Without Excuse and the Struggle for Christian Apologetics

In my earliest days of Christian thinking, I became aware that there was a field of serious study called Apologetics that dealt with the defense of the Faith against arguments of unbelievers.  I came to understand that there were divisions and controversies among the adherents to different approaches to apologetics.  I sat on the sidelines and watched some of the debates, read some of the books, and only rarely attempted to engage in the more sophisticated issues at stake.

Central to all of this was the apologetic methods of Cornelius Van Til.  From his writings and teachings, the term Presuppositional Apologetics was the signifier of a Van Tilian position.  Of course, there was also Gordon Clark whose apologetic methods and philosophy resembled Van Til.  The differences between those two great intellects for God is not within the range of this post.  (Again, I recommend Douglas Douma’s excellent biography of Gordon Clark, titled The Presbyterian Philosopher.)

My main area of study was, from 1976 to 1996, history.  After 1996, I branched off more and more into literature.  Through all of those years, I was also a vociferous reader of theological books.  Theology and Bible study became even more important during the years 1994–2014 when I was a pastor/elder in a Presbyerian church.

Concerning the great apologetic war, I cannot actually identify myself as a Van Tilian.  To do so would entail much more serious reading and study of Van Til himself.  I have read several of his books and have lifted, studied, quoted, and applied numerous Van Til quotes and ideas in my own work.  But to describe myself, I would have to say that I am a Van Tilian-ian.

That term is awkward, but it accurately tells what I am.  I am a student of the students of Van Til.  Two of the key proponents and users of his thought were R. J. Rushdoony and Greg Bahnsen.  I met Rushdoony several times.  I have read many of his books.  I have listened to his lectures for hours on end.  Greg Bahnsen preached my ordination sermon, spent a couple of night in my log home back in the early 1990s, and fed me through his books and lectures.

Along with those men, I have read and profited from John Frame (who I met), C. Gregg Singer (a favorite Christian historian), Gary North, Gary DeMar, Francis Schaeffer (who somewhat followed his teacher CVT), and many others who have favorably noted, quoted, and referenced Van Til.

Without Excuse:  Scripture, Reason, and Presuppositional Apologetics, edited by David Haines, is published by the Davenant Press.  This collection of 13 scholarly essays is a refutation, critique, and counterpunch to the teachings of Van Til.  The battle over Van Til’s apologetic is not a new one.  It began at least as early as the time he first stepped foot into a classroom at Westminster Theological Seminary.

John Frame wrote an insightful essay some years ago titled “Machen’s Warrior Children.”  It surveyed dozens of theological conflicts that have arisen within the ranks of the Presbyterian and Reformed folks, particularly those associated with Westminster and the theological battles of the 1920s-1930s.  Van Til and his views has been one of the sources of these many conflicts.

I have read what seems like a dozen or more books that directly or indirectly weigh in on Van Til, presuppositional apologetics, and related issues.  I have, without enough effort and consistency, read Van Til himself.  Perhaps more pertinent to the Christian life, I have attempted to appropriate teachings and concepts of CVT into my sermons (in the past) and my classroom teachings (alas, also in the past).  I have borrowed heavily from those who have been labeled as Christian Reconstructionists or Theonomists who have themselves built upon CVT’s foundational ideas.

Without Excuse seeks to dismantle and redirect Christian thinking from the CVT model.  The essays are not for the faint of heart or those lacking background in Van Tillian thought, philosophy, and theology.  These essays are finely honed iron implements seeking to clash with other finely honed iron implements.  At this point, I am past the 100 page mark (the book is over 300 pages) and five chapters into the work.

I have found four of the first five chapters readable, although I would really need a second or third reading to adequately evaluate them.   “Moderate Realism and the Presuppositionalist Confusion of Metaphysics and Epistemology” by J. T. Bridges is a sheer cliff that I cannot begin to climb without my meager mountain climbing equipment.  In contrast, chapters dealing with some the roles of reason and logic, the teachings of Reformed pillars such as Turretin and Hodge, and Bible passages that raise questions about CVT’s apologetics are much more digestible (to change my metaphor).

