interview with K. Scott Oliphint. Original audio here. Transcript index here. If you enjoy transcripts, please consider supporting, which makes this possible.
BA: Hello, this is Brian Auten of Apologetics 315. Today’s interview is with K. Scott Oliphint, Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is author of a number of books, including: God With Us – Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God; and Reasons for Faith – Philosophy in the Service of Theology.
The purpose of today’s interview is to get to know more about Dr Oliphint’s work in apologetics, explore presuppositional apologetics and look at philosophy in the service of theology. Well, thanks for joining me for this interview, Dr Oliphint.
KSO: You’re welcome Brian. Good to talk to you.
BA: Well, first off Dr Oliphint would you mind telling our listeners a bit more about yourself and your background.
KSO: Sure, I was born and raised in the great State of Texas and became a Christian after high school. I was converted in my late teens and I became a Christian through a Ministry called “Young Life” which in the United States is a Ministry to non-Christian high school kids and because of that influence I began soon to work as a volunteer with that Ministry and then eventually was a paid staff member of Young Life in Texas.
During that time, I was also finishing College in Texas and as a new Christian I took a philosophy course from a man at University who was himself a Christian, and he is the one who introduced me to Francis Schaeffer in a course that he offered and so I began reading Schaeffer and this was not long after Schaeffer’s books had come out, so he was making a splash across the United States and elsewhere. And I had an opportunity in Texas when Schaeffer was touring the country to listen to him in his interviews and discussions about his first film series, “How Should We Then Live”.
And then in the course of my reading of Schaeffer I happened upon - providentially - a magazine, “Christianity Today” that had a feature article on Cornelius Van Til. It was an interview of Van Til and I read that interview and found that Schaeffer himself was influenced by Van Til so I decided while I was there in Texas working in evangelism ministry that I would order Van Til’s book – at least one of his main books – and see what he had to say since he was the man, who taught the man, that I was reading and interested in.
So I ordered Defense of the Faith and where I lived in Texas for various reasons back in those days, which shows how far things have come, it took about a month for that book to come in. When it did come in I poured over it once, and not everything was completely perspicuous, so I poured over it again and things were still not as clear so I went to my philosophy Professor and began to ask him questions and he was helpful on some of them and on some of them he said, “I have no idea”.
So, I took a sort of audacious move to write to Van Til himself. And surprisingly received a response from Van Til to my questions and at the end he would always finish his letters by saying, “Please write again”. So he and I carried on a correspondence for a while about apologetics and other kinds of issues and during that time, the Young Life Ministry had made a determination that everyone on their paid staff needed a Seminary education and they were willing to offer that education in Summer intervals through Fuller Seminary.
Fuller Seminary at that point in time had given up on the notion of inerrancy so I wrote to Van Til and told him my situation and I said, “You know, I’m going to have to have a seminary degree and I’ve got a chance to do this and continue in my ministry here at Fuller Seminary. What do you think?” And he was very gracious in his response and said “You know I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do but personally (he said) I wouldn’t spend a lot of time at a Seminary that didn’t hold to the absolute inerrancy and authority of Scripture”.
So I began then to look around and see what the Lord was providing in terms of our situation. I was married at the time and we, through a series of different providences, decided to go to Westminster. So I went to Westminster Seminary and earned two degrees there, went back to Texas and was in pastoral ministry for seven years and after that in 1991 moved to Westminster and we’ve been here ever since.
BA: Well that’s a lot there to unpack and I really appreciate you sharing part of that story. I’m always fascinated by how many people have been influenced by Schaeffer and it seems like in so many interviews, the apologist or theologian will say, you know they began to read Schaeffer, and it totally shaped or transformed their thinking. And I know that with Van Til there has been such an influence as well and I wonder, were those the key influences or major things that got you interested in doing theology apologetics?
KSO: Yes, I think so. I mean it began because I was working in Young Life and Young Life is an evangelistic ministry. So every week I was involved in preaching the Gospel to a group of high school kids, most of whom were not Christians, that was the aim of the Ministry itself, and I quickly found out that these high school teenagers had significant and substantial questions that I was not able to answer. And so as I read Schaeffer I saw that you know, there were some answers there he was very good, very influential in my life.
And I began to read Van Til and think more deeply about where I was in terms of understanding of the Gospel and understanding of theology and then I had various friends, again providentially, who recommended different books to me. One Christian, a man who had been a Christian for quite a while, leader of his own ministry, suggested that I read B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge and so I grabbed Warfield’s book on the Person and Work of Christ and began to read through that and read through a bit of Hodge. And things just, in God’s Providence, began to work in that way but it really started probably in terms of human interactions - started with that good and gracious Philosophy Professor, who has now retired - and then moved from there to reading Schaeffer, reading Van Til and then reading other works, Warfield and Hodge and folks like that.
BA: Would you say that those have been some of your major influences in the apologetics arena as it were?
KSO: Hm, yeah, yeah I think so, without question.
BA: The reason I ask is because I know that you and William Edgar, one of your colleagues there at WTS have edited Christian Apologetics, Past and Present, A Primary Source Reader, and I love these sorts of books. They are really helpful I think for those studying apologetics. Would you mind talking about what you feel is the importance of a Primary Source Reader.
KSO: Yeah, well Bill and I – Bill is the Chairman of the Apologetics Department here – and when I came in, I came in under him and still am working with and under him and Bill and I used to teach a course together called – we actually borrowed the name from Van Til – it is called Christianity in Conflict and when Van Til taught it, it was a one semester course on the history of apologetics.
Bill and I felt like that was too little time to deal with such a huge topic so we divided it up into four eras. We worked with Early Church Apologists in one course and then Medieval and then Modern and then Contemporary. And the other thing we found when we offered that course was that there was no one resource for us. So we decided way back then that a resource needed to be put together and we talked with our friend Alan Fisher at Crossway and he was amenable to it and excited about it and so Bill and I have been working on that project for quite a while and thought it was important for the Church to see how the Church had dealt with the defence of Christianity throughout the ages. So we were frustrated by the fact that there were so many that we could have included and didn’t but on the other hand we were excited by the fact that finally there would be a resource where you would at least get some idea of what was happening in the history of apologetics. And so in that way I think I’m with you on that, reading these things is just a very rich and deep study of the way the Lord has used the discipline of apologetics throughout the history of the Church.
