This post is updated from the original. Those updates are marked by asterisks.*
I won’t spend much time on this.
In my recent interview on Apologetics Central I noted in passing (at time mark 24:25) that the Protestant Reformation did not merely rediscover the doctrines of the early church but rather, by God’s grace, developed superior theological views on the sacraments, covenant thought, free will, providence, Augustine’s view of election and perseverance, etc.
Two weeks later a “mid-week” message, delivered by one of the ministers at Tenth Presbyterian Church (PCA), was forwarded to me. The message seemed to me to show too much affinity toward some of the very same pre-Reformation teachings I referenced in the interview.
I’m not asserting that my interview prompted any of the content of the mid-week message, but given that the mid-week message is on key in points both historically and theologically incorrect, I thought I would comment on the public Facebook page where it appeared.
My response will make more sense after having listened to the mid-week message. My response to the mid-week message was deleted, not by me, yet I snapped a photo of my response in anticipation. Understandably, some who saw my response erroneously assumed I must have deleted it.
*First, my response was deleted. Today, Tenth has removed the entire mid-week message, so my link to the message no longer works.)*
As I said, I won’t spend much time on this, though much more could be said. On a related matter, I am curious how one might reconcile these two statements.
From the Facebook thread where the mid-week message appeared:
How can Van Til’s influence be so defining for someone – even believed to stand like a colossus of 20th century Reformed theology, with huge importance for one’s lifetime of ministry, the world and the church – yet in seven short years diminish in that person’s mind, so much as not to be able to remember how Van Til might assist in another person’s pursuit of understanding Reformed theology? (It is not as though a 15 year old wildly misspoke and then dramatically changed his views by 22 years of age.)
By the way, I have never believed Van Til was a great theologian, though he was a profound thinker who did have seminal insights into an apologetic methodology that is consistent with Reformed theology.
*The rest of the post is an addendum.*
Now that the mid-week video has been removed, I’ll now point out three additional errors because the video, which for the more theologically astute spoke for itself, can no longer be referenced. These additional errors I discussed with my wife the morning we saw the mid-week message, though saw no need to include in my Facebook comment given the link was accessible to elders. (I later received an email from a well renowned theologian who zeroed in on the exact concerns.)
Also, I will address errors from a relatively recent sermonthat was sent to me, in which three known evangelical leaders were called out, and a warning was issued about undisclosed pulpits that preach theological error and doctrines of demons.
Regarding the additional errors from the mid-week message:
1. The Roman Catholic Church preceded the Reformation. After all, what body did the Eastern Orthodox churches split from in the early eleventh century? Moreover, Pope Gregory I began his reign in the year 590.
2. Reformed theologians believe in the “spiritual presence” and not the the “real presence” of Christ at the Supper. (Whereas as Robert Letham has written, evangelicalism has adopted the “real absence” of Christ.)
Also, Thomas Aquinas served papal Rome the Aristotelian notion of substance and accidents, as he and Rome applied it to the hocus pocus of the mass (the “real presence” entailment of transubstantiation). Thomas did not have Calvin’s view of the Supper.
Lastly, the ecumenical divide on the Supper isn’t merely over “how” Christ is really present but whether a propitiatory sacrifice is being offered. But again, it’s false that Reformed theology and Calvin adhere to the Thomistic notion of the “real presence” of Christ. But nor do the Reformed hold to a Lutheran view of “real presence” (over and under the bread), which differs from Rome. So, to say the Reformed agree on “real presence” while disagreeing with Rome on how Christ is present necessarily implies that the Reformed hold to the “real presence” of Lutheran consubstantiation! Those are the two competing views on “real presence”. Whereas the Reformed outrightly deny either view of “real presence” and hold to a spiritual presence.
3. The root problem between the two communions isn’t over whether we’re “saved” by faith alone – let alone justified by faith alone, the latter being true Reformed doctrine that divides, but rather the authority of Scripture over any alleged pope. The root problem is the occasion for other doctrinal infidelity and Romish superstitions.
Because justification by faith alone does not mean justification by a faith that is alone, it is false that salvation (or being saved), which includes sanctification, is by faith alone. In other words, a necessary condition for sanctification is works, and since salvation includes sanctification, then salvation is not by faith alone, though justification is through faith alone. Indeed, there are three tenses of salvation. The believer was saved, is being saved and will be saved.
The false assertions from the video are astonishing. (The mid-week message has again been relaunched but with edits.)
I’ll now make some comments on a relatively recent sermon that was sent to me the day after it was preached.
Over the past ten months I was sent many Tenth sermons for evaluation. I stopped listening early on. I repeatedly asked that nothing (mid-week messages or sermons) be sent to me. For this December’s message I made an exception given the degree of concern, even astonishment, from thoughtful Christians.
1. “No time when [Jesus] was not.” “No time when he became to exist.”
Jesus is not eternal, the Son is. Jesus had a beginning when the Word became flesh. This confusion is compounded later with respect to eternal generation.
2. It was denied that human nature of Christ was penetrated by the divine nature. There’s no Christological issue with the one way penetration of the divine nature to the human nature as long as we are jealous to maintain no transfer of properties. In other words, the divine nature penetrated the human nature without the human nature becoming Divine.
Later it was noted that the Son received infused knowledge, which is nothing other than divine penetration! Is there a difference between penetration and infusion? Which horn of opposing doctrine is one to believe? (Reminds me of the claim that wrath is not a divine attribute, but after much disagreement in cyberland it was granted the following Sunday that wrath is a divine perfection. Aren’t divine attributes equal to divine perfections and visa versa? Regardless of one’s view of wrath as an attribute of God, attributes identify as perfections. See bottom of this post.)
3. “Christ is eternally generated by the Father according to his divine nature.”
Christ is not generated according to his divine nature. The Son’s essence cannot be generated any more than the Father’s can, for it is one. To generate the Son’s essence is to generate the Father’s! The eternal Son is generated according to his person, even given the communication or sharing of the divine nature in the indivisible and timeless act of begetting the Son. Christ is a reference to the incarnate Son (the anointed one, Messiah) but more the point, the divine nature cannot be ordered or generated.
4. “Isaiah saw the Father, the Spirit and the Son.”
God is Spirit. Isaiah saw Christ high and lifted up, not three divine persons in the vision.
5. In answering the question, “What kind of man is the man Christ Jesus”, Roman Catholic theologian Robert White was quoted favorably. (White is rector of the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome.)
The human nature of Christ was no “more humane and perfect” than Adam’s; otherwise there’s no possibility of salvation! Moreover, to say that the human nature of Christ “is the nature of God” is at best ambiguous. The human nature is not the nature of God as in the divine nature of God. With what does that leave us? Is the human nature the nature of God because it belongs to the Son (yet does not belong to the Father and the Holy Spirit)? That’s at best an unusual tagging of terms but even allowing for it, how does that make the human nature of Christ more humane and perfect?
There’s no saving this Catholic priest’s quote, for the human nature of Christ does not become God’s nature or more of anything because of the hypostatic union. After all, the human nature belonging to Son never entails a transfer of divine properties to the Son! (Perhaps White elaborates, but the stand alone quote from the priest is serious Christological error that undermines the possibility of redemption.)
6. It was claimed that Jesus was impeccable because he was without sin. The example used is the impeccable Passover lamb being without defects. This is to confuse being without sin or blemish with impeccability, which conflates a state of affairs with metaphysical possibility. Adam was without sin for a while, but would that make him impeccable if he didn’t fall? Eventually impeccability of Christ was correctly noted as being unable to sin, but not before erroneous doctrine was put forth. Again, which horn of the opposing views should be taken as biblical? (Impeccability is discussed here.)
Much more can be said about just that one sermon, but at the very least, if Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware and John Piper (along with all pulpits that preach “doctrines of demons”) are going to be called out in a sermon chocked full of theological error, it would be good to possess clear understanding and articulations of orthodox theology.
Sticking to biblical exegesis and expository preaching, walled in by confessional theology, is always under good regulation. Aside from all the theological aberrations, trying in one sermon to favor the metaphysics of Plato over Kant, while favorably quoting a Romanist and marking out three evangelical leaders, is neither necessary nor wise. Very few preachers are gifted enough to go on such tangents without getting into trouble. It’s best to stay in one’s lane and not cross the double yellow line. Great preachers preach the Word.
If God is one and all three persons of the Trinity are God, how does orthodox Christianity adequately deflect charges of modalism and polytheism? In other words, if the Father is God and the Son is God, how is the Son not merely an appearance of the Father if there is only one God (monotheism). Yet if the Father and the Son are not transitory manifestations of God but coexist as distinct divine persons, how is orthodox Christianity not another religion of the gods?
Before trying to address this conundrum, it might be helpful to consider some implications of an ancient Trinitarian creed.
We may distill these catholic claims from the Athanasian creed:
1. The Father is God 2. The Son is God 3. The Spirit is God 4. The Father is not the Son 5. The Father is not the Spirit 6. The Son is not the Spirit 7. There is only one God
An apparent contradiction is in view:
A. f = g (premise) B. s = g (premise) C. f ≠ g (premise) D. f = s (from 1 and 2, by the transitivity of identity)
Contradiction or Paradox?
Does Christianity entail the following paradox:
The Father is not the Son (from 4), but because the Father and Son are both God, the Father and Son are the same person (from D).
It seems to me that these conundrums can be dealt with adequately by supplementing additional biblically informed premises alongside the ambiguous ones. Simply augment some of the abbreviated premises with more biblical truth and paradox disappears, yet without being able to uncover the mysteries of the Trinity. (The solution is rational but ought not to be considered rationalistic.)
Is, =, and the law of identity:
It should be noted up front that there is a semantic difference between is and =, for x is y in common parlance does not necessarily imply y is x. Whereas x = y always is equivalent to y = x. For instance, Jim is human obviously does not mean the same thing as human is Jim. However, in some instances, the word is can imply a bidirectional truth or equivalent identity. For instance, there is an equivalence between Joe Biden is the 46th POTUS, and the 46th POTUS is Joe Biden. All that to say, we must be careful to discern what is intended by the verb is. Sometimes the meaning is one directional (e.g., Jim is human), and at other times the meaning is bidirectional (e.g., Joe Biden is the 46th POTUS). In the latter sense, is can be substituted with equals (=).
With that appreciation in place, we can now observe an undisclosed disconnect from what x is, (found in 1-7), to what x equals, (found in A-D). The basis for the inferences found in A-D is sufficiently vague, which I trust will become apparent below. In other words, what does it mean that the Father is God? Does it, also, mean that God is the Father?
Points 1-3 (which utilize “is”) may merely suggest that three distinct persons all share the one divine essence and occupy “the same divine space” (perichoresis). Moreover, there is a qualified difference between each of the three persons when they are individually identified as God. Accordingly, the word “is” ought not to be taken to implystrictphilosophical identity (in a creed no less!) without having first defined “God”.
Points A-D that follow (which utilize “=” instead of “is”) either creates, or uncovers, confusion (and possible paradox). Points 1-3 and A-D must be nuanced, for 1-3 does not imply the conclusion of A-D, which entails not only an apparent contradiction but rather, in light of 1-7, an ambiguity that keeps it (A-D) from being either coherent or contradictory. Because A-D suffers from an improper inference from 1-3, it needs clarification in light of the creed.
The creed is not saying anything like God is not God, or the Son is not the Son! Hence, we may with confidence accept 1-7 without assuming it entails the paradox or actual contradiction implied in A-D.
Vague terms lead to unreliable conclusions:
If by God we mean the triune God, then obviously it is false that any divine person is God (i.e., the triune God). For instance, the Holy Spirit is not the Holy Trinity. Consequently, 1-3 is clearly false if God as Trinity is in view.
If by God we mean a divine person among other distinct divine persons, as opposed to a notion of the divine person, then 1-7 is orthodox, and D’s: f = s is not implied, alleviating the paradox in view. In other words, if each person of the Trinity is a distinct divine person (e.g., D1, D2 and D3), qualifying each as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit respectively, then the personal properties of each person undermine the transitivity maintained in A-D.
Implicit modalism put to rest:
Not only can God mean Trinity, which the Son is not, God can also mean the person of the Holy Spirit, which the Son is not. Finally, God can mean the person of the Father, which the Son is not. Accordingly, to say that “the Son is God” and the “Father is God” without further qualification can be equivocal; if taken in light of the law of identity, (as inferred by A-D without defining God), it can imply modalism because identity is transitive. The Son and the Father would be one and the same person, which the creed does not imply.
We may say in a colloquial-theological sense the Father is God just as we may say the Son is God, as long as we have the biblical backing that an unshared and distinguishing personal property of the Father is that he is unbegotten while the Son is eternally begotten etc. Being distinct persons, there are differences of eternal origin among all three persons of the Trinity who are one in being. The Father is divine but doesn’t exist apart from his intra-Trinitarian begetting of the Son. That to say, the Father is not God apart from being a distinct divine person of the undivided Trinity. These Trinitarian relationships are necessary and eternal properties of personhood, not essence (lest the Father is the Son etc). They undermine any serious charge of modalism.
