Once upon a time, long ago, there was a fervent young man with a burning desire to defend his faith. He mixed it up on BBSs, wrote blog posts, went on forums, and even set up networks, and a “blog carnival” (for those of you who might remember that phenomenon). He had books by Lewis, McDowell, Craig, Habermas, Licona, and the like. Then, he ran into a problem. A Roman Catholic apologist wanted to join his apologetic blog carnival – his father was a Roman Catholic, and he knew just enough to know that wasn’t kosher – but he wasn’t sure, exactly, why that was. So, he went looking, and stumbled into the chat channel of the infamous Dr. James White.
This young man was raised in a nominally Calvinistic home – he even went to John MacArthur’s church for a short time. However, he wasn’t interested in that theology stuff so much as he was in apologetics. You know, philosophy – right? Well, what should have been a simple question and answer (to his mind) became a rather involved, and somewhat infuriating exchange. You see, these people had this strange idea that how you responded apologetically to people had, first and foremost, to do with theology. Particularly, his own! The very idea that his theology might not be robust enough to answer this situation was quite offensive to him. The heated exchange that resulted was, quite simply, his protestation that he knew plenty enough theology, thank you – and all he wanted was the answer to a question, not an inquisition!
That young man, of course, was me. Nearly a decade ago, I ran into the AOMin chat channel – in many ways, my second home – and over time, I was gently, but inexorably corrected, and shown that it was absolutely necessary for one to have a solid – and quite thorough – theological understanding prior to engaging in the apologetic task in any broad sense. I have learned an amazing amount from those folks, and continue to do so – and hopefully, I have made at least a small deposit forward on their investment of time and effort with me in the lives of others. I am now one of the admins of that same chat channel, and this site, in a very large part, was born in that channel as well. I have met Dr. White in person, and consider him a friend. So let me pass along something I have learned from his example.
It is not enough to have a zeal for the defense of the faith. It is not enough to have a natural talent for the presentation of arguments, or a mere ability to convey your thoughts in writing or with your voice. The single most important qualification for engaging in a defense of the faith is… knowledge of what it is you’re putatively defending. In other words, you can’t defend that which you do not know.
I have had a great many conversations of late with folks concerning what is, or is not presuppositional apologetics. There seems to be a common thread that underlies the majority of them, from what I can see. Essentially, the assumption is made that presup is an umbrella category under which one can vary to a wide (surprisingly so, in some instances) extent. There is one glaring, although by no means singular problem with this idea. The very impetus of the method – and I would argue, the theology of – presuppositional apologetics was a matter of consistency in doctrine. Van Til’s primary concern in broaching the subject was to present a consistently Reformed apologetic that sprang from our theology, instead of being bolted on to it, so to speak. Classicalism and evidentialism, while having a historic presence in Reformed circles, are self-evidently foreign to our basic theology. Further, the central thrust, indeed, of every single distinctive theme of Van Til’s apologetic is, by any meaningful appreciation, thoroughgoing Reformed teaching.
So, my consternation at the statements of some who explicitly reject cardinal doctrines which give rise to the very origin and nature of the methodology itself might be forgiven me, upon a measure of thoughtful consideration. Please listen to me here. My concern is not to lead some sort of “jihad” against those who are Dispensationalist, New Covenant theologians, Arminians, or the like. That is the furthest thing from my mind. However, what must be recognized, and must be understood is that the insistence I’m seeing from these folks that they must be recognized under the “presuppositionalist” umbrella, whatever that is intended to mean, is precisely the reason that many of us, along with Westminster, have come to believe that the term “presuppositional” has become a term which vies with “evangelical” as “most meaningless.” If “the gospel” is no longer the epitome of what makes an “evangelical” – what use does the term really have? If *what* you presuppose no longer carries any water for what a “presuppositionalist” is defined as, is the term of any practical use? Let’s take one more look at the issue – Van Til himself didn’t coin the title “presuppositionalism”, or “presuppositionalist”. He didn’t object too strongly to it, but he tended to use “Reformed apologist”, or “Reformed apologetics” in his written work, and from everything I’ve heard in his lectures. Since this is the case, and since, of course, there is a significant difference already in view between followers of a Clark, or Schaeffer, or even Frame – all of whom have sought, to various degrees, to use the term – is it any wonder that those of us who seek to teach *that which Van Til taught* object to those who *consider themselves*, at least, to be Van Tilian apologists, but who don’t hold to that which Van Til believed, to be amazingly inconsistent at that point? Please, brothers and sisters, think about what Van Til himself taught on this very subject!
