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: 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.”

In beginning his endeavor Van Til does not set out as many apologists would, that is, by jumping into the fray and discussing the logicality of God and pointing out with clever diction why the non-believer should accept his system. In this even the structure of his book is a mirror of his apologetical method, for Van Til’s goal is not the acceptance of some general idea of God, but rather a very specific idea of God – that is, the very specific idea of God as presented by Christianity. Thus Van Til does not start out with nature or logic and reason his way up to God; rather, he begins by laying out Christian orthodoxy, from which place he may explain exactly what it is he means to defend before he goes about defending it.

Following his outline of Christian orthodoxy Van Til goes on to explain Christianity (or, theology) in its relation to philosophy and science. This chapter, along with the third which discusses the ‘point of contact’ which may be made between the non-believer and the apologist, lay out Van Til’s epistemology (that is, his theory of knowledge and how we come about it). The basis of this epistemology is that all human knowledge (indeed the mind of man) is derivative of God’s mind and His knowledge. Furthermore, ‘facts’ are only such in relation to God’s ordination; they exist as part of the system he has set in place, the system of his providence, and apart from that system they are meaningless (from which he may base his argument on the lack of meaning in science and philosophy apart from Christianity).

This idea is expressed by Van Til in stating that: “Thus there is one system of reality of which all that exists forms a part. And any individual fact of this system is what it is primarily because of its relation to this system. It is therefore a contradiction in terms to speak of presenting certain facts to men unless one presents them as parts of this system. The very factness of any individual fact of history is precisely what it is because God is what he is. It is God’s counsel that is the principle of individuation for the Christian man. God makes the facts to be what they are.”

The point of contact for Van Til is not a shared logical mind interpreting nature or the common grace shared by all men (as is usually employed by classical apologists), rather his point of contact is the suppressed knowledge of God residing in all men. His methodology is one which attempts to overthrow the entirety of autonomy within human thought, which leads to the final discussion of authority, namely, the authority of Scripture versus the authority of the human mind (or the Catholic church, we sees as analogous to the former). The light of Scripture takes precedence to the light of man.

Overall Van Til’s Apologetics is a concise discussion of an apologetical method which seeks to bring God back to his proper place of authority over the minds of men. Coming in at just under 100 pages it may no doubt serve as an excellent introduction to presuppositional apologetics and the thought of Cornelius Van Til. Furthermore it will give the reader an excellent foothold in better understanding how to better defend their faith.

Memorable Quotes:

[These tend on the long side, but they’re good, and cutting them down just wouldn’t do them justice…]

“…Truth [ultimately consists] in correspondence to the internally self-complete nature and knowledge that God has of himself and of all created reality.”

“But real redemption has not been fully wrought for us till it is wrought also within us. Sin being what it is, it would be useless to have salvation lie ready to hand unless it were also applied to us. Inasmuch as we are dead in trespasses and sins it would do us no good to have a wonderful life-giving potion lad next to us in our coffin. It would do us good only if someone actually administered the potion to us.”

-“But Reformed theology, as worked out by Calvin and his recent exponents such as Hodge, Warfield, Kuyper and Bavink, holds that man’s mind is derivative. As such it is naturally in contact with God’s revelation. It is surrounded by nothing but revelation. It is itself inherently revelational. It cannot naturally be conscious of itself without being conscious of its creatureliness. Fore man self-consciousness presupposes God-consciousness. Calvin speaks of this as man’s inescapable sense of deity.”

“We do not use candles, or electric lights in order to discover whether the light and the energy of the sun exist. The reverse is the case. We have light in candles and electric light bulbs because of the light and energy of the sun. So we cannot subject the authoritative pronouncements of Scripture about reality to the scrutiny of reason because it is reason itself that learns its proper function from Scripture…. All the objections that are brought against such a position spring, in the last analysis, from the assumption that the human person is ultimate and as such should properly act as judge of all claims to authority that are made by any one. But if man is not autonomous, if he is rather what Scripture says he is, namely, a creature of God and a sinner before his face, then man should subordinate his reason to the Scriptures and seek in the light of it to interpret his experience.”

Specific Criticisms

On the whole I don’t believe there is much that I may critique concerning Van Til. On the superficial level he is not quite as easy to read as some of his students (ie, Bahnsen and Frame); this should by no means discourage the reader, Van Til is not difficult, he’s simply not as concise as he could be. Another minor criticism may the time he spends addressing specific thinkers, thinkers which modern readers may not be familiar with – but again, this doesn’t really detract from the text.

One greater criticism of Van Til’s system (at least as presented in this text alone) is that he offers no rebuttal against the ideas of existentialism, absurdism, or nihilism. Van Til’s position is that in order to give meaning to anything one must adopt the Christian worldview, yet this does nothing to address those who are content with the world having no meaning (or with that meaning being completely subjective/absurd/relative). Perhaps this can simply be chalked up to the outline nature of the book (that is, it is not all-inclusive of Van Til’s thought).

A few more minor nitpicks might consist in the following. Van Til states that “[If obedient to God] The controlling and directing power of his will would be the will of God. ” To me this statement reads as a contradiction. The ‘if obedient’ presumes an autonomy on the part of man which is not present if ‘the controlling power of his will’ is the will of God. One might be able to escape this by interpreting ‘if obedient’ in terms of ‘if God grants obedience’, but this is not set out in the text.

A similar contradiction in terms is found in the statement that “Any other sort of God is no God at all and to prove that some other sort of God exists is to prove that no God exists.” If the word ‘prove’ here is taken in its hardest meaning, that is, if the opponent did indeed prove that some other god existed, this would negate Christianity. Van Til’s apologetic gets the better of his semantics; in allowing the possibility of “some other sort of God” to be proven he undermines the presupposition that no such other God can be proven (even if that other God should prove to be meaningless or impotent). One would think his argument could be made without asserting the notion that proving some other God is even possible.

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]