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Van Til on Presuppositional Apologetics

August 17, 2017 6 comments

Continuing in the 2017 Challies’ Reading Challenge, some books are more challenging and slower-going, such as a selection for apologetics:  Cornelius Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith,  about presuppositional apologetics.  The writing style itself is not always easy to follow, with a lot of abstraction and philosophy, though some parts are clearer.  Overall, though, I see the basic points of presuppositional apologetics, along with a detailed explanation for why classical/evidential apologetics is not the best approach for communication with unbelievers.

Throughout, Van Til contrasts Catholic and Protestant-Evangelical (Arminian) apologetics, with the understanding of Reformed Theology.  As well-pointed out, what it really comes down to is that Reformed folks should use the same approach for both preaching and apologetics; Reformed preaching proclaims the sovereignty of God in all things, including salvation, as well as the total inability of the lost sinner.  Yet often, Reformed Christians depart from this when it comes to apologetics, turning instead to lost man’s “reason” independent of the authority of God’s word.  The analysis of basic differences in the very definitions of concepts between unbelievers (even unbelievers of varying types, pagan polytheists versus secular), such as the concepts of deity and mankind, is quite interesting, all supporting the point that believers really do not share any “common” point with the unbeliever, in terms of the natural man’s thoughts and reasoning.

The Reformed Christian is often Reformed in preaching and Arminian in reasoning.  But when he is at all self-conscious in his reasoning he will seek to do in apologetics what he does in preaching.  He knows that man is responsible not in spite of but just because he is not autonomous but created.  ..  He knows also that the sinner in the depth of his heart knows that what is thus held before him is true.  He knows he is a creature of God; he has been simply seeking to cover up this fact to himself.  He knows that he has broken the law of God; he has again covered up this fact to himself.  He knows that he is therefore guilty and is subject to punishment forever; this fact too he will not look in the face.

And it is precisely Reformed preaching and Reformed apologetic that tears the mask off the sinner’s face and compels him to look at himself and the world for what they really are.  Like a mole the natural man seeks to scurry under ground every time the facts as they really are come to his attention.  He loves the darkness rather than the light.  The light exposes him to himself.  And precisely this neither Roman Catholic or Arminian preaching or reasoning are able to do.

Van Til points out that evidentialist apologetics does the first part of evangelism by appealing to the natural man’s thinking, and challenging the atheist/agnostic unbeliever with the fact, the existence, of God.  Only after this first part of “accommodating” the unbeliever, the apologist then “switches” to the Christian perspective and why one should believe the Bible, etc.  The unbeliever can certainly follow along at the first point, since nothing is being challenged in his fundamental human reason.  As Van Til observes, the result is a two-phase approach to Christian conversion:  first to Theism, then, later, conversion to Christianity.  This method obviously does ‘work’, as God’s sovereign purposes in calling His elect include even faulty apologetic methods; but Van Til makes the case for a true Reformed approach to the matter.

It helps to relate what Van Til is saying to real-world examples.  What Van Til described here, describes the conversion story of C.S. Lewis, who was an atheist when he met colleague J.R.R. Tolkien at Oxford in the 1920s.  Much has been said on the negative side regarding the theology of both of these men – though as has also been noted, Tolkien converted Lewis to Christianity in general, not to Catholicism.  Yet as Lewis himself described it, his conversion was indeed a two-phase process: first, conversion to theism, and then – about two years later – to the Christian faith.  Van Til’s critique of classic apologetics provides the clear explanation for the very process/method of Lewis’ conversion experience.

Though the overall reading is not easy, I’m now over halfway through, and some parts are quite good, with insightful quotes.  In closing, here are a few great quotes from Van Til:

The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. And it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or indirectly. It tells us not only of the Christ and his work but it also tells us who God is and whence the universe has come. It gives us a philosophy of history as well as history. Moreover, the information on these subjects is woven into an inextricable whole. It is only if you reject the Bible as the Word of God that you can separate its so-called religious and moral instruction from what it says, e.g., about the physical universe.

