Monday, January 26, 2009

New book, new seminary, old martyr

A couple of things for this morning. First, Martin Downes has a new book coming out this May called Risking the Truth that is a collection of interviews on handling truth and error in the church. It includes interviews with people like Carl Trueman, Thomas Schreiner, Michael Horton, Iain Campbell, Joel Beeke, and Greg Beale. Downes has posted the table of contents here. Looks interesting.

Second, the extension campus of Wesminster Seminary California in Dallas is officially launching as an independent seminary and will be known as Redeemer Seminary. Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York, will give the inaugural address on February 16th. Faculty (full time or adjunct) includes Daniel Davis, Sinclair Ferguson, Douglas Gropp, and Dan McCartney.

Finally, Michael Haykin (church history, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) posted a reminder that Friday was the 64th anniversary of Helmuth James von Moltke's martyrdom under Adolf Hitler's regime in Germany. Von Moltke was a well-known lawyer who opposed the Nazi party. He recognized that both the Nazis and Christianity demanded the whole man in allegiance and thus he could not ever behave or live as a Nazi. See the post for more information.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Revelation and Reason

Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics, edited by K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton, is a collection of essays designed to further the understanding and application of many of the apologetic principles outlines by Cornelius Van Til. To be honest, what is presented in this book should not be new to anyone who has done much reading in Reformed apologetics, whether reading Van Til or his followers. That said, this book does still have great value as the authors move discussions further along than many of those other books on apologetics. For example, a number of early articles give detailed expositional and exegetical defense of how Van Tilian apologetics is ultimately Scriptural apologetics. Several other articles interact with more recent attacks on Van Tilian approaches such as Classical Apologetics by Sproul, Gerstner, and Lindsley. Still others are examples of Reformed apologetics in action as it is applied to more modern philosophical movements.

The following is a brief overview of the essays in the book. This is not a full review of the book by any stretch and will not interact with the essays with any detail but I will simply describe the essays and list which I think are most valuable.

1. Introduction by Scott Oliphint and Lane Tipton – Normally I would not mention the Introduction and Appendix in a review but a reader would be losing a lot if he or she skipped over these sections in this book. The Introduction is not particularly original but it is quite helpful. Oliphint and Tipton introduce the book but emphasizing both the necessity and importance of apologetics. They do this through a focus on 1 Peter 3. However they build up to Peter’s command to always be ready to give a reason for the hope within you by showing the importance and meaning of the section in the whole epistle. Well written and informative.

2. “Epistemological Reflections on 1 Corinthians 2:6-16” by Richard Gaffin – While Dr. Gaffin has written a number of essays and books with great importance and value to the Church, this was one of my favorite things by him to read. This is simply an exposition of 1 Cor. 2:6-16 with a focus on the implications of the passage for a Christian epistemology. This was a fantastic opening essay to the book.

3. “Resurrection, Proof, and Presuppositionalism: Acts 17:30-31” by Lane Tipton – This is also a worthwhile and important essay as Paul’s speech before the Aeropagus is often brought up by non-Van Tilian apologists as counter to Van Til’s understanding of a biblical and Reformed apologetic. Tipton careful exposits the passage to show that Paul is actually working from presuppositions of the Christian faith in his discourse, especially related to the resurrection. This essay was well organized and so very easy to read.

4. “The Irrationality of Unbelief: An Exegetical Study” by Scott Oliphint – Like the first two essays, Oliphint takes a topic that Van Til dealt with regularly (irrationality in non-Christian thought) and goes to demonstrate that rather than being merely a philosophical concept this can be demonstrated from Scripture. He focuses on Rom. 1:18ff in particular to demonstrate that not only is refusing to acknowledge, believe, and worship the true God a covenant breaking sin but that it is ultimately irrational. A good and helpful essay on the noetic effects of sin and the covenantal aspect of epistemology.

5. “The Case for Calvinistic Hermeneutics” by Moises Silva – When I saw the title of this essay I was a little surprised as it seemed out of place in a book on apologetics. When I finished the book it ended up being one of my favorites. A large focus of the essay was on common grace and God’s sovereignty in biblical interpretation. These are two topics of immense importance to apologetics. Silva’s essay does a lot to help the Christian apologist consider what he or she can use from unbelievers when defending the faith, especially given the sin and irrationality in all unbelief as presented by Oliphint. This was a great essay and also very well placed in the book.

6. “Paul’s Christological Interpretation of Creation and Presuppositional Apologetics” by Lane Tipton – This essay largely focuses on Paul’s argument in Colossians 2 telling the church not to seek philosophy but Christ. Tipton exposits this passage in light of the book to show how Christ as the ontological and redemptive-historical firstborn Son rules over all of our thought. Tipton is particularly good on the relationship of Christ’s divine and human natures (see also his articles in Justified in Christ and Resurrection and Eschatology) and I thought he did a good job of applying the exegetical considerations from the passage to apologetics.

7. “Divine Aseity and Apologetics” by John Frame – As always, I have to say that John Frame is an extraordinarily skilled writer and communicator and that shows again in this essay. Frame wants to show how God’s aseity (that he is wholly self-contained) influences and moves apologetic method and goals. Frame himself is very explicit that what he has to say in this essay is not original but instead is at the heart of Van Til’s apologetic. As such, I think that this essay would be very valuable to anyone seeking to start reading Van Til’s work as Frame’s clear manner of presenting his material would help them to grasp the foundation of Van Til’s work before moving into the particulars and applications.