What difference does all of this theological wrangling make?  If I, after 20 years of pastoral experience and 40 plus years of reading and studying these things, am limping along and struggling to follow, what about the rest of the Christian world?  And what about the pastor and the Christian teacher?

First, there are always priorities based on the day by day circumstances.  A person drowning does not need a course in oceanography or even something more practical like swimming lessons.  I would not expect on this Saturday for a preacher to chunk his notes on Hebrews 1:1-4 and prepare a sermon on the issues of metaphysics and epistemology.

Second, ideas have consequences, however.  Everyday for the pastor or teacher is not D-Day, Minus 1 before the sermon or lecture.  And not everyone standing on the sea shore is going to be drowning or rescuing those drowning today.  Van Til was well known for street preaching, visiting the sick, and telling people the gospel.  But in the classroom, he was training minds.  In Joseph Minich’s wonderful preface to Without Excuse, he lauds the presuppositionalist Christians for various areas of faithfulness and dedication to the faith.

Every event that is on the news today, every meme on Facebook, every battle cry in the streets of every city is a reflection of some set of philosophical ideas that were and continue to be discussed in quiet, book laden, academic surroundings.  Every verse of Scripture teaches or implies some series of philosophical ideas that either conform to our understanding of reality or jolt us away from our falsely contrived views.

Christians who are going to enter the world of thought, academia, ideas, philosophy, and theology must engage.  Some will engage more, others less, but all are called into active service if they/we are going to love God with all our minds.  There is no justification for surrendering vast areas of God’s world, which includes the world of thoughts, ideas, and philosophy.

Third,  I am, as stated above, something of a Van Tillian-ian.  Perhaps I have already invested too much mental capital into following Cornelius and company into my teachings and experiences.  Maybe I have lost too much of the plasticity of mind to be able to reform my thinking around a different apologetic paradigm.  Perhaps I am too loyal to Greg Bahnsen, who preached my ordination sermon, and R. J. Rushdoony, who impacted my mind radically, to jettison what I learned from them.  Perhaps, I just don’t have the philosophical mindset to follow the arguments.

Those are all possibilities, but I would still affirm the importance of the issues and the value of a book like Without Excuse.  I rejoice that God’s truth remains unchanged and unchanging, but that our way of grasping God’s truth is not fixed.  I rejoice in knowing that there are ranks and files full of young, budding scholars who are reading, writing, pursuing degrees, and taking captive every thought for Christ.

Davenant Institute and the Davenant Press continue to produce some really challenging, cutting edge works.  We don’t just have to pray for reformation, for we are experiencing it.

August Readings

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Someday, I still hope to live for a season on the coast.  I long to walk the shores each morning, hear the sea gulls and the lapping of the waves, and feel the slight taste of salt on my lips.  Someday, I will be posting all sorts of shots of books, sunsets, and surf.  This year, like last year and many previous years, it didn’t happen.

But this is a book blog and not a beach or travel blog.  I could recount my many troubles this past month, headed up by unemployment, but as I said, this is a place where you go to read about what books you could or should be reading.

Here is the lineup and commentary:

 

Authority, Not Majority: The Life and Times of Freidrich Julius Stahl by Rueben Alvarado

Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire by Richard B. Frank

“Nothing to do but Save Souls”: John Wesley’s Charge to His Preachers by Robert E. Coleman

Stalin’s Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of WWII on the Eastern Front by Constantine Pleshakov

 Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution by Jeff Broadwater

Sermons on Titus by John Calvin

Demons by Michael Heiser

Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery by John Gregory Brown

The Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

Authority, Not Majority: The Life and Times of Friedrich Julius Stahl by Rueben Alvarado is, along with several volumes by Stahl, published by Wordbridge Publishing.

Understand, first of all, that this book is for the political philosophy kindergartener, like me.  I have several books by Friedrich Julius Stahl along with this one, all of which were published and are promoted by author, translator, and publisher Ruben Alvarado.

For decades I moved along happily without ever knowing that Stahl existed.  One of the problems of teaching classes, especially for teaching junior high and high school classes, is that one goes over certain material, what often reduces history to bullet points, without having to explore beyond the boundaries of major outlines and best known people.