BA: Yeah, well I want to definitely recommend it to our listeners and I’ll feature that on the blog post with a link. What are some of the authors that you feature? You mention the different sort of eras but what are some of the particular readings that someone might find?
KSO: Well, we – again we have a sort of slice and dice and do not include everything we wanted to – but for example in the early Church we have a segment of Justin Martyr’s “Apology”. Justin was a man of great courage who actually stood before the Emperor during a time when his life was at stake because of his testimony to Christ and he stood before the Emperor and challenged the Emperor to be consistent when it is his own designation of who he was as a philosopher and a pious man and Justin (Bill and I say in the Introduction to Justin that he was a Master at the ad hominem approach to apologetics. That is take what the person themselves, the person himself or herself says, and use that in such a way that you challenge their own consistency in terms of the way they designate their attributes or their own position or their system and Justin was a great example of the way in which that happens. So we have a section from Justin’s “Apology” in there. There are others in the early Church that we use:- Augustine obviously and Tertullian and others, Irenaeus.
And then in the Medieval period we of course would not want to overlook Thomas Aquinas, probably the greatest intellect in the history of the Church. Just a fabulous resource! On the other hand, as we say in our Introduction, there are some issues with respect to apologetic methodology that we don’t agree with, but you have to consider Thomas in the evaluation of the way apologetics has developed in the history of the Church, so we had to include again, just a small snippet of what Thomas produced. And he produced so much – you know, it is volumes after volumes! So it is just a slice of what he was doing in the 13th Century.
And then we move into the more modern period and include people such as John Owen and Jonathan Edwards and one of the things we are attempting to do, especially with Owen, is to show how apologetics needs to deal as well with deeply theological issues. By the time we get to Owen and then later into more contemporary scene with Machen, who is the founder of Westminster, you see people there in different ways dealing with theological issues where there are elements of unbelief even embedded in some theological tenets, and Machen was very clear about that in his book on Christianity and Liberalism.
And then in the contemporary era we could easily have done a whole volume on that but we pieced together different folk who have different influences in apologetics. We have a piece from William Lane Craig in there. Alvin Plantinga, who is a Philosopher but who engages in particularly defensive apologetics. We have Merold Westphal who kind of has his own sort of post-modern take on things. John-Luc Marion from France. We try to bring in a kind of diversity that wouldn’t just be centred on one particular idea or approach just to show people that the contemporary scene particularly how diverse things really are and hopefully to help them to begin to establish their own position in apologetics.
BA: Well very good. Now I wanted to ask you a bit about what is often called Presuppositional Apologetics or a presuppositional approach to defending the faith. So as we kind of go down that road would you mind explaining how you would define that to our listeners.
KSO: Yeah, well let me just say this, not as a plug, but because this is where I’ll have to approach this question. I just yesterday turned in a manuscript to Crossway which they will publish this coming Summer and the title of it is “Covenantal Apologetics” and the subtitle is “Principles and Practice”. One of reasons I did that, not the main reason, but one of the reasons I did that is to try to argue for a change in terminology. I think that the notion of “presuppositional” is No. 1 – vague, and No. 2 – a little bit obscure with respect to how people normally think and talk about these things.
“Presuppositional” doesn’t say much anymore. Now it is important to say I think that Van Til himself did not take that label and apply it to himself. It was applied to him externally and then once it was applied to him he just sort of ran with it. So it is not a term that he, himself, invented and said “This is what I’m going to do”. And when Van Til was arguing the positions he was arguing, you know beginning in the 20s and into the 50s particularly, the notion of “presupposition” was not as prominent as it is now in a kind of post-modern context where you know, after Thomas Kuhn you get these ideas of presuppositions everywhere. It is so prominent that some in print out there have said that Van Til was kind of a post-modern, untimely born, because he uses the notion of presupposition.
And some people say what “presuppositional” means is that everybody has presuppositions. But it doesn’t mean that – that is too obvious to even state – and so because of the ambiguity of the word itself, because of its kind of philosophical connotations, I don’t use it and I’m arguing that it not be used. It is almost impossible to use it fruitfully anymore because so much qualification has to be given to it.
But having said that, what Van Til was attempting to do initially, and when I think about this term that you have used – Presuppositionalism – when I think about his method or that kind of method, I’m thinking about him particularly and we can talk if you want to about other kinds of presuppositionalism, in Van Til’s own writings and in his own career, what he initially determined to do is, he was interacting himself with philosophy (he had a PhD from Princeton University in Philosophy), what he was initially attempting to do in dealing with – particularly in his dissertation with pragmatism and idealism – is he was not content simply as some were doing for example, in absolute idealism, he was not content to say “Well because idealism posits an absolute, and Christianity posits an absolute, we’ve got a whole lot in common with idealism and so we need to join forces” and some were arguing that point.
And Van Til’s dissertation is actually an apologetic against that idea where he shows, I think convincingly, that the “absolute” of Idealism is anti-thetical to the “absolute” of Christianity. It is not the same thing. As a matter of fact the “absolute” of Idealism as he argues in his dissertation and elsewhere, is an “absolute” that is dependent by definition, on anything that is relative in order to be defined as an “absolute” is dependent upon the relative. And Van Til said this is not how we understand who God is. God is not dependent – God is independent as Paul said to the philosophers in Athens. He doesn’t need anything.
So what Van Til wanted to do then was work with, not just what a philosophical system or other kind of notion – not just with what they say but with what are the conditions necessary in order for them to say what they saying. So what Van Til did is, he borrowed a term from Emmanuel Kant. The term is “transcendental” and it is another one of those sixty-four dollar terms which can be confusing but when Kant was using that term, what he was trying to do by his own admission, was to get behind certain ideas to see what the preconditions (in his case the preconditions of knowledge) what were the preconditions that allowed for (in Kant’s case, the notion of Cause and Effect).
So Kant came after Hume, Kant was reading Hume. Hume said we can’t, on an empirical basis alone, we can’t posit the notion of Cause and Effect. The only way we can do that is by habit or custom and Kant said, “This can’t be true because we all know that Cause and Effect exist in the world, so how do I get at what Hume is saying?” And the way to get at it for Kant was, given the notion of Cause and Effect what are the presuppositions behind that idea and which make the idea itself possible?”