Eternal origin of necessary persons also lays the theological groundwork for monotheism, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves!
If we don’t distinguish personal properties in this way, we don’t do justice to the theology of the creed with respect to distinguishing divine persons. Indeed, it is true that f is g and s is g, and if that were the end of the story, we might be in trouble. Without further elaboration, f is g conjoined with s is g might imply modalism; so, we needn’t be surprised that such constructs, though true, must be interpreted through a biblically informed theological grid in order to avoid apparent contradiction if not implicit heresy.
Mystery and rationality:
Whether there are prima facie intuitive notions surrounding 1-7 that can lead to a conundrum, it can be maintained on the consistency of God, and his intent to communicate to his people, that such intuitive notions, which at first might appear logically problematic, can disappear when we presuppose additional revelation. That is not to say that mysteries can be solved! Logic cannot solve true mysteries, but biblically informed philosophical pursuit can demonstrate that certain doctrines are not actually contradictory. It’s when we think intuitively, which is to say apart from Scripture, we can get in trouble. As I’ve noted elsewhere, that’s an insight of Van Til’s apologetic, which may be carried into discussions around paradox. (For instance, when we use only experience unaided by further revelation we may think that one essence necessarily implies God is one person; when we presuppose Scripture we can know that proposition is false.)
Not to oversimplify or belabor, but to summarize: f is g and s is g can suggest f is s. If is implies =, then we must refine our definition of g. I think we have addressed that horn of the conundrum in a way that satisfies a charge of modalism, but perhaps not without inviting a charge of polytheism.
We’re not out of the woods yet. If each person of the Trinity is a divine person, how do we avoid tritheism? In other words, if the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, how aren’t there three Gods?
One in creation, providence and grace.
Each divine person is operative in the Trinity’s works of creation, providence and grace. The works of the triune God are harmoniously indivisible, a reflection of the ontological Trinity, which establishes the doctrine of inseparable operations.
One Being(including mind, will, consciousness), with no analogy:
The one pertains to the triune God subsisting, whereas the three, to thetripersonal divine being. Each mode of subsistence is divine and consubstantial (without personally identifying as another or as all). Each is one and the same in being, with due consideration given to the theological entailment of three personal modes of subsistence mutually indwelling each other. Mysterious, yes. Contradictory, absolutely not.
A doctrine of three distinct divine persons does not leave us with three gods, for there is numerically one divine essence, which contemplates one mind, will, and center of consciousness existing eternally in three ordered modes of subsistence or persons. The nature of God is disanalogous to the human nature and polytheism, for no two humans or deities have the identical mind etc. Furthermore, no false god or human being is essential to the existence of another. (Traducianism presents no problem).
Eternal origins and necessity of persons:
God is not one in the same manner in which God is three. God is one tripersonal being, whereas tritheism would not entail a Trinitarian conception of essence and all it contemplates, whichexceeds mere consubstantial generic unity. Again, the divine nature contemplates one mind, one center of consciousness, one will etc. in a plurality of persons. That’s not a feature of polytheism (or the humanity of, say, Peter, James and John). Related and perhaps more significant is that it is impossible for the Father to be himself apart from eternally and necessarily begetting the Son, which is not at all analogous to the disunity in plurality within a pantheon of independent Greek gods. In other words, polytheism does not contemplate ageneric unity of persons of one mind, center of consciousness and will, that eternally exist in an indivisible unity of ontological origins of relations (unbegottennes, begottenness and procession). Additionally, a plurality of gods definitionally and conceptually could exist without godlike equals. Not so with the modes of subsistence of the ontological Trinity. Consequently, for Christianity to be tritheistic, polytheism would have to be radically redefined in order to include a monotheistic doctrine of Trinity! In other words, even if Christianity were to appear paradoxically as a religion of three gods, it would have no relevant resemblance to polytheism. In the final analysis, a false charge of tritheism equivocates over the notion of polytheism.
Perhaps the most absorbing aspect of it all is that the personal properties that defend against the charge of modalism appear to be the same ontological realities that establish the philosophical-theology of Trinitarian monotheism. (The exegetical foundations are, of course, less controversial.)
Back to our question above: If each person of the Trinity is a divine person, how do we avoid tritheism? In other words, if the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, how aren’t there three Gods?
That each person of the Godhead are divine doesn’t lead to three gods, for three gods would entail independent beings that aren’t numerically one in the way in which God is numerically one.
If modalism has been overcome, and the charge of polytheism does not stick due to all the entailments of divine essence (e.g., numerically one mind, conscience, will etc.), along with the eternally necessary inseparable-origins of personal properties that exist in perichoresis, then the coherence of Trinitarian orthodoxy is not affected. Of course, one can always dismiss the doctrine of the Trinity, but I don’t believe it may be justifiably dismissed on the grounds of contradictory doctrine.
Arne Verster of Apologetics Central and I discussed apologetics (last evening for me, this morning for Arne who lives in South Africa). This article of mine on the failure of classical apologetics was the impetus for our discussion.
The church will always have to war against false gospels. From the time of the Judaizers to this very day, the church has been bewitched by sacerdotalism, syncretism, decisional regeneration, social gospels, prosperity gospels, Lordship Salvation and many other false teachings.
Some of these deceptions are more obvious than others, depending upon the degree of marginalization of the person and work of Christ. All false gospels promise deliverance from one thing unto another. Things become a bit trickier when Christ remains at the center of the message.
While fundamentalists during the 1980s and ‘90s were on the lookout for anti-Christ, certain Reformed folk were setting their sights on Robert Schuller and then Joel Osteen, while still others were fighting the New Perspective on Paul and Federal Vision. During this time of disquiet, another false gospel not only received a wink but a motion toward a comfortable seat at the Reformed table. Lordship Salvation, promulgated by John MacArthur with endorsements by such notables as J.I. Packer and James Montgomery Boice, became a non-confessional doctrinal option in the broad tent of Reformed evangelicalism.
The MacArthur controversy wasn’t a fair fight. The Lordship gang of independently minded untouchables were picking on the theological weaklings within Arminian Antinomianism. Because the Reformed faith wasn’t under attack, many who grasped Reformed soteriology didn’t bother to take a side in the Lordship debate. Strictly speaking, there was no correct side to take! Both sides were wrong, though only one side positioned itself as historically Reformed. The prominent darlings within Reformed evangelicalism who weighed in on the debate were popularizers and preachers, not confessionally minded theologians. Although they took the Lordship side, the debate was largely dismissed as noise among Reformed academics because both sides were outside the tradition.
During the fog of war, a new starwas arising.
While MacArthur and company were flexing their independent muscles in the Reformed evangelical schoolyard, many on the fringe of Reformed confessional theology were spooked into confusing justifying faith with the fruit of progressive sanctification. Forsaking oneself and commitment of life replaced receiving and resting in Christ alone for justification. While certain crusaders falsely, yet confidently, claimed to be defending the faith once delivered unto the saints, a new star from the multi-cultural city of Manhattan was rising above the theological smog. This talented leader was not focused on the nature of saving faith, but on the evangelistic question of what the gospel offers sinners in a postmodern context.
With the stage presence and communication skills of a CEO of a multinational conglomerate, Tim Keller sought to identify and meet a legitimate need by trying to reach the nations for Christ in the dense 23 square miles of New York’s apple.
I know no Reformed pastor who has made more disciples in such a short period of time as Tim Keller. Even Keller’s disciples are already spawning disciples!
Fast forward to 2023. The new gospel eclipses the theology of the cross.
Instead of seeing the objective act of premarital relations as sin, our greatest need is to look away from self-centered romance in order to find life’s truest fulfillment in Christ alone. The offer of Christ is no longer an offer to receive God’s reconciliation, imputed righteousness and forgiveness for uncleanness, but rather is packaged as freedom from self-idolization and the vapid fulfillment of existential experience. Christ is offered to men and women as the door to freedom from the sin of self-imposed slavery. The world with all its social woes is our unmistakable object lesson. What unregenerate person could miss what is in plain sight! The world’s poverty, disunity and abusiveness is a result of a broken relationship with God. That’s the bad news. The good news is Jesus is the remedy for the unfulfilled life and all broken and abusive relationships. Christ will satisfy our needs if only we become satisfied with Christ. It is God who makes true worshippers through Jesus Christ. Herein we find a “take it to the streets” approach to Christian Hedonism.
The new gospel would be as attractive as it is relevant to the postmodern urbanite. Of course, hell too needed to be reworked a bit. Hell is no longer a place of eternal torment and punishment for sins against a loving yet wrathful God; and outer darkness is no longer accompanied by weeping and gnashing of teeth. Rather, hell is a reasoned trajectory of living one’s life without Christ at the center. It’s a dimension to be pondered more than a place to be feared. Hell is a philosophical extension of life lived without God. Hell contemplates the future eternality for disembodied spirits resulting from a meaningless temporal existence. It’s the expansion of this life, as opposed to the wages of sin. (Likewise, heaven isn’t an inheritance and sabbath rest from the battle against indwelling sin, as it is the transcendent spatial trajectory for the Christian after death.)
Does this gospel message sound familiar?
We live in a broken world in which we try to find meaning, acceptance and healing through material pleasures, careers, entertainment, community and intimate relationships. Perhaps we even try to find meaning by trying to be a good person. But no matter how hard we try, if we’re honest with ourselves we will admit that we cannot rid ourselves of emptiness. We always seem to suffer under abuse or broken relationships leading to further discontentment. No matter how often we become disillusioned with material things, ideologies and the relationships in which we entrust ourselves, we continue to turn to those idols for ultimate satisfaction and happiness even though they fail us without fail.
Our biggest problem is we are separated from God who made us to be in relationship with him. The good news is we can be restored to God who is the only one that can give our lives meaning. Jesus came to give us life abundant. But to be restored to God we must turn from self and believe Jesus paid for our sins. That is the only way our emptiness can be replaced with meaning. We need a relationship with God who is the author of all meaning. We need that relationship because God created us as relational beings.
The bad news is, if you continue to seek meaning apart from God, upon death you will enter into an eternal darkness void of all meaning and bliss. If you don’t seek in this life meaning from God, you’ll get your heart’s desire forever. You will reap for all eternity more of what you’re experiencing now, a meaningless life where self is at the center. Hell will be where you send yourself. Your punishment will be your unquenchable search to find fulfillment in created things, apart from God at the center. So, I urge you, come to Jesus for the forgiveness of sins so that you might find meaning now and forevermore. Only through Christ can God heal your brokenness and give your life the true meaning for which you were created and have been searching.
That’s basically a cocktail of gospel presentations I’ve read over the years. The problem isn’t that the word “sin” is utterly absent from the contemporary gospel presentation. Rather, sin is so ill-defined that the theology of the cross loses its context, and by that its relevance. If our greatest need may be motivated by a self-absorbed desire for meaning, then Christ crucified for sinners isn’t being offered.
Any gospel that denies the theology of the cross is another gospel. It’s also not very enticing!
If the “meaningless” of this life is life’s eternal penalty, I suppose most can accept that consequence without too much dread. But who will say they can embrace being cast into biblical hell? The stakes of the game of life aren’t terribly high if one actually enjoys his selfish life.
That man’s life outside Christ is meaningless is a minor point. Even Christians don’t always find fulfillment! Man has a sin problem. His very existence outside mystical union with Christ is an offense to God. The contemporary gospel isn’t that we can escape God’s wrath, gain a right standing to God’s law, and be adopted as sons of God in Christ. Today’s gospel exchanges life’s disappointments for meaning. The felt need we are to try to elicit with the gospel is one of purpose and fulfillment, not reconciliation through deliverance from the wages of sin, which is death.
The true meaning of the cross is contextualized not by purpose but by what is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness.
What we know by nature is not that our lives are meaningless but that we are under God’s wrath for our transgressions. The cross deals with man’s ultimate problem as revealed to us in conscience. It is in the context of God’s revelation that a theologically informed gospel of reconciliation must be preached. God’s fury is upon the impenitent, whether there is hope of better meaning or not! The relevant-relational aspect of the cross is that hell-bound enemies can become friends with God through the one time propitiatory sacrifice of Christ for our sins.
The theology of the cross and the doctrine of justification unearth man’s need and by extension the biblical gospel.
Consider the multi-faceted import of the cross of Christ:
* Propitiation presupposes wrath.
* Satisfaction presupposes justice, which again presupposes wrath.
* Expiation presupposes the middle ground of enmity being removed through a propitiatory sacrifice that exhausts God’s wrath.
* Reconciliation presupposes alienation because of sins that deserve God’s wrath.
* Sacrifice presupposes an offering for sin that deserves God’s wrath.