Stahl, much like Groen van Prinsterer, was a major political thinker and doer.  He was an active member of the German legislature during the 1800s, prior to the time when German unification was achieved.  He was a Christian, but like Groen, that did not simply mean that he went to church on Sundays or had a personal relationship with Christ.  He was one who labored to think Christianly and apply such thinking to the current of political and social issues of his time.

Mr. Alvarado sent me several of Stahl’s works and the biography some years ago.  It slowly began to dawn on me as I witnessed his name coming up in some discussion groups that I needed to enroll myself into learning about the man.  The biography is sketchy, a bit confusing, and fragmentary.  That is not the fault of the writer.  There is not much in the way of stories and anecdotes about the man himself, and the confusion stems from my own lack of mental chronology and familiarity with people and events in German history.

In other words, this short biography needs to be read twice. And then I can start venturing into Stahl’s works.

Downfall: The End of the Japanese Empire by Richard B. Frank was “assigned reading” from my historian friend Tony Williams.

This past August marked the 75th anniversary of the events including the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan and Japan’s subsequent surrender.  The debate still rages on whether dropping atomic bomb was necessary to end the war. If you want a quick and easy answer, go elsewhere.  This book is detailed.  This book is packed with laboriously compiled accounts of bombings, military actions, political decisions, diplomacy, and more.  That is commendation, not criticism.  One would not want to have to take a test involving the particular facts and figures cited in this book.

I wondered at the beginning why Frank took so long in laboring over this work, but upon reading it, I see why.  This is not the more enjoyable narrative history found in works by Stephen Ambrose or Rick Atkinson.  You want the facts and options and varying angles of what lead to the defeat of Japan?  Go for this book.

Also, upon reading it, I wondered again how people ever endured World War II.

“Nothing to do but Save Souls”: John Wesley’s Charge to His Preachers by Robert E. Coleman is an enjoyable dose of Methodist Wesleyan theology such as we wish were prevalent among many of our brethren.

I found this book to be a great complement to the book Compel Them to Come In: Calvinism and the Free Offer of the Gospel by Donald Macleod.

While the two books and authors have different approaches and aims, both books reinforced each other in the compelling need for Christians to share, promote, preach, and teach the Gospel to all.  Wesley was a great man of God, and Coleman’s book is a call for all who bear the name of Methodist to take up his commission.

Stalin’s Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of WWII on the Eastern Front by Constantine Pleshakov is a readable and astounding book.

Never talk about how bad things are in America right now (2020) or how bad our leaders are until you have read accounts of Josef Stalin and the Russo-German War in World War II.

Gripping, astounding stories.  It is amazing that somehow Russia not only survived the attack by Hitler, but mounted the resources to defeat him.  Stalin is one of the most evil, puzzling, bizarre, and manipulative rulers in all of history.

 Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution by Jeff Broadwater is published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Of the making of books about the Founding Fathers there is no end.  Quite popular are the ones that compare and contrast those men.  In many cases, they were friends, allies, co-workers, kindred spirits, and at times, enemies.  Jefferson and Madison are two quite amazing men, each considered by himself.  They have their fans and detractors to this day.

The two men were really close friends.  Some of their political thoughts and actions were united, but there are plenty of divergences in their thinking and legacies.  This book traces the many political issues and actions the men undertook both together and separately.

Madison’s role in the Constitutional Convention was the highpoint of his career, while Jefferson was far off in France at the time.  They corresponded, agreed, differed, hammered out issues, etc.  You cannot help but think what they might have done had they had more modern ways of communication.

Wherever you stand regarding these two men, this is a great study.

Sermons on Titus by John Calvin is published by Banner of Truth

A more full review is coming soon.  This collection of sermons is one of the best books I read this year.

Demons by Michael Heiser is published by Lexham Press.

This book is not an easy read.  Heiser is not writing a spooky, for the curious, account of the demonic world.  Expect more Hebrew than you can handle and many detailed refences to Intertestamental Period writings.

This book calls for careful study and slow and repeated reading and consideration.

Two novels read in August

Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery by John Gregory Brown

The Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

I picked up the Brown book for 50 cents.  It looked new even though it came out in the late 1990s.  The Rowling book is the third in the Harry Potter series which I am still trying to muster the strength to read.

Sorry folks, but I thought Brown’s book was much better than Rowling’s.