So Van Til reads Kant as he is studying Idealism in his philosophy degree – he reads Kant and the neo-Kantians – and he says “That’s a good question that Christians ought to be asking”. Given any notion, any idea, any system that posits or wants to posit truth, given any philosophy, the question to ask is “What are the presuppositions behind that and which make it possible?” And Van Til’s simple answer to that – which can become very complex – is anything that is posited that is true must have behind it, as a pre-condition of that truth, both God’s existence and God’s revelation to creation. So the pre-conditions for anything posited, in any person, any individual, or any system, or any philosophy, the pre-conditions for any of that, if it is going to be true at all has to be that the true Triune God exists and that He has revealed Himself.
And so because Van Til began to focus in those decades – 20s through to 50s let’s say, or maybe the 60s – because he began to focus on the notions of presuppositions, he was given the label, “The father of Presuppositonalism”. And so he just took it and dealt with it in that way, but as I have said the term itself is not that helpful and I think there are better ways to express it but the notion itself, or the preconditions, that is a good Christian question to ask in any kind of apologetic situation.
BA: Well that’s real helpful and by the way please feel free to plug your books or get as detailed as you want. I really appreciate your answers here and I feel that you are a great proponent or one who can really translate some of the ideas of Van Til really well. Because I believe that many people have misunderstood it and it can be explained a little bit better.
KSO: Let me just say that is what I hope to accomplish in this book. It remains to be seen if it is accomplished but I have taken out virtually all of the complex terminology and tried to explain this approach with reference to Biblical truth and theological truth that many Christians, hopefully most Christians, will resonate with and if you can approach it at that level.
Then, if you want to move into philosophical context and discussions, that fine if that is your bit, but if it is not your bit it ought to be something that we can understand and set forth anyway.
BA: Yes, well back to Van Til a bit here being one of the major proponents of this approach. How have you seen his influence on approaching apologetics in this presuppositional manner – we’ll just call it that for now – how have you seen his influence on apologetics as a whole?
KSO: Do you mean by that how has he influenced the Church at large?
BA: When you kind of survey the field of apologetics and see it as a sort of a landscape across history and how people have approached the defence of the faith, what do you see that he has brought to the table that has influenced and shaped how we come to defend the faith, as a Church, today?
KSO: OK, good. Yeah, I think what is sometimes not grasped initially in Van Til’s approach, that I have tried to emphasise ever since I have been teaching here because it was one of the first things I grabbed onto when I was reading his works, one of the things that is not grasped as quickly, and sometimes not at all, is that everything that Van Til does in his approach depends for its cogency and for its application, it depends on Reformed Theology.
Now Reformed Theology has its genesis in, well, not to be overly….well, it has its genesis, we think, in Scripture, let me just say it that way. And then it has a particular focus from the 16th Century onward in the Reformation. Where I teach at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia for example, all of our Faculty are required to subscribe by vow to the Westminster Confession of Faith as a secondary, not primary, a secondary standard, that is as a Confession that best articulates the sum of Biblical doctrine in the areas on which it touches.
And so what that means is, we are a Reformed Seminary. We think that the Confession and Catechisms that were written in the 17th Century, in the 1640s, that those are the best, some of the best articulations of the theology that comes from Scripture itself. So everything that Van Til did, even though it is not as clear in his writings, and I think this is why some people don’t get it because he just assumed this as he began to write, rather than explaining it. But everything that he did has its impetus in the theology that came from the Reformation, that was emphasized again during the time of the Reformation.
So for example, just two things to note in that regard. When you begin to read or look at the volumes that are published by Richard Muller on Post-Reformation Reformed dogmatics, one of the things that you will begin to see…Volume One is on Prolegomena, Volume Two is Holy Scripture, Volume Three is God’s Essence and Attributes, Volume Four is God’s Tri-Unity.
And Muller has surveyed all, you know maybe every single one as far as I can tell, the writings in that context in the 17th Century and has collated and summarised those and given us particularly the Doctrine of Scripture and Doctrine of God as the two foundational principles on which Reformed Theology is built and in that you begin to see that what the Reformers were wanting to emphasise was the absolute authority of Scripture as a basic foundational principle in contrast with Medieval Theology – Muller makes that point – and then they wanted to emphasise the absolute independence and authority of God Himself, again, in contrast to much of Medieval Theology.
When you begin to think in terms of those two primary foundations of Christianity, Muller uses a Latin term, principia, those are principian, that is basic foundational principles for theology. When you begin to see the emphasis move in that direction in light of what Van Til was saying what you see then in his apologetic approach is that he is applying those basic principles to his apologetic method.
And then to go a couple of centuries beyond that, now that we have translated for us Herman Bavinck’s “Reformed Dogmatics”. What you see in Bavinck particularly again in Volumes One and Two, dealing with Prolegomena issues and with God in creation, when you see Bavinck writing and see what he has written and Van Til read all of that because he was from Holland, so he was fluent in Dutch, when you begin to see all of that you recognise that Van Til stands in a long tradition of reformed thought and what he was able to do – the genius of Van Til – was he was able to summarise and crystallise much that had gone on since the time of the Reformation and apply those things I think more consistently and specifically in the area of the defence of the Christian faith.
BA: So you were talking there about how Van Til has contributed what seems to be sort of the application of Reformed Theology in regards to apologetics so it is like the logical outworking of a Reformed Theology…
BA: Would you say that everyone who takes a Presuppositionalist approach would be Reformed because obviously not everyone that is Reformed is Presuppositionalist in their methodology?
KSO: Yeah well I’ll tell you what I will argue. I think – not I think – what I say to my class every year when that question comes up is (and then I try to spell this out over the course of the Semester) but anybody who claims to be Reformed in their theology, if they are going to be consistent, must necessarily take a Reformed approach to apologetics. And then I try to show how that works itself out in what we claim as Reformed Theologians, so that if there is someone whose theology is Reformed but their apologetics is not Reformed, there is a basic inconsistency in those two. They either need to change their theology or change their apologetic but the two are not able to exist side by side consistently.
BA: Earlier you mentioned the word, ‘presuppositionalism’ not being a really good term and you mentioned ‘convenantal apologetics’. So unpack that a bit, why that term, what makes that unique and more descriptive and a better term to use?
