Thursday, February 26, 2009

What is apologetics?

I find that many people have an extraordinarily academic definition of apologetics. I think that this helps to explain the popularity of conferences, seminars, classes, bible studies, and other Christian education in and out of churches on the topic of apologetics. Many people seem to think that doing apologetics requires some high degree of familiarity with the history of philosophy and debate over esoteric points, the ability to recite archaeological facts and dates, or perhaps training in the natural sciences to debate the relative merits of evolutionism and creationism. Many of us are out of our element when it comes to these sorts of topics and so we go and do whatever we can to at least get a list of facts or arguments that we can memorize and recite. As a consequence a lot of us have probably had very awkward apologetic encounters where we find ourselves unable to truly respond to what the unbeliever says as both of us talk past each other without really engaging.

We should take comfort from the fact that this is not how Scripture defines the way that we are to do apologetics. In his book The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture for Defending our Faith, Scott Oliphint offers this biblical definition of apologetics:

Since Christ is the Lord, and the battle is his, we must always be ready (1 Pet. 3:15-17) to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). We must use the weapons, not of this world, but of the Lord (Eph. 6:10-17). We must take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ as we demolish the arguments, with gentleness and reverence (2 Cor 10:3-5), of those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, exchanging the truth of God for a lie, worshiping created things, rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever (Rom. 1:16-32). Amen.[1]
Apologetics is not limited to philosophical arguing, presentation of archaeological facts, or debate over scientific hypotheses. Apologetics is your answer to the question, “Why are you a Christian?” This is what Peter means when he commands us to always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks a reason for the hope that is within us. This should remind us that apologetics often means doing evangelism. It is to present the gospel in a reasonable and winsome manner.

I think that this definition means confidence and gentleness in our apologetic encounters. When you engage a friend in an apologetic conversation you may be confident that you have the whole truth of the sovereign God on your side. Christians often seem to think that when they talk with unbelievers they should use Scripture in evangelism and taking someone through the “Roman road” but not in apologetics. This is false. The Bible is the word of the Lord and contains both the message of and the reason for the gospel. When we defend the faith we defend the faith that is contained in the Scriptures that were once for all delivered to the saints. We ought not to be ashamed of our faith that Scripture is the word of God as if it were anti-intellectual. It is instead a reasoned position that gives coherence to our entire worldview.

So I would counsel that rather than memorizing arguments and facts our apologetic encounters ought to be much more natural conversations. Remember that you are asserting that the Christian faith is reasonable and then you are trying to persuade the unbeliever, praying for the Holy Spirit to enlighten their heart, to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ as he is freely offered to them in the gospel. Listen to their objections and respond in a loving and gentle manner.

Now as I conclude I should offer two qualifications. The first is that I don’t want to tell people not to study things or prepare in advance of apologetic conversations. None of this is to say that arguments and facts are worthless. They are very useful in these conversations. My point is that those arguments and facts should be presented within the context of the conversation rather than reciting them and trying to flatten our conversation partner like we had a steamroller, which leads to a frustrated unbeliever who doesn’t think they are being listened to and a frustrated Christian who don’t understand why the unbeliever doesn’t understand and doesn’t know what to say next. Sometimes an apologetic conversation will be in the context of whether or not something is absolutely wrong and being familiar with moral arguments for Christianity will be helpful. Sometimes a friend may explain their reason to reject Christianity as being a doubt that Scripture accurately reports history and it will be helpful to know some of the ways that archaeology has found evidence support the biblical accounts. An atheist friend may use faith in evolution as a reason to reject Christianity and it is helpful to know some of the science involved in the debate. Yet the goal of knowing these things is not to rattle them off but rather to show that they do not have a valid reason to reject God’s command to repent and believe. To do this we need to listen and respond to make sure that we answer the question that is actually being asked or the objection being raised.

Second, while I would say that most apologetic conversations are to offer a reason, or reasons, for our faith it does need to be acknowledged that sometimes believers are called to “shut the mouth of the fool” who blasphemes against the revelation and knowledge of God. I will only say that these situations tend to come up much less often then we act as if they do and Christians should only go on an attack with the goal to silence someone after thought and prayer since Scripture is filled with admonitions that the norm is to engage someone with gentleness.

In future posts we will explore methods for engaging in these apologetic conversations.

