Course Review: Apologetics 101 – Scott Oliphint, Westminster Theological Seminary

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Apologetics comes from the reality of Scripture. It is not an invention of theologians and philosophers.


Letter II‘ve decided to try something new, to start a new type of series. I love to read, and I’ve been writing book reviews for years. I also love to listen to lectures, and often fill the time during my daily commute with courses from the online libraries of schools such as Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster, Gordon-Conwell, Covenant, and others.

So I’ve decided start providing summaries, analysis, and critiques of these courses and lecture series, partially to help me process what I’ve encountered and partially because it’s not something I’ve seen done before and I think it’ll be fun.

The first series of lectures I will be reviewing is Dr. Scott Oliphint’s course Apologetics 101 at Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS).

Scott is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster. He is one of the foremost experts on Cornelius Van Til and the sphere of presuppositional apologetics (along with John Frame and the late Greg Bahnsen), and is perhaps best known for his re-framing of presuppositionalism in the form of Covenantal Apologetics.

Scott is on Twitter, has written for Ligonier and DesiringGod, and has many resources available on SermonAudio.

This course is available for free on iTunesU.

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Book Review: The Psychology of Atheism – By R.C. Sproul

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Letter MMuch has been written trying to explain the psychology of theism. The foundational text in that field is probably Sigmund Freud‘s The Future of An Illusion, where Freud theorizes that religion came about as a sort of coping mechanism; it was comforting for early man to personalize the forces of nature and to turn their chiefs into legends, and eventually this evolved into the more institutional forms of religion.

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Book Review: The Dawkins Delusion – By Alister McGrath & Joanna Collicutt McGrath

McGrath The Dawkinks Delusion.pngLetter TThere are many individuals who act as poster-boys for certain religious and anti-religious movements. For the New Atheists, one of those individuals is Richard Dawkins; for evangelical Christianity, one of them is Alister McGrath. Both are doctoral graduates from Oxford with degrees in the sciences.

The Dawkins Delusion, as one could easily guess from the title, is the Alister and his wife Joanna‘s response to  Dawkins book The God DelusionThe self-stated goal of the text is to “assess the reliability of Dawkins’s critique of faith in God” by means of challenging Dawkins “at representative points and let readers draw their own conclusions about the overall reliability of his evidence and judgement.”

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Pascal: Faith & Reason

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Letter TThe question of the relationship between faith and reason is one of the perennial questions within Christian philosophy.

Nearly every major Christian thinker down through the ages has said something on the topic of faith and reason, especially those with some sort of apologetic in mind. The greats of these ranks include those such as Tertullian, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas in the ancient and medieval church, and those such as Kierkegaard, Van Til, and Bavinck in the more modern world.

Coming closer towards the beginning of the modern period stands Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and philosopher of the 17th-Century perhaps best known for his famous assertion that “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” In the preface to his commentary on Pascal’s Pensées, Peter Kreeft asserts that “God in his infinite mercy struck Pascal dead at the tender age of thirty-nine, before he could complete the greatest book of Christian apologetics ever written.”

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Book Review: On Guard – By William Lane Craig

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Letter IIn the world of Christian apologetics, William Lane Craig is one of the contemporary giants, and is also one of the philosophers primarily responsible for the resurgence of classical Christian apologetics (as opposed to presuppositional).

On Guard is what is described as a “one-stop, how-to-defend-your-faith manual,” and aims at providing a basic overview of the classic arguments for the Christian faith. Craig begins his text by presenting a defense of apologetics itself, and a justification for it, to demonstrate of what great difference question such as “Does God exist?” and “Why does anything exist?” are of such importance. Following this Craig goes through some of the classical arguments for the existence of God, such as the cosmological argument, the argument of fine-tuning, the argument from morality, and also deals with the question of suffering. After this more philosophical approach to apologetics Craig turns to the more historical/evidentialist/Biblical approach, discussing such questions as the historicity of Jesus, the resurrection, dispelling the mistaken belief that Jesus being a ‘legend’ is a valid option, and the exclusivity of the Christian faith.

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Book Review: The Concept of God – By Ronald H. Nash

 

809930Letter The Christian doctrine of God has throughout history been subject to incredible debate and controversy, specifically as regards his attributes. Within the past few centuries it has become increasingly common to question the coherence of the Christian view of God, with two of the most recent adversaries being those who believe that the Christian view of God (or any God) must be abandoned altogether (atheists) and those who wish to keep a view of God but wish to alter it dramatically (the Process theologians).