* Redemption presupposes deliverance from bondage, and condemnation, which demands God’s wrath.
* Love is Jesus suffering the unmixed wrath of God for unjust sinners.
The theology of the cross is not one of restoring meaning to life. The cross is a symbol of love, mercy and grace, which finds its only expression in the context of the wages of sin, which is death, not want of purpose. Because today’s gospel is not theological, it’s not biblical.
There’s a wisdom to the cross that relates to theological justification.
How the cross brings meaning to life isn’t at all obvious. However, when we begin to understand our need for mediatory reconciliation through a perfect righteousness and satisfaction for sins, the cross is not just intelligible but can be seen as the profound wisdom of God.
As I taught my adult daughters since they were little children, sinners like us need two things to stand before a holy and righteous God – a perfect righteousness that’s not our own and God’s gracious pardon for our sins. What we need to stand in the judgement is accomplished only through the active and passive obedience of Christ. Accordingly, our greatest need is not for meaning in life but to be justified in Christ. The new gospel dilutes our sin problem, and, therefore, the gospel’s remedy.
The contemporary gospel in light of the perceived need of postmodern sinners is way too creative:
Therefore, this approach:
Tim Keller has it backwards. One can be saved without understanding that sin is idolatry, but nobody can be saved without a self-awareness of “doing bad things”!
But aside from the obvious, the new gospel doesn’t live up to his own strictures. If confronting sexual lust is off limits to postmoderns due to idiosyncratic standards of subjectivity, then on what basis may we appeal to good and ultimate things when dealing with postmoderns? Don’t good and ultimate things presuppose God, his valuations, and ethical absolutes, no less than the guilt of sexual lust? Consequently, this new message is no less arbitrary than it is inconsistent. The gospel has become too clever by half!
If this technique is more effective, it’s not because it philosophically comports with postmodernism. Indeed, this technique is less confrontational, but that’s because it probes the non-offensive and speculative why, as opposed to declaring the objective fact of what. It shifts the focus from an uncomfortable discussion about the immediate and obvious acts of sin (that mustn’t be declared as sin!), and tries to map a want of true fulfillment to a contestable defect that’s general to all. This approach is too impersonal, not relevant and, therefore, contra-relational. (Oh, the irony!)
Jesus calls out the greedy for their greed, not for their lack of fulfillment. The woman at Sychar was confronted for her promiscuity, not her idolatrous reasons for it. Judgement will be according to deeds done in flesh, so why avoid a conversation about “doing bad things”? (Revelation 20:12) There’s no authoritative word from God that reduces the reason for fornication to misplaced fulfillment. In fact, idolatry is frequently listed as one sin among many, but not a source for any. (I Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19–21; Ephesians 5:5; Rev 22:14)
The new gospel trades in non-confrontational high talk by positing sins such as fornication as an extension of idolatry, a fruit of sorts. By trying to identify the root of sin instead of addressing concrete sin, (over which the Spirit convicts and exposes), our need for Christ becomes too abstract. Sin is redefined and consolidated into making good and finite things ultimate. Whereas people know fornication is sin, it is not so obvious that the reason for fornication is due to not being satisfied with God.
Not to belabor the point:
We can be assured that the Holy Spirit, for a time, will bring conviction upon the simplicity of fornication, but on what basis do we think that the Holy Spirit convicts sinners according to a complex derivation that concludes guilt for trying to find meaning and pleasure in self-centeredness?
Fornication is the corruption of something good for a myriad of complex reasons that are not necessarily clear to us. For instance, one might fornicate for a need for money, which could be due to expensive physical addictions that are no longer traceable to idolatry. Or, one might fornicate because of being turned over to sin because of idolatry. In other words, fornication can be punishment for idolatry but not due to an active pursuit of idolatry. One could even fornicate to get back at one’s parents, or to take vengeance on the spouse of their partner. One might commit such acts of the flesh to gain power over someone else, or because someone has gained power over her. One even might become increasingly idolatrous because he is a fornicator! One can develop physical dependence on fornication that no longer seeks the sin for idolatrous reasons. The pattern of sin can be circular rather linear. For instance, greed can be the source of increased idolatry by which increased idolatry gives way to more greed. In sum, the new gospel engages in a losing apologetic by getting into speculative analyses rather than sticking to sin and the offense of the cross.
The Spirit binds himself to revelation, not speculation:
The Spirit convicts according to the law of God. If one suppresses the pending judgment for fornication, then what hope is there that the alleged philosophical root of fornication will be any less suppressed? Would we plead with a postmodern serial killer on death row to confess his sin of murder, or would we ask him to search for the idolatrous intricate reasons for his sins so that he might repent of those?
How theologically abstract and removed from the immediate sin at hand do we really want to get, and which want of conformity to the law of God should take preeminence? By deifying created things (like fornication), we indeed manufacture idols of the heart. No Christian should question that. But isn’t idolatry often rooted in a lack of love for God, which can stem back even further to a lack of faith in God’s goodness? There’s a theological breadth and depth to sin that is eclipsed and trivialized by glossing it all over as idolatry.
It’s at best trite to map all sin to the one sin of idolatry. God gave us the Ten Commandments, not just the first of ten. Even if it were possible to trace all sin back to some broad understanding of idolatry, paradigmatic theology such as this ends up passing the granular particularity of sin through a filter so permeable that nothing specific to the individual is captured, while most everything passes through as indistinguishably irrelevant. Should we try to trace all sin back to pride, a lack of love, self-centeredness or any other root of evil? Or would a more biblical approach be to try to gently expose the sin that is obviously before us, in hope that God might be pleased to illuminate lost friends to other contributing sins, as we trust that in the light we might see light. (Psalm 36:9)
It’s beyond my pay grade to discern why a man would defile a women or why a women would ensnare a man. What I do know is one must repent of such sins and trust in Christ to be saved.
Perhaps the reason postmodernists don’t resist such gospel confrontation is because postmodernism has no place for the absolute truth of idolatry! Or perhaps it’s just because such an approach isn’t quick and powerful, or sharper than a two-edged sword. (It’s decidedly dull.) Yet even if our postmodernist friends, as they try to remain true to their worldview, were to acknowledge their subjective idolatry while trying to rid themselves of its fruits, then it wouldn’t be because idolatry is inherently and objectively sinful on God’s say-so, but because their anxiety is selfishly inconvenient, which itself is an idolatrous motivation!
Any offer of salvation that doesn’t offer the hope of forgiveness through the theology of the cross isn’t good news. It’s another gospel, which isn’t another. (Galatians 1:6,7)
As for the “gospel for the uncircumcised”, the Bible is clear.
When it comes to the question of the eternal state of those who’ve never heard of Jesus, at last three views have gained attention over the years, all of which entail Christ’s redemptive work.
1. Good works release Christ’s benefits.
2. The Holy Spirit baptizes people into Christ.
3. People will get a chance to receive Christ after death.
Let’s take a brief look at these views, though there are others.*
1. Good works release Christ’s benefits:
Evangelicals believe Christ’s redemptive work is the basis for man’s pardon and right standing before God. Notwithstanding, some evangelicals maintain that those who by no fault of their own never hear the gospel can be justified apart from faith in Christ. The work of Christ is necessary for salvation but because one cannot possibly believe in a Savior who remains unknown to them, there can be no faith by which the benefits of Christ’s saving work can be appropriated. Consequently, something other than faith in Christ is needed to release the benefits of the Christ. By framing one’s life according to the light of nature, it’s believed the un-evangelized can be saved. (Roman Catholicism teaches a similar view.)
There are many exegetical and theological problems with such a view, not the least of which is man’s depravity. Given that (a) without the grace of faith it is impossible to please God, and (b) unregenerate man can do no spiritual good – we are correct to infer that works of the flesh cannot be looked upon with divine favor. (Hebrews 11:6; WCF 16.7) Since the flesh profits nothing, we simply cannot righteously frame our lives according to the light of nature. (John 6:63) Apropos, even the good works unbelievers perform are a fruit of sinful passions that seek respectability and enlightened self-interest, not God’s glory and Fatherly approval. Consequently, framing our lives according to the light of nature apart from regeneration cannot result in divine favor and the reward of Christ’s redemption no matter how magnanimous the rewarder.
2. The Holy Spirit baptizes people into Christ:
This invites the question of whether regeneration unto union with Christ and all his saving benefits ever occurs apart from the ministry of the Word. In other words, since the works of the flesh can only accuse one who remains outside of Christ, might we expect that where the gospel has not been preached the Holy Spirit operatively unites some people to Christ and all his saving benefits without self-consciousness?
In response to this proposal, Scripture informs that we receive the rebirth through the living and abiding word of God. (1 Peter 1:23) Moreover, it is God’s will that fallen sinners are brought forth into the new creation by the word of truth. (James 1:18) Consequently, the Word-Spirit principle doesn’t bode well for hope of union with Christ apart from saving faith in Christ.
We’re not out of the woods yet. We must reconcile the promise to elect covenant children who die out of season with the promise to the elect who are afar off.
Although it is normative that the Holy Spirit works life by giving increase to the intelligible gospel, we may not dismiss salvific hope for the un-evangelized in a way that would undermine the salvation of elect infants dying in infancy. In other words, if elect infants dying in infancy are regenerate and united to Christ apart from cognizant faith, then why can’t unreached people groups be saved in the same way as infants? We must do justice to the hypothetical. May we expect that God sometimes unites to Christ those outside the covenant community apart from the ministry of the Word?
Given their cognitive limitations, infants of the faithful cannot be born again by means of the Spirit granting increase to a gospel message that is intelligible to them. Notwithstanding, we have biblical precedent to regard children of the faithful as God’s heritage in Christ. (CoD 1.17; WCF 10.3) Consequently, the Reformed tradition rightly maintains that God may be pleased to regenerate covenant children, those incapable of being called, and elect infants who die in infancy apart from them ever understanding the gospel and exercising saving faith. (2 Samuel 12:23; Psalm 103:17,18; Luke 1:15;41; CoD 1.17; WCF 10.3)
However, there is no biblical precedent whatsoever that suggests the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the cognitively mature that are providentially outside the orbit of gospel ministry. Moreover, it’s not merely pure speculation that some who abide in unreached lands ever live regenerate lives – the rhetorical force of Romans chapter ten would seem to settle the matter. Scripture alone must set our boundaries of expectation. God reaches the nations with the gospel. (Acts 18:10; Mt: 28:19,20)
3. People will get a chance to receive Christ after death:
Other evangelicals believe that faith in Christ alone is necessary for salvation but that those who of no fault of their own never hear the gospel can nonetheless be saved, but not by their good works! It is believed that Christ will be offered to the unreached after death. The rationale is grounded in God’s love for sinners and a subjective sense of fairness.
Such a position is decidedly undermined because it has been appointed for a man once to die and then the judgment. (Hebrews 9:27) And as before, the rhetorical force of Romans chapter ten precludes any other means of salvation for the nations other than God calling sinners to Christ through the preaching of the gospel between Christ’s two advents.
What’s behind such speculation?
What is perhaps most intriguing in all of this are the theological assumptions that seem to underpin such speculation. Since exegetical arguments don’t always persuade, we might want to consider briefly some of those assumptions in a more general way.
Would God be unjust or unloving to judge each one according to his works even if Christ is not preached to all?
Do all people deserve a salvific lifeline, or does the meaning of grace dispel such a notion?
Is there reason not to believe that God has seen fit to ensure that all who would believe (by grace) will be reached with the gospel in this life? My focus is on Calvinists. How biblically sensible is it to believe in unconditional election but not the ordained means of reaching those who have been chosen in Christ?
Let’s assume a free offer of the gospel after death. Would it make a difference?
To reject the gospel is to deny its prophetic validity. Those who do so, do so willfully. They suppress the impending judgment and scorn God’s redemptive love for sinners. They put off in disbelief their only hope in this life and the next. Whereas we who embrace the Savior are as unworthy as they. Some receive grace; others receive justice.
With our Calvinism in place, let’s push the mental reset button and imagine a depraved sinner who has never heard of Christ yet is offered salvation for the first time as he gazes into the fiery abyss, standing before Christ seated on a great white throne. Surely the truth of the gospel couldn’t be made plainer! Just imagine the scene. From the face of Christ both the earth and heaven have fled away. There is no place to hide. All men and women, boys and girls who were ever conceived are now at once standing before Christ on his throne. Imagine further all those who never heard of Jesus being given not an alter call but a call to the visible throne of God. Before the great white throne all who’ve never heard of Jesus are given a chance to receive the same Christ who was already freely offered in the gospel to all the rest.
