Tag Archives: Apologetics

Nothing New Under the Sun

Matthew Pinson

When it comes to the big questions, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun. I am often reminded of this when I attend debates between Christians and skeptics of various varieties. For example, several years ago I heard Craig Evans debate Bart Ehrman, the famous evangelical-turned-skeptic who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After hearing Ehrman’s arguments (and later reading them in some of his books and articles), I was really surprised that that was all he had.

Most of his criticisms of the Bible would do more to bring doubts to a child in a Sunday school room than a person who had taken a freshman course in biblical interpretation at a Christian college. I was struck particularly by how many of his concerns were reiterations of things that the church fathers themselves were dealing with 1,700+ years ago. Here I was braced for some new, groundbreaking scientific argument or an argument made possible because of computer technology or some new archaeological discovery. But what I heard was just more rehashing of much of what skeptics of Christianity have been saying for hundreds, yea thousands, of years.

This memory came back to my mind recently when I was reading Carl F. H. Henry’s wonderful little book from the 1940s, Giving a Reason for Our Hope (Boston: W. A. Wilde, 1949). It’s a wonderful little volume on apologetics that is still relevant for today. In answering the question, “The Modern naturalistic version is that God is simply an imagination of ours, so how can we answer that?” Henry replies:

“The arguments which the modern naturalists use against belief in God are not new; strictly speaking, nothing essential has been added to the argument as it existed many centuries ago, in ancient Greek times. The arguments were all in existence when Christianity came into the world. It is not because a man is modern, but because he is a naturalist, that he says God is a figment of the imagination” (16).

This is so true. In the major intellectual questions about Christianity, there is nothing new under the sun. Reading this also brought to my mind not just our contemporary intellectual context, but also our contemporary cultural context. Many evangelical Protestants have developed a “fear of man” and are too intimidated by the rapid cultural changes in our technological, secularizing society.

It seems that we think what we are facing is unique to our time, and thus we have to use methods in our church growth practices that have never before been tried in the history of Christianity. (And it’s not that the apostles and saints and martyrs throughout history couldn’t have tried them, that they didn’t have the resources to try them. It’s just that they chose not to.)

I don’t want to downplay the acute difficulties and unique qualities of modernity and postmodernity. But I think that we need more to see ourselves in a missionary situation to a pagan culture, like the church fathers and missionaries of the Christian tradition, rather than seeing ourselves as being comfortable in a Christian culture and still thinking we can spread the gospel like we used to in that culture. Yet, in the big questions, there is nothing new under the sun. We are not experiencing anything that the early church did not experience, or that various traditional missionaries to pagan cultures did not experience.

I think it’s helpful for us to look at the church fathers, especially prior to the mammoth changes in the fourth century when the church began accommodating pagan culture more and speaking a prophetic word to it less. When we look at the early church, we see it engaging a pagan culture that is similar in profound ways to our own, and we find that they had almost all the resources at their disposal that we currently have. Yet they based their ministry of the gospel on the all-sufficient word, not the methods and gimmicks the secular culture used to draw a crowd.

Every age and society has its unique qualities. Yet because humanity is made in God’s image and is fallen and finite, we find that there is nothing new under the sun. The Holy Scripture that God breathed out more than twenty centuries ago gives us—just as it gave the saints and martyrs who went before us—everything necessary for life and godliness, for building Christ’s church, for extending the kingdom, and for defending the rationality of the Christian gospel in a complex marketplace of ideas.

2017 Symposium Recap: Adam Holloway on Presuppositional  Apologetics

Matt Pinson

The burden of Adam Holloway’s well-done paper was to make a case that presuppositional forms of apologetics are the most effective type of apologetics in dealing with the postmodern condition. Holloway aimed to show in the paper that an approach to apologetics that starts with the “inescapable questions of life” (Forlines) and deals with unbelievers’ false presuppositions (things that they assume to be true at the outset) is best-suited to deal with intellectual objections of people in a postmodern context. This approach considers holistic worldviews, testing each one and showing the inconsistency and inadequacy of non-Christian worldviews. Holloway suggested that evidential apologetics places too much confidence in human reason and is naïve about the ability of unbelievers to interpret evidence rationally and objectively.