KSO: Yeah well good…I think that one of the things that makes it better is that it is a biblical term and what it means fundamentally is replete with application but what it means fundamentally is that God freely determined to enter into a relationship, generally with His creation, and specifically with His people by way of condescension. That is God freely determined that He would take on characteristics and attributes that He did not have to take on but that He did take on in order to relate Himself to creation.
Now what that means, is that every person (I was just writing an article on this today as a matter of fact), every person from the point of creation and into eternity, every person is first of all qualified covenantally. And what I mean by that is every person is in some kind of relationship to God and they are in that relationship to God because God has determined that human beings would relate to Him by way of a Covenant head, a Covenant representative. So that none of us exist simply individually.
We exist either – and it is one of two – we exist either in Adam (Adam is our covenant head and you can see Paul’s discussion of that in Romans 5, 12-21 or 1 Corinthians 15, 42 and following), so we relate either as those who are in Adam first of all or those who are in Christ. And those covenant, I call them covenant heads (and that is a standard term in Reformed Theology) that determines our status before God.
So think of it this way a person either (since Genesis 3 this has been the case and will be the case into eternity) a person is either under wrath or under grace. Those who are under wrath are under wrath because they are in Adam and are therefore sinners and they sin and those who are under grace are in Christ and are therefore declared righteous because of what Christ has accomplished in His Person and work. And that is a way to understand anyone we come into contact with, is already in a relationship with God. It is either a wrathful or a gracious relationship.
Now when Paul explicates what that means in Romans 1 for example, his subject matter Romans 1:18 is the wrath of God which is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness but what prompts the wrath, Paul says, is the suppression of truth and unrighteousness and then he goes on to tell us that the truth is that which is known about God, which he means by that “His invisible attributes, eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20). So because every person is convenantally qualified that person knows the true God but what do they do with that knowledge? Paul’s point in Romans 1 is that they suppress it in unrighteousness.
And that is …. What that does then is evoke the wrath of God on them such that, as Paul says in Verses 24, 26 and 28 of Romans 1 is, God gives them over. He says this three times, “gives them over”, “gives them over”. In other words, there is a relationship going on here, it is a convenantal relationship, as they are designated in Adam and that relationship is one that the wrath of God pours out on them because they are rejecting, holding down, suppressing the truth that God continually gives through creation.
And so what Van Til says in his works in numerous places at numerous times, he says our environment, the environment of every human being, is never in any way impersonal as we think it is….we just walk out and there is grass and there are trees and there’s a road….but it is fundamentally and essentially a personalistic environment, meaning the first thing we do as human beings, every second that we breathe, the first thing that we do is relate ourselves to God, either in a way that evokes His wrath, or in a way that He graciously responds.
So every person is covenantally qualified and every environment is convenantally determined and qualified in such a way that a relationship with God, and this is part of what the image of God means, a relationship with God is what defines us fundamentally.
Now that is all covenantal language and it helps us understand both the history of Redemption as we have it given to use in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation and it helps us understand the end result of where history is going such that those who reside in Adam, and remain there, will suffer God’s wrath eternally in Hell and those who are in Christ, will experience the new heavens and the new earth and all of that again is by virtue of God graciously revealing Himself in creation and in His Word and our responsibility to respond to that revelation. That is all covenantal language.
BA: Yes that is helpful and I think that term “Covenantal Apologetics” is very useful in regard to being far more descriptive perhaps than presuppositionalism.
KSO: I think so too…let me just say what sparked this…This happened to me probably 30 years ago. I was talking to a man who is well known in the area of apologetics. I won’t give his name but we were having a conversation and a couple of questions I asked, and after one of the questions, he said, “Can I ask are you presuppositional?” And I said, “Yes”. And he said well I need to know this….Are you Carnellian? Schaefferian? Clarkian? What are you? And that sort of led me to realise that the term itself is a little too ambiguous to be useful.
BA: Yeah one of my questions was about, you know, the differences between Clark and Van Til but I will shelve that because when you are describing covenantal apologetics I see you have laid a foundation there, but I am wondering how from that foundation does the approach one takes practically with the unbeliever... How does that form on top of that foundation and play out in practical conversation or interaction?
KSO: Yeah. It is a good question and again not to plug here but I will just say this that in the book that I wrote, not in every chapter, but there are seven chapters but in four of those, maybe five, but at least in four of those, I actually go through, set out a kind of sample conversation, dialogue, between a believer and an unbeliever to show exactly what this looks like and the application of it and that is one of the reasons why my subtitle (and I don’t know if Crossway will go with it), but my subtitle on the book is “Principles and Practice” because one of the things I want to show in the book is how this can be practised with you know, what could be real-life situations. I mean, I invent them, they are not real-life but the kind of dialogue that would take place in those kind of situations.
So the difference it makes has to do with three basic points. Number One is, as I was saying, because God reveals Himself first of all let’s think of it this way, God reveals Himself in His Word in the Bible. That revelation as Muller makes clear in his exposition that revelation as it has been understood since the time of the Reformation, is the basic foundational principle on which everything resides and so we – and when we say basic, what I mean is, there is no way to get behind that in order to prove it to be what it is – so, for example, in the Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter One is on Scripture. And Section Four of that Chapter says that the authority of Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, that the authority of scripture depends not on any man or Church.
Ok, so the first thing it says is the negative, “not on any man or Church”. Why is it said that way in the 17th Century? Well the reason of course is because, in the Roman Catholic context, scripture has authority because the Church has said it has authority and if the Church determines it is not authoritative then it won’t be. So what happens then, what the Confession is recognising (and this has been clear in the history of theology really), what the Church is recognising is that there has to be a basic authority in order for anything else to be established. That is a theological principle, it is also a philosophical principle – it goes all the way back to Aristotle.
And what the Confession is saying then the authority of scripture does not depend upon any man or Church but wholly upon God and is to be received because it is the word of God. Alright, that is Westminster Confession 1:4. Now what difference does that make? What it means is that when you are in the process of discussing, defending Christianity with an unbeliever, you must stand on biblical revelation in order to do that. That is the only place a Christian has to stand. If we don’t stand there, we have no foundation, and I try to show in my latest book something I call the “quicksand quotient” that anyone who is not standing there is by definition going to sink of their own weight, that is the position they are holding is not going to be able to stand up.