Let me anticipate the objection I already see burgeoning. “But you’re a Reformed Baptist!” Really? I hadn’t noticed! Seriously, though, I think I can put that one to rest fairly quickly and succinctly. Perhaps one of my closest friends is a member of the OPC, the origin and fountainhead of this apologetic methodology. This brother is who did a great deal of the instruction I had at the beginning of my foray into the method. He and I have discussed many times the fact that for all intents and purposes, the Reformed Baptists and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are closer, doctrinally, than any other two denominations we can think of. Further, I think it can be demonstrated that there is, and has been for quite some time, a very tangible record of frequent, close and mutual support between these two groups. More so, in point of fact, than exists between the PCA and OPC, or the Reformed Baptists and the PCA, or even the SBC. We are both heavily confessional, and firmly covenantal. The areas where we disagree, further, have little to do with the apologetic task. This can be said, I would argue, for confessional Presbyterians in general, as well. The OPC has a very distinct “old school” flavor that Reformed Baptists share very heavily in, however. I’m in a good position to say this. I’ve been a member of Dr. White’s community for quite some time – and it is a very mixed group. I think, however, that I have much more in common with my OPC friends than I do with Calvinistic, and even covenantal SBCers, generally. I say that as a former member of an SBC church, and after having authored with Chris Bolt for a significant period of time. This isn’t to say there is no fellowship – but it is my experience that the OPCs and RBCs, in general, are closer together, doctrinally and practically, than any two other denominations in the Reformed sphere. So, while some might still object – I think my explanation is sufficient to the day.
Thus, I would like to offer a couple challenges to those who would object to the “rebranding,” because you aren’t covenantal. First, please understand that we aren’t telling you that you have to use it. We’re saying that we’re using it, because we believe it. The essence is, we’re saying that “presuppositional” should be relegated to a general term. If you want to continue using that term, go for it. In fact, that will simply illustrate our point – that we are using it to distinguish ourselves from your position. There’s nothing of a stigma attached to it – but we’re making a conscious decision to say “this term is for those who consider covenantal theology integral to the consistent practice of the method.” Secondly, I’d like to make a request. If you still want to consider yourself to be Van Tilian, prove it. Whatever you think about Covenantalism, it’s also quite apparent that he also taught that your theology has to be systematic to practice his method with any consistency. Can you honestly say that you hold to a cohesive, coherent, and publicly accessible system of theology? Thirdly, and finally, my challenge is for our covenantalists. Do less work on repeating the same old arguments against atheism, and do more work in two areas – the areas Van Til himself said we needed to expand upon him in. 1) Exegetical work to demonstrate where the methodology comes directly from the Scripture. I’m going to be posting some sermons and lectures over the next few days that simply beg to be looked at from the apologetic standpoint, and applied specifically in that direction. 2) A good hard look into the place of apologetic *as part of* our systematic theology. If we’re serious about what Van Til said, that evangelism and apologetics are the flip sides of the same coin, we should be working toward integrating our theology of apologetic the way we do our theology of evangelism.
I’ve been working on both of the above over time – and hope to have something to show in the future – but let me just leave you with a parting exhortation. I’ve come to realize, on my own part, that some of the reason why people have objected to my polemics concerning the inability of dispensationalism or new covenant theology to support the apologetic task is simply because we haven’t explained clearly enough why it is, in fact, necessary, from a positive standpoint. So, over the next week, I’m going to be posting positive presentations by Dr. Renihan of what I believe regarding the Covenant. This might be helpful to demonstrate, just by the exposition of the doctrine itself, how much of what he says you have to presuppose in order to write what I have written on this blog over the past years. If I wasn’t a Reformed Baptist, I could not have written anything that I have written here. I’m confident that Dr. Renihan’s presentations will be useful for not only our brothers of different beliefs, but an encouragement to my Reformed brothers.