Holloway began his paper with a consideration of Francis Schaeffer’s approach to apologetics. He emphasized Schaeffer’s comment that “presuppositional apologetics would have stopped the decay” of Christian belief and confidence in absolute truth that was occurring in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He discussed Schaeffer’s concept of a “line of despair,” which occurred in Western thought during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Prior to the “line of despair,” everyone in Western culture was thinking with the same basic presuppositions about ultimate reality regarding universal truth, right and wrong, the nature of knowledge, etc. After they crossed the line of despair, they no longer shared basic Judeo-Christian presuppositions.

Thus Schaeffer thought that evidential apologetics was inadequate below the line of despair. The attempt—following medieval scholasticism as represented by the thought of Thomas Aquinas—to get people to believe in the existence of God by reason alone, without any recourse to faith or special revelation, failed to reckon with presuppositions. As Holloway explained, Schaeffer believed that this method of apologetics was “talking past” modern people who had abandoned the basic presuppositions needed to understand the Thomistic proofs for the existence of God and evidential arguments for the rationality of Christianity. Thus the best way to reason with unbelievers, for Schaeffer was by showing the irrationality, inconsistency, or inadequacy of their non-Christian presuppositions, then presenting the Christian worldview as the rationally consistent alternative that gives the most satisfying answers to the inescapable questions of life. Holloway also showed, later in the paper, that this is the approach of Leroy Forlines.

Holloway summarized Alvin Plantinga’s and Ronald Nash’s view that all people have a basic, in-born knowledge of God “preprogrammed” in their consciousness. He also considered more robust presuppositionalists such as Cornelius Van Til and his mentee Greg Bahnsen, quoting Bahnsen as saying that an apologetic argument should “pit the unbeliever’s system of thought as a unit over against the believer’s system of thought as a unit. Their overall perspectives will have to contend with each other, rather than debating isolated points in a piecemeal fashion.”

Holloway did a good job of making a case for the need for an apologetic that probes the inadequacy of non-Christian worldviews, as a whole, in addressing the rational and existential needs of the human person, and showing the adequacy of the Christian worldview, as a whole, in addressing those needs. It is worth noting that Holloway’s approach is right in line with the approach Leroy Forlines takes in chapter 7 of his Quest for Truth.

One shortcoming of the paper was that it failed to distinguish adequately between different sorts of presuppositionalists. Thinkers he examined such as Schaeffer, Forlines, and Nash, though more Augustinian and presuppositional in their framework and starting point, take into account the need to test worldviews for their logical consistency and ability to meet existential needs. Van Tilian presuppositionalists are less apt to stress logic and empirical data and more likely to emphasize the internal inconsistencies of non-Christian systems. In a future revision, Mr. Holloway would do well to distinguish Van Tilian presuppositionalism from the moderate presuppositional approaches of thinkers such as Nash, Schaeffer, and Forlines. Notwithstanding this criticism, Mr. Holloway did a fine job in his paper of showing why a more worldview-oriented, presuppositional approach to the apologetic task will bear more fruit in the postmodern intellectual context.

Adam Holloway: Presuppositional  Apologetics in a Postmodern Age

Our Favorite Books in 2017

by Theological Commission

Members of the Commission for Theological Integrity enjoy a good book as much as anyone. This year has afforded each of us the opportunity to read a number of titles, some published more recently and others published in prior years. This post features a couple of favorite books by each Commission member. Note that while our mention of these books doesn’t represent a blanket endorsement of their entire content, we felt they were significant, interesting, and/or enjoyable. We commend them accordingly unto our readers.

Kevin Hester

Since this year was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I read several books on this topic. I reread two classics: Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers and Roland Bainton’s, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Of particular interest on this topic was Zondervan’s Five Solas Series: Christ Alone (Stephen Wellum), Faith Alone (Thomas Schreiner), God’s Glory Alone (David VanDrunen), God’s Word Alone (Mathew Barrett), and Grace Alone (Carl Trueman), all of which are to be commended for theological clarity and attention to the continued practical relevance of these Protestant principles.