And

Time rolls its ceaseless course. It pours out upon us an endless stream of facts. And the stream is really endless for the non-Christian basis. For those who do not believe that all that happens in time happens because of the plan of God, the activity of time is like to that, or rather is identical with that, of Chance. Thus the ocean of facts has no bottom and no shore.

 

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The Happy Christian and Sad Christian: David Murray Conference

July 3, 2017 Leave a comment

In the last year I have come to appreciate David Murray, for his Reformed Christian perspective on Christian counseling, including his blog as well as his conference lectures on the topic of Christian emotions and counseling.   Last fall I listened to a Christian worldview conference which included one message from Murray; recently, my podcast feed brought another interesting series from him, the “2017 Heritage Conference” – a three part set done this May.  The set includes the introductory message on “Christian Emotion,” then “The Sad Christian” and “The Happy Christian.” Based on his books on these topics (which I have not read), these three messages contain a lot of good and helpful information.

While attending a work-place communication training class this past week, I recalled this series from David Murray; he provides a good reminder that we can learn some things from secular scientists and their studies – and expand on them to encompass a Christian worldview.  Murray mentioned the negativity bias that we all have (as a result of our sin nature), which was also referenced in the secular training class.  “The science of happiness” comes from recent secular studies which note the positive effects of happiness, and the connection between being happy and our overall health and success in life; we as Christians have greater reasons for joy/happiness, as well as more resources for overcoming sadness/depression.  The “happiness science” notes that 50% of happiness comes from our genetics; some people are naturally more happy, others more serious and sad.  Another 10% comes from our life circumstances.  The remaining 40% is our response to the events in our lives, the 40% that we have control over, our attitude toward life.

Among the highlights from these lectures:  the contrast between the creation, pre-fall perfect emotions, and our now disordered emotions.  We still have the same positive emotions, plus negative ones that were not experienced before the fall, yet in our fallen state, these emotions come up at the wrong time and place (happy at seeing something bad happen to someone else), or in excess/extremes: hedonism and stoicism.

A catchy formula:  “ES + IP = ER” – External Situation + our Internal Perception = Emotional Response

God gave us our emotions in the first place; God’s work in our lives includes His redeeming our emotions, to restore them:  adding to our positive emotions (love, joy, peace) – multiplying them, enhancing them, and using them; as Nehemiah found, the joy of the Lord is our strength.  God also uses our negative emotions to help us: to keep us safe in this dangerous, fallen world, to reveal our true heart values (we can measure our treasure by our feelings), and to highlight our sin and bring conviction of sin.

Christians get depressed, too — studies show that 20% of adults, at some point in their life, will experience depression.  Christians have more resources to deal with it, but also more reasons to become depressed (conviction of sin, and the notice of Satan).  Happiness, or joy, is not something that just happens without effort; as the US. “Declaration of Independence” even says, it is “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  A biblical definition of Christian happiness: A God-centered, God-given, God-glorifying sense of God’s love, that is produced by a right relationship in Christ, and is sustained by loving worship of God and loving service of others.

The discipline of happiness includes recognizing several contrasts (ten in his book, of which several are listed in the “Happy Christian” lesson), between one thing that is greater than the other; neither is to be ignored completely, but one should be more prominent in our thoughts.

  • Facts > feelings — reference Psalm 77
  • Good news > Bad news — reference Philippians 4:6-8
  • Done > Do
  • Christ > Christians
  • Future > Past
  • Encouragement and praise > criticism
  • Giving > Receiving
  • Diversity > Uniformity  (biblical diversity:  people from different backgrounds and cultures, being together as a community of believers)

 

 

The Reformed Confessions and Evangelical Anti-Creedalism

March 15, 2017 4 comments

From my recent studies and conversations with others, I continue to notice and appreciate the amazing detail and depth in the Reformed confessions; these great statements of faith  encompass everything related to each doctrine, even our proper attitude towards the doctrines.  The anti-confession (really, a lazy and anti-intellectual) idea that people who know their confessions inside and out may just have a lot of head knowledge, and that we shouldn’t be so concerned about systematic theology – because it’s more important to have Christ in our hearts, and communion with Him – is misguided on several points.

