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 Future of An Illusion – By Sigmund Freud

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Letter WWell known for his work in the fields of psychology and particularly his founding of the field of psychoanalysis, The Future of An Illusion is Freud‘s tackling of the foundations and future of religion, especially as it relates to civilization.

Religion, as Freud see is, arose out of the “necessity of defending oneself against the crushing superior force of nature” where “the primal father was the original image of God,” or rather a model on which he was shaped. Freud sees religion as a sort of neurosis which, with the advancements of science and proper education, the human race will eventually overcome.

Within the past fifty years or so we have seen the development of a certain critique of the sciences (and of rationalism in general) in the form of postmodernism and its “incredulity towards metanarratives” as defined by Jean-Francois Lyotard. Many mistakenly think this is an aversion to stories which try and fit all of human experience into some over-arching schema (meganarratives), but this isn’t the case.

What it is opposed to is the sort of stories told by science while claiming not to be telling stories; stories that, in another way of putting it, don’t account for their own presuppositions.

The key problem with Freud’s presentation of religion is that he’s simply telling stories while claiming not to be telling stories.

Thus he concocts explanations of the origins of religion based upon narratives that he has dreamed up of the way that primitive man thought and related to each other and nature at large. He offers an explanation, but there is nothing to say that his explanation is the correct one, or even a likely one.

Freud simply presupposes that his view is correct, that religion is wrong, and that science is the only way to truth.

This is the essence of circular reasoning. Religion is wrong because it is untrue, and science is right because it is true.

Thus he simply suffices to say “scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality outside ourselves” or “an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give we can get elsewhere.” As Etienne Gilson rightly observes, those with this mindset simply “prefer a complete absence of intelligibility to the presence of a nonscientific intelligibility” to the point that they would just assume cripple the human intelligence by dismissing metaphysical rationale than admit that there can be nonscientific truth (even though science itself never makes any such claim upon the intellect).

Science does not claim to be all-encompassing, it only claims to seek the answer to the question “what?”

Freud offers a view, but he does not even begin an attempt at justifying it, and even within the view presented he finds himself littered with internal contradictions. The book is a decent study on what Freud thought in relation to religion, though, as I note below, even if we give Freud the benefit of the doubt his own narrative is littered with internal contradictions.

Memorable Quote:

-“Most people have obliged to restrict themselves to a single, or a few, fields of [human activity]. But the less a man knows about the past and the present the more insecure must prove to be his judgement of the future.”(p1)

-“Human creations are easily destroyed, and science and technology, which have built them up, can also be used for their annihilation.”(p4)

-“… art offers substitutive satisfactions for the oldest and still most deeply felt cultural renunciations, and for that reason it serves as nothing else does to reconcile a man to the sacrifices he has made on behalf of civilization.”(p18)

Specific Criticisms

I’ve long been of the belief that any sort of objection to religion can be met with Christian orthodoxy; that I have never actually seen an argument against Christianity, only against its heresies. Here Freud can be seen falling into that same line, stating that the justifications used for religious beliefs are that “they were already believed by our primal ancestors” that “we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from those same primaeval times” and “it is forbidden to raise the question of their authentication at all.”(p39)

In viewing these as the supposed justifications for religion it is no wonder that Freud had a dismal view of it – the problem is that very few religions would actually use this sort of rationale (as with most things, Freud doesn’t cite any sources but creates straw men or simply says whatever suits his position), nor does the religion that Freud would have been most exposed to and most directly addressing, that of Christianity. Freud asserts that religions “are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillment of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind.”(p47)

Freud seems to have had virtually no exposure to any sort of real religious philosophy, whether existential or that of natural theology.

Furthermore, as stated above, Freud’s account of religion seems to be littered with internal contradictions.

On the one hand he argues that religion is something that spawned from attributing deity to nature and the father-figure. Yet then he goes on to state that “civilization gives the individual these [religious] ideas, for he finds them there already; they are presented to him ready-made, and he would not be able to discover them for himself. What he is entering into is the heritage of many generations, and he takes it over as he does the multiplication table, geometry, and similar things.” Yet the maths are objectively true, rationally constructed forms, so how is religion related to them without being of this type as well, and if religion is already in civilization ready-made, then how can it also be derivative only from tribal superstition?

We can see this same trend in his statements that “I think it would be a very long time before a child who was not influenced began to trouble himself about God and things in another world.”(p78) And yet he posits that the earliest tribal peoples, on their own, came to the idea of God and of another world.

This alone seems enough of an inconsistency, yet the greater problem with this statement is that it ignores the manifold experience of anybody who has had the slightest exposure to children, and that is that one of their fundamental inquires about the world is “why?”, which is the primary question which science is utterly unqualified to answer, nor does it suggest that it can. Yet as soon as one asks ‘why?’, one begins to tread the path towards contemplation of God.