8. “Consistently Reformed: The Inheritance and Legacy of Van Til’s Apologetic” by Michael Horton – This book presents Reformed apologetics from the perspective of a consistent application of Reformed theology. In the context of this essay it is especially theology proper that moves the discussion. Horton shows how the Creator-creature distinction applies to and motivates apologetics in our understanding of God, man, and unbelief. He presents all of this as an application of the covenant relationship between God and man. I think that this essay would be helpful to anyone trying to resolve the differences at the heart of the Van Til-Clark debate and is a helpful introduction to Reformed apologetics.

9. “A Confessional Apologetic” by Thom Notaro – The title really explains this essay. Reformed apologists often maintain (following after Van Til) that their apologetic is not new but is only the consistent application of Reformed theology in the defense of the faith. Notaro shows this but demonstrating the close relationship between Van Til’s apologetic and the Reformed Confessions, particularly the Westminster Standards. Part of the purpose is to show that a rejection of this apologetic method ultimately reveals a misunderstanding of some of the central doctrines in our confessions.

10. “Theologia Naturalis: A Reformed Tradition” by Jeff Jue – In this essay Jue seeks to respond to a premise pushed especially hard by Sproul, Gerstner, and Lindsley that Van Tilian apologists have departed from the traditional Reformed understanding of natural theology. Jue argues that Van Til even opened himself up to this criticism in several side comments that he made concerned the Post-Reformation scholastics. Jue responds by demonstrating that Reformed theologians have always treated natural theology the same way that Reformed apologists do today. For what it’s worth I’ve found that Jue’s work on the Westminster Divines and the Protestant Scholastics has always been interesting and informative much like most of Richard Muller’s work and that if you have any interest of sympathy for this accusation against Van Tilian apologetics then you will likely find this essay very informative.

11. “The Eschatological Implications of Genesis 2:15 for Apologetics” by William Dennison – For those not familiar with him, Dennison is a Biblical Theologian in the legacy of Meredith Kline. In this essay he shows that Adam’s task in the Garden of Eden was largely a priestly task. He then develops this task through redemptive-history to show that defending the faith is ultimately a task that belongs to all Christians as the church is a kingdom of priests. I thought that this essay was very interesting and appreciated its inclusion in the book. An essay like this helps to show that Reformed apologetics is built upon all theological disciplines and further distances it from accusations of being merely a philosophical fantasy.

12. “The Old-New Reformed Epistemology” by Scott Oliphint – In this essay Oliphint helps to build a consistent epistemology from Scripture and Reformed theology. In doing this he spends a lot of time interacting with Alvin Plantinga’s idea of basic beliefs, which is really a modern presentation of the thought of the Scottish philosopher and theologian Thomas Reid. This is a more explicitly philosophical essay than many in the book but those interested in philosophy, particularly those familiar with Reid and Plantinga, should find it very interesting.

13. “The Fate of Apologetics in an Age of Normal Nihilism” by Michael Payne – This was probably my least favorite essay in the book. It is not because the essay was bad but more because of the limited application. Starting with the essay by Oliphint preceding this one the last four articles all focus on methodology and application. This essay deals particularly with several modern nihilistic philosophers. I think that the major value of this essay is that it provides an example of applying the principles outlined in earlier eassys to an actually apologetic confrontation with a particular movement. For that reason you certainly should not skip it in reading this book but keep in mind that application is Payne’s goal.

14. “Turn! Turn! Turn! Reformed Apologetics and the Cultural Dimension” by William Edgar – Like the preceding essay, Edgar gives an application of Reformed apologetics to a certain movement. In this case it is the new humanism that is articulated by several well-known French philosophers (one would have to be familiar with modern French culture to realize exactly how important these figures are; there really is not an American equivalent). Edgar’s main point is that as apologists we need to be sensitive to cultural changes and movements and be prepared to adopt our application of the principles in the preceding essays to new movements and cultural turns. As an application of that advice I think you’ll find this essay helpful.

15. “Van Til and the Transcendental Argument” by Don Collett – Collett focuses more on the application of Van Til’s method than any of the other writers. In particular he puts forth a presentation of Van Til’s apologetic in terms of formal logic. Those familiar will find this essay quite helpful. In particular Collett shows that Van Til is giving more than merely another version of Anselm’s ontological argument or instructing Christians to merely attack non-Christian philosophies with reduction ad absurdum (reduction to the absurd). I think this is essay is helpful but might have been better placed before the essays by Payne and Edgar and would recommend reading the book that way and seeing how they apply the method that Collett presents.

16. Appendix: “Cornelius Van Til and the Reformation of Christian Apologetics” by Scott Oliphint – Again, I think that the reader would be poorly served by closing the book before reading the appendix. Here Oliphint shows the wholistic application of Van Til’s apologetic. Van Til dealt with people at the deepest and most basic levels of unbelief. Oliphint helps to show that here and in doing so the reader can see how this apologetic method always applies to any conversation with unbelievers. Reformed apologetics ultimately seeks to present the whole of the Christian faith to the unbeliever and then to give them God’s demand that they respond in repentance and faith. Readers should take some time to read this appendix.

On the whole I have to say that this was a very well-written and organized book (the exception being the order of the last three essays). Again, there isn’t a lot in here that is new and it will be most helpful and interesting to those with some training in apologetics. That said, I think that it should be helpful in further grounding Reformed apologetics in Scripture and in the Reformed faith.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Book news!

Just a few things that I wanted to bring to your attention. First, WTS Books is offering the first 1,000 copies (or until noon Saturday) of Rick Horne's new book, Get Outta My Face: How to Reach Unmotivated Teens with Biblical Counsel, for 65% off the cover price (only $4.88). This book is written to help parents and counselors to reach out to troubled teens with Biblical truth. Horne is a professional counselor and the book is recommended by the well-known Christian counselor Paul Tripp and by David Powlison (Adjunct Professor of Practical Theology at WTS). You can preview the table of contents and first chapter at the link provided.