So the first thing we do is we stand on scripture. That is Principle 1 – and again that is a Covenantal category because God condescended to reveal Himself. As Calvin said, He “lifts to us”, He stoops down in order to in some way (it has been said in order to speak baby talk); He comes to our level in order that we might understand Him and He does that in His word and He does that supremely in the Person of His Son, Who takes on a human nature.
Alright that is point No. 1 – We stand on scripture when we defend Christianity. The second thing we have to recognise I think is - back to God’s revelation – is that if what Paul says is true in Romans 1:18 and following – any unbeliever with whom we come into contact is someone who already knows God. The knowledge of God is there, Paul is clear about that. There is a dynamic taking place in the way he presents it in Romans 1 such that any person who is living and moving, is living and moving in God and they are living and moving in the God whom they know. So that when we defend the Christian faith and we speak the truth which can only be done because we stand on biblical revelation. When we speak that truth it connects with the truth that God has already spoken (if I can use Psalm 19:1 language) it connects with the truth that God has already spoken to that unbeliever by way of his revelation in creation.
And so what are we doing? We’re connecting if I could put it this way in theological categories, we’re connecting Special Revelation with Natural Revelation in the unbeliever and by virtue of doing that, God’s Word (as we’re promised in Scripture in Isaiah), never returns empty, it always accomplishes the purposes for which He sends it.
So what we are doing then practically speaking, we’re not looking around for areas in which we are in fundamental agreement. The operative word there is “fundamental”. We’re not looking for areas in which we are in fundamental agreement and saying, “since we all agree on this”, let’s move from that as our ground to reach a conclusion about God, because there is nothing (and here is another Covenantal qualifier), if every person is either in Adam or in Christ, there is no in-between. There is no other Federal head in which we can reside and so there is a basic, what Van Til called an antithesis, a basic bifurcation between those who are in Adam and in Christ and so there is not going to be a common foundation available to us in order to defend Christianity.
The other thing I would say here and I make this point in numerous places but what we’re doing in apologetics, let me just say this as bluntly as possible, what we are NOT doing is defending some kind of generic theism because if what I’m doing is to get people to think that there might be a God or that there is a God somewhere, and I convince someone of that, and so they are happily driving home now as happy theists instead of atheists, and it just so happens they are in a car accident and die, that happy theist goes to the same place that he would have gone if he had remained an atheist.
So the point of apologetics is not a defence of generic theism, it is a defence of the Christian faith. That is clear in scripture and I think part of the problem has been that apologetics has become more a kind of a theistic enterprise so what we are aiming for is just you know, what the Jews and Muslims and Christians all have in common and that is a kind of generic notion of God having certain attributes. And that is a non-Christian conception of who God is in my view, and one of the things I do in this book which is coming out next Summer in the last Chapter, is I go through (again it is something I have made up but I hope it is realistic) I go through a dialogue with a Muslim in order to try to show some of these issues and how we might respond to those issues in the context of Muslim theology. So the difference then is apologetics becomes specifically Christian, and not generically theistic.
BA: Talk a bit about this phrase, “common ground” then in apologetics. You mentioned there the things that one would have in common with the unbeliever versus the believer and I just want to clarify what you mean by that as it relates to presuppositionalist or a covenantal apologetics approach. Are you saying that that’s sort of a spiritual term in the sense that, this person is at enmity with God, he is totally in Adam versus the believer being in Christ, and therefore we have no common ground or would you mean that to be in addition to that perhaps, listen I can’t find a place where we can agree on anything to talk about. Can you explain and clarify?
KSO: Yes…a couple of things to say. The first one may be a little obscure but I’ll try it anyway. The distinction Van Til made and it is important to see it – he made this in all his writings even though most people reading really don’t get it – the distinction he made is…the way he put it is….psychologically (now what he meant by that word is really the etymology of the word and kind of the current view of psychology you know, which is sort of disparate and diffused) but psychology meaning…’psyche’, the Greek word, ‘psyche’, means soul. So let’s put it this way: in terms of who man is as man, image of God, male and female, there is a knowledge of God resident so in terms of image of God, all people know God and they know the same God as Christians know. Alright, so in terms of that then how do they know that because God reveals it to them dynamically through conscience, Romans 1 and 2, internally and externally God reveals it.
So Van Til says psychology there is that knowledge. Epistemologically – that is in terms of….and here he is thinking about what a person in Adam would do with the knowledge that they have…and what do they do? Paul says they suppress it in unrighteousness. So epistemologically Van Til would say we have nothing in common because every fact that they take, they twist it and turn it in such a way they pretend that they know it while at the same time denying the existence of God.
Now let me give you an example….try to move from the abstract to the more concrete. When Paul is in Athens in Acts 17: 16 and following, preaching in the synagogue and Luke tells us, in the marketplace, Paul gets into trouble in the marketplace because the Epicureans and Stoics are hanging around and they think Paul, you know, to use a modern term, they think Paul is kind of an idiot. You know, “idle babbler” is what they say. The Greek word means “seed picker” and it is just somebody who kind of picks up ideas here and there and tries to string pearls that cannot be strung.
And so they are seeing Paul as kind of a generator of, you know, of dumb ideas. But by the same token, they want to hear him, they want him to present his case. So they, you know, Luke tells us clearly Paul was brought to the Areopagus, you don’t get to see any indication that Paul was sort of moving that way necessarily of his own free will though of course he did.
But so Paul goes to Athens and he addresses the Athenians who, Luke says in Verse 21, just like to sit around hearing new things and he’s addressing the Epicureans and the Stoics. Now in the midst of that address – there is lots that can be said about it – but in the midst of that address one of the things Paul does in an ingenious way, is he quotes two of the poets that his audience would have been familiar with. He quotes Epimenides and he quotes Aratus. And he quotes Epimenides, (assuming it is…seems likely it is from Epimenides) but anyway it is one of the Greek poets and he says, “even as some of your own poets have said, in him we live and move and have our being…”. Or, “in him we live and move and exist”. Right, OK, now here is the question, Brian, I will ask you since you are asking me. Here is my chance at a question. When Paul says “In Him we live and move and exist” Brian do you think that is true?