In retrospect on the events of the 20th Century, this statement is particularly falsified: “Civilization has little to fear from educated people and brain-workers. In them the replacement of religious motives for civilized behavior by other, secular motives would proceed unobtrusively; moreover, such people are to a large extent themselves vehicles of civilization.”(p63) This is not only because it was educated people and brain-workers who gave us two World Wars, but it also ignores the even more important fact that if we look at the progression of history it has been the religion in every case which has preserved the culture of prior civilizations.

Were it not for the Christian scholars, scribes, and monks, the Renaissance would have had no text to look back to Rome from. Were it not for the Muslims (and the Christians before them), Aristotle would have been lost to time.

Religion preserves because it has a set ideal and a set goal. Secular society destroys because it can never decide what it wants, and therefore consistently tears all of its ideas down to rebuild again.

Book Review: Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? – By James K. A. Smith

Smith WAOP.pngLetter PPostmodernism is an idea that is [intentionally] ill-defined and poorly understood, both by those who call themselves postmoderns and by those who attack them.

One of the groups which has set its sights on postmodernism in recent years is the Christian church, which has had no shortage of condemnations for it. Granted, we may also witness many within the Christian church embracing the movement (ie, the Emergent Church), only to be thrown into the fire by the rest of the Christian populace.

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? is James K. A. Smith’s contribution to shedding light on the situation by clarifying just what it is that postmodern thinkers mean and what their effect (for good or ill) on the church should be. On one level, the goal is to tackle the thought of postmodernism head on both to show how Christian critics and Christian adherents have misunderstood it in both their attacks and implementation of what they think to be postmodernism. On another level the goal is analyze the key ideas of three major postmodern philosophers – Derrida, Lyotard, and Focault – and to discuss how we may properly view and incorporate these ideas into the church, what our reactions to them should be.

Two main themes giving form to Smiths text are a discussion of postmodern ideas as they are seen in recent film and an explanation of the various bumper-sticker phrases which are often thrown out as embodying post-modern thought along with analysis of what they actually mean, whether they are really at odds with Christianity or whether they may be employed to further the interests of the church. After a short historical and philosophical introduction to the topics being discussed, Smith then analyzes these phrases chapter by chapter: Derrida’s “There is nothing outside the text,” Lyotard’s “Incredulity toward metanarratives,” and Foucault’s “power is knowledge.”After giving his analysis and removing false understandings of these ideas, Smith offers his view of how these ideas can and should be incorporated into the church. Granted, he acknowledges that the ideas are not necessarily in complete agreement with the ideas of Christianity, but they are not diametrically opposed either. Thus we can see that:

  • “when Derrida claims that there is nothing outside the text, he means there is no reality that is not always already interpreted through the mediating lens of language… Texts that require interpretation are not things that are inserted between me and the world; rather, the world is a kind of text requiring interpretation (p39)… To say that there is nothing outside the Text is to say that there is no aspect of creation to which God’s revelation does not speak.”(p55)
  • “For Lyotard, metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomenon: they are stories that not only tell a grand story (since even premodern and tribal societies do this) but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason… It is the supposed rationality of modern scientistic stories about the world that makes them a metanarrative (p65)…the problem with metanarratives is that they do not own up to their own mythic ground.”(p69)
  • “Christians should eschew the very notion of an autonomous agent who resists any form of control. By rejecting Foucault’s liberal Enlightenment commitments, but appropriating his analyses of the role of discipline in formation, we can almost turn Foucault’s project on its head.”(p99)

Thus we can create a church which removes the modern isolationism and realize the presuppositional nature of our ideas; we can recognize the story-telling nature (in a non-pejorative sense) of the church and the fault in the materialistic worldview; we can do away with modernistic view of autonomy and allow for the disciplinary and authoritative role of the church; we can refuse the Cartesian model of thought and realize that we can have knowledge without absolute knowledge, that we are finite; that we can incorporate a rich liturgy, social concerns, tradition, and a working creedal theology.

It is this “Radical Orthodoxy” that Smith promotes, a move away from the fundamentalism that sees postmodernism in a purely negative light, away from the emergent movement which misinterprets it as a reason to do away with truth claims and any sort of discipline, toward a revival of the church that isn’t caught under the presuppositions of modernism.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Whenever science attempts to legitimate itself, it is no longer scientific but narrative, appealing to an orienting myth that is not susceptible to scientific legitimation.”(p68)

-“We confess knowledge without certainty, truth without objectivity.”(p121)

-“We were created for stories, no propositions; for drama, not bullet points.”(p140)

Specific Criticisms

I don’t have any criticisms of this text. This isn’t to say that it is a perfect text or that the ideas presented have no flaws, but only that I’m not informed enough to be able to pick them out.