Also, WTS announced today that William Ames' A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism is not available. This is the first in a series on Classic Reformed Theology that is edited by R. Scott Clark from Westminster Seminary California. Here is the summary from the WTS website:

William Ames (1576-1633) was an influential English Puritan. After fleeing England in 1610 for a freer academic and ecclesiastical life in the Netherlands, he was appointed professor of theology at Franecker University in 1622. A Sketch of the Christian Catechism is the result of his lectures through the Heidelberg Catechism at that institution.

Ames's method in this book is not an analysis of the Catechism itself. Rather, he chooses a particular text of Scripture that supports the main thoughts for a given Lord's Day. While the exposition is directly from the Bible, Ames's doctrinal conclusions and applicatory uses keenly interact with the corresponding Questions and Answers of Heidelberg.

Joel R. Beeke's introduction provides valuable background on Ames and his work. Todd Rester's fresh translation from the Latin opens several avenues of interest for modern day English readers. Historians of 16th and 17th century thought will value the critical English translation of a much neglected text, and the fact that it demonstrates the parallels and communication between English Puritanism and the Dutch Further Reformation. Reformed pastors will also take interest in this, as it provides yet another resource on a classic doctrinal standard.

It looks like you can get it $2 cheaper from Reformation Heritage Books (the publisher). Along similar lines those interested in historical Christian theology may also want to look at Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: 1523-1552 translated by William Dennison. This is the first volume in a three book series that presents a translation of all the major Reformed confessions of faith from the immediate Reformation and Post-Reformation period. It was much more common in earlier eras for Christians and counsel to write public confessions of their faith than it is now and these confessions are important for understanding how the church has interpreted God's revelation in the past.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Formal Introduction to the Transcendental Argument

A Formal Introduction to the Transcendental Argument
By Matthew Pickens

Some of you may already be familiar with formal logic (if not then this post should still make sense but I do think it worthwhile to do some basic introduction to logic work – any text book for an introductory college course should be sufficient although Gordon Clark, a Christian philosopher and theology in the 20th century, co-wrote a text book on logic that is pretty good). The purpose of this post is not to be a complete presentation of the transcendental argument but rather simply to give a brief introduction to it in formal terms.

So-called evidential apologists[1] like R.C. Sproul and John Gerstner tend to argue along the lines of inference or implication. So for example they would use the traditional theological proofs to show that God’s existence can be inferred from certain things in creation or that those things imply God’s existence. We’ll use the example of the teleological argument here. The teleological argument states that the appearance of design in the universe implies a designer. The common analogy used is that of a watch found on a beach. No one would assume that the watch came out of nowhere but would assume that there was a watchmaker. Formally the argument could be stated this way, where D is design and G is God’s existence:

D implies G
Therefore G

When we turn to the transcendental argument we find that rather than dealing with implication we deal instead with presupposition. So where the above use of the teleological argument says that design implies God the transcendental argument would use this argument to say that either design or lack of design presupposes God. That means that we cannot say anything meaningful about the order or lack of order in the universe apart from God’s existence. Bas van Fraasen has helpfully defined presupposition in logic as “A presupposes B if and only if A is neither true nor false unless B is true.”[3] Formally this would be stated:

A presupposes B if and only if:
If A is true then B is true, or,
If A is false then B is true.

This helps us to see how the transcendental argument says much more than the evidential argument. The evidential argument presents design in the universe to the questioner and from there infers or implies the existence of God as the designer. The transcendental argument deals with either the questioner who sees design or the questioner who sees a lack of design in the universe. What it does is argue that in order to make a meaningful statement about the universe one must presuppose the existence of God (specifically the Triune absolute self-existence, self-referential, and self-revealing God of Christianity). So this would restate the transcendental argument like this:

D presupposes G
Therefore G


D presupposes G
Therefore G

Moving closer to application we have to ask what this means in terms of our apologetics and evangelism. Again, I’m going to be brief here though in a minute I’ll recommend a number of books on the subject for further investigation. As Christians, particularly those of us in a Presbyterian or Reformed tradition, we hold that the Triune God is the Creator of the entire world and is thus the sovereign covenant Lord of it and all its aspects. All things are in personal relationship to him. Therefore all things in this world presuppose the Triune God for both their existence and meaning. Cornelius Van Til phrased this in a number of different ways but here is one instance:

Every bit of historical investigation, whether it be in the directly Biblical field, archeology, or in general history, is bound to confirm the truth of the claims of the Christian position. But I would not talk endlessly about facts and more facts without ever challenging the non-believer’s philosophy of fact. A really fruitful historical apologetic argues that every fact is and must be such as proves the truth of the Christian theistic position.[5]

All of this is to say that all facts presuppose the Christian position. As God is the wholly sovereign Creator and Lord this is not only about the facts of what and how things are but also the facts of reasoning. Everything presupposes the existence of the Triune God. Refusing to acknowledge this is both irrational and sinful. So we see two things about the thinking of non-believers when it comes to argumentation. First we see anything they thinking about, the fact that they think at all, presupposes the Triune God. They cannot make a meaningful statement or even participate in the argument unless the Triune God is. Therefore for them to say anything about design, causality, morality, existence, knowledge, or anything at all relies upon the point that the Christian wishes to make. Second, the unbeliever suppresses the truth of this in unrighteousness and tries to fit the facts, which can only make sense in the Christian worldview, into their own autonomous thought structures. More than not making sense this is ultimately a sinful act that betrays their covenantal rebellion against God, not only in their deeds but in their thinking (Rom. 1:18ff; 1 Cor. 2:6ff; Prov. 1:7). Thus it is not fruitful to simply present facts as if unbelievers will understand them on the same basis as believers and reason to the same conclusions. Instead their entire worldview for interpreting those facts and understanding them must be challenged. Van Til expresses it this way:

