The Recent Rise of Covenantal Apologetics (3 of 10)

Covenantal apologetics have virtually no place in the academy.

It’s not that they shouldn’t have a place in the academy. It’s just that they don’t.

But why would we expect anything different? Covenantal apologetics are firmly grounded in the Christian worldview and are used to cast down every thought exemplifying its antithesis. It is not merely that non-Christians will misunderstand or reject covenantal apologetics in an intellectual sense, but rather that they will not even like them. So we should not expect to see covenantal apologetics pulling up a chair next to Naturalistic Atheism or Thomistic Christianity in the college classroom or philosophical journal. Covenantal apologists are not going to be able to get the types of degrees that even other Christians might get at higher levels of education and some of the more well-respected schools. The so-called transcendental argument is certainly not going to be making an appearance in a journal of philosophy. No worries! The absolute academic failure of covenantal apologetics will only serve to highlight their aforementioned unabashed acceptance of the authoritative Word of God. The absence of academic material stemming from a covenantal approach to various disciplines is thus easily justified by pointing out that people just can’t handle the truth.

Or not. There are Christians in virtually every field of study with a firm commitment to the authoritative Word of God. Even philosophy! Many of them make Christian claims that the academy will reject and even detest, but it has not prevented them from excelling in the realm of higher education and getting published. Moreover, there are enough details involved in fleshing out the covenantal apologetic method that those firmly committed to its explanation and defense should have no problem, relatively speaking, in publishing on an interesting and/or difficult theological or philosophical aspect of covenantal apologetics.

For example, Greg L. Bahnsen, a student of Cornelius Van Til and popularizer of the covenantal method of apologetics, was able to earn his Ph.D. in Philosophy from a well-respected secular university. And what did he write his dissertation on? The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception, an epistemological principle which immediately lends itself to the advance of presuppositionalist thinking in apologetics! Who will continue to represent covenantal apologetics in the academic realm where Bahnsen only got the ball rolling?

Enter James N. Anderson. Anderson is no stranger to the academy. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology from the University of Edinburgh that he received after his M.A. in Philosophy and Apologetics from Trinity Theological Seminary in addition to his earlier Ph.D. from Edinburgh in Computer Simulation that followed from his B.Eng. in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from the same school. I’m exhausted from just writing about it. He serves as Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In 2011 Dr. Anderson wrote the first (that I am aware of) positive presentation of covenantal apologetics (Anderson does not use this label for his method, but we can forgive him) to be published in an academic journal of philosophy. (There are, of course, other journals much more inclined to accept the Van Tilian stream of thought since they are published by those who adhere to that particular perspective or something similar to it, and I am overlooking them here for precisely that reason.) The article is titled, “No Dilemma for the Proponent of the Transcendental Argument: A Response to David Reiter,” and it appears in Philosophia Christi (13:1). Whether Anderson’s response to Reiter is successful or not, his article serves to silence the critic who asks for an example of covenantal apologetics in an academic journal of philosophy. But more importantly, it opens the door to future apologists who desire to write articles on similar subject matter.

Immediately after Anderson’s 2011 article was the very popular, “The Lord of Non-Contradiction: An Argument for God from Logic” which was written by Anderson and Greg Welty and appeared in the very next issue of Philosophia Christi (13:2). Though the article does not explicitly mention its very Van Tilian roots, Anderson went on to blog about it shortly after the appearance of the paper. The article in question was by no means the first time that Anderson had so rigorously and skillfully defended what are often initially considered extremely radical Van Tilian claims. He did so in his much earlier dissertation. That work is available from Paternoster Theological Monographs. Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of Its Presence, Character, and Epistemic Status is an exceedingly clear, persuasive exposition of some of Van Til’s most brilliant insights concerning the Christian worldview and apologetic adapted to the current analytic climate.

Anderson hits hard. His publications constitute articulate expressions of concepts and arguments that he has been thinking about for many years. He has a gift for taking what seems virtually inexplicable and…well…explaining it. It has earned him respect amongst his academic peers in the theological and philosophical communities. Perhaps there is a place for covenantal apologetics in the academy.