First, we all have a creed.  The question is not whether to have a creed — but the content of that creed.  The earliest belief statements arose in response to heretics who said they believed the Bible, but who clearly did not have in mind the same definitions of basic orthodoxy.  The many statements of faith that have come down through church history contain excellent summaries of the Christian faith.  As S. Lewis Johnson well observed:

Now remember, everybody has a creed, and in fact the person who holds up the Bible and says, “I have no creed, I simply have the Bible,” well, that’s his creed; that’s precisely his creed. We all have a creed, but the Christian church has been characterized by some outstanding creeds. The Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran church is an outstanding Christian statement. The Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian churches is an outstanding statement. Other statements come to mind immediately such as the thirty-nine articles of the Anglican church, also an outstanding statement. The Heidelberg Catechism of the Reform churches is an outstanding statement. These are great Christian creeds, you should study them. You should know them. They are not creeds that were constructed by half a dozen fellows who met over the weekend in order to give us a statement, but most of those creeds were the product of the study, debate, discussion of outstanding leaders of the Christian church over, sometimes, lengthy periods of time. As you well know, some of those creeds are the product of years of study and labor by men who were very competent in the word of God.

Also, in response to the anti-intellectual idea that belittles serious study of God’s word, because it might lead to puffed-up head knowledge:  as Dan Phillips expressed (in his book on the Proverbs), our nature is such that anything can make us proud; he observed that he could just as easily become proud of nothing, of not knowing, as with having knowing.  As has also been observed by many: just because a particular doctrine (any doctrine, and including the study of systematic theology) has been abused or misused by others, is NOT an excuse for YOU to not study God’s word for yourself.  This view is actually a form of post-modernism/ deconstruction – here, as Dan Phillips describes it:

In God’s eyes, there simply is no greater arrogance than rejecting Yahweh’s viewpoint in favor of my own. It is grimly fascinating that some Christians abhor the believer who dares to think that he or she knows something from the Word. To such folks, claiming certainty on any given issue is the height of arrogance. They are certain that certainty is certainly bad. By contrast, it is the height of arrogance to have a word from God and refuse to trust it by incorporating it into our way of thinking and living.

Thirdly, I would suggest that it is the non-confessional Christian – rather than the one who understands and has studied the confession statements – who is more likely to have his or her doctrinal perspective out of balance.  I’ll expand on this in the next post, but to state it briefly here:  the confessions themselves include statements about how we are to view certain doctrines.  Reference the LBCF chapter 3 paragraph 7, for instance, as an answer to the all-too-common “cage stage Calvinism” among today’s non-confessional “Sovereign Grace” Calvinists.  A full reading and study of the LBCF (or any similar confessions) will address all the doctrines, not just one’s own “pet doctrine” to the neglect of other doctrines.  God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, and the distinction between justification and sanctification, are a few examples of this – where non-confessional Calvinists tend to go astray, emphasizing one doctrine and neglecting or simply not understanding the other.

More next time, with a look at specific doctrines and how they are explained in the 1689 Confession.

Challies’ 2017 Reading Challenge: Christian Living, ‘A Life of Character’

February 24, 2017 1 comment

jrmiller-lifeofcharacterContinuing in the Challies’ 2017 Reading Challenge, I now find that I’m well ahead of the schedule for the 13 books, so I may very well add a few more along the way – not to the 26 book level, but adding and reading more books from the remaining categories from the light reader and avid reader lists.  I’ve come across a new, free e-book this month, to add to the “light reader” category of a book published in 2017:  Sam Waldron’s “The Lord’s Day:  Its Presuppositions, Proofs, Precedents, and Practice,” 138 pages and available free from the Chapel Library  in several formats including PDF and Kindle.

For the Christian Living selection, I enjoyed reading J.R. Miller’s A Life of Character.  I first learned of this author from the daily Grace Gems devotional email, which sometimes features short devotional thoughts from Miller, who wrote in the late 19th century.  The Grace Gems site features the online text of several of his books; in their list of authors and brief summaries, J.R. Miller is listed as the best for this topic, Christian living.  ‘A Life of Character’ is an easy, straightforward read, not too long but covering many different topics with great devotional thoughts.