To speak of man’s relation to God as being covenantal at every point is merely to say that man deals with the personal God everywhere. Every manipulation of any created fact is, as long as man is not a sinner, a covenant affirming activity. Every manipulation of any fact, as soon as man is a sinner, is a covenant-breaking activity.[6]

Moving very briefly into application this has some enormous implications for how we do apologetics. It means that the so-called evidential apologetics as outlined above are insufficient for combating unbelief. The first expression of the teleological argument is not sensitive to the fact that after Adam’s fall all of humanity is in sinful rebellion against the creating and covenanting God. Unbelievers may freely accept the validity, perhaps even the soundness, of the argument while continuing in unbelief by asserting a designer of some sort but not the Triune God of Christianity. Only the transcendental method attacks unbelief at the deepest levels by acknowledging that all men are either covenant-breakers in Adam or covenant-keepers in Christ. There is no third option. The job of the apologist and the evangelist is not to meet the unbeliever as if they were a neutral seeker who merely weighed the evidences but instead to engage him and expose the sin of suppressing innate knowledge of God.

In terms of methods the best way to do this is what Van Til and others have called the “for the sake of the argument” approach. The apologist should adapt the unbeliever’s presuppositions for a brief time to show that under those conditions it is impossible to say anything meaningful about the subject at hand. They should then invite the unbeliever to think about Christian presuppositions “for the sake of the argument” to show how all of reality is understandable only within the Christian worldview. It would be beyond the course of this essay to discuss this in detail here but there are several introductory books on Reformed apologetics that would help to show application of these principles (and many other biblical principles) in the course of a simple apologetic or evangelistic encounter.

  • Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction by John Frame - I think that this is probably the best introduction to Reformed apologetics simply because Frame is such a clear writer and thinker. I've found this book to be excellent and helpful both in understanding Reformed apologetics and also in applying them.
  • The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture for Defending Our Faith by Scott Oliphint - I hope to post a full review of this book soon but I think that this is a great book introducing Reformed apologetics as it shows how that apologetic is not driven by philosophy but by the consistent application of Scripture's teaching to the realm of apologetics and evangelism. Oliphint does not spend as much time on application as Frame does but I think that these two books (or possibly this and the next recommendation) can be used in concert to great benefit.
  • Reasons of the Heart: Recovering Christian Persuasion by William Edgar - I have only recently started reading some books by Dr. Edgar though I have read a number of essays and articles that he's written. To be honest I just got this book myself and have not finished it though I am very impressed so far. I think that this fits very well with the two books above. This book, like Professor Frame's, deals not just with apologetic principles but with the specific application of them in persuading an unbeliever. Again, I think that it fits very nicely with Dr. Oliphint's work to give a wholesome approach to apologetics.
  • Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith by Greg Bahnsen - This book is more complex and advanced than the others but it is excellent. Dr. Bahnsen was a fantastic apologist who engaged in a number of public debates with notable unbelievers (not only atheists but also agnostics and proponents of false religions). This is an extraordinarily comprehensive and helpful book for it's length (less than 300 pages). I would still recommend working through one or two of the above before getting at this but if you wouldn't be thrown off too badly by starting here either as Bahnsen was an able communicator even on some difficult topics.
  • Christian Apologetics (Second Edition) by Cornelius Van Til and edited by William Edgar - One of my desires is to see more Christians, both pastors and lay people, read more of Van Til's works. Van Til provided a great service to the church in helping to rearticulate a fully confessional and Reformed apologetic that was faithful to Scripture and serious in its application. I will admit that Van Til was not a very skilled writer and is often very difficult to understand. That is why this book is at the bottom of this list. I would really like to see people read at least two of the above before tackling this one (and this is a topic where I would be happy to interact with you over e-mail as you read through any of these books). I think that you would be very rewarded by doing so. P&R Publishing reprinting several of Van Til's works with editorial comments from Scott Oliphint and William Edgar is a great blessing for the church. These comments help to explain certain emphases and terms in Van Til's writing that he simply assumes the reader understands. This is a short and relatively cheap book so it shouldn't be hard to get and read through once quickly for overview and again more slowly for comprehension. I do think that this is probably the best entry point into his writings.

[1] I say “so-called” as often the term “evidential” is used as if presuppositional and transcendental apologetics did not make use of evidences. This is clearly not true to anyone familiar with the discussion. “Classical” is also often used to imply that the apologetic put forth by Sproul, Gerstner, Lindsley, and others is the way that the church has always done apologetics. This is also not true as the work of Robert Muller shows. These terms are useful as they point to a certain type of apologetics as opposed to the presuppositional and transcendental supported here but the implications often drawn from them are false.
[2] It should be noted that all of the formal articulations of arguments in this brief essay are very much abbreviated and simplified.
[3] Cited in “Van Til and the Transcendental Argument” by Don Collett in Reason and Revelation: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics ed. by K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 269.
[4] Here it should be noted that this line or argumentation is based upon the modus ponens. The modus tollens could not be simply applied here as the negation of G would not imply the negation of D. Instead it would say that we could not conclude anything about D at all but would say that D is neither true nor false.
[5] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: P&R Publishing, 1967), 199.
[6] Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel (Philadelphia: P&R Publishing, 1972), 69-70.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama, Calvin, Fesko, and Lucas

A hodgepodge of things for today:

First, as I'm sure no one could have missed, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America yesterday. God commands that his people pray for the earthly leaders who have been set over them and promises that these prayers are pleasing to him (1 Tim. 2:1-4). When it comes to President Obama we might begin to wonder how we ought to pray for a leader who we may disagree with a number of important issues (particularly abortion). Ligon Duncan, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, answers that question. Further, Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offers a prayer for President Obama on his inauguration that I think all Christians ought to be able to pray in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Second, Westminster Seminary California has concluded their conference on the legacy of John Calvin. You can purchase the mp3 files of the conference from the WSCAL bookstore.