In The Concept of God Ronald Nash aims on the one hand to defeat the argument that theism is incoherent in itself, and on the other to address what road to take within theism. The two most visible alternatives are between Thomistic theism and Process theology, yet Nash desires to make it clear that this is not a mutually exclusive relationship.

Throughout the course of the text Nash analyzes six different attributes of God – omnipotence, omniscience, eternity, simplicity, immutability and necessity – in order to show that it is possible to create a coherent system between these and to create one that neither falls into Process theology nor is forced to be content with Thomism.RonNash

While Nash spends much time quoting other writers, the strength of this book is that it attempts not to leave any critique or option unaddressed. Furthermore, Nash is upfront in terms of his own thoughts on the matter, and when he is unsure of the absolute conclusion he lets the reader know.

All in all The Concept of God is not only a great discussion on six of the attributes of God and the doctrine of God overall, but it is also a great view into how the doctrine has developed throughout history and as well as the current trends in thought, which is where Nash’s liberal use of quotations comes in.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The conflict between Thomistic theism and Process theology s basically a revival of the struggle between competing schools of Greek philosophy, one emphasizing being, the other stressing the dominance of becoming.”(p31)

-“Since any sound argument or refutation must begin by presupposing certain rules, it is impossible to argue against someone who rejects the most basic rules of reasoning.”(p39)

-“Whatever God’s relation to the laws of logic may be, it is clear that all human thinking and communication must presuppose the law of non-contradiction… A supralogical God is a God about whom nothing can be said or known. Moreover, a supralogical God would introduce devastating implications into any religion promoting such a concept. If God can do self-contradictory acts, then there is no inconsistency in His promising eternal life to all who trust in Christ but actually condemning to everlasting damnation all who trust in Christ.”(p40)

-“So long as changes occur only in God’s intentional order (that is, in God’s consciousness), His immutability is not compromised.”(p102)

Specific Criticisms

All in all, I don’t have any criticisms of this book. I think the author could be a little more clear as to when he is giving the opponent’s position and when he is giving his own, but this is only minor.

On Apologetics – Purpose, Why You Should Take An Interest

apologetics3.pngLetter NNot too long ago I had a conversation with a man who has been a pastor for quite some time, and who was at the time taking a course in apologetics. He was clearly frustrated with the course, and as he spoke he attempted to explain why he disliked it so much. His main criticism? That it was pointless.hylian_shield_vector_by_reptiletc-d49y46o

As I listened further I discovered something interesting, his reason for the belief that apologetics was pointless. He said to me “I have no need for this class. I already know why I believe what I believe, and I believe the Bible. The Bible is the only reason I need.”

This statement was interesting, because it betrayed a twofold misunderstanding of the nature of apologetics.

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Book Review: Apologetics – By Cornelius Van Til

Van Til Apologetics.pngLetter WWithin the realm of 20th Century apologetics few thinkers dominate the sphere as strongly as Cornelius Van Til. No list of Christian apologists would be complete without him being listed as one of the biggest movers within the field. His thought has come to dominate Reformed apologetics, carried on by scholars such as Greg Bahnsen, Scott Oliphint, and John Frame.

Apologetics is Van Til’s brief outline of his thought as conceived in the system of presuppositional apologetics, specifically as it opposes the apologetical methods of Roman Catholicism and Arminian Protestantism. The central tenant of this apologetic may be understood as follows: “Christians are interested in showing to those who believe in no God or in a God, a beyond, some ultimate or absolute, that it is this God in whom they must believe lest all meaning should disappear from human words.”

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Chesterton’s Apologetic & The World Today

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G.K. Chesterton – despite his great girth – is somehow often overlooked in contemporary discussion. Yet if you should take up most any book of his and read you will find that he is still a wonderful treasure trove of insight into the world.

Chesterton was a massive influence on Christianity during the early 20th century, at least within the context of England. He was his generation’s version of C.S. Lewis, with an extra serving of wit. This made him the chief candidate for being the popular defender of Christianity during his day, and his method of defending the faith is one that we would do well to learn from today. But before we can learn from Chesterton’s methods, we must first determine what those methods were.