If such a vivid and profound gospel invitation is warranted for those who for no fault of their own never heard the gospel, then given such an exceedingly more persuasive display of the message of repent or perish, would it not be “fair” for all to have a chance such as this? In other words, if it can be somehow deemed unfair, or out of character for God, not to give everyone a chance to receive Christ, how would it be fair not to give each person this same vivid offer and advantage to receive the Savior? In other words, would it be fair to grant some the sight of heaven and hell while others are only presented in this life the gospel in words, perhaps even badly through an impersonal gospel tract? Indeed, if the unreached are given such a chance as this to receive the Savior not by faith but by sight, then might it be more loving not to preach Christ at all so that all might benefit from such an extraordinary opportunity? After all, what would be more convincing, (a) Jesus on the throne and hell itself yawing before the unbeliever, or (b) the gospel declared by even the best of human preachers?
Back to our Calvinism:
Given the theology of electing grace, there is no more persuasive power to save vis-à-vis the experiential visual of the final judgement than there is when redeemed sinners share the good news of Christ with far less urgency at a coffee shop. It’s God who persuades, not circumstances.
Are we even asking the right question?
The question at hand is will the gospel be offered after death? Let’s contextualize the question within biblical Calvinism.
There will be no more suppression of many gospel truths at the final judgement. The incarnation along with the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ will no longer be denied in unrighteousness. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus is Lord, all to the glory of God the Father. Moreover, we can expect that every person will cry out for mercy on that great and terrible day! Yet what I think is sometimes overlooked is that there’s a significant difference between crying out “have mercy on me” and contritely crying out “have mercy on me a sinner.” The first cry is of one who repudiates God’s just sentence against him. Whereas the second cry for mercy is from one who has been sovereignly granted the grace of repentance and faith.
So, with respect to those like Tim Keller and James Beilby who tenderly hold out hope for the unreached in this way, what do they think might occur? The only plea for mercy that will gain God’s attention is one in which God sovereignly grants repentance.So, the question we should be asking is not whether Christ will be offered at the judgement, but is there reason to believe that God will be pleased to convert at the judgment those who are still defying him? Perhaps more strikingly put, will God be drawing unconverted elect persons to himself after death while leaving other unconverted souls in their sin?
If the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus tells us anything, isn’t it that death is final and mankind will still try to instruct God even while in torment?
No matter how vivid – whether at the final judgement or through the preaching of one from the dead – no amount of chances to bend the knee and flee God’s wrath can soften the heart of fallen man. Enmity is a deep seated condition, while salvation through faith is the gift of God.
Some lose ends tied around the question of equitable punishment:
It is often wondered, how can a just payment for sin be everlasting given merely a lifetime of sin? The pat answer is that what seems disproportionate at first glance gains its proper proportion once we consider the infinitely holy and benevolent One who has been sinned against. That satisfies me. There’s a difference between sinning against one who has provoked us and sinning against One who is perfect and has only done good toward us. What also satisfies me is I see no reason to doubt that the damned will continue to store up an increase of wrath as they curse God forevermore. So, aside from properly proportioning our sins against an infinitely good and holy God, we have another answer for the professing atheists who have claimed along with annihilationists that it would be unjust to serve an infinite sentence for a mere lifetime of sin. Sin will continue throughout eternity, and those additional sins may be justly dealt with by God.
Lastly, nobody will have served an “infinite amount of time” in hell at any point throughout his entire sentence. Throughout eternity nobody will ever have suffered but a finite number of days. Eternity cannot be exhausted or traversed. So, the idea that a finite number of days oughtn’t deserve an infinite number of day’s penalty is a meritless complaint.
Hell is not a pleasurable contemplation. Those who’ve tried to find a “trap door” for those who’ve never heard of Jesus are, I believe, more keenly sensitive to the idea of eternal suffering than perhaps I. In a sense, I admire and respect such brothers and sisters in this regard. Just the same, we may not go beyond what Scripture teaches.
* Other views of Exclusivism include Universalism (everyone will be saved) and what I’ve labeled Counterfactual Inclusivism (those who would believe if offered the gospel will be granted salvation apart from the gospel).
In recent years the debates of the Reformation period have taken priority over the theology of the debates. Somehow possessing vast acquaintance with multiple sides of doctrinal disputes has in some circles become more academically impressive and pastorally relevant than possessing an intimate working-understanding of which doctrines are theologically Reformed and defensible. Consequently, there has not just been a blurring of Reformed confessional boundaries but, also, some churches and presbyteries have intentionally erased their doctrinal walls of protection. None of this is surprising once we consider that the formal teaching of systematic theology has at many institutions been relegated to historians rather than theologians. This phenomenon has opened the door to subjective and more novel takes on settled matters of theological intricacy. Stated differences and exceptions to confessional standards are not taken seriously. Pastors and ruling elders needn’t be acquainted with their confessions, let alone be theologians, as long as their views can be accompanied by a fragile appeal to confessional standards being a “consensus document” along with citing a scattered few seventeenth century theologians who held to sometimes esoteric views that did not win the confessional day. One can now earn an honorary degree of “Reformed orthodoxy” merely by possessing an air of historical understanding without actually subscribing to much of what was once upheld as Reformed theology.
A way back?
If we are to recapture objective confessional theology, we must stop confusing Reformed theology with Reformed theologians. The former is an objective consideration whereas the latter is a subjective matter of degree. A pastor can be more or less Reformed, but a doctrine either is or is not Reformed. Conflating the two leads to recasting “Reformed” theology in terms of a multitude of broadly based theologians rather than the particular Reformed confessions that were providentially produced by and through them.
From hereafter I’ll be referring to the Westminster standards as representative of confessional Reformed theology in the context of churches that on paper subscribe to it.
In ascertaining whether a particular doctrine is Reformed or not, we mustn’t fall prey to misleading slogans that deflect and obfuscate rather than define and defend. It is irrelevant that “good men have been on both sides of the issue” or that the doctrine under consideration is “not a test of orthodoxy.” It doesn’t even matter whether the doctrine in view is correct! When determining whether a particular doctrine is Reformed or not, the only question of relevance is whether the doctrine is contained in or necessitated by the confession of faith.
Reformed theology is just that, the theology of a Reformed confession. A doctrine is Reformed if it agrees with or is implied by confessional theology. Whether one’s professed theology is Reformed must be measured against an objective standard. Otherwise, what are we even talking about? Moreover, an acceptable doctrine might not be defined or implied by the confession. We may call such doctrine extra-confessional, but not all extra-confessional doctrines are un-confessional. Amillenialism and Postmillenialism are extra-confessional because the confession doesn’t take a position (implied or otherwise) on the triumph of the gospel in the world; whereas premillennialism is not only extra-confessional, it is also un-confessional because of the general resurrection and single judgement (WLC 87, 88). So, just because William Twisse was historical premillennial doesn’t mean he or his eschatology is Reformed in this regard. Similarly, the baptismal regeneration doctrine of Cornelius Burgess, which contemplates an infusion of grace for the elect at the font, is not Reformed because it’s not confessional.
It should be apparent, if we were to allow the unfiltered theology of the Westminster Divines to define Reformed Theology for us, our confession would not be a fair representation of Reformed theology! Our confession could become contra-Reformed depending upon the particular theologian to which one might appeal for doctrinal precedent. Consequently, true Reformed theology cannot be defined by particular Divines but instead must be elucidated by the doctrinal standards they produced.
A “consensus” document does not preclude certain doctrines from having won the day. Certain Divines championed what is now settled un-confessional doctrine.
Regarding confessional status, any (a) direct contradiction of the confession or (b) extra-confessional teaching that leads to intra-confessional doctrinal contradiction may be confidently rejected for being un-confessional even if not explicitly refuted by the church’s standards (regardless if a delegate to the assembly held the view in question). Otherwise, we unnecessarily introduce incoherence and confusion into our system of doctrine. Also, any doctrine that is theologically derivable from other confessional doctrines must be considered no less confessional than the doctrines from which they come. Otherwise, we would not be able to refute on confessional grounds doctrinal claims that oppose the necessary implications of our own theology!
Let’s put some meat on the bones by making the abstract practical:
Any view of free will (e.g. libertarian freedom) that by implication entails that God is merely contingently infallible, not exhaustively omniscient, or undermines God’s independence and aseity, must be rejected as un-confessional. Conversely, if compatibilist type freedom is the only type of freedom that comports with confessional theology proper and the theological determinism of the divine decree (WCF 3.2), then such a doctrine of free will is Reformed and none other.
Even though the Divines didn’t have the advantage of the philosophical refinements of the past three hundred years, their system of doctrine requires the compatibility of free will, moral accountability and God’s determination of all things (including the free choices of men). Consequently, adherence to the Westminster standards in toto entails a rejection of libertarian Calvinism and, therefore, requires an affirmation of something else. (Richard Muller and Oliver Crisp are simply mistaken.)
So it is with John Davenant’s hypothetical universalism, which leads to intra-confessional doctrinal incoherence. If the salvation of the non-elect is not metaphysically possible, then hypothetical universalism’s most distinguishing feature (i.e., the possibility of the salvation of “vessels of wrath”) is false. After all, if it were truly possible that the non-elect might be saved, then God who believes all truth would believe contrary truths: (a) Smith might believe and (b) Smith won’t believe. Consequently, Davenant’s view of the atonement undermines a confessional understanding of God, and on that basis alone is un-confessional and must be rejected as being outside the Reformed tradition.
In addition to rejecting doctrine that would deny Reformed doctrine as plainly stated in the Confession, we must embrace other doctrines as no less Reformed than the Reformed teachings from which they derive. Things can get a bit more uncomfortable here, but that is what it is to do theology! Being Reformed entails a bit more than sipping peaty scotch from Islay while stroking our chins as we discuss the minutes and papers of the Westminster Assembly.
A few other Reformed doctrines that are no less confessional yet are derived by good and necessary inference:
By systemizing Reformed doctrine, we can infer other Reformed doctrines that the church does not always recognize as Reformed yet should.
With the recent enthusiasm over Thomas Aquinas and non-Reformed scholarship, attention has been directed away from Reformed doctrine and consequently away from necessary theological implications of that doctrine. The consequence has been that certain Reformed doctrines have been eclipsed either through ignorance, weakness, or our own deliberate fault.
For instance, it is plain vanilla Reformed doctrine to “disapprove of all false worship and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, along with all monuments of idolatry.” (WLC 108) It is also Reformed doctrine to consider the Roman Catholic mass a form of false worship and idolatrous. (WCF 25:5-6) Given that Reformed doctrine teaches that we are to pray that God’s kingdom come and that his precepts be done (WLC 191-192), it is derivable Reformed doctrine that Christians should desire the lawful removal of the centerpiece of Roman Catholic experience, the mass. But instead, rather than regarding the superstitious nature of transubstantiation as repugnant (Article 28 of 39), the unskilled in the Reformed tradition celebrate Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the chief apologist for the idolatry of the hocus pocus of the mass. It’s madness.
In the spirit of confessional fidelity, we may take no prisoners. When we combine the relatively well known confessional teaching about working on the sabbath with its counterpart teaching from WLC 99 pertaining to our moral duty toward those who do, we may validly deduce as Reformed theology that restaurants may not be patronized on Sundays. This is not a matter of subjective sabbath application that’s up for grabs, at least not by Reformed standards. It’s a good and necessary consequence of settled Reformed theology. Going to restaurants on Sunday entails sin by Reformed standards. One may reject that teaching, but let’s not pretend that to do so is not to reject a deducible tenet of Reformed confessional theology.
Given a Reformed understanding of marriage, divorce, covenant and vows, it’s easily derivable that divorce among professing believers for “abandonment” is to be accompanied by ecclesiastical censure.
By not “fencing the Table” the Reformed doctrine of the visible church is implicitly denied. (WCF 25:2,3; 26:2)
By intimating that children of professing believers join the church upon profession of faith is to deny the Reformed meaning of baptism and the doctrine of the visible church. (WCF 25:2; 28:1)
By not disciplining delinquent church members who depart and don’t in due time join another evangelical church, the doctrine of the visible church is violated. Also, the solemnity of lawful oaths and vows are compromised. (WCF 22:3,5; 25:2)
By condoning movies, books or nativities with images of Jesus, the Reformed teaching on the Second Commandment is denied. (WLC 109)
We could go on and on, but the point should be apparent. Pastors and elders are breaking their vows to uphold and defend their Confession. We’ve drifted.
The church and its darlings afford additional confusion:
A renowned Reformed theologian and popularizer-extraordinaire of Reformed theology denied certain Reformed doctrines such as the impeccability of Christ and the Christian sabbath. His view of the former unwittingly and unashamedly denied confessional Christology either by abstracting the human nature from the divine person or attributing personhood to the human nature. Either way, his doctrine of Christ had heretical underpinnings. (Who cared?) Whereas his view of the Christian sabbath entailed more explicit confessional denials. It’s relevant because it is widely believed by massive amounts of Christians and non-Christians alike that anything produced by his thriving ministry must be Reformed.