Third, some seminary news for you. John Fesko, who is currently the pastor of Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church outside of Atlanta and adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta, has accepted a position as academic Dean and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California. Rev. Fesko is the author of Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine and Last Things First: Unlocking Genesis with the Christ of Eschatology. The former is a fantastic book on the doctrine of justification and I highly recommend it to everyone and particularly anyone who has questions about newer false views of justification as are articulated in the New Perspective of Paul and Federal Vision theologies. The latter book is an introduction to the theological issues that are raised in Genesis 1-3 (what Fesko argues should be classified as protology). This is a very good book that will definitely get you thinking. Further, just published this week was a book that Fesko co-edited with Bryan Estelle and David Van Drunen titled The Law Is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant. This is in a box waiting for me on my doorstep now so hopefully I'll be able to offer some thoughts on it soon.

Finally, I wanted to point you to some resources that have been made available by Sean Michael Lucas, Assistant Professor of Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary. Dr. Lucas wrote a book titled On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, and Stories. This book is the best introduction to Presbyterianism that I have read. I do not know if it is quoted in the book for Presbyterian Theology that I prepared for Sunday School but I can assure you that much of the reason that we focus on Presbyterian Theology as opposed to "Calvinism" or "Reformed Theology" more broadly is due to this book. I highly recommend it (Shady Grove PCA provides it to those who take the Inquirers' Class along with a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith and a binder on practices at Shady Grove). At the Covenant Theological Seminary website you can now access powerpoint files to go along with this book. These might be helpful in reading along with the book. Dr. Lucas is also the author of a biography of Robert Lewis Dabney that is very good.

Hopefully another post later today.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Calvin Questions

I just saw that it's been a week since I've posted something on here. Apologies for that. With the break in Sunday School I don't have quite as much that I feel like I need to get up here. I am working on an essay on Robert Lewis Dabney (as promised) and I will be putting that up in a series of posts in a few days when I finish.

For now I wanted to put something up responding to two of the really interesting questions that I remembered from the Q&A session with Dr. Griffith at the Calvin Conference this past weekend. First, one person asked a question relating to Calvin's millennial views (and eschatological views more broadly). Dr. Griffith pointed out that this really was not a topic during Calvin's time as it is now. Carrying this a bit farther we should emphasize that the American and English focus on millennial viewpoints is rather unique. Well through the second half of the 20th century this simply was not a question for Reformed believers on the continent. Even today it is simply assumed that Dutch, German, and French Reformed believers have an amillennial viewpoint (though it is not usually called that since there isn't much of an opposing view that they need to argue against) unless they go out of their way to distance themselves from that perspective.

Instead the millennial debate really began with the work of Joseph Mede (an early 17th century professor of divinity at Cambridge). Mede advocated a literal thousand year reign of Christ that would proceed the second coming. Without going into the details of his eschatology this was the first serious articulation of historic premillennialism (very different from dispensational premillennialism as we find in the Left Behind novels) that was later picked up by students of Mede and also by men like Jonathan Edwards. Many of the Westminster divines were historic premillennialists (the rest were amillennialists with a few exceptions). Postmillennialism, in its present form, did not really appear in any real strength until the 20th century in America (though there are some figures who at least appear to advocate eschatological views similar to modern postmillennialism they are not identical) as closely tied to the theonomy movement.

This helps to emphasize the danger of different millennial viewpoints trying to claim Calvin as teaching a particular option in the above debate. This simply was not a question for Calvin (nor for his students and successors such as Theodore Beza and Francis Turretin). Similarly it was not a question for Herman Bavinck at the beginning of the 20th century. So Calvin did not write in language that was sensitive to this debate and did not temper his statements to acknowledge these different views. We can make some educated assumptions about where he may have landed based on other things he taught about eschatology but we cannot ascribe a definite position to him. For more on this general topic however I would recommend going over to the Reformed Forum and searching for "Jeff Jue." They conducted a discussion forum with Dr. Jue (church history at WTS) on the eschatological views of the Westminster Assembly. It's a little over an hour long but very good and informative. Dr. Jue's dissertation is available on google books but it is a dissertation and so is tough reading since it is written at a high academic level.

The other question that struck me was closely related as it asked what the relationship was between Calvin and Calvinism. I thought that Dr. Griffith's answer was very helpful in saying that there are certain aspects of Calvinism (or more broadly the Reformed faith) that are not clearly articulated in Calvin though his name is on them. Still this reflects the development of theology and new debates that have arisen since then. Much of this is related to the claims of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and the other neo-orthodox (also known as dialectic) theologians who tried to drive a dividing wedge between Calvin and the Protestant/Reformed Scholastics on the issues of predestination and definite atonement. For anyone who was curious I wanted to link to a few books that are focused on this exact topic:
  • Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins by Richard Muller - Much of Richard Muller's work has been specifically directed to answer this charge that there is a vast gulf between Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger, and especially Calvin and the Scholastics who followed like Theodore Beza, Peter de Vermigli, Francis Turretin, and others. This book is focused on those issues brought up by neo-orthodoxy. This is a very educational book on Predestination and Christology and I think that you would find it very helpful even if you aren't wondering about the relationship of Calvin and Calvinism.
  • Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics by Richard Muller - This is far deeper and more comprehensive than most people need to go on this subject but since it is a $200 set available for $80 I wanted to make people aware of it. Muller contends that 16th and 17th century Reformed thought is badly misrepresented in the church and so he presents the writings and teachings of the Scholastics on a number of topics but centrally theological prolegomena (first things), Scripture, theology proper, and the Trinity.
  • Protestant Scholasticism: Essay in Reassessment edited by Carl Trueman and Scott Clark - This is an anthology of essays all focused on the topic of Calvin and the Calvinists. A good book but written on an academic level where I think that the first book on this list will be more helpful.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A couple of things