The overall topic reminds me of similar treatment in Jeremiah Burroughs’ Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, which I read at the end of 2016. Like Burroughs, this book includes the use of many metaphors, such as how our life should be like a song or a musical instrument.  Here I remembered an old poem, set to music years ago by Wayne Watson in the song Touch of the Master’s Hand.  Throughout, the reading is simple but to the point and often convicting.  Christian living, personal holiness, is so much easier to read about, but as noted in Burroughs’ work, takes a lifetime of practice.

Here are a few selections from Miller’s work:

We need the patience of Christ also, in our mingling with others, in our business associations and contacts, in our social relations, and in all our dealings with our neighbors. Not all people are congenial and patient to us. Some want their own way. Some are unreasonable. Some fail to treat us right. Possibly in some cases—the fault may be ours, at least in part. Others may sometimes think of us—as we do of them. However this may be, the patience of Christ may teach us to bear with even the most unreasonable people, sweetly and lovingly. He was patient with everyone, and we are to be like Him. If we are impatient with anyone, we fail to be true to the interest of our Master, whom we are always to represent.

and

We forget that heaven is not far off yonder—but begins right here in our everyday lives, if it is ever to begin at all for us! Isn’t that what the prayer means, “May Your will be done on earth—as it is in heaven”? “On earth,” that is—in our shops, and our drudgery, and care; in our times of temptation and sorrow. It is not a prayer to be taken away out of this world into ‘heaven’, to begin there the doing of God’s will; it is a prayer that right here and now on earth—we may learn to live—as they do in heaven.”

also

We cannot make the people about us so loving and sweet—that we shall never have anything to irritate or annoy us. The quietness must be within us. Nothing but the peace of God in the heart—can give it. Yet we can have this peace—if we will simply and always do God’s will—and then trust Him. A quiet heart—will give a quiet life!

Concluding Thoughts on Martyn Lloyd Jones’ “Spiritual Depression”

September 30, 2016 1 comment

A follow-up to this previous post, now that I have completed reading this classic work, with some observations.  As Dan Phillips noted, Charles Spurgeon from the previous century was also helpful and said many of the same things; MLJ’s contribution is the full work as a series on the issue, material compiled together in one place, ideas that with Spurgeon are found in various places while reading his sermons.

Lloyd Jones’ content is arranged in chronological progression of the believer’s walk and maturity, beginning with the basics of having correct doctrine, and Lloyd Jones here gives “the benefit of the doubt” by positively regarding such individuals as really being saved, just confused.  Some of the earlier chapters relate to stages from my early Christian years, things that I “figured out” over time, in the very way here described: study the Bible, work out for yourself what you believe, understand it.

The later chapters in particular are helpful for the mature believer, in dealing with trials, chastening/discipline, and general perseverance and keeping on as life continues.  Along the way are many excellent points about the importance of rational, active thinking as contrasted with mere sentiment and a passive approach to faith and the Christian life.  He notes the idea we tend to have, that faith somehow acts automatically, like setting a thermostat and faith will just automatically work when needed:

Faith, however, is not something that acts magically or automatically.  If it did, these men would never have been in trouble, faith would have come into operation and they would have been calm and quiet and all would have been well.  But faith is not like that and those are utter fallacies with respect to it.

He similarly addressed the idea of the “sentimental approach” to God’s word:

There is nothing that I so dislike and abominate as a sentimental way of reading the Scriptures. There are many people who read the Scriptures in a purely sentimental manner. They are in trouble and they do not know what to do. They say, ‘I will read a Psalm. It is so soothing—“the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”.’ They make of it a kind of incantation and take the Psalms as another person takes a drug. That is not the way to read the Scriptures. ‘The word of exhortation reasons with you’, argues with you. And we must follow the logic of it, and bring intelligence to the Scriptures. We can never bring too much intelligence to our reading of them, they are not meant merely to give general comfort and soothing—follow the argument; let them reason it out with you.

How we deal with life experiences always involves our reasoning out what we believe, and “talking/preaching to ourselves.”  As Lloyd Jones notes, this is what we have to work out individually – not Christ working through the “I” (self) as a passive vehicle:  The Christian life is not a life that I live myself and by my own power; neither is it a life in which I am obliterated and Christ does all. No, ‘I can do all things through Christ’.