KSO: OK, now when Epimenides says, “In him we live and move and exist”, is that true?
KSO: Exactly! So what is Paul doing? What he is doing is initially he is presenting Who God is. He begins with you know a discussion about God’s character, “…doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands as though He needed anything...”etc., etc. And then he says, “Even as some of your own poets have said…in him…” Now what Paul is doing here…so here is the question relating to your own question…is the quotation from the poets is that common ground?
Well, you can quibble about semantics and words and things like that, and what Van Til wants to say is it is not common ground in the sense that Paul is saying that he agrees with Epimenides. Right!? That is the point! It couldn’t be common ground in that way because what Epimenides meant by “him” was Zeus. What Paul means by “Him” is the true God. So whether the statement is true or not depends upon the referent of the statement, to whom does it refer? For Epimenides it is false.
Paul takes that quotation and it is point of persuasion for Paul (again I go into this in the book coming out) but it is a point of persuasion for Paul in that he is drawing his audience in by taking something that is familiar to them but reinterpreting it, translating it into its proper Christian context so that the statement, “In Him we live and move and exist”, can only be true if it references the true God. In that sense it is not common ground because it did not have that referent.
Same is true with his quotation from Aratus, “We are his offspring”. That “his”, “We are his offspring”, the “his” there again refers to Zeus. When Aratus wrote it, it was false. When Paul takes it and has already redefined it and gives it it’s proper content and referent, now it becomes true. So those statements as they stand are NOT true by virtue of those who first wrote them, they ARE true by virtue of Paul’s use of them because the content, the matter of what he says has now changed. The referent point is now God Himself.
So whenever those who are in Adam, let’s say, those who are outside of Christ, whenever they say something that we can agree with we have to be careful to recognise that the only way what they say can be true is if Christianity is true – if God exists and if God has spoken. Apart from that truth – that God exists and He has spoken – what they say cannot be true because the presupposition behind the truth of what is said is that God exists, that He has created and that He has revealed and redeemed His people. So that’s the difference, see, there is no common ground there because we can’t just simply rest and stand on the same place that the unbeliever thinks he is standing without sinking with the unbeliever himself.
BA: I was wondering can you give another example of how you mention that the quicksand element where if you aren’t arguing from a covenantal position, that you are beginning to sink. Can you kind of show by example how that might play out?
KSO: Again, I give some of these in my book. I’m not sure I can summarise that real quickly. In the book I have an illustration dealing with naturalistic evolution with Dawkins and Dennett. And then dealing with the problem of evil in the way it is typically articulated and a conversation with a Muslim as I say and then also a conversation where a man is trying to defend the faith in terms of kind of generic theism and I show where that falls apart and where it is not able to sustain itself. But just to use one example, in…I recognise there are complications and implications here that I am not going to be able to talk about you know on the phone because it is just too dense…
KSO: But in many versions of naturalistic evolution what you have is a notion of unguided development. And that notion of unguided development of the species into humanity…that is, it evolves into humanity…..that notion is supposed to present to us a doctrine of origins so that we need not depend on anything like God in order to give an account of what currently exists.
Alright? And in that context, I’m pretty sure it is Dennett…I don’t think Dawkins…but in that context, Daniel Dennett says that anyone who doubts this theory of unguided natural selection…anyone who doubts this is either ignorant or insane and then he says in parenthesis “or wicked but I don’t want to consider that notion right now”. So those are his words……now, I’m paraphrasing but I think I’ve got the words exactly right, “Anyone who doubts this is either ignorant or insane”.
Then what happens is that Dennett goes on to argue….and he’s clear about this, he’s explicit, these are his words….he argues for the plausibility and probability of unguided natural evolution. Now, here’s the problem, whenever you present an argument that ends with ‘plausibility’ or ‘probability’ by definition you have room for doubt. Right? Because if it is not certain, it is probable and if it is probable, there’s either high degree or low degree but whatever it is, even if there is a high degree, there is still a degree of doubt that possible in his own construal.
In that context then, Dennett’s own words that anyone who doubts is “either ignorant or insane”, come back to him because he has presented an argument and left room for doubt. So even in the context of his own argument, it sinks of its own weight and you notice here I haven’t yet…this is defensive, this is not offensive, so I haven’t interjected yet any Christian idea although that is necessary and I do that but right now I’m just talking about quicksand, his position sinks because he is not able to sustain what he himself says must be the case in order to argue his position.
Now how do you get at that? You don’t just say, “OK Dennett, evolution but here’s a fact and here’s a fact and I’ve got 20 facts and you’ve only got 15, so I win”. I mean the facts are important but instead of just looking at the very facts, look at the presuppositions and assumptions behind the facts and then begin to analyse those and you begin to see quickly that the system is a house of cards and it begins to fall apart fairly easily.
BA: Alright…well thanks Dr. Oliphint for kind of clarifying that. It is helpful I think and it brings me back to one more thing that you were saying about arguing say for bare theism that it is not Christianity and I’m wondering that maybe some of our listeners might respond to that and think, well, what if I’m arguing for Christianity and that person doesn’t even believe in God and I present an argument for theism in order to overcome that obstacle and they do accept theism but they are just not ready to go any further but they want to think about it more. I mean I would think maybe some of our listeners would think it would make sense to, say, get someone on to "first base" realising that you can’t unpack the whole truth in one go or someone may not be ready. Maybe they wouldn’t start with bare theistic argument….they would start with an argument for a full-fledged Christianity, right, but I’m just wondering how that might play out from a covenantal approach?
KSO: Yeah, good. I’ve got a specific example of this in the forthcoming book so just to say I won’t be able to get into all the details here in this question but I gave it a try in that book. But I would say it this way, you know just to use your terminology, from my perspective, from Van Til’s perspective, generic theism is not "first base," if the establishing of that theism has anything other than a revelational foundation. OK? So if you think…if someone thinks….that they can establish theism, proper theism, on the basis of reason alone, that is just by the employment of rational or empirical faculties, then there is going to be no adequate way to move from that theism to Christianity without changing your foundation and … see I think that one of the reasons why (let’s just use Aquinas here), one of the reasons why his theistic proofs have garnered some success is because oftentimes people are not thinking directly about the foundation upon which they establish certain things and (that’s No. 1) and No. 2 it is because everyone knows God anyway.