A few miscellaneous things for today. First here is a post from Justin Taylor announcing that the number of abortions in the United States since Roe v. Wade in 1973 has reached 50 million. That is a staggering number. To put that in some perspective that would be an average of 1,428,571 children put to death a year for the last 35 years. It is more than six times the number of people killed in the holocaust (using high estimates). Taylor notes that it is roughly the living population of 24 of the 50 states (follow the link to see). This is certainly a call to weep and pray over the state of our nation and to pray that God would work to change the hearts and minds of our leaders to end this practice as God's law clearly tells us, "Thou shalt not murder."

Second, and only slightly less sobering, I wanted to point you to a recent article by Carl Trueman (Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary) over at Reformation 21 ("Why Are There Never Enough Parking Spaces at the Prostate Clinic?"). Trueman critiques the fascination in the church today with cultural studies and contextualization. He does not want to say that we should never seek to cultural issues or use context to preach the gospel. Instead his concern is that culture is used as an excuse for lawlessness and that often cultural matters are proclaimed and discussed rather than the gospel and the Christian faith. I do not agree with everything that Dr. Trueman says but this is a very challenging article and I highly recommend reading it and thinking over his points.

Finally, a few weeks ago I finished reading John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, & Doxology edited by Burk Parsons. This book is meant to be an introduction to the life, thought, and writings of the Geneva Reformer. It includes essays by Derek Thomas, Sinclair Ferguson, D.G. Hart, Robert Godfrey, Eric Alexander, Richard Phillips, Jay Adams, Philip Graham Ryken, Michael Horton, Jerry Bridges, and Joel Beeke.

The opening essays are largely biographical and are intended to introduce Calvin's life and work. Several of them involve a brief biographical survey that is intended to place Calvin within the context of the Protestant Reformation (often forgotten by Reformed Christians is the fact that the first edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1539 was led by Melancthon's Common Places in 1521, Luther's The Bondage of the Will in 1526, and Bullinger's work on the covenant in 1534). Calvin did not write and teach in a vacuum but was a part of a movement to reform the church from heretical doctrines. Accordingly readers of Calvin will see that he often quotes the early church fathers to show how the Roman Catholic Church had departed from the teaching of Scripture and the historical confession of Christ's church.

Several essays follow that seek to paint a picture of Calvin as a preacher, evangelist, counselor, and writer. These essays do much to dispel the common picture of Calvin as a stern dictator in Geneva, nodding in approval as heretics like Severtus are burned at the stake (the mythical views people seem to have of this story are dealt with in several essays). Instead the authors reveal Calvin as a pastor with a deep love for his congregation and their spiritual lives. Many people do not know that Calvin had married a widow and adopted the children from her first marriage. While the Severtus story is exagerated to discredit him very few discuss the house ministry that he led to visit plague victims and preach the gospel to them, often risking exposure himself.

The second half of the book analyzes the thought and teaching of Calvin of chief doctrinal points. This is not a survey of the Institutes but instead engages all of Calvin's writings on specific subjects (all of the doctrines of grace are given a seperate chapter though they were split out and articulated more clearly in the debate over the Remonstrants in the Netherlands that were a reaction to Calvinism several decades after the Reformer's death). I thought that Bridge's and Beeke's closing essays on Christian piety and prayer were particularly valuable. It should be emphasized that Calvin's intent in writing the Institutes was not to write on theology for theology's sake but it was intended to be a manual for the Christian life.

As a whole I thought that this was a very useful book. I think that it is a more friendly introduction to Calvin than the longer and more academic Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes. I recommend it as a starting point into studying how God blessed his church through this gifted preacher and teacher and then moving on to read his Institutes for yourself.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Perseverance of the Saints pt. 2

It took several more days than I anticipated but here is a brief analysis of the second half of the Fifth Head of Doctrine from the Canons of Dort. Again this head of doctrine addresses the perseverance of the saints.

Article 8. So it is not by their own merits or strength but by God's undeserved mercy that they neither forfeit faith and grace totally nor remain in their downfalls to the end and are lost. With respect to themselves this not only easily could happen, but also undoubtedly would happen; but with respect to God it cannot possibly happen, since his plan cannot be changed, his promise cannot fail, the calling according to his purpose cannot be revoked, the merit of Christ as well as his interceding and preserving cannot be nullified, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit can neither be invalidated nor wiped out.

Building on what they said before, the Synod affirms that perseverance of the saints is ultimately not the work of the saints, though they do work in it, but is the work of God. As a divine operation its success cannot be in doubt. God never fails in his endeavors. Left to our own strength and merit we would undoubtedly be lost yet according to the power and will of God as the merit of Christ is applied to our account we can never lose the gift of the Holy Spirit and the promise of eternal salvation.

Article 9. Concerning this preservation of those chosen to salvation and concerning the perseverance of true believers in faith, believers themselves can and do become assured in accordance with the measure of their faith, by which they firmly believe that they are and always will remain true and living members of the church, and that they have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

Therefore our assurance does not flow from looking to ourselves. As Calvin said, we when look at ourselves we only see damnable sin. Instead assurance of God's love is a saving grace that God gives to those he gives the gift of saving faith. So our confidence of belonging in the church and of eternal salvation is because we know that God who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it.