[1] K. Scott Oliphint, The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture for Defending Our Faith (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2003), 5. Scripture references added.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A few odds and ends

I just realized that it's been almost two weeks since I put a post up here. A busy few weeks but I certainly didn't mean to go that long. To make up for it here is a post with a few things from the web that are interesting and worth checking out. I'll try and put another post up dealing with apologetics later today if I can or tomorrow morning if I get swamped again.

First a few things on biblical theology and interpretation. Here is an article from the 2006 Tyndale Bulletin written by James Hamilton, professor of Old Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Hamilton is arguing that the revelation of God's glory in salvation and judgment forms the center of the Biblical story through both testaments. I think that he makes a pretty good case and that this is a helpful article worth reading. That said, you should be aware that there are a number of cases made for the "center" of biblical theology from kingship and/or kingdom, covenant, revelation, and others. Dr. Hamilton acknowledges and address this in his article.

In my last post, on the canonical order of the Old Testament, I mentioned that one of the ways we need to practice reading the Old Testament is by reading it in a Christotelic manner. I intentionally used this language instead of Christological or Christocentric. It's not because I oppose the latter terms as a matter of principle. It is instead because those terms have often been abused to see something about Christ in every minute detail of an Old Testament object, person, or prophecy to the point of twisting the passage. In this blog post from a PCA pastor in South Dakota he uses the example of those who say that in the narrative of the bronze serpent in Num. 21:6-9 bronze was used because it was a lower metal and pointed to Christ's humiliation. We should ask if these kinds of superficial connections are really intended by the text. Instead I use the term Christotelic to remind us that the Old Testament as a whole and in its parts is designed to point to and reveal Christ. So all of the themes that run through the Old Testament, including the theme discussed by Dr. Hamilton in the paper above, point us to Christ and reveal something about him. The theme of kingship/kingdom reveals that Christ is the King of God's chosen people and that his territory is the entire cosmos. The theme of covenant reveals Christ to us as the covenant goal, head, and mediator. The post linked to in this paragraph describes a work by the Scottish Presbyterian Patrick Fairbairn on the right use of typology. Very helpful stuff!

Next, it seems to me that in the American church we tend to have a great preoccupation with dramatic conversion experiences and testimonies. There is not anything wrong with these kinds of conversions. The history of the church is full of examples of people who were abruptly and suddenly ushered into faith in Jesus Christ, even the Apostle Paul could be mentioned here. Yet one thing that becomes apparent after a long time spent in churches is that most testimonies lack this dramatic turn, though sometimes it seems as if people search for something to place here in their testimony because they feel as if it should be. Instead, the long history of the church and what many missionaries can confirm is that most conversions are slow and gradual. There are probably more Christians in churches who grew up in a Christian home and never truly left than there are former chain-smoking, drug addict, homosexuals who were were suddenly arrested by the gospel. Herman Bavinck argues that we ought to be thankful that in his providence God provides his church with members who have all sorts of conversion stories. Shane Lems posts on Herman Bavinck and conversion stories.

Next, in some seminary news, Greg Beale will be serving as a visiting professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary from 2009-2012. Dr. Beale is the author of a number of important books and articles and is well-known as a first class New Testament scholar. A number of his articles are linked to from the WTS announcement page.

Finally, Desiring God ministries has made John Piper's new book, Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again available online. I have not read this book but Iain Campbell, Tim Challies, and D.A. Carson have all recommended it. If you would like to purchase a copy then it is available at 40% off from WTS books.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Canonical Order to the OT

Here is an interesting essay written by Jim Hamilton, professor of Old Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on the blog of Russell Moore, professor of church history at the same. It's a good essay and I recommend heading over to check it out. Hamilton is arguing that we should start publishing English Bibles using the Hebrew canonical order of the Old Testament rather than the order that we commonly know in our English Bibles. Here is a link to a site with a table comparing the two orders.

Hamilton has three major reasons that he thinks we should use the Hebrew Tanakh order. (1) There is not a "Christian" order to the OT. The orders used in the writings of the church fathers tend to differ and the two main teachers responsible for our current order, Origen and Jerome, tried to order the Hebrew Bible according to the Alexandrian standards of genre, author, and chronology. (2) This fits with the Protestant exclusion of the Apocrypha from the Old Testament. The Reformers did this following the Hebrew Bible rather than the Septuagint or the Vulgate. So Hamilton thinks we should do the same with order. (3) The Hebrew order is the one acknowledged by Jesus and the NT writers, specifically Matthew, Luke, and Paul. See his article for the proof texts on this.

