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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On Apologetics – Purpose, Why You Should Take An Interest

 

apologetics3.pngLetter Not 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.

First, the pastor’s statement betrayed a misunderstanding of how to approach belief in the Bible. If one is to believe the Bible one must have beliefs, it will not do to simply say “I believe the Bible” – you must follow that up with what you believe the Bible says and why, and how that squares with your experience of the world. This misunderstanding was addressed in our article Beliefs and Believing the Bible, so it needn’t be addressed any farther here.

Second, the pastor’s statement betrayed a misunderstanding of just what it is that apologetics – more specifically a course in apologetics – is trying to do for the believer.

Somehow he had come upon the misconception that this course in apologetics was meant to give him reasons why he should believe in the truth of Christianity. In case there is some misunderstanding, or in case this view is somehow more prevalent than I realize – that is not the point of apologetics. The goal of learning apologetics is not to convince yourself of the faith; the goal is to give you 1) An understanding of other groups and other perspectives so that you will know how to approach those who come at the world from a different viewpoint, and 2) An understanding of logic and reason as it relates to philosophy and theology as a whole, so that you may know how to explain the truthfulness of your beliefs to others, so that you may give a defense of your faith. Not to give you a reason to believe, but so that you may explain to others how there are reasons to believe. The goal of apologetics is a defense of the faith; to give an answer to those who bring objections against it, and to give reasons for it.

So if you are studying apologetics and feel that you are wasting your time, remember, you’re not learning it for your sake, you’re learning it for the sake of your neighbor, so that you may answer their questions in love and provide not just a testimony of how Christ has changed your life, but also a rational explanation of how He is true.

Because many people have genuine questions about the faith, hard questions, and we as Christians need to be able to address those questions; we need to be able to explain what and why we believe.

There are answers to the hard questions, and learning the school of apologetics will help train you in giving those answers.


If you’re not already a believer, then you should know that it is right and proper for you to have questions and misgivings about the faith, but you should also know that there are answers to your questions. We as Christians have often done a poor job of educating ourselves on those answers, of not being able to explain why we believe what we believe, and we need to amend that; but that is a mistake of individual Christians, not of Christianity as a faith.

What is Reformed Theology? [Briefly Stated]

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If you’re asking the question “What is Reformed Theology?” you’re likely to come across a lot of different answers. If you ask those who aren’t themselves Reformed, you might get the impression that Reformed theology is just the belief in predestination, they might say that it is a overemphasis on the sovereignty of God, perhaps going so far as to say that is a denial of man’s free will.

If you ask those are Reformed, they might say it is a focus on the grace of God or that is the doctrine of justification by faith alone, they might list off five ‘solas’ or they might list the five points of Calvinism (TULIP). If they’re feeling particularly dismissive they might just say that Reformed theology is biblical Christianity, and perhaps they’re right, but that’s not a particularly helpful definition, given that many groups within Christianity claim ‘biblical Christianity’for their own.

So what is it?

If we wanted to define Reformed theology in a historical manner, we might say that Reformed theology is the name for a number of historic Christian doctrines present since the inception of the faith, seemingly lost for a time, brought back into their rightful place at the center of the Christian faith during the Protestant Reformation, and perhaps best expressed by documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Three Forms of Unity.

Unfortunately, that sort of historical overview doesn’t tell us much.

On a doctrinal level, it could be said that at its essence Reformed theology is the union of a high view of the authority of Scripture, of the sovereignty of God, of the fallenness of man, of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit in accordance with the covenanting decree of the Father in election via the means of evangelism, and of the outworking of this salvation in the form of good works, the spread of the church, the making of disciples, and the establishment of the kingdom of God.

Authority of Scripture: Reformed theology must begin with a high view of the authority of Scripture, for it is from Scripture that all other aspects of the faith are drawn. This view sees Scripture as the infallible Word of God and the ultimate authority for the faith (sola scriptura); this is in contrast to the Roman Catholic view placing tradition on par with Scripture, radically charismatic views allowing for new prophecy, or liberal views placing human reason above the Scriptures.

Sovereignty of God: The sovereignty of God is pivotal for Reformed theology, for it is from God through his word that all the doctrines flow. God is in complete control, with all power and glory belonging to him (soli deo gloria). This means that nothing that happens is outside of his plan, that everything happens for the reason of his glory, and yet that the sinfulness of man is our own responsibility.

Fallenness of Man: This sinfulness resulted in and stems from the Fall described in Genesis 1, which resulted in Adam’s sin being imputed to all generations of mankind, commonly referred to as ‘original sin’ which resulted in all humans being born with a ‘sin nature’. This sin nature is total, in that all aspects of our humanity were corrupted, to include our bodies, our minds, and our wills.

Salvation/Evangelism: Because of this sinfulness mankind was alienated from God, yet in his love he graciously covenanted with fallen man (sola gratia), such that all who would put their faith in him (whether in Old Testament times or New) would be saved through that faith, and that faith alone (sola fide). The object of this faith is Jesus Christ (solo Christo), who was sacrificed in order to atone for the sins of man and thereby present them as justified before God, clothed in his righteousness. This faith originates through the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of those chosen by God in his mercy. God changes the heart of his chosen so that they will have faith, else they continue in sin, and God has chosen to use mankind – through the preaching of the gospel – as his means of spreading the faith; thus the Christian is called to evangelism, and can be assured of results.

Good Works: Upon this changing of the heart by God the natural result is that the person turns from their sinful habits and turns toward good works. This is a process (of sanctification), in which the person will still inevitably sin, but will grow in Christian maturity. The good works done do not merit salvation, but are an inevitable outworking of it.

The Church/Kingdom of God: Those who come to faith are the church, and are called to commune together and grow in the Word of God. This expansion of the community of believers inevitably results in the expansion of the kingdom of God on earth; when Christ returns those unbelievers will be resurrected to condemnation in hell, while believers will be resurrected to life on the new earth.

There are of course those who would object that this short breakdown glosses over some aspects that should be more pronounced, that it highlights things that aren’t central, or that it unfairly excludes non-Calvinistic traditions which claim Reformed heritage (ie, Arminianism). These objections are fair, but the above should still offer a basic and solid overview of what Reformed theology entails.

In the end, the heart of Reformed theology can be seen in the italicized section above: salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit in accordance with the covenanting decree of the Father in election via the means of evangelism.