Yet for the Christian, academics are not an end in and of themselves. They are, rather, to be used in service to Christ and His kingdom. Dr. Anderson no doubt understands this. Though his publications are too numerous to list here, and though some of them are more technical than many laypersons prefer, others will undoubtedly be more widely read. For example, Anderson has written a number of book reviews. He also contributed “Presuppositionalism and Frame’s Epistemology” to John M. Frame’s festschrift, Speaking the Truth in Love: The Theology of John M. Frame edited by John J. Hughes. The first article that I remember reading by Anderson is his “If Knowledge Then God: The Epistemological Theistic Arguments of Plantinga and Van Til” which appeared in Calvin Theological Journal (40:1) in 2005. In that article Anderson not only compares and contrasts the methodologies and arguments of Plantinga and Van Til – a practice that will no doubt become even more prevalent in the very near future – but actually explains their arguments in straightforward, clear language that even those of us like me who are much less blessed upstairs can understand! Perhaps his pastoral experience has something to do with this. While in Edinburgh, Anderson served as assistant pastor at Charlotte Chapel and is now an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He also ran the now defunct Van Til List which examined presuppositional apologetics from virtually every angle one can think up. Thus Anderson not only has the street creds one needs for injecting some covenantal apologetics into the academic realm, but has the deep Van Tilian roots and pastoral care to do so while keeping his excellent work accessible to the church.

James N. Anderson has done more to articulately advance covenantal apologetics in an analytic fashion while remaining faithful to core Van Tilian principles than any other living advocate of this method I know. His work is of great benefit to the academic philosopher and the amateur apologist. You may find it at http://www.proginosko.com. All of the articles referenced above are available there and much more.


18 Comments

Pat

An atheist told me a while ago that presuppositionalism is childish nonsense, that’s why you do see it in scholarly journals. It’s nice to read another perspective why though.

C.L. Bolt

Pat,

Did you mean to write, “that’s why you *don’t* see it in scholarly journals”?

Pat

Yes, I meant *don’t*. My bad.

Chuck

Mr. Bolt, are you sure that Anderson is “faithful to core Van Tilian principles”? I hope so; Anderson is tremendous.

C.L. Bolt

Chuck,

Good question, and I originally intended to say more about that, but didn’t. It really depends, I suppose, upon which core principles you have in mind. For example, Anderson does not believe that the transcendental argument yields certainty. He also does not, so far as I know, believe that the argument proves the Christian God in particular, but there is much more that would need to be said regarding that. However, Anderson also relies more upon the Trinity, analogy, and paradox in his apologetic in terms of emphasis than did, for example, Bahnsen. He also does a much better job of explaining Van Tilian theology with respect to the aforementioned topics and their implications for apologetics than have most other Van Tilians I can think of. So in those respects, and I am sure there are others, Anderson remains true to his methodological roots.

Perhaps he will drop by and speak for himself though.

James Anderson

Chris commented:

“He also does not, so far as I know, believe that the argument proves the Christian God in particular…”

Allow me to qualify that a bit for Chuck’s benefit. I’ve said two things: (1) there is no *single* transcendental argument for the existence of God, but rather different instantiations of a general argumentative strategy; (2) none of the *extant* versions of the argument proves the existence of a specifically *triune* God. However, it’s entirely possible that such an argument will be developed in the future. It’s certainly an ongoing research project of mine.

Chuck

Dr. Anderson,

Thanks for clarifying.

If I be correct in taking from this that you are at least somewhat moved by a Fristianity argument, we can move ahead.

As you well know, CVT held that there was a transcendental argument for the existence of God which is “absolutely sound.” Will you at least admit that it can be proven that the *concept* of the Christian (Triune) God is necessary to account for human experience?

Thank you much,

Chuck

James Anderson

Chuck,

I’m not trying to be difficult, but I’m not sure I understand your question!

What exactly does it mean to say that the concept of the Christian God is necessary to account for human experience? Does this mean that a comprehensive account of human experience requires reference to the Christian God? If so, I’m confident that’s the case. I also think it very likely that God’s triunity will play an important role in that account.

But my grounds for believing that are more theological rather than philosophical. I don’t think anyone has proven philosophically (e.g., via a transcendental argument) that the existence of a triune God is a necessary precondition of human experience.

Can it be done? We’ll see. 🙂

Chuck

Dr. Anderson, why can’t we just say that

God in His Word the Bible breathes out a comprehensive worldview sufficient for human experience. We either take it whole (with triunity, etc.) as it is revealed, or we don’t. If we don’t, then we must deviate from it on the basis of some independent worldview, the sufficiency of which (including but not nearly limited to a foundation for Induction) we must establish. But, given any belief which might be encompassed by such a worldview, we finite humans (as unaided with respect to our finitude) cannot account for any fact outside our limited sphere of knowledge and control, which fact may represent a defeater for that belief. So, on the assumption of the denial of the Christian worldview, which encompasses an exclusivity clause with respect to sufficiency for human experience (meaning that if the exclusivity clause were lost, the sufficiency of the Christian worldview is lost with it), knowledge of any kind is unwarranted

Is it your view that warrant can be had for less?