I find Lloyd-Jones’ work also keeps the right perspective on the believing individual, in contrast with the present-day Reformed emphasis on the corporate worship service as the most important thing.  Certainly this idea (corporate emphasis) has come out as a reaction to our extremely individualistic evangelical society, the need to point out the importance of the Christian worship as a group, a church body.  But when one’s personal circumstances force one to have local fellowship in a less-than-ideal church, one that does not provide the depth in theological teaching and its application to the Christian life, the individual does need additional help which cannot be provided through the local assembly.  Martyn Lloyd Jones’ work on this topic is a great help in terms of actual life and how to deal with the many things that come against us, externally and internally, and how to work out our ‘own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12), the ongoing work of progressive sanctification.

A few more excerpts of special note, regarding Christian contentment:

Can I be abased without feeling a sense of grudge, or without being worried, or without being anxious? .. can I be abased in my profession or office or work, can I somehow or another be put down and still remain in spirit exactly as I was before! What a difficult thing this is, to take a second place, to be hurt, to be insulted, to see others suffering in the same way, to suffer physical need or pain—to know how to be abased, how to be hungry, how to suffer in some respect. One of the greatest tasks in life is to discover how to suffer any or all of those things without feeling a sense of grudge, without complaint or annoyance or bitterness of spirit, to discover how not to be worried or anxious. Paul tells us that he has learned how to do that. He had experienced every kind of trial and tribulation and yet he is unaffected by them.” – commentary on Philippians 4:10-14

and regarding our uncertain world and ‘International Politics.’  Here, MLJ’s reference point was the generation that experienced two world wars; ours is an age of even greater need, one in which the world situation is far less stable than then, a time when even the recent world power (the U.S.) has wicked leaders and is quickly experiencing the later stages of national destruction:

The business of Christian preaching is to put this to the people: In this uncertain world, where we have already experienced two world wars within a quarter of a century, and where we may have to face yet another and things that are even worse, here is the question—How are you going to face it all, how can you meet it all? For me to give my views on international politics will not help anybody; but thank God there is something I can do. I can tell you of something, I can tell you of a way which, if you but practice and follow it, will enable you, with the Apostle Paul to say: ‘I am strong, I am able for anything that may happen to me, whether it be peace or war, whether it be freedom or slavery, whether it be the kind of life we have known for so long or whether it be entirely different, I am ready for it.’  It does not mean, I must repeat, a passive, negative acquiescence in that which is wrong.  Not at all – but it does mean that whatever may come, you are ready for it.

 

Christian Worldview Conference: Worldview of Human Identity (David Murray)

September 20, 2016 1 comment

From my recent podcast feed, an interesting audio series:  the annual Puritan Conference held at the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, a series of 11 lectures on the theme of the Christian Worldview, with each message titled “A Christian Worldview of (topic)”.  The speakers include faculty staff, including one on the Worldview of the Old Testament from author Michael Barrett (see previous post about him here).  So far I’ve listened to the first five, which include some basic overview including the doctrine of the Trinity and its significance in relationships.  I especially like the fourth lecture, from David Murray of the Head, Heart, and Hand Blog, on the Christian Worldview of Human Identity.  His Scottish accent takes some getting used to, but the message is a good one, on a theme that comes up often at his blog, the issue of counseling and depression.  The following is a summary of it.

Murray suggests making a list of words that describe yourself.  As for example, words such as Christian, sinner, wife, computer programmer, introvert, learner, blogger, insecure, anxious, and so forth.  Then come eight steps to recover and rebuild our true Christian identity.

  1. Reset Priorities

First, my spiritual condition: am I a Christian or not?  Next, my spiritual character: what graces have I received from the Lord.  The third priority is our relationships with others; work and other social relationships in our daily lives comes here, after the higher priorities.