So in the book, you know, I try to present an argument from causality using Thomas’s categories but a different foundation and in that, see, I’m not going to argue…no Christian would argue that God is not first cause, of course He is…but the problem comes in, as many have pointed out, again I think rightly is that there is no adequate way to move from finite causality on the basis…now that is a key point….on the basis of a cause-effect relationship….there is no way to move from that to an infinite. You cannot leap beyond the range of the rational or the empirical.
And so what we have to be aware of – here’s the point I’m trying to make you know – what we have to be aware of if we are going to use these kinds of arguments (I’m not sure they’re that kind of helpful overall) but if we’re going to use these kind of arguments, what we have to be aware of is the foundation on which the argument itself rests. So if we say to someone, “Look you need to recognise given the Universe there really has to be a cause…the Universe must have come to be and so there must be a cause and that cause is necessary”. OK, now we’ve got a first cause which is necessary but what is it that allows us to posit a necessary cause that transcends both time and space since we have no rational principle that requires that or can even conjure it up and we have no empirical principle of eternity or infinity.
And so if we establish something like that on a supposedly rational basis and then we want to say to someone, “Now you need to understand the God of which I am speaking is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and in order to grasp Who He is we have to recognise what He has done as the Triune God”, somebody is going to legitimately call ‘Foul’ at that point, and say ‘wait a minute, you told me we were moving on a rational basis and I’ve got no rational basis for someone or something that is both One and Three. I don’t have a way of negotiating that in my own mind’, and see what they are recognising when people object to this, is that you have changed the game entirely. It is not just that you are on first base it is that you have a whole other playing field and I’m not there and the playing field now is a playing field which has revelation as a ground rather than the rational and you haven’t told me why I need to move in that direction.
Where on the other hand if you establish a kind of first causality based (if you are going to do that) based on biblical revelation then you have an authoritative ground on which to speak and to move to aspects of God such as His Tri-Unity, which is necessary in order to understand anything about His condescension and his redemption. You have a way to move to that which is natural.
So the point I making in the book is, this is a term I use in class all the time, that apologetics has to be seen as ‘premeditated evangelism’ in that we are to think through the implications and aspects of the Gospel and of the existence of God but our apologetic endeavours, when the Lord allows, our apologetic endeavours have to inevitably move towards the Gospel and there is no way to move to the Gospel and to the Cross unless we stand on Scripture as our basis apologetic foundation.
BA: Well it reminds me there when you are talking about how Van Til said you cannot argue from, say, brick by brick, you have to argue for the whole house.
KSO: Yeah that’s right.
BA: Well, I’m looking forward to this book that you are writing because I’m sure that it will help clarify a lot of these things and really unfold and unpack them and illustrate them better for those who are listening who are saying “Yeah, I want to understand this and use this more rightly”. Now I don’t want to take up too much of your time but I do want to ask you from the position of Covenantal Apologetics, what do you think are some of the wrong impressions that people may have of, say, presuppositionalism that maybe you’d want to correct or steer rightly?
KSO: Yeah. Thanks. Well there are a host of those. You know you’ve touched on a couple of them. Some people say – here are things I’ve heard – some people say for Van Til there is no common ground between believer and unbeliever. He clarifies that, qualifies that in some of the very first things he wrote actually, back in the 30s, he clarifies and qualifies, so that is not true just as said. As I said, he makes a psychological and epistemological distinction there, so even if we don’t get the terms we can recognise that there is more going on.
Some people say that if you’re going to take this approach it is nothing but fideism. Well, see, fideism is an approach that says blind faith is the only way you can move in your discussion. There is absolutely, positively nothing in Reformed Christianity that says, ‘faith is blind’. As a matter of fact, in the Reformation there were three elements to faith:- knowledge, trust and assent. And that knowledge component is one that had to necessarily be there. So nobody is saying ‘blind faith’ but we are saying that the only way someone can become a true theist, not a theist who is condemned eternally, but a theist who is graciously accepted in the new heaven and the new earth. The only way that can happen is by a communication of the truth of God and that takes place when the Word of God is given. And so there is no blind faith, even though faith is a significant component.
Somebody else has said – Alvin Plantinga has repeated this on numerous occasions – that Van Til has said that the unbeliever cannot know anything. What Van Til actually says and I actually have pointed this out in a couple of spots to Dr Plantinga, so I think he gets this, but what Van Til says (I’m summarising him here; he says it in different places), if what we mean by knowledge is a knowledge that has its ground in the existence of the true God and his revelation, if that’s what we mean by knowledge, the unbeliever doesn’t have any. So whatever the unbeliever knows, such as 2+2 = 4 he takes that fact and he twists it and turns it in such a way, so that he says in his own presumed autonomy, “I can know this fact and it doesn’t matter whether God exists or not and it doesn’t matter whether He has revealed Himself or not”. So you know to put it concretely so that unbeliever when he stands before God on judgement day, God will not say, “Hey, you got so much of it right, you were really right when you said 2+2 = 4, you know good for you on that one”.
But instead what He will say is, “You should not have even taken the number 2 and added another number 2 and come up with 4. You should not have even done that without first acknowledging that I am the creator and sustainer of everything that is. You wouldn’t even know that truth unless I made you and revealed those things to you by way of my creation.
So that’s a kind of knowledge – this is back to the way Calvin started his Institutes in every single edition that he wrote, including his final one in 1559, every edition starts with what we have in terms of our knowledge is a proper understanding of ourselves requires a proper understanding of God, to the extent that we know God, to that extent we know ourselves, to the extent that we suppress and refuse to know God, to that extent we don’t even know ourselves.
So knowledge has to necessarily include the fact of God’s creating and sustaining and revealing Himself in every single fact in the Universe or it is not known as it is. See, so Van Til wouldn’t say (he got his PhD in Philosophy) he’s not going to say unbelievers don’t know anything. That kind of caricature is a little bit frustrating because it just doesn’t get at the heart of it.