Those of you who sat in my Old Testament Biblical Theology class at Shady Grove this past Spring may remember that we studied the Old Testament using the Hebrew order of the canon. That said, I'm not sure that I would go so far as advocating either our present English or the Hebrew order for publishing as a law just as I wouldn't recommend that people tear the pages out of their Bible and rearrange the order themselves. The reason is that I'm not sure that any canonical order is mandated by Scripture, which as we know is the only rule for the interpretation of Scripture. To clarify, while we hold that the canon is inspired and all the books belonging to it are inspired I don't think that we want to go so far as to say that the canonical order is inspired. That is the only reason that I can think of for making a rule out of a certain order of books. So I would rather use what we've learned of the Old Testament canonical order in the Tanakh as an interpretive help than as a rule. I think that this is a better way to use passages like Luke 11, 24, Matthew 23, and Acts 23 that hint at the Hebrew order. This is Scripture interpreting itself in giving us a key to understanding that the entire Old Testament canon; the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms; testifies to Christ's person and work.

Now I do think that when we use the Hebrew order there is a more natural and logical flow to the Old Testament canon. For example the Hebrew order includes Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings in the Former Prophets to describe the history of Israel and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Books of the Twelve (what we know as the twelve minor prophets) in the Latter Prophets to comment on that history. I think that this is a helpful way of reading the OT as we read the account of God's dealings with his people and then the explanation of those dealings and the promises of God's future covenant relationship with his people. In the Writings we see the order of Proverbs, Ruth, and Song of Songs. This is helpful in teaching us about marriage as Proverbs closes with a description of the "virtuous wife" who is to be sought, Ruth gives an explicit picture of that woman, and then Song of Songs portrays the marriage relationship. I also think that there are a number of explicit ties between Chronicles at the end of the Hebrew canon and Matthew at the beginning of the New Testament canon.

So my advice is to learn and practice reading the Old Testament as a whole this way and to keep this order in mind whenever you read an Old Testament text to help in understanding the passage in its context. In other words, one hermeneutical tool is to think of the text in light of Christ by reading it within its proper context and purpose as a part of the whole Old Testament; this is what we could call a "Christotelic" interpretation of the Old Testament (though I don't entirely mean that term the way that Peter Enns uses it). But I'm not sure that I would mandate publishing Bibles with this order as if it were required somehow; certainly at least not until someone writes a new song to help teach children the books of the Bible. :-)

If this topic does interest you then there are a couple of other works that you can check out. Stephen Dempster's book Dominion and Dynasty is a biblical theology of the Old Testament that uses the Hebrew canonical order (although not the exact same order linked to above). Paul House's Old Testament Theology also does this although I will warn you that this is a pretty hefty theological tome that does not make for easy reading. Bruce Waltke's An Old Testament Theology is not written using this order but he does make reference to it as he examines the Old Testament and is sensitive to it so this is an excellent example of the approach I advocated above. Finally, Miles Van Pelt from RTS Jackson has a series of lectures on biblical theology that you can download for free.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

New website for RAP

Reformed Academic Press has a new website. Ligon Duncan, pastor of First Presbysterian Church in Jackson and adjunct professor of systematic theology at RTS Jackson, serves as the editorial director. RAP mainly publishes books written from a solidly Reformed perspective or republishes older Reformed works to make them available again to the church. Here are a couple of books from their catalogue that I recommend in particular.
  • An Introduction to Theological Studies by William Cunningham (a 19th century Scottish theologian)
  • The Federal Theology: It's Import and It's Regulative Influence by John Girardeau - This is an important book from Girardeau (an influential American Southern Presbyterian) introducing covenantal theology and examining its importance in the the Dutch, English, Scottish, and American Presbyterian traditions.
  • The Atonement by Hugh Martin - This is an examination of the doctrine of the atonement from the perspectives of the covenant and Christ's priesthood. This is a great book that also comes highly recommend by Sinclair Ferguson.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A few thoughts on the economic stimulus package

I've typically declined to write about political issues on here because the primary purpose of this blog is theological but having an economics degree I have a hard time staying away from the stimulus package that is soon to come up for vote in the Senate. I do think that it is wise for us to have at least an introductory understanding of a number of topics and so if economics is not something that you studied in college then it can't hurt to go out to a college bookstore or your nearest used bookstore and try to find an introductory textbook on macroeconomics. If you have options then I think the one by Greg Mankiw is quite good.