  1. Expand what is incomplete: Expand on number 1 above– what scriptures says about us: justified, forgiven, sanctified, and so forth.  Ephesians 1 is especially good here.
  2. Fill in the gaps – admit our weaknesses, such as being pessimistic, depressed, discouraged. Here reference 1 Cor. 15:9-10, Paul’s description of himself pre- and post- conversion.  Filling in the gaps also means acknowledging our strengths – as gifts from God.
  3. Prosecute falsehoods—“hunt down” and prosecute, and put an end to the lies, things we tell ourselves that aren’t true.  Murray’s example of this was his years of recent illness; now he is better, but was still depressed about it and thinking of himself as really old and ill.
  4. Add balance: I am a sinner.  Also to the other side, that we are now dead to sin. Here reference 2 Cor. 6:9-10.
  5. Re-frame failure, with a gold frame. God sovereignly overrules our failures and brings good about.
  6. Accept change. Our identity is not static. We change; our circumstances, and God’s providence for our lives, change—God-ordained changes. Stop being envious of others.
  7. Anticipate the future.  Instead of thinking about the supposed “glory days” of the past, remember that for us Christians, our best days are ahead.  Reference 1 John 3:1-2.

Prayer According to God’s Will: 1689 Confession Study (Chapter 22)

September 15, 2016 1 comment

The 1689 Baptist Confession exposition series is currently in chapter 22 – the chapter on worship and its elements.  Two paragraphs here address the specifics of prayer – both corporate and private – and thus the 1689 study includes a mini-series on the elements of prayer.  (Now I am caught up to the latest available message in the series; this will continue with future lessons as they become available on Sermon Audio.)  A few thoughts here, regarding the issue of ‘praying according to God’s will,’ from this lesson (March 13, 2016) — three common errors, or points of misunderstanding, regarding interpretation of 1 John 5:14:

  • The “Room Service” view interprets 1 John 5:14 with over-emphasis on the ‘ask.’ Asking is what matters, and therefore to ask about anything is in itself according to God’s will.

A well-known scripture example that refutes this error, is the apostle Paul’s request (three times) for God to remove the thorn in his flesh; the answer was no.  Another incident I recall here, brought up in Tom Chantry’s recent Deuteronomy series: Moses’ pleading with God to be allowed to go into the promised land—that too was not allowed, and was not according to God’s will.

  • The “name it and claim it” view, one we’re familiar with from all the false teaching on Christian television, takes the scriptural reference that “if two or more people agree” and concludes that therefore, if at least two people agree to pray about something, God will do it.

R. C. Sproul has referred to this idea as, God as our “celestial bellhop,” at our beck-and-call for anything we want. As Sproul observed (quote available at this blog link):

We are reminded of statements like “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matthew 7:7); “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19); and “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22). Shorthand summaries like these have provoked bizarre theories of prayer where people have violently isolated these passages from everything else Jesus and the Bible say about prayer. Distortions also abound when we approach these aphorisms simplistically. Consider the earlier statement about any two people agreeing. It would not be difficult to find two Christians who agree that ridding the world of cancer or wars would be a good idea. Their prayer in this matter would not automatically accomplish their desire. The Word of God indicates that wars, poverty, and disease will be present at the time of Christ’s return. To expect their absolute elimination before the appointed time is to grasp prematurely the future promises of God.

The third idea is not so much error, but partly true combined with a misunderstanding regarding God’s decretive versus perceptive wills.  The “Submissive but unsure” doubtful view, submits to God’s will, but remains uncertain as to whether the request being made is according to God’s will.  Here we consider God’s two wills: 1) His decretive will regarding everything that happens, everything that will occur; and 2) His perceptive will, that which is revealed throughout scripture as God’s precepts, God’s moral law, how we should live as Christians.  When we pray for things regarding our future – things not specifically revealed in God’s word – we submit the request to God and His will, with that uncertainty as to what the answer will be.  But when we pray for things that pertain to God’s perceptive will, we know that He will answer. Prayers for greater patience and endurance, for more peace, and other Christian “fruits of the spirit” ARE according to God’s will, prayers that we can have confidence that God will answer.  Indeed it is so, as Hodgins related, that often we can look back at a particular situation and realize, that yes, in this situation, this time I was more patient, this time my temper didn’t flare up – continuing answers to prayers that are according to God’s will.