Article 10. Accordingly, this assurance does not derive from some private revelation beyond or outside the Word, but from faith in the promises of God which he has very plentifully revealed in his Word for our comfort, from the testimony of the Holy Spirit testifying with our spirit that we are God's children and heirs (Rom. 8:16-17), and finally from a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works. And if God's chosen ones in this world did not have this well-founded comfort that the victory will be theirs and this reliable guarantee of eternal glory, they would be of all people most miserable.

Therefore we know that assurance of faith does not come from a private revelation that is given to us but is only found in the promise of God that are contained in Scripture and the Holy Spirit's work that makes the Word of God living and active in the people of God. So again we do not look to ourselves for assurance but we look to God's promises in his Word and then to the signs of saving faith described in that Word, particularly the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit and the external manifestation of the good works that we are created in Christ to do (Eph. 2:10).

Article 11. Meanwhile, Scripture testifies that believers have to contend in this life with various doubts of the flesh and that under severe temptation they do not always experience this full assurance of faith and certainty of perseverance. But God, the Father of all comfort, does not let them be tempted beyond what they can bear, but with the temptation he also provides a way out (1 Cor. 10:13), and by the Holy Spirit revives in them the assurance of their perseverance.

The Synod does not wish to discourage believers unbiblically and so they do state that even mature believers in this life will have to deal with doubts and will question their assurance in times of temptation. At the same time, the sure and certain promise in the Word is that God will not allow his elect to be tempted to the point where they would possibly fall away eternally but will renew them again to repentance and give them a new and greater certainty of faith.

Article 12. This assurance of perseverance, however, so far from making true believers proud and carnally self-assured, is rather the true root of humility, of childlike respect, of genuine godliness, of endurance in every conflict, of fervent prayers, of steadfastness in crossbearing and in confessing the truth, and of well-founded joy in God. Reflecting on this benefit provides an incentive to a serious and continual practice of thanksgiving and good works, as is evident from the testimonies of Scripture and the examples of the saints.

Because this assurance does not stem from ourselves but from God it does not serve as a source of boasting in ourselves or in our own work but rather causes us to humble ourselves and to rejoice in the Holy Spirit. It is ultimately as we reflect on the work of God in us to preserve us in our perseverance that we do persevere in good works to the glory of God.

Article 13. Neither does the renewed confidence of perseverance produce immorality or lack of concern for godliness in those put back on their feet after a fall, but it produces a much greater concern to observe carefully the ways of the Lord which he prepared in advance. They observe these ways in order that by walking in them they may maintain the assurance of their perseverance, lest, by their abuse of his fatherly goodness, the face of the gracious God (for the godly, looking upon his face is sweeter than life, but its withdrawal is more bitter than death) turn away from them again, with the result that they fall into greater anguish of spirit.

Here the Synod has careful words for those today who would try to use the doctrine of perseverance of the saints as an excuse for lawlessness (saying, "once saved, always saved"). This doctrine does not excuse sin and disobedience. Instead it places them in the proper context of a new relationship with God. The relationship is not one of wrath but now we are a part of the household of God. It behooves us as beloved children of God to live in a manner that is worthy of our calling and thus to seek to honor, please, and glorify our heavenly Father in our conduct and behavior.

Article 14. And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so he preserves, continues, and completes his work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments.

This grace of the perseverance of the saints is accomplished through the same means that the gospel is first delivered to us. It is through the means of grace, meaning the Word and sacraments, that the gospel promising eternal salvation to all who believe in Jesus Christ and repent of their sins is delivered to us.

Article 15. This teaching about the perseverance of true believers and saints, and about their assurance of it--a teaching which God has very richly revealed in his Word for the glory of his name and for the comfort of the godly and which he impresses on the hearts of believers--is something which the flesh does not understand, Satan hates, the world ridicules, the ignorant and the hypocrites abuse, and the spirits of error attack. The bride of Christ, on the other hand, has always loved this teaching very tenderly and defended it steadfastly as a priceless treasure; and God, against whom no plan can avail and no strength can prevail, will ensure that she will continue to do this. To this God alone, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen.

The Synod closes in doxology. It is not believers but those outside who mock this doctrine. The church receives it as the gracious promise of the Bridegroom who died to purify her from all sins so that at the last day he might receive her unto himself in glory and thus rejoices and loves her Christ all the more while longing for that day.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A belated Happy New Year

I should have put this up yesterday but I never really got around to sitting down at the computer so it got pushed back to being a day late. Happy New Year to all and here are a few late things on it.

First, if you don't already have a plan to read through the Bible in a year then you should check out these ESV Bible Reading Plans. There are ten options on there to choose from and you're only one day behind so far so easy to get going. Andrea and I are going to try to do the plan that is listed in the ESV Study and Literary Study Bibles (though I'm horrible at keeping up with these things). This plan has a selection from the Psalms and Wisdom Literature, the Pentateuch and Historical books, Chronicles and the Prophets, and the Gospels and Epistles for every day. It is designed to read through the Psalms, Isaiah, Luke, and Romans twice during the year in their entirety. If you choose this then not only is it already in the back of those Bibles but this .pdf is designed to be cut into four bookmarks that you place in your Bible to keep your place. Justin Taylor also has directions for how to get any of these plans as a podcast that you can download through iTunes. Don't forget the plans out to read Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion in a year as well (see posts lower down).

Second, January 1 was the 71st anniversary of when the Lord called J. Gresham Machen to glory. Machen was the founder of Westminster Theological Seminary and a crucial figure in the foundation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He was a stallwart defender of biblical Christianity against the errors and heresies of theological liberalism. He died of pneumonia while preaching and helping to build up several young OPC churches in the Dakotas. His last recorded words were a telegram that he sent to his younger colleague at WTS, John Murray, "[I am] so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it." I highly recommend Stephen Nichols book, J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought, as a short biography of Machen and also a summary of his most important writings. You should certainly read Christianity and Liberalism, listed as one of the top 100 books of the Millenium by World Magazine and the Top 100 of the 20th century by Christianity Today, and the subsequent What Is Faith? (Christianity and Liberalism is also available to read online)

Finally, I wanted to put a quick survey of the Fifth Head of Doctrine from the Canons of Dort on the perseverance of the saints and true assurance of salvation. This will be in two parts so only the first seven articles are here. I find Dort very helpful here as the Synod carefully shows that from the perspective of man our assurance is tied to perseverance but from the divine perspective perseverance is assured as God preserves.