Conference speakers on Reformed theology often include pastors and leaders who are un-confessional in their convictions on the charismatic gifts, the sacraments and the return of Christ. The upshot is that those three doctrinal aberrations alone, if not of serious concern enough, entail further confessional conflict as they impinge upon the canon of Scripture; Christian liberty of conscience; the visible church; loving discipline of covenant children who fall away from the faith; the number of eschatological judgements; kingdom consummation; Israel and the church, and more. One of those speakers was for years wrong on the doctrines of justification and the eternal sonship of Christ, and to this day has not recanted of adding works to justifying faith! The relevance is, Reformed theology has consequently yet erroneously taken on broad meaning due to the church’s darlings.
Lastly, it is common practice to reduce Reformed theology to the “five points”. Obviously, that’s poor procedure. However, it is equally hazardous to think that TULIP does not put forth Reformed doctrine. Does TULIP sufficiently define Reformed thought? Of course not. But is it no longer necessary to subscribe to the soteriological doctrines of TULIP to be considered a Reformed theologian? A growing number are beginning to doubt the Reformed relevance of T and L, and I believe the trail of confusion can be traced back to a few church historians.
Needless to say, Reformed doctrine is intertwined, therefore, to deny one doctrine is to deny others. Notwithstanding, the main takeaway is that what traditionally defined the boundaries of Reformed orthodoxy has been exchanged for the individualistic theology of our favorite conference speaker, Twitter theologian or some historical theological figure who in God’s good providence failed to persuade his peers on failed doctrine. Such a mindset has led to Reformed doctrinal skepticism through unworkable inclusiveness. Consequently, the theology of our confession has become un-confessional depending on which Divine, darling or conference speaker defines “Reformed” for any given individual. We can do better. Indeed, we must do better(!), but pastors must begin leading their elders and congregations to a biblical theology that is not just “Reformed” but truly Reformed,which means confessional. May God be pleased to raise up leaders for a true modern reformation. Enough is enough.
Since the time of originally publishing the article, I’ve been asked about “Reformed Baptist” theology, and the alleged marginalization of other Reformed confessions.
The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith:
Although the Baptist Confession in large part tracks with the historical theology of the Reformed confessions in general (and the Westminster confession in particular), it nonetheless departs from Reformed doctrinal tradition (and catholic doctrine), most notably over the doctrines of the church and infant baptism.
If Reformed theology is to have a chance of internal consistency, then either the Westminster standards or the confession of 1689 must be representative of Reformed theology on those two points of theology.
The Westminster standards calls the Baptist practice of withholding baptism (and by implication the denial of infants their covenantal standing in the visible church) great sin. Consequently, if Reformed doctrine extends so far as to entail contrary positions, then persons and confessions cannot be Reformed without contradiction.
This isn’t at all like amillennialism vs. postmillenialism, which are extra-confessional considerations that aren’t un-confessional. Rather, given the explicitly stated doctrinal differences over baptism and ecclesiastical covenantal standing, at least one confession must be false and both cannot be Reformed.
If infant baptism is wrong, then Reformed baptism is wrong and the Reformed didn’t reform enough. The common assertion from Baptists is that the Reformed did not reform enough; yet that presupposes infant baptism is both wrong and Reformed! After all, wasn’t there a Reformed view of baptism prior to 1689? Well, what was it? That’s why one group is called Reformed and the other is called Reformed Baptist. “Reformed Paedo-Baptist” is simply redundant.
An exhaustive argument for infant baptism can be found here.
Other Reformed documents:
Regarding other Reformed doctrinal statements such as those that comprise the Three Forms of Unity (3FU), the same principle of reasoning applies. If there are contrary doctrines between 3FU and the Westminster standards, at least one set of documents must be false and both cannot be Reformed if being Reformed entails the possibility of no contradictions.
For ease of discussion and giventhe expansive nature of the Westminster standards, I noted toward the outset:
That’s hardly a novel concept, as we see it utilized by James Anderson an Paul Manata in their interaction with Oliver Crisp and Richard Muller: “Taking the Westminster Confession of Faith as representative of the Reformed tradition…”
Suggesting that one confession was exalted over another is not only false but also self-refuting if it’s thought that (a) there is no contradiction between the various sets of doctrine and (b) the Westminster standards are not missing any essential doctrine* of Reformed theology or adding anything contrary to the tradition. (*Is there a doctrine that is missing from the Westminster standards that precludes it from being an adequate representation of Reformed theology?)
To disagree with (a) leads us back to: “If there are contrary doctrines between 3FU and the Westminster standards, at least one set of documents must be false and both cannot be Reformed if being Reformed entails the possibility of no contradictions.”
Yet if the disagreement is with (b), then it’s curious why after multiple requests no attempt was made to show that the Westminster standards are lacking in any essential doctrine of Reformed theology or adding un-Reformed doctrine.
Perhaps the interlocutors realized at least on some psychological level that to have posited (a) or (b) would undermine either the consistency of the Reformed tradition or the adequacy of the Westminster standards as representing the tradition they claim as their own.
The following quote is taken from a review of the book John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism: A Defense of Catholic and Reformed Orthodoxy. By Michael J. Lynch.
The reviewer attributes the quote to the author of the book.
Hypothetical universalism (HU) implies that,
p1: Christ’s death secured the possibility of salvation for all human beings
p2: Christ’s death secured the surety of salvation for the elect alone.
An entailment of HU is that it is truly possible for the non-elect to be saved.
A few words about possibility:
In a colloquial sense we might say, “It is possible that Parker will accept an offer to come for lunch.” In such instances we don’t know whether Parker will accept such an offer, for in our finitude we don’t know the actual outcome of any such offer. Therefore, only in a non-technical sense might we say that it is possible that Parker accepts an offer for lunch.
Similarly, we might say, “It is possible that Warby will receive Christ and be saved.” In an informal sense, we would deem it possible that Warby becomes a believer because from our finite perspective, there is nothing we know that necessarily precludes Warby’s salvation. For all we know, Warby would savingly believe if offered Christ in the gospel. Surely, there are possible worlds God can bring into existence or “actualize” (called feasible worlds) in which Warby freely believes and is saved.
The question and requisite tools for answering:
The question before us is whether the doctrine of election precludes the possibility of salvation for the non-elect. If it does, then HU is false doctrine given the doctrine of election.
Before proceeding, it might be good to begin with some initial spadework regarding (a) logical and metaphysical possibility, (b) feasible and infeasible world semantics, and (c) the relevant implications of divine foreknowledge.
The logic of possibility:
In logic, possibility entails the absence of contradiction. In the realm of what is often called strict or narrow sense logic, logical possibility (as opposed to metaphysical possibility) is concerned more with words and symbols than definitions. So, for instance, it is a narrowly logical possibility that,
p3: God does not exhaustively know the future.
Whereas it is logically impossible that,
p4: God in his divine nature does not know the future while simultaneously (and in the same way) knowing the future in his divine nature.
The reason p3 is logically possible in this esoteric sense is because without an orthodox definition of God informing us about God, there is nothing in the formulation of the words that denote logical contradiction.
Whereas even without an orthodox definition of God, p4 entails an inferable logical contradiction because it violates the law of non-contradiction by asserting in contradictory form that God both knows the future and does not know the future. Unlike with p3, p4 takes a form of x and ~x being true…
Now, of course, we know that God is exhaustively omniscient. We, also, know that it is impossible that God not know the future. Although it may be said in an esoterically logical sense that God does not know the future; we know that God would not be God if he did not know the future! In other words, it would be impossible in a more meaningful sense for God not to know the future. The impossibility in view is a metaphysical consideration that takes into account God as God.
So, it is a broadly logical impossibility that God is not omniscient. We say “broadly” because something additional is now informing our understanding of p3, namely a property of God. With that additional meaning in place, we may properly maintain that it is a metaphysical impossibility that God does not know the future. Furthermore, this is abstractly demonstrable when we consider that there is no feasible world in which God does not know the future. And because no infeasible world can be actualized, there is no relevant possibility of God not knowing the future. (These two concepts are correlative: (a) the impossibility of God not knowing the future and (b) the infeasibility of an actualized world that would include such a feature as (a). In other words, the impossibility of a less than omniscient God and an infeasible world that contemplates such a being entail reciprocal implications.)
What does this have to do with HU?
There are feasible worlds in which Adam does not fall and Judas does not deny the Lord for thirty pieces of silver. In any such world, God would believe that Adam would resist temptation and Judas would not sell out the Lord for thirty pieces of silver. Conversely, there is no feasible world in which God believes something about Adam or Judas that does not come to pass. The feature of such infeasible worlds that makes them such is the entailment of the metaphysical impossibility of God having a false belief.
Recall again, our HU entailments:
p1: Christ’s death secured the possibility of salvation for all human beings
p2: Christ’s death secured the surety of salvation for the elect alone.
Those two propositions do not rule out actual universalism (i.e., worlds in which all will be saved). Nor do they rule out universal reprobation (i.e., worlds in which all are damned). To avoid actual universalism and while we’re at it, universal reprobation, we may add something like p*, which does not undermine the intent of HU for those who affirm divine exhaustive omniscience.
p*: If God is exhaustively omniscient and all human beings are not elect in this actual world (PWa), yet some are, then God believes that at least one particular human being will not be saved.
HU is false:
Given p* and p2, p1 is false because it is impossible that all end up saved when all are not believed by God to be elect. Additionally, if p1 is false, then HU is false since p1 is essential to HU.
Why is p1 false?
Again, p1: Christ’s death secured the possibility of salvation for all human beings.
We need to ask, are there any feasible worlds (PWa, PWb, PWc…. PWn) about which God can have a false belief? (Of course such worlds are logically possible in a narrow sense, but are they metaphysically possible, or meaningfully possible?) Can God actualize a world about which God believes something false? If not, then such worlds are broadly illogical and metaphysically impossible. Therefore, statistically speaking, assume the set of infinite feasible worlds of which God believes that within each world one or more human beings are not elect. In zero of those worlds would the alleged “possibility” of salvation for a non-elect person ever obtain!
Now then, what is the probability of an outcome that would have zero occurrences given an infinite number of trials? Well, zero, of course.* Yet if there is zero probability of a non-elect person becoming saved in the set of all feasible worlds, then how is it meaningfully “possible” for any such person to become saved? (The Molinist claim that such a person could be saved though never would be saved is refuted here.)
If the salvation of the non-elect is not metaphysically possible in a statistical sense, then HU’s most essential feature (p1) is false, making the theory of HU false. Directly stated, it is not possible that a non-elect person believes and becomes saved any more than it is possible that a non-elect person becomes elect. HU fails the coherence test.
Furthermore, if God believes in the possibility of the salvation of the non-elect while simultaneously believing it is impossible that a non-elect person would ever be saved in n trials, then how does God avoid believing that salvation is possible and not possible in the same way, which is not just metaphysically impossible for God but also would require God to be logically incoherent? Yet if God does not believe in the true possibility of the salvation of the non-elect, then there is no true possibility of their salvation in the first place given God believes all truth.
*Events that are impossible have zero probability of occurrence, which should not be confused with zero probability events that are not necessarily impossible occurrences. Impossibility is sufficient for zero probability but the reverse is not necessarily true. Consider a dart board with an infinite number of points with the precise circumference of the point of a dart. The probability of a thrown dart piercing a particular point on the board is 1 over infinity. However, the dart will hit some particular point on the dart board. So, it is possible an event occurs that has zero probability of occurring. This is not the case with impossible events, although they too have zero probability of occurring.
Given the theory of middle knowledge, the content of what is known by middle knowledge is not contingent.
The author conflates (i) the contingency of the actualization of a possible world that includes a particular object of middle knowledge, (a counterfactual of creaturely freedom), with (ii) the necessity of the abstract propositional content of a counterfactual that contemplates what would be the case if (a) a particular moral agent were to be instantiated and (b) “various states of affairs were to obtain.” If middle knowledge is true, the wouldness of the abstract propositional counterfactual pertains to what is necessarily true regardless of whether the agent in the context of the relevant states of affairs physically obtains through actualization or not. (Not so with Christian compatibilism.)
In other words, if p is true:
p = If person S were in state of affairs C, S would freely A
then, p is true whether S and C obtain through actualization or not. The alleged contingency of S’s free choice cannot falsify the necessity of p, if p is an object of middleknowledge.
Infeasible worlds can include God’s knowledge of contingent truths that are outside God’s free determination and also not a reflection of God’s being. They are worlds that are “narrowly logical” while metaphysically impossible to actualize. Infeasible worlds are a product of semantic sophistry, an invention often used to park might-counterfactuals that are not would-counterfactuals. (They’re also sometimes unwittingly implied when trying to defend untenable doctrines like the peccability of Christ and hypothetical universalism. They’re irrelevant worlds that are not broadly logical.)