One of the more interesting books I read related to the Protestant Reformation was Matthew Levering’s Was the Reformation a Mistake: Why Catholic Doctrine is not Unbiblical (Zondervan, 2017). Unlike most Roman Catholic apologetics, this one was aimed squarely at Evangelical Protestants. Levering, in a rather irenic spirit, strives (unconvincingly) to demonstrate the biblical background of nine Roman Catholic doctrines including: justification, Mary, monasticism, purgatory, the Saints, and the papacy among others. Continue reading Our Favorite Books in 2017

Phillip Jensen on Apologetics & Evangelism

by J. Matthew Pinson

Recently I listened to a podcast by Phillip Jensen, the evangelical Anglican pastor from Sydney, Australia. Despite the obvious doctrinal differences between Free Will Baptists and Reformed Anglicans, Jensen and the Matthias Media folks down in Sydney are interesting people to watch. They demonstrate what it means to have aggressive, growing, evangelistic churches in the highly urban, post-Christian setting of Sydney. Yet at the same time they show how to do this by relying on the sufficiency of Scripture and not giving in to gimmicks and depending on attractional, market-driven, or seeker-driven approaches to get churches to grow.

Continue reading Phillip Jensen on Apologetics & Evangelism

The Necessity of Thinking Hard: Part 1

by Rodney Holloman

Recently, after attending my first Theological Symposium outside of graduate school, a friend asked me why I chose to go and participate. I simply replied that as a member of our Commission for Theological Integrity, I needed to be there. The Symposium was academically challenging and the exchange of ideas with others was quite enjoyable. After some back and forth, he then prodded further in simple candor with, “Why did you waste your time?” His questions were not mean spirited or intended to be derogatory. They simply revealed a prevalent thought among some (or many?) preachers and full-time Christian workers: “Why go to the bother of doing all that hard work that doesn’t have an immediate payoff?”

A few weeks later, I was having lunch with a dear missionary who was updating me on the work in his area. After asking about some of the other pastors in his area that I knew, he sadly replied that he was unsure how committed to biblical orthodoxy they were now. He stated that a current “trendy” author’s books were being translated into their language and that the books were wreaking doctrinal havoc among the younger ministers.

As I parsed these events and the well-intentioned question of my brother, my mind thought back to a decade of training young men and women for the ministry. This decade included teaching two semesters of Systematic Theology every year that (among other things) emphasized the importance of “thinking hard” about important subjects. Part of the passion of my life and ministry has been to equip others and inspire them to want to equip others as well. I wondered if we really should encourage critical thinking displayed through accurate writing or only ask for rote memorization of basic facts. Is the challenge of engagement and hard scholastic work only for a bygone era of the church?

So, my question remains, is there really a necessity of doing the hard work of reading, analyzing, critiquing, interacting, and writing regarding subjects with little “commercial” value that will only appeal to a few who make the time to engage? Emphatically, yes! I offer the following foundations for your consideration.

Biblical

There are biblical reasons to stretch, grow, read, and study not only those with whom we agree, but also those with whom we disagree. 2 Timothy 2:15 entreats us to study and reminds us of the negative implication “so that we won’t be ashamed.” Later in 4:13, Paul requests the “books and the parchments.” Addressing the learned crowd on Mars Hill, he quoted one of their poets, demonstrating at the very least, his outside reading. Repeatedly he warned of the Judaizers, showing at least some familiarity with their false doctrine. The beloved apostle would go to great lengths to strengthen the church’s resolve against Gnosticism in all its forms in John’s first epistle.

Again, Paul writing to Titus in chapter 1:9-16 commands him to hold fast the faithful word in order to exhort and to convince the ἀντιλέγοντας, or literally the “anti-speakers.” These contradictors must be answered, but they cannot be answered if we are not engaged with what they are speaking. We cannot answer if we are not studying. Peter reminds us in 1 Peter 3:15 that we are to be “ready to give every man an answer of the hope that lies within us.” The Bible commissions us to study, to reason, to do the hard work of polemics and apologetics.

Historical

One American seminary famously advertises that if you attend their school, you won’t major in “Old Dead German Apostates.” I love the snap of that ad and appreciate its intent. To wit, many may think that examining the ideas and writings of the past has no value in the present or that they serve no purpose in a local context. Truly, this thinking frightens me the most.

Over and over again, we see that when the church and its scholar pastors did not boldly confront error or choose to lead in its proclamation of truth, there were devastating consequences. J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism published almost 100 years ago set forth in shocking detail our current situation and need:

 The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.” Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight [1].

Historically, we are always learning from the past, always beholden to the future. We cannot drop the baton of furious learning, critical interaction, and academic scholarship. We are to study, think, and write not only because of the lessons of the past, but because the future generations depend upon it.

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[1] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 1–2. (Emphasis Mine)