And then you know, the other thing people say is that Van Til is just reasoning in a circle, you know you start with the Bible and you end with the Bible and you know I’ll just say I have some comments on this in the Fourth Edition of Van Til’s book, ˆ, I have comments all along the way, footnotes along the way in that book and an Introduction written and I address that particular problem at a little bit of length in a footnote there but all Van Til is saying by that, if I can put it this way, is the same thing as all Philosophers have said and that is you cannot reason backwards ad infinitum. The only way you can begin to reason is if you stand somewhere and then, based on where you are standing you begin to reason. Aristotle said that, philosophers have said that ever since.
So all Van Til is saying is, “I stand on Scripture and by standing on Scripture then I can begin to reason all along but I cannot ever leave that foundation without sinking”. So that’s all he means by a kind of circular reasoning. And many philosophers, if not most now, have recognised that when you are dealing with basic fundamental issues like how to prove that reason is a faculty, how to prove that the empirical is a faculty that we use. The only way to prove those is by presupposing them. That’s been shown in all kinds of philosophical literature, so in that kind of circle we have to reason when we’re talking about foundational issues.
BA: Well, good. Now I want to kind of end where we began in a sense back to a bit of maybe suggested reading in apologetics. Of course, we mentioned your Reader, co-edited there with William Edgar, but are there particular authors that you really want to recommend to those studying apologetics and maybe perhaps some of your own works of course.
KSO: Yes, well let me just apologise to your listeners. I really didn’t mean to plug the book so much, but it is just kind of on my mind and the questions sort of related to it so that’s why I was mentioning it…
BA: No, No, I want you to. If there are resources that you’ve got I want to point our listeners in that direction, especially if it is in answer to particular questions that we don’t have time to fully engage with here.
KSO: Yeah, thanks, well I would say to people who are up to it and who deal with these kinds of things the first place to start is with Defense of the Faith, that Van Til wrote and one of the reasons I wanted to edit that, and by editing I mean I am just adding comments, one of the reasons I wanted to do that is because it was the initial work that I started with and there is no question that it is kind of dense philosophically and it’s got some terms and things in there that are not just intuitive to everybody, but what I found in my own career is – and this is sort of arbitrary – but I would say that 90% of the criticisms of Van Til come from people who haven’t really looked carefully at what he has written. And part of that, you know I have to give credit, part of that I think is that Van Til is not the most understandable writer. He was writing in a context and particularly with an intellect that not all of us can relate to, but I would start there.
For those who aren’t more philosophically oriented, Bill Edgar has written a great book Reasons of the Heart as a nice, kind of basic intro. I tried to follow that up with a book that I wrote called, “The Battle Belongs to the Lord” where all I’m doing in that book – and again it is absent any kind of philosophical terminology – all I’m doing in that book is taking specific passages of Scripture and from those passages trying to show No 1 that apologetics is something that all Christians are required to be involved in in one way or the other and if we’re required to be involved in it, that means that God has given us the tools that we need to do it, and that tool specifically is His Word.
And so I take those passages that are sort of central in apologetics discussions and try to show how apologetic principles really come up from the text of Scripture itself. So I think that would be a good place to start. And then moving from that to try to get into some works that Van Til himself wrote and to pour through those and work through those as much as possible.
I mean it is encouraging to me, when I started teaching here over 20 years ago, you know there wasn’t as much interest in this approach and I have seen over the past decade I think as more and more people have got in touch with Reformed understanding of Who God is and what the Bible is, I’m seeing a real groundswell of interest in this approach and I think this is very encouraging and I think it is a very, very positive sign.
BA: Yes, well, would you mind pointing our listeners to any of the programs that are offered at Westminster Theological Seminary that may be of interest.
KSO: Yes, well, as I have said many times, and most people recognise this, if you come to Westminster and you…we train….our primary responsibility is to train people for pastoral ministry in what is called the MDiv Program – Master of Divinity – and at Westminster, unlike so many other institutions, there are others now, but at Westminster you are required to take apologetics as a part of your MDiv curriculum. It is not an elective, it is not something set off to the side that you can take if you are interested in philosophy but we see it as central to training and pastoral ministry because really one of the things you are doing in the pulpit every week is you are defending the Christian faith, certainly with people who belong to Christ but also there are going to be people in there who don’t.
And so pastoral ministry itself has a significant apologetic side to it and so you are required to take apologetics in the MDiv and then for people who want to follow up in terms of their own degree and their own studies, we have a ThM – Master of Theology – which has an emphasis and focus on apologetics and we also have a PhD that has a focus on apologetics as well. So it has been a part of our tradition from the beginning and it is a distinctive of Westminster, Philadelphia, we want students to understand it, we want to maintain that distinctive. So anyone interested in coming here, we’d love to talk with them more about not only apologetics but everything we do theologically, it all sort of coheres and hangs together.
BA: Yes, indeed, well finally Dr Oliphint would you mind just giving a word of advice to our listeners who are interested in apologetics – maybe they want to be a better defender of the faith. What advice would you have for them?
KSO: Yeah I would say, you know read the literature and think about that in light of what you know of Scripture as you read Scripture, think about Scripture apologetically. Not only apologetically; but one of the things I did in “The Battle Belongs to the Lord”, was I read through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and just made note of significant passages that deal in some way with apologetics or defence or fight or unbelief and I listed those at the end of the book and it is amazing, Genesis to Revelation, how there is an emphasis with God as the divine warrior, how there is an emphasis with this battle that we are engaged in between those who are in Christ and those who are in Adam and the way that God wants us to fight that battle is with the armour that He gives that we see in Ephesians 6, and so we arm ourselves with the Word of God. The Sword of the Spirit is the only offensive weapon that is given in that whole list of armour and so we arm ourselves with the Word of God, we read the literature.
And so the difficult part in the 21st Century for every Christian, myself included, is that we have to meditate on these things, we have to remember what it means to meditate on these things and that means, and here is an unpopular idea, that means turn off your electronics at some point during the day, don’t be connected but meditate on what the Word of God says in relationship to your own position in Christ but also in relationship to what God has called you to do with respect to unbelief. And just cogitate and meditate on those things so that you get it into your soul, so that you live and breathe as one who wants to honour and glorify the Lord Himself and part of what that means is learning how best to defend the Christian faith.
BA: Well that is good advice and that you for it. Dr Oliphint it has been a real pleasure speaking with you today and thank you for taking the time to do this interview.
KSO: Thanks Brian. It is good to be with you.