But for our purposes, given Molinism, if A would be freely chosen by S given C in one feasible (actualizable) world, that counterfactual would be the case in all feasible worlds. Yet that would make the counterfactual a necessary truth (on middle knowledge terms), though its actualization would be contingently true. Although within Molinism S “might” (and therefore “might not”) choose A given state of affairs C, if S would choose A in C, then the knowability of the would-counterfactual must entail the necessary truth bearing proposition of the counterfactual, one that would be true in abstract propositional form in all actualizable worlds. After all, if that were not the case, then knowing state of affairs C (and the workings of S) would not provide the grounding God needs in order to know the counterfactual that, A would be freely chosen by S under circumstance C. More can and has been said. So, nuff said.
I can understand Arminians saying such a thing but when those who profess to be Reformed say things like that, more than bad theology is at play. (And by the way, why do latent Arminians insist upon being considered Reformed?)
At the risk of addressing the obvious, such a sentiment assumes what must be proven, that those for whom Christ did not die can believe. From a Reformed perspective, how does this not deny irresistible grace and inseparable operations of the Trinity?*
God having already decreed that the boulder would fall from the cliff entails that God could not prevent the boulder from falling from the cliff. The “could not” is due not to a lack of divine power but a want of divine will. Because God cannot deny himself (or act contrary to how he has determined he will act), God’s inability to act upon the boulder either directly, or through secondary causes, is ascribable not to finite power in the Godhead but the outworking of God’s internal consistency, from decree to providence.
That God’s omnipotence and decree are not mutually exclusive entailments implies that the latter does not diminish the former, though it will certainly curtail and redirect its decretive unleashing in ordinary providence. Davenant and his recent followers not only miss this. Is there any indication they’ve even considered it?
In other words, for Davenant, it is possible for those not elected unto salvation to be saved. Indeed, it is possible for those not chosen in Christ to be baptized into the work of the cross.
Pelagian connotations aside as they relate to faith and repentance, if Davenant is correct, then it is possible that God’s decree not come to pass. It is possible that more are saved than predestined unto salvation. It is possible that God can be wrong! Or does God not believe his decree will come to pass?
Possibility with zero probability of occurring:
Simply try to imagine a possible world in which Esau is not elect but enters into everlasting life contrary to God’s will of decree. In other words, is there a possible world in which some are redeemed yet the elect are less in number than they? If not, then so much for this already rejected view of the atonement that posits incoherence by implicitly denying exhaustive omniscience, penal substitution, and the inseparable operations of the Trinity.** That’s what Davenant “possibility” gets you. (Enter now the sophistry of Molinism with its might-counterfactuals and possible-feasibleworlds distinction.)
Regarding confessional status, any extra-confessional teaching that leads to confessional doctrinal contradiction may be confidently rejected for being un-confessional even if not explicitly refuted by the church’s standards, (regardless if a delegate to the assembly held the view in question). Otherwise, we unnecessarily introduce incoherence and confusion into our system(s) of doctrine.
A “consensus” document does not preclude certain doctrines from having won the day. So, for instance, any view of free will that by necessary implication entails that God is contingently infallible must be rejected as non-confessional. So it is with all forms of hypothetical universalism that lead to intra-confessional doctrinal incoherence.
I find it a stretch to call a doctrine “within the Reformed tradition” merely because a delegate held to it. When a confession is not already internally contradictory, let’s not allow it to be! For a doctrine to be considered confessional it must be explicitly taught or necessary implied by the confession and cannot introduce contradictions to other confessional doctrines. Again, we may not introduce teachings that are not inferable or would undermine other confessional doctrines, even though our confession is a consensus document of sorts. After all, what does it mean for a teaching to be “within the bounds of a Reformed confession” if it entails an implicit denial of another doctrine of the same confession? Roman Catholics are often constrained to speak that way (vis-à-vis Trent and Vatican ii) but why should the Reformed make such concessions? Can a doctrine be incoherent and Reformed? How about contra-confessional? We’re discussing what it is for a doctrine to be confessional or Reformed. That should be an objective consideration, unlike whether one wants subjectively to label someone else as Reformed. Is John MaCArthur “Reformed”? He’s certainly not confessional!
Clichés that obfuscate:
It’s inescapable, the atonement is a matter of divine intent, which is equivocally obscure within Davenant’s hypothetical universalism.
Little clichés like Christ’s death is “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” have no place in rigorous systematic theology. A sufficient condition entails a state of affairs that if met ensures another state of affairs. In that sense, the cliché implies actual universalism. Sufficient and efficient become functionally indistinguishable and the cliché, tautological. Yet if “sufficient for all” is intended to convey that Christ’s death would save you if you believe, then redemption becomes necessary for saving faith, which isn’t very interesting. That one cannot have saving faith without the work of the cross, although true, doesn’t advance the discussion. Accordingly, we are back to election and irresistible grace, which are anything but sufficient for all! The historia salutis and ordo salutis must coincide.
It would be helpful if those with positions of influence (I’m only referring to them), who claim to be Reformed while showing sympathy to Davenant’s view of possibility, would acquire a contemporary philosophical taxonomy and better grasp of modal concepts. If these historical types who promote not just aberrant but incoherent views would improve upon their equivocal notions, and gain a bit more philosophical understanding, consistency and theological trajectory, they might develop some semblance of appreciation for their modal claims; they might begin to see that they neatly align with Molinism and not confessional Calvinism given (at best) a Davenant underdeveloped version of the “logical-possible chasm” of Molinism.
Upon the Reformed (in name only) becoming better informed on necessity, possibility, metaphysical contingency, compatibilism etc., and thereby becoming self-consciously (or at least more consistently) Molinists, non-libertarian Calvinists might then refer these historical types (who too often show insufficient interest in understanding theological compatibilism) to the preponderance of refutations of the most sophisticated form(s) of Arminianism, if not also to some of the better Molinism arguments out there. Until then, we weep and pray, perhaps most of all for the relatively few Reformed institutions that are towing the line, as well as for those institutions that are not equipping the capable while simultaneously enabling the philosophically disinterested to gain a seat at the Reformed table.***
Footnotes that might surprise:
* A similar informal fallacy is committed here by perhaps the most notable popularizer of Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism:
“The logic goes something like this: ‘The gospel offer, which ministers are called to proclaim, must indiscriminately include this proposition: God is, according to his divine justice and on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, able to forgive any person of their sins.’ For this proposition to be true, it then must be the case that God in Christ made a remedy for every person such that God is able to fulfill the antecedent condition proclaimed in the gospel—viz., God is able to forgive the sins of any person. In order to claim that God in Christ made a remedy sufficient for every person, we must affirm that God intended that Christ make a remedy for every person.” (Confessional Orthodoxy and Hypothetical Universalism: Another Look at the Westminster Confession of Faith, pp. 134-5).
This is another example of assuming what needs to be proven. Consider the author’s proposition:
“God is, according to his divine justice and on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, able to forgive any person of their sins.”
If the doctrine of limited atonement is true, then it is false that God is “able to forgive *any* person of their sins.” Accordingly, the author has begged the question and traded in ambiguity by not recognizing that God’s “ability” to forgive any particular person is predicated upon full satisfaction having been made for any particular person who would be forgiven. Consequently, the proposition doesn’t establish a doctrine of unlimited atonement. Rather, it assumes it!
** Of course no Davenant disciple will acknowledge her denial of orthodox Theology Proper. But I suppose that’s due to a failure to recognize the implications of one’s own position.
Regarding exhaustive omniscience, penal substitution and inseparable operations of the Trinity in light of the alleged possibility:
If God had known non elect persons would convert, they would have been elect. They were not elect (yet would convert), therefore, God did not know they would convert (though they would).
If Christ dies for some whose sins will be paid for in hell, then Christ’s sacrifice is not vicariously propitiatory for at least some.
If the Spirit converts (or aids in converting) contrary to the Father’s choosing, it is unreasonable that the Father acts with the Spirit in conversion. In fact, the Covenant of Redemption is undermined.
(Molinist might-counterfactuals can’t save this.)
*** I won’t name seminaries or professors but Modern Reformation, Reformation 21 and Greystone Institute are examples of giving credence to Davenant’s hypothetical universalism and consequently a seat at the Reformed table. Why is that not deemed outrageous by NAPARC churches and Reformed seminaries? (Shortly after publishing article, Greystone Institute removed linked article by Mark Garcia that looked favorably upon the incoherence of Davenant’s hypothetical universalism.)
Moreover, many seasoned pastors in the Reformed tradition will say things like “God knows the future because he transcends time and the future is all before him.” That’s a direct denial of the determinative nature of divine decree and an implicit affirmation of God being eternally informed by the self-existing wills of uninstantiated essences. Why that is not deemed as outrageous is telling.
Even a relatively recent commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith looks favorably upon Middle Knowledge, which is another example of giving non-confessional views a seat at the Reformed table.
Accordingly, it’s not surprising that rarely have I read a theological exam of a seminarian seeking licensure or ordination (and rarely have I had a discussion on theological compatibilism with such a person) that demonstrates a minimally thoughtful rejection of libertarian freedom or an understanding of combatibilist freedom and the determinative nature of the Divine Decree. After all, it’s rare for students to be acquainted with, let alone internalize, concepts they haven’t yet been exposed to.
John Frame had similar experiences: “I don’t know how many times I have asked candidates for licensure and ordination whether we are free from God’s decree, and they have replied ‘No, because we are fallen.’ That is to confuse libertarianism (freedom from God’s decree, ability to act without cause) with freedom from sin. In the former case, the fall is entirely irrelevant. Neither before nor after the fall did Adam have freedom in the libertarian sense. But freedom from sin is something different. Adam had that before the fall, but lost it as a result of the fall.”
Calvinist Paul Manata has noted, “One often finds misunderstandings disseminated by laymen on the Internet. This should not be surprising, for a cursory look at what Reformed teachers have said on the subject gives evidence of at least a surface tension among Reformed thinkers.”
I appreciate my article might come across as contentious to some. My concern that constrains me to write as I have is that I desire not to eclipse the problem I hope to further unearth, which extends beyond this particular stripe of hypothetical universalism. The doctrinal infidelity in “confessional” churches is, I believe, at an all time low. That Reformed folk are entertaining hypothetical universalism is just an indicator of a much larger problem. For more on that, read on.
At the heart of Christian apologetic methodology is the consideration of ultimate authority. How the authority of Scripture should shape the Christian’s defense of the faith is a matter of bringing every thought captive to obey Christ, (even as the Christian gives an answer for the hope that is in him, with meekness and fear.) How consistently the believer sanctifies the Lord God in his heart will influence his apologetic methodology. (2 Cor. 10:5; 1 Peter 3:15-16)
Classical Apologetics (CA) seeks to establish Theism from nature and unaided reason. If a theistic universe with design, causality and / or morality can be established, then there is a basis for considering evidence for the true and living God who has intervened in history in the Christ event, and in particular through the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. For the classical apologist, a two-step approach is advisable. First, establish theism in general; then, try to prove the resurrection through historical evidence. After all, until one becomes persuaded of the possibility of a Designer, an Unmoved Mover, a Moral Law Giver, or a conception of a “Supremely Perfect” being, he won’t likely be as open to evidence for the resurrection. In other words, before one begins marshaling evidence for God having raised Jesus from the dead, it is advantageous to establish first that there is a god who could possibly have raised Jesus from the dead.
Classical Apologetics denies a biblical contextual reality:
Apologetics ought to be done in the context of the unbeliever’s condition and all other relevant divine revelation. Because the unbeliever’s condition cannot be reliably inferred by the unbeliever’s false claims about himself, the apologist should seek to be informed by the authority of God’s word alone. Apologetic methodology surely must not betray Scripture and if possible, should be inferred from Scripture.
With respect to biblical contextual reality, General Revelation reveals much about God, yet little about man’s spiritual covenantal condition. For instance, apart from a confrontational encounter with Scripture, unregenerate man knows God is all powerful, omniscient, and omnipresent (as well as other perfections). Yet we know those bits of truth about man’s condition from Scripture alone. Scripture reveals to us that all men know not merely a notion of God but the one true and living God, which is why it can be said that all are without excuse. Indeed, man suppresses the truth in unrighteousness, but it is the truth he suppress (and not some false conception of God). In moral and epistemic rebellion, natural man willfully turns the truth he knows into a lie. Without exception, that is man’s response to what he knows by nature as he lives in God’s ordered universe, experiencing God’s goodness and daily provision. Accordingly, any consideration of the viability of a Natural Theology apologetic should be placed in the context of man’s willful suppression of the truth he knows. (Romans 1:18ff)
There is knowledge of God that is properly basic. It is apprehended directly (as opposed to discursively), yet not in a vacuum but always through the mediation of created things in the context of providence. Without reasoning from more fundamental or basic beliefs, the unbeliever apprehends God in conscience through the things that are made. Man’s knowledge of God is mediated through the external world, but it is apprehended immediately by God’s image bearers apart from argumentation or even modest reflection. Therefore, the apostle Paul may say that all men have knowledge of the truth. Not all men can follow the elaborate arguments of another’s Natural Theology, let alone formulate their own theistic proofs, but all men directly apprehend God’s General Revelation of himself. A god who must be proved is not the God of Scripture.