Article 1. Those people whom God according to his purpose calls into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord and regenerates by the Holy Spirit, he also sets free from the reign and slavery of sin, though in this life not entirely from the flesh and from the body of sin.

In transitioning from the articulation of regeneration and effectual calling to perseverance the Synod first holds that the regenerate are free from the slavery to sin though they are not entirely free from indwelling sin. So believers continue to sin as long as they are in this body of sin in death even though in their inner man they have been raised to new life in Christ.

Article 2. Hence daily sins of weakness arise, and blemishes cling to even the best works of God's people, giving them continual cause to humble themselves before God, to flee for refuge to Christ crucified, to put the flesh to death more and more by the Spirit of supplication and by holy exercises of godliness, and to strain toward the goal of perfection, until they are freed from this body of death and reign with the Lamb of God in heaven.

Therefore the Synod holds that even our best works are blemished by indwelling sin. This requires us to constantly repent of our sins and to turn from them to God and to plead again only the merit of Christ's atoning death. On the basis of Christ's perfect finished work believers still know that they are justified before God. Thus we find that is it justification by grace alone through faith alone and in Christ alone that is the key to perseverance. Michael Horton says that it is only if we are justified by faith that our works are justified. Believers persevere in good works as the regenerate and justified people of God because they know that the perfection of those works is not what justifies them but it rather the feeble offering of sons and daughters to a gracious and loving Father who receives those works done for his glory as they are done by us in Christ.

Article 3. Because of these remnants of sin dwelling in them and also because of the temptations of the world and Satan, those who have been converted could not remain standing in this grace if left to their own resources. But God is faithful, mercifully strengthening them in the grace once conferred on them and powerfully preserving them in it to the end.

Having placed the believer in the paradox of being renewed in the image of Christ in the inner man even while the body decays because of sin and death the Synod states that indwelling sin would prohibit the believer from persevering according to their own resources. So perseverance by the believer is the work of God who continues to build his elect up in the grace given to them in regeneration and preserves them in that grace to the end. Thus we see how it is from our perspective that it is perseverance and from God's it is preservation unto perseverance.

Article 4. Although that power of God strengthening and preserving true believers in grace is more than a match for the flesh, yet those converted are not always so activated and motivated by God that in certain specific actions they cannot by their own fault depart from the leading of grace, be led astray by the desires of the flesh, and give in to them. For this reason they must constantly watch and pray that they may not be led into temptations. When they fail to do this, not only can they be carried away by the flesh, the world, and Satan into sins, even serious and outrageous ones, but also by God's just permission they sometimes are so carried away--witness the sad cases, described in Scripture, of David, Peter, and other saints falling into sins.

This article helps to guard against perfectionism. Though God does perfectly preserve believers in perseverance this does not mean that believers are made incapable of committing sins, even horrible sins. Like all that occurs this is by the good counsel of God that they are permitted to fall away into these sins.

Article 5. By such monstrous sins, however, they greatly offend God, deserve the sentence of death, grieve the Holy Spirit, suspend the exercise of faith, severely wound the conscience, and sometimes lose the awareness of grace for a time--until, after they have returned to the way by genuine repentance, God's fatherly face again shines upon them.

Furthermore, sins committed by believers are not different in character than those committed by unbelievers. All sin is offensive to God and deserves his wrath and curse (see Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 83). Because of this believers who fall into grevious sin can lose some or all of their sense of the assurance of their salvation until they again return to the promise of God in Scripture and come again in repentance of their sin. This returning to repentance is not a second salvation, that was accomplished one time in their conversion, but it does lead to the renewal of their sense of assurance as they again sense and experience God's fatherly blessings.

Article 6. For God, who is rich in mercy, according to his unchangeable purpose of election does not take his Holy Spirit from his own completely, even when they fall grievously. Neither does he let them fall down so far that they forfeit the grace of adoption and the state of justification, or commit the sin which leads to death (the sin against the Holy Spirit), and plunge themselves, entirely forsaken by him, into eternal ruin.

The reason that we know this is not a second salvation is because God has given his Holy Spirit to regenerate believers and he does not ever take it away from them. Even when in their sin they grieve the Holy Spirit of God they remain still united to Christ and saved in him and thereby safe from eternal condemnation.

Article 7. For, in the first place, God preserves in those saints when they fall his imperishable seed from which they have been born again, lest it perish or be dislodged. Secondly, by his Word and Spirit he certainly and effectively renews them to repentance so that they have a heartfelt and godly sorrow for the sins they have committed; seek and obtain, through faith and with a contrite heart, forgiveness in the blood of the Mediator; experience again the grace of a reconciled God; through faith adore his mercies; and from then on more eagerly work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.

In showing how this relationship is perserved the Synod argues that God first keeps believers from ever committing an impardonable sin. All of their sins, past and future, are paid for by Christ on the cross. Thus the work of the Spirit to unite us to Christ's person and work secures our eternal salvation. Second, because the Spirit remains in us and works in us even when we fall into sin he will renew us again to repentance. We will have true grief and hatred of sin and will turn from it to God with full pursuit of new obedience (see WSC Q&A 86). Therefore in these two points we see that perseverance is wholly the work of God but in that work he causes us to work also.