rebel in God’s world, rightfully condemned for his crimes, but who scorned and spurned the one man who could save him.

Many of us can remember well the years when we scorned Jesus and spurned his salvation — if not in our words, then in our thoughts and our behaviour. We were condemned criminals in God’s universe and we showed no remorse.

Others of us were fortunate to have come to Christ at a young age — before we could do too much damage. But we know the stain of sin that remains in our hearts and we can imagine what we would be today if God had not taken hold of us.

We have different stories to tell, but all of us have this in common: like the man on this first cross, we were born sinners, with hearts bent toward evil and rebellion against God. We deserved the sentence of death. So we must see something of ourselves on that first cross.

On the second cross was another criminal, another sinner, another rebel in God’s world, rightfully condemned for his crimes, but who was saved by grace as he acknowledged his sins and put his faith in the one man who could save him.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That’s the faith of the sinner.

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” That’s the promise of the Saviour.

And the very same promise is extended to every penitent sinner. As the old hymn put it, “The vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

None is so good that the cross isn’t necessary to save him; but equally, none is so bad that the cross isn’t sufficient to save him.

So we must identify with the criminal on the first cross; but praise God that we can also identify with the criminal on the second cross. We are sinners, yes; but sinners saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus alone.

Two sinners on two crosses. And hanging between those two sinners on the third cross was the sinless Saviour who suffered in our place: the man who suffered not merely the physical agony of the cross, but the spiritual agonies of the wrath of God poured out in judgement on human sin.

John’s Gospel tells us that the chief priests objected to what was written on that notice above Jesus’ head. They were half right, for there’s a sense in which the notice was mistaken. It should have had my name on it. It should have had your name on it.

But that’s the wonder of the cross of Jesus. There was indeed something of us hanging on that third cross; not our bodies, but our guilt and our shame and our condemnation.

Three crosses on a hill. In very different ways, we need to see ourselves represented on each one of them.

We are the sinners rightly condemned to death.

We are the sinners saved by grace through faith in Jesus; promised a Paradise we don’t deserve.

We are the sinners in whose place the sinless Saviour bore the guilt and the punishment and the undiluted wrath of God.

Behold the man upon a cross, my sin upon his shoulders.
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held him there until it was accomplished.
His dying breath has brought me life — I know that it is finished.

(Stuart Townend, ‘How Deep the Father’s Love For Us’)