Moral considerations regarding Natural Theology as it relates to Classical Apologetics (CA).
To try to prove God exists in order to get someone to believe God exists is a fool’s errand. It is to go along with the charade of the unbeliever who has said in his heart there is no God. Engaging the folly of unbelief in this way is to become like the fool (as opposed to properly answering the fool). In short, by not applying this one foundational biblical truth that all men know God and are, therefore, without excuse, the employment of CA implies several distinct yet related untruths. (Psalm 14:1; Proverbs 26:4-5)
Before reading on, it’s important to internalize that it is only the unbelieving fool who denies God’s existence. The fool’s profession is a deception. The alleged seeker, inquisitive agnostic, and committed atheist all know God. Accordingly, the Bible instructs us not try to prove what is known but rather expose what is denied! That is an entailment of doing apologetics in a biblical contextual reality.
Seven betrayals of CA:
1. Implicit in the employment of CA is that God has not plainly revealed himself in creation and conscience. After all, why use CA to prove God’s existence unless some do not know through General Revelation that God exists? Accordingly, CA implicitly denies God’s revelation and man’s knowledge of God.
The following betrayals flow from the first:
2. CA implies that unbelief is an intellectual matter, not an ethical one. The unbeliever needs better arguments in order to become intellectually persuaded of what is already known yet suppressed. CA emphasis is on proof and persuasion, and not the biblical mandate to gently expose one’s willful, sinful rebellion that can manifest itself in a denial of God’s existence. CA focuses on a false need for intellectual enlightenment and not a true need for moral repentance.
3. CA implies that all men are not culpable for denying that God has plainly made himself known. After all, the alleged need of the unbeliever is to be enlightened to something he doesn’t already know, which undermines the need to avoid wrath due to rebellion against God who is known a priori.
4. Since CA implies man is not culpable, CA implies God’sinjustice, for God would be unjust to punish those who aren’t culpable due to their innate inability to construct theological proofs on their own.
5. By trying to overcome the unbeliever’s alleged agnosticism or atheism with sophisticated proof(s) that presuppose man can actually seek God, CA denies that no one seeks after God. Accordingly, CA implies that an alleged seeker is not in ethical rebellion while he masquerades as intellectually pursuing an honest answer to the question of God’s existence. (Roman 3:11)
6. CA implies that God is not a necessary precondition for the very possibility of the masquerade of seeking God (and denying God). In other words, CA grants the requisite tools of investigation (common notions) are implicitly neutral ground and not strictly common ground that can only be justified if it is first true that God exists.
7. If common ground is neutral ground, then CA implies that there are brute facts that can be interpreted without worldview bias. In other words, CA grants that the facts of nature can exegete themselves without any reference to God as sovereign interpreter.
In sum, CA relates to an endeavor that aims to prove a false god who has not effectively revealed himself to at least some invincibly ignorant creatures. Again, a god who must be proved is not the God of Scripture.
Aside from denying the biblical contextual reality in which apologetics should be conducted, theistic proofs as they’ve been traditionally formulated have been, I believe, an embarrassment to the church. For instance, how does the cosmological argument disprove a first cause of simultaneous multiplicity, or the teleological argument rule out multiple designers ? In other words, how do such arguments avoid a fallacy of quantification, or avoid a natural theology of the gods? How do we deduce from natural experience of natural causes a single supernatural first cause? How can inductive inferences from mechanistic design to a designer be read back into the universe without committing a fallacy of composition? In other words, why can’t the universe be akin to aninexplicable organism and not to a humanly devised mechanism? Why must a first cause or supposed designer of the universe still exist? Even allowing for an A-theory of time, why can’t the universe logically precede time? In other words, even if time began, why can’t energy or matter exist without time, rendering moot all time based arguments against eternal energy / matter?
Yet even if all these shortcomings (and the ones I’ve not mentioned for brevity sake) were adequately overcome, CA would still entail (a) implicit denial of natural man’s sinful suppression of his knowledge of God along with (b) impugnment of God’s righteous judgement against man’s moral rebellion. The problem with CA is theological, not merely philosophical.
CA follows Eve’s modus operandi:
Unbelievers require a “neutral” investigation into the claims of Christianity. Unbelievers employ autonomous reasoning (i.e., reasoning from a mindset that does not acknowledge God’s epistemic Lordship over the possibility of human reason itself), without which unbelievers cannot judge whether the Bible should be deemed reliable for its claims let alone authoritative over all of life. For the unbeliever, apart from judging the Bible from a throne of autonomy, the Bible and all it claims cannot be assessed as true. The problem with such a philosophical and religious posture, which admittedly touches upon a concept that is difficult for both unbelievers and many believers to grasp, is that if the Bible must first be validated by the unbeliever as authoritative, then it cannot be intrinsically authoritative. Yet if the Bible is authoritative by virtue of its divine origin, then no such human validation is permissible (or even possible when one is in submission to God’s word!).*
While the unbeliever remains a judge of God’s word – the unbeliever remains his own self-proclaimed authority; God’s word is positively rejected as long as the unbeliever seeks to determine its origin. With hat in hand, God remains in the dock awaiting the unbeliever’s favor.
What is built into the unbeliever’s make-up is something from which the unbeliever cannot extricate himself. That is, there is an ethically driven intellectual bias, a deep-seated antithesis that rejects the authority of God’s voice in Scripture (and in nature). If God’s word is authoritative, then it may not be judged. It must be obeyed for what it truly is, God’s word. But like Eve who placed God’s word on the same level of Satan’s and then rose above both to judge what is true, so is the posture of the unbeliever. He sits in the place of God, presiding over the authority of Scripture. CA not only caters to the unbeliever’s quest for autonomy, the classical apologist shares in the mission! He has become like the fool, which is the very thing the Proverb warns against.
The unbeliever presupposes at the outset of his pursuit of God that the requisite tools of rational investigation (e.g. logic, inference, memory etc.) and the context in which they function (e.g. reality and providence) are not God dependent. In other words, the unbeliever’s bias is that any mind-world correspondence is perfectly intelligible apart from any reference point other than the finite human mind itself. Little if no consideration is given to the question of why the subject and object of knowledge should correspond, or how there can be a fruitful connection between the knower and the mind-independent external world that can be known. By the nature of the case, the unbeliever imagines that if God exists, he must be discovered through autonomous reason that is capable of functioning apart from God. In doing so, the unbeliever not only rejects a God who must make reason possible – he is not even seeking such a God at all! The unbeliever is seeking a god who does not make knowledge possible and has not plainly revealed himself in creation, providence and grace. The unbeliever is seeking an idol of his own making and CA aids in the pursuit.
Hope is on the way:
There is an apologetic that is true to biblical contextual reality, but it looks quite different from CA. It’s my experience that an appreciation for the sheer profundity of a distinctly presuppositional approach to apologetics directly corresponds to a diminishing view of CA. Until the Christian apologist recognizes the biblical infidelity of an apologetic methodology that wrongly diagnoses man as needing cleverly devised proofs to satisfy “neutral” yet “honest” intellectual-pursuit of God’s existence, it is not likely he will see the biblical faithfulness of an apologetic approach that works within the biblical confines God’s revelation. Far from partisan apologetics, this is a matter of Christian obedience. The extent of the fall as it relates to what mankind lost when our first parents plunged humanity into a state of total depravity must be seen through non-Thomistic, Calvinistic lenses if we hope to apprehend a biblically informed apologetic. (Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:3-18; 1 Corinthians 2:14)
But before getting into a distinctly presuppositional approach to apologetics, first a few words about Evidentialism, which is the short-relief closer for the ace of CA. (It is October, after all! ⚾️) Translation, Evidentialism completes CA.
Induction, the basis for all scientific inference, presupposes the uniformity of nature, which is to say it operates under the expectation that the future will be like past. From a Christian perspective, it is ordinary providence that explains how the scientific method is possible. Therefore, to argue for the miracle of the resurrection according to natural evidence and human experience is “foolish” (Proverbs 26:4). Resurrection is a phenomenon that contemplates an exchange of ordinary providence for the miraculous, which pertains to God working without, above, or against ordinary providence (WCF 5.3).
The resurrection of Christ from the dead is contra-uniform. It does not comport with human experience. Our experience is that people die and are not raised three days later. Also, we have all met plenty of liars and those deceived into embracing false beliefs (even dying for false beliefs!) but nobody living has ever observed a single resurrection of the body. Given the uniformity of nature coupled with personal experience without remainder, a more probable explanation for the empty tomb is a hoax put on by liars rather than a miracle put on by God. (The same reasoning applies even more to the virgin birth I would think.) To ask the unbeliever to seek a supernatural explanation for events that can comport with natural explanations is to not recognize that nobody is presuppositionally neutral.
We do not come to know the Savior lives by examining evidence according to alleged neutral posture, for the facts do not demand the conclusion that Christ has risen. So, at the very least, Christians should not argue from evidence to resurrection lest we deceive by implying that we know Christ lives because of evidence upon which our belief does not fundamentally rest.
When well-meaning Christians remove the extraordinary claim of the resurrection from its revealed soteriological context, the resurrection is anything but credible. Yet, the resurrection is perfectly sensible within the context of things we know by nature and are awakened to by the Holy Spirit working in conjunction with Scripture. Namely, God’s wrath abides upon all men and God is merciful and loving. In the context of man’s plight and God’s character, the preaching of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ can be apprehended as not just credible, but the very wisdom of God. Our full persuasion of the resurrection unto knowledge of the truth is gospel centric. The good news of John 3:16 is intelligible only in the context of the bad news of verses like Romans 1:18-20 and Romans 3:10-20. The former presupposes the latter.
A place for evidence:
Evidence indeed corroborates the resurrection and is useful for the believer within a Christian context of divine love, satisfaction, propitiation, expiation, and reconciliation. Notwithstanding, evidence in the context of man’s natural experience and unaided reason will always and without fail rule out the Christian interpretation of the resurrection evidence. Indeed, it should! There is no presuppositional neutrality by which to interpret the evidence.
For instance, we read in Scripture that a man named Saul who once opposed both Christ and his church became the chief apologist for the Christian faith. The way in which one will interpret the transformation of Saul to Paul will be consistent with one’s pre-commitment(s), which are worldview dependent. Christians take the fanaticism of the apostle as corroborating what they already believe to be true about the resurrection, whereas naturalists will find an explanation for the apostle’s transformation and empty tomb outside the Christian resurrection interpretation. (Even if a naturalist were to subscribe to the resurrection, he’d hold out for the eventuality of a natural explanation as long as he remains a naturalist!) Similarly, the way in which one interprets Joseph Smith’s claims will be according to one’s pre-commitment(s). If one has a pre-commitment to a closed canon, then the claims of Smith’s Mormonism will be deemed false without further evaluation.
Of course, the tomb is empty, for Christ has risen. Of course, the apostle Paul preached the resurrection of Christ with all his heart, soul and strength, for Christ has risen. Of course, the Mormon religion is a cult, for Jesus is the eternal Son of God and the canon is closed. Do we come to know these things by evaluating supposed brute-particulars in an alleged neutral fashion, or are our beliefs already marshaled according to our pre-commitment to God’s special revelation of his love for otherwise condemned sinners? Do the “facts” speak for themselves or has God’s word already exegeted the facts for us in the context of law and gospel?
The only way one ever will savingly embrace Christ’s resurrection is if the Holy Spirit gives increase to the work of the cross as explicated in the context of God’s loving solution to man’s dire dilemma.
The combined error of CA plus Evidentialism (0 + 0 = 0):
Whereas CA errs by denying the biblical contextual reality of God’s revelation and man’s innate knowledge of God, Evidentialism errs by trying to prove a miracle through a process of natural inferences drawn from historical facts. By denying man knows God and that the resurrection is only reasonable in the context of Scripture’stestimony of man’s condition and God’s love for sinners, CA combined with Evidentialism argues for general theism and a mere chance that Christ rose from the grave. Yet even if there is a God and Jesus did rise from the dead, what would be the significance? Well, any significance would have to come from God’s word, which the classical apologist unfortunately establishes as less authoritative than autonomous reasoning.
Apologetics walled in by biblical precepts:
Our apologetic is two-step. We answer the fool according to his espoused presuppositions and in another sense, not according to his espoused presuppositions. For argument’s sake we begin with the presuppositions of unbelief and proceed to expose the stripe of unbelief that is before us according to its arbitrariness and inconsistency. Then, for argument’s sake, we ask the unbeliever to assume the Christian worldview, to see whether it makes sense of human experience. Indeed, we argue for the God of Scripture from the impossibility of the contrary! Equally important, we are to do so in gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15), and never contentiously to win an argument.