Speaking in the broadest sense, when an economy goes into a recession there are really two major tools that the government has to try to break out of the cycle and encourage economic growth (much of this has to do with the work of Keynes; especially his later work rather than his earlier, simpler models). The first is to cut taxes and the second is to increase spending. The goal of tax cuts is to increase consumer purchasing power and to create greater incentives for employment. The goal of the second is to increase demand as the government buys goods and services, which in turn then drives up employment and increases economic output. The U.S. government has employed these means at different times in our economic policy history, certainly most notably at the end of the Great Depression but also several times since.

The current stimulus package is (again, at least on the broad level) a combination of these two means. It does include both tax incentives and government spending policies. That said, there are a number of reasons why this package will likely cause more harm than good. The first goes back to U.S. economic policy history. One of the necessary conditions on this kind of government intervention in a market economy is that it must be a short-term intervention to break the recession and then government spending will be cut (with or without tax increases). The obvious reason for this is that decreased revenue coupled with increased spending is going to lead to increased borrowing. Normally this is not a problem for the United States as there is no shortage of lenders who love the security of loans to the U.S. Government. The problem is that the government begins to eat up capital that needs to be available to businesses. This has a long-term effect of reducing innovation and slowing economic growth. The fact is that historically many times that the government has intervened in the U.S. the increased spending has not been cut after the economic crisis has ended. This has led to the government, a relatively inefficient economic agent, dominating an ever increasing portion of the market. The consequence is that future interventions become less and less effective and so must be more drastic in scope to accomplish anything. President Obama's stimulus package is equal to the combined cost of the New Deal, the Korean War, and the Marshall Plan after adjusting for inflation. Think for a second about how much money that is and how much borrowing it requires!

Another more recent problem that has come to light is that government spending is actually relatively harmful to economic growth. President Obama's advisors seem to assume that a one unit increase in government spending will actually lead to a more than one unit increase in total economic output (see the Barro article below on this). Several statements have been made about how this package is a kickstart that will encourage consumers to spend more in addition to the government spending increasing. There is simply no empirical evidence for this. Instead a careful examination of the data suggests that times of increased government spending actually causes the economy to contract, again because the government is a relatively inefficient economic agent. So we will not see a one-to-one (or greater) increase in economic growth from spending in this stimulus package we will like see an increase that is much lower or even zero. The long term effects will actually be economic contraction.

Fortunately you don't have to take my word for it on this. Here are a number of links that are quite informative:
"What GOP Leaders deem wasteful in Senate stimulus bill" (CNN)
"Macroeconomic Effects of Senate Stimulus Legislation" (Congressional Budget Office - please note that these estimates are made available to all of your Senators and Congressmen regardless of party affiliation)
"Government Spending Is No Free Lunch" by Robert Barro in the Wall Street Journal (Dr. Barro is a tenured professor of economics at Harvard University specializing in macro and Keynesian economics)
"An Interview with Robert Barro" (The Atlantic) - Here's a great quote on the stimulus package:
This is probably the worst bill that has been put forward since the 1930s. I don't know what to say. I mean it's wasting a tremendous amount of money. It has some simplistic theory that I don't think will work, so I don't think the expenditure stuff is going to have the intended effect. I don't think it will expand the economy. And the tax cutting isn't really geared toward incentives. It's not really geared to lowering tax rates; it's more along the lines of throwing money at people. On both sides I think it's garbage.

So what should we do instead? First I'll point you to an economic answer. This is a suggestion put forward by Dr. Greg Mankiw, also a professor of economics at Harvard. I think that this is a much more economically reasonable proposal that actually has some regard for empirical evidence as opposed to wishful thinking.

Second, I want to point you to a theological response. This article by Carl Truman, professor of church history and historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, was written in response to the bank bail out bill (note that this was under the Bush administration so I'm not just picking on either political party, both are at fault). Trueman reminds us of several things when it comes to economic depressions and financial failures. First, all of this is a result of human sin. No matter what economic policies we pursue they are simply the best option given a sinful world. Second, our economic markets reflect human fallenness. The pornography and abortion industries demonstrate again the sinful desires of a sinful humanity. I highly recommend reading this essay though it is a bit dated with what Trueman was focused on.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Al Mohler on Abortion

Here are a series of posts from Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, setting forth a biblical stance and response to abortion. These should be helpful.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6