In undertaking this task it is helpful to first look at what types of strategies are out there, there are at least five different approaches:

  1. the Classical Method, which includes using natural theology and pure reason to establish theism, that is, a belief in God or gods
  2. the Evidential Method, which uses miracles, the historicity of Jesus, etc. to argue its case
  3. the Cumulative Case Method, which says Christianity makes the best sense of the data
  4. the Presuppositional Method, which argues that only through God can one make sense of the world and have a basis for reason and ethics, and also that the opponent’s views all end in absurdity
  5. the Reformed Epistemology Method, which tends towards fideism (that is, a stance which “refuses to offer any arguments or evidence for Christian claims”) and is mostly defensive rather than offering any real argument.

With this cursory survey given we can look at where Chesterton’s arguments fall in this schema.

Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy is perhaps his most iconic work in defense of the faith, and it is therefore ideal for discerning his method. As one reads Orthodoxy the feeling is given that Chesterton’s apologetic is one of common sense, with his chief enemy being skepticism. First Chesterton argues positively for certain evidences which may be found within Christianity, including what he calls guessing ‘illogical truths’ – truths that would be thought illogical if not for their being true – or that the division between man and animal is in need of an explanation. The view that evolution fails to account for the vast differences between man and animal can also be seen in his book The Everlasting Man, where he argues that:

A monkey does not draw clumsily and a man cleverly; a monkey does not begin the art of representation and a man carry it to perfection. A monkey does not do it at all; he does not begin to do it at all; he does not begin to begin to do it at all. A line of some kind is crossed before the first faint line can begin.

Both of these show signs of a sort of evidentialist method, where the argument is made by looking at the outside world and asking for explanations of what is seen.

But more than just presenting arguments for Christianity, Chesterton also offers many arguments against the opponents of Christianity. The opponents he primarily tackles include skepticism, materialism, and pantheism; skepticism being the view that human knowledge is impossible in some field or another, materialism the view that the material world is all that there is, and pantheism the view that everything that exists is part of God. His primary argument against these opposing views is that they result in a ‘suicide of thought’, which is  the name of the chapter in which he states “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

Through this method – similar to reductio ad absurdum – Chesterton greatly imitates the method of presuppositionalism, yet in this he has a similarity to the cumulative case method as well; on the one hand arguing that the opposing views end in absurdity, and on the other that it is only Christianity that makes sufficient sense of the data.

G.K. Chesterton employs a variety of apologetical methods in order to argue his case for Christianity. Yet apart from just looking at the arguments that he presents, we can also look at how he views the relationship between faith and reason.

This relationship forms a pivotal part of any apologetic method, for it is this relationship which determines whether the arguments presented will have any practical effect on the nonbeliever.

In looking for his view on this matter it is perhaps best to look once again back to Orthodoxy, in which he provides his arguments for Christianity and against its critics. Chesterton may be found stating here that “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith.” It might thus be concluded that Chesterton places faith above reason, for reason itself falls under the purview of faith.

The relationship between faith and reason is further expounded in Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, in which he condones Aquinas’ view where he “was willing to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths, precisely because he was sure there was only one truth.”

The point here is that for Chesterton faith and reason are two methods for arriving at the one truth. Chesterton therefore has no outright contention with science or reason (such as the proofs of Thomas Aquinas) because he is sure that if reason arrives at any truth that truth could not contradict the truth of Christianity.

This not only demonstrates Chesterton’s view of the relationship between faith and reason, but it also shows his endorsement of the classical method of apologetics through his approval of Aquinas, who formulated most of the classical proofs. Thus, it may be said that Chesterton pulls his argumentation from all of the apologetical methods combined – classical, evidentialist and presuppositional –  rather than simply relying upon one or the other.

Chesterton’s was of course greatly defined by his era, by the onset of modern liberalism – that is, the movement to make Christianity compatible with science – as well as the fact that presuppositionalism was just coming into play during his time period. Modern liberalism was just starting to take hold during Chesterton’s time, hence the attacks against it in texts such as Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism as well as Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies.

This period also saw the development of a new type of apologetic, that of Van Til’s presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalism is best known for its attack on the epistemology of the opponent, a strategy not seen before the dawn of the Twentieth Century, and therefore we may assume that Chesterton was also influenced by this trend.

Perhaps one of the greatest insights to be drawn from Chesterton is that one is not limited to any one view of apologetics, indeed, he drew from just about all of them.

Furthermore, many of the same heresies that Chesterton fought against are still prevalent. We can still see skepticism in the world today, as well as materialism, as well as pantheism. It is by analyzing how our ancestors battled untruth that we can better understand how to do it ourselves. The truth never changes, therefore it may still be truly said that “there is nothing new under the sun.”


 

[Originally posted on Chestertonian.com]