The fool must be answered according to his folly of professed unbelief in God’s existence, lest the apologist aids him in appearing wise in his own conceit (Psalm 14:1; Proverbs 26:5). The goal in answering the fool this way is not so that he might believe God exists, for he already knows God exists. The goal is that by showing the foolishness of unbelief the unbeliever will be (a) undressed before the world as the fool he truly is and (b) given no occasion to be wise in his own eyes (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). No credibility may be given to the unbeliever’s agnostic claims and vain presuppositions lest we join him in his foolishness (Proverbs 26:4). Not only must the unbeliever’s foolishness be exposed on its own terms (according to the presuppositions of unbelief); the unbeliever is also not to be answered according to his folly. He is to be answered according to biblical presuppositions. Accordingly, we need an apologetic that shows intelligible experience is impossible without God as revealed in Scripture. This is not a foolish effort to try to prove God exists to those who already know God exists, but to expose unbelief in a way that affords no rational rejoinder. The “proof” is indirect, not direct. It’s force is in rendering every utterance of the unbeliever inconsistent with and contradictory to axioms of unbelief yet intelligible only if the God of Scripture exists. In other words, we demonstrate that any necessaryprecondition for rejecting God presupposes God.
Given the antithesis between God and man and a desire to honor biblical contextual reality, we turn to Presuppositionalism and transcendental arguments for the existence of God(TAG):
Transcendental arguments (TAs) are deductive arguments in that if the premises are true and the form is valid, then the conclusion must be necessarily true. Furthermore, TAs pertain to preconditions for the possibility of the existence of some basic or common experience. That is, TAs put forth necessary precondition(s) without which a generally accepted experience is unintelligible. Finally, another distinguishing feature of TAs is that preconditions for such basic or common experiences are not learned by experience. The preconditions pertain to what can be known only apart from experience.
In analytic form a transcendental argument may look as follows, [where P is a common experience and Q is a necessary precondition for P, which can be appealed to on an a priori basis (and not according to a posteriori inference)].
Prove Q exists by way of modus tollens:
1. ~Q (Assume the opposite of what we are trying to prove: Assume Q does not exist.) 2. If ~Q –> ~P (If Q does not exist, then P does not exist since Q is a precondition for P) 3. ~~P (It is false that P does not exist – i.e. P does exist.) (Contradiction) 4. ~~Q (It is false that Q does not exist.) (Modus Tollens 2, 3 and 4) 5. Q (Q exists.) (Law of negation)
In other words, for P to exist, Q must also exist since Q is a necessary precondition for P. Since P exists, then so must Q.
Applying the construct to the God of Scripture’s existence:
1. God does not exist 2. If God does not exist, then causality does not exist since God is a precondition for causality 3. It is false that causality does not exist – i.e., causality does exist (Contradiction) 4. It is false that God does not exist. (Modus Tollens 2, 3 and 4) 5. God exists. (Law of negation)
The analytic form of the argument is common and is most often used for non-transcendental arguments. Because TAs are concerned with preconditions for intelligible experience and how reality is, TAs have a unique quality about them both in what is purported as a shared experience among humans as well as the profundity of the transcendental itself. They’re not so trivial as to pertain to arguments such as, if the Eagles did not win Super Bowl LII on Sunday February 4, 2018, there would not have been 700,000 Eagle Fans celebrating an Eagles Super Bowl LII win on Thursday, February 8, 2018 on Broad Street in Philadelphia. There were 700,000 fans celebrating… victory… Therefore, the Eagles won Super Bowl LII.
Although celebration of victory presupposes victory, the Eagles Superbowl experience is not universally shared. Moreover, the argument would rely upon appeals to inferences gained by experience, such as we know from observation that sports fans typically celebrate victories, not losses, and we can witness victory celebrations following victories. Therefore, the form of an argument alone does not make a transcendental argument. Aside from being deductive arguments dealing with preconditions for shared and typically uncontroversial experiences, TAs also incorporate a (transcendental) premise that can be known only a priori. (The Eagles argument fails to be a TA on two out of three counts.)
Similarly, a necessary precondition for death is life but life is not a transcendental relative to death. Death presupposes life is an a posteriori consideration. One’s knowledge that death presupposes life can be appealed to according to empirical observation.
A brief comment about traditional theistic proofs in the context of TAG:
Aside from the fallacious formulations of the traditional arguments for God’s existence (as they have been traditionally formulated), they are not transcendental-oriented. They don’t aim to demonstrate that God is transcendentally necessary for the possibility of, for instance, causality or design. That God is a transcendent first cause does not imply that God is a necessary precondition for the intelligibility of causation. We also might want to address that the unbeliever’s implicit claim on the intelligibility of causation does not comport with his worldview presuppositions (e.g. all that exists is chance acting upon matter over time). Because the unbeliever will not acknowledge a common creator and sustainer of men and things, he works on borrowed capital when operating as if the rational thoughts of the human mind should have any correspondence to the way in which the mind-independent world rationally behaves.
TAG from causality:
Causality presupposes God says more than causality is a sufficient condition for God and that God is a necessary condition for causality. Causality presupposes God implies that God makes causality possible. Since the possibility of causality exists, then so must God. (To argue either way, for or against God, even presupposes God!)
TAG under delivers?:
Some Christians and all professing Atheists will say that TAG does not achieve its goal because not every worldview can be refuted by a single argument. Such a claim demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the scope of transcendental arguments in general and TAG in particular. To deny the success of any particular TAG that is properly formulated is to reject logic and / or biblical truths. It’s also an indicator that one might be confusing proof with persuasion.
The transcendental premise:
As I’ve constructed this particular transcendental argument, the second premise bears all the weight of the argument. So, what about the controversial claim that God is a necessary precondition for causality? We can ultimately defend our knowledge of the premise by appealing to the absolute authority of Scripture. Of course, the unbeliever rejects that authority; nonetheless that the unbeliever is dysfunctional in this way does not mean that an appeal to Scripture is fallacious to justify one’s knowledge of the premise. It is critical at this juncture for the Christian to distinguish for the unbeliever (a) the source of his justification for his knowledge that God makes causality possible, which comes from the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination through the self-authenticating Scriptures, from (b) the proof that God makes causality possible. How we know x is not an argument for x.
Given the unbeliever’s suppression of the truth of Scripture, the presuppositional apologist defends the transcendental premise by performing internal critiques of opposing worldviews, showing that (a) they cannot account for causality etc., while also showing (b) Christianity not only can but, also, that to argue against Christianity presupposes conditions for rationality that are only possible within a Christian revelatory worldview. It would be a mistake, however, to think that such one by one refutations imply that the conclusion of TAG (God exists) and the justification for the transcendental premise rests upon inductive inference. By repeatedly refuting opposing philosophical ideologies the Christian apologist merely acknowledges that the unbeliever refuses to bend the knee to the self-attesting word of God. Since unbelievers will not accept the truth claims of the Bible, the only thing the Christian can do before God and onlookers is refute unworthy and hypothetical competitors, but that hardly implies that a formulation of any given TAG is an inductive argument, or that the transcendental premise within such an argument is inferred only after having successfully refuted a statistically sufficient number of opposing worldviews.
(A common error in apologetics is to confuse proof with persuasion. A brief discussion can be found here.)
What’s a girl to do?:
It has been said that although TAG is a powerful apologetic it under delivers because of the inductive aspect of defending step-2, the transcendental premise. Accordingly, it’s been offered that we can inductively infer that God probably exists. Because of this perceived limitation, some Christian logicians and philosophers have said that TAG only proves a high probability of God’s existence. That a Christians logician would say this is mildly astonishing given that any Christian should affirm the truth of step-2, and any Christian logician recognizes the proof as not just valid but sound. When Christian philosophers offer a similar observation that TAG cannot get beyond the limitations of inductive inference, I have to wonder why it hasn’t occurred to them that God makes inductive inference and probability possible. What makes inductive inference possible is not a conceptual scheme that contemplates the possibility of God’s existence, but rather God’s ontological existence. We don’t infer the probability of God’s existence from induction if God stands behind induction and probability!
God or ~God:
Lastly, we don’t have to refute an “infinite number“ of “explanations” for the intelligibility of causality. Either God is necessary for the intelligibility of causality or not. Those are the only two possibilities given a refutation of the common feature of a non-revelational epistemology. It’s not a matter of God vs Naturalism, Idealism, Atheism, Platonism or any number of X-isms. It’s not a matter of a, b, c…. It’s a matter of a or ~a. God or ~God reduces to ~autonomy or autonomy, where autonomy always reduces to philosophical skepticism. As Greg Bahnsen used to quip, the proof of God’s existence is that without him one couldn’t prove anything! Either God exists or there is no possibility of knowledge and we are consigned to philosophical skepticism. Yet to argue for skepticism (as some have) presupposes non-skepticism, truth and God. Similarly, the assertion that p “it is possible that an undiscovered fact or worldview may be the necessary precondition for intelligible experience” presupposes the intelligibility of actual possibility, which further presupposes God’s existence.
Revelation and demonstrable refutations:
The believer cannot get out from under the fact that he has an infallible word on the subject. Nor should he be embarrassed by the Bible, as if we may not disclose how we know what we know. There can be no meaning if autonomous presuppositions are true; we know that through Scripture, though we demonstrate it by arguing for the internal inconsistencies of any proffered worldview, even showing that their contradictions presuppose God!
We don’t dodge the would-be competitors to God as the unifying source of otherwise brute particulars, the solution to the One And The Many. Bring them on and let’s see if they can make sense of reality, knowledge and ethical absolutes. Let’s compare worldviews to see who can make sense of men and things. As variations of the one non-Christian worldview are refuted one by one, let’s not mistake those refutations as the basis for our knowledge of God’s existence. Rather, let’s recognize those refutations for what they are – a display of what we already know apart from those refutations, that only God (and not autonomous reasoning) can make sense of God’s world.
Exposing the unbeliever’s belief in God according to a biblical contextual reality versus trying to prove god to unbelievers posing as seekers, agnostics and atheists.
In closing, a biblical approach to apologetics does not entail proving God exists in a manner that confers legitimacy upon agnosticism, atheism, sincere seekers etc., let alone does it approve of fastening a dreamy possibility of the resurrection to a vague concept of God or multiple first Causes or Designers that might not still exist. Nor does our apologetic entail a naïveté that is consistent with furnishing a series of uninterpreted particulars that demand an evidentialist verdict of resurrection. Those sorts of apologetic approaches have been shown to betray many biblical truths while fallaciously demanding a verdict that exceeds the scope of the premises. Whereas we have a more sure word of prophecy. (2 Peter 1:19)
No, a biblical approach to apologetics does not try to prove what rebels already know, but rather by reasoning transcendentally our aim is to expose what rebels defiantly deny. By the grace of God, the presuppositional apologist will expose the folly of unbelief by powerfully demonstrating in reductio ad absurdum fashion that even the mere possibility of rejecting God’s existence presupposes God’s existence! A biblical approach to apologetics affords no place for rational rejoinder, unlike medieval Roman Catholic and Arminian approaches to defending the faith, which engage on supposed neutral ground as opposed to common ground that belongs to the Lord.
* Doxastic voluntarism versus God subduing the heart:
It is not as though in conversion the unbeliever chooses to believe God’s word and then by way of reason decides for himself to submit to what he himself has decided to be authoritative. Rather, in biblical conversion God subdues the sinner’s will, causing him to believe and to receive God’s word aright, as intrinsically authoritative. (Then from a recreated posture of belief and submission, the believer can choose to submit to the authority of what Scripture has to say.) Since we don’t choose to accept truth, the converted sinner doesn’t choose to believe and receive God’s word as being authoritative. Instead, by the grace of God the sinner’s rejection of the voice of God is overcome whereby he finally receives it for what it really is, the authoritative Word of God.
As noted above, the unbeliever cannot free himself from his bondage and rebellious stance against God and his word. He is not neutral toward God. He is at enmity with his Maker. And although the apologist needn’t necessarily inform the unbeliever of this rebellion, it is nonetheless something of which the apologist should be aware lest his apologetic methodology suffers.
If God is the being that Scripture claims, then man’s knowledge must correspond to God’s knowledge if there is to be any human knowledge at all. Not only must man’s knowledge correspond with God’s knowledge, Scripture also informs that God makes human knowledge possible. Human knowledge obtains when God enables us to think his thoughts after him on a creaturely level.
Yet when the believer engages the unbeliever on the question of God’s existence, the unbeliever cannot rid himself of his moral rejection of God as a necessary precondition for the very possibility of knowledge. In his professed desire to be objective in his pursuit of the possibility (or actual existence) of some greater truth, he prejudicially dismisses God as the one who makes intellectual pursuit possible! Because of the fall, the unbeliever is anything but neutral in his approach to the question of God’s existence.