Do you believe that, contra Van Til, a “block-house method” is necessary in some way?

Thanks,

Chuck

C.L. Bolt

“If we don’t, then we must deviate from it on the basis of some independent worldview, the sufficiency of which (including but not nearly limited to a foundation for Induction) we must establish.”

But there’s the rub. In the context of the transcendental argument, it is not up to the Fristianity proponent to establish the sufficiency of his worldview, but rather it is up to the Van Tilian to establish the impossibility of that worldview. One might affirm the impossibility of the contrary upon the basis of Scripture, but how is that shown in terms of philosophical argument, as opposed to merely asserted?

Also, if you have not done so already, run a search for “Fristianity” on the site, as there have been a number of posts written about it, and some include comments from Dr. Anderson as well.

Chuck

A Christian proclaims, “The best, the only, the absolutely certain proof of the truth of Christianity is that unless its truth be presupposed, there is no proof of anything” (or whatever TAG family member he likes).

Now this proof is either, as Van Til said, “absolutely sound”, or it’s not. It doesn’t depend on what happens later. The proof will be defended, not “proven.” Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem was correct before he was done defending it to the mathematical community.

So when the Fristian, as it were, come along and predicate the sufficiency of his worldview, he hasn’t yet disproven Christianity. Now, the Christian should defend his proof against the attack of the Fristian, which would be a lot of difficult work. I believe that Butler is right in his suspicion that there would be serious consequences for increasing the number of persons in the Godhead and redistributing their functions, etc. But while the discourse unfolds, Christianity has been proven if it ever will be.

Furthermore, if Fristianity were to turn out to be sufficient for human experience, then Trinitarian Christianity with its exclusivity clause no longer would be. With such a glaring defects as a false exclusivity claim and failing to acknowledge all four persons, only the Fristian god would know how damnably heretical Trinitarianism would be.

In addition, if we have to defend Christianity against every possible contrivance such as Fristianity, Christianity will never be proven, and in one sense this kind of presuppositionalism is no better than evidentialism.

(I will try to get to those posts on Fristianity.)

C.L. Bolt

Chuck,

The proclamation involving absolute certainty and the universal negative statement regarding other views (“no proof of anything”) as well as the traditional “impossibility of the contrary” claim still require the person making them to support them with argument if they are to be part of an argument as opposed to a mere assertion.

How would we go about doing so with respect to Fristianity? It is not enough for Butler to say that there is no guarantee that Fristianity would be coherent. He must show that it is incoherent (or in some other way “impossible”), and he does not do so in the article you allude to.

“…if we have to defend Christianity against every possible contrivance such as Fristianity, Christianity will never be proven, and in one sense this kind of presuppositionalism is no better than evidentialism.”

Right, that’s the problem.

Hope this makes sense.

Chuck

My less ambitious blog: http://mathischristian.wordpress.com/ 😉

James Anderson

I’m hesitant to decloak for fear of undoing Chris’s miracle of turning water in wine. 🙂

I guess I could give several answers to Chuck’s question:

1. Just ask the Clarkians at The Trinity Review. They think I’m a Neo-orthodox irrationalist and a danger to the Reformed church, which is a good sign that I’m still a faithful Van Tilian. 🙂

2. You tell me what you think are the core Van Tilian principles and I’ll tell you whether I’m faithful to them — or at least whether I aim to be!

3. [The best answer:] Read my material and draw your own conclusions. In particular, check out my article “Presuppositionalism and Frame’s Epistemology” in which I set out and defend what I take to be the two core principles of Van Tilian apologetics (the “No Neutrality” principle and the “No Autonomy” principle).

Pat

Dr. James Anderson,

Are you planning on writing an introduction to apologetics book anytime soon for laypersons?

James Anderson

Pat,

I don’t have any plans to write an introduction to apologetics. I doubt there’s a need for yet another introductory book. For anyone looking for an introduction to apologetics I would recommend Frame’s Apologetics to the Glory of God, Bahnsen’s Always Ready, and Groothuis’s recent Christian Apologetics (which has a lot of excellent material, even though it takes a more classical approach).

I do have a little practical apologetics book in the works. One day I would like to convert the lecture notes for my Applied Apologetics course into a book.

JL

Can’t wait for that book one day to come out!

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