Great Book on Apologetics

I just finished reading this book, written by one of my professors at WTS Philadelphia. It is a great read, and an important book.

A lot of people (myself included) have been longing to see what apologetics looks like in practice, not merely in principal. In particular, I have been longing to see what many people espouse and know as the “presuppositional apologetic” put into practice. What would it look like to share the gospel in a presuppositional way with a Muslim or an atheist? In this book, you will find some very well-imagined conversations of what that could look like. Oliphint is very careful to do two things in those conversations: firstly, he doesn’t make the unbelieving interlocutor into some kind of dummy, and secondly, he is always careful to make sure that we know that his conversations are only one way that even a presuppositional apologetic might take in the course of an actual attempt. These conversations were the highlights of the book for me, and I suspect will be for many others as well. In particular, I appreciated the conversation with the Muslim. I had long been searching for “the great contradiction” between the presuppositions and the life of the Muslim, and Oliphint nails it for us. More on that later.

Oliphint argues for a retirement of that phrase “presuppositional apologetics” in favor of a new term “covenantal apologetics.” By “covenantal,” Oliphint means the traditional Reformed understanding of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, and how those two covenants affect our minds; in particular, he stresses the noetic effects of the Fall, and the image of God in man, and what has happened to that image both in the Fall and in salvation. It is another way of saying “gospel-focused” apologetics. That was always something I greatly appreciated about apologetics at WTS: it was not about winning the argument, but about sharing the gospel, and seeking to tear down barriers to the gospel that people erect in their minds. Apologetics at WTS serves the gospel message, as it always should. Now, whether Oliphint will succeed in convincing people to change the term “presuppositional” to “covenantal” remains to be seen. The former term certainly has a longer pedigree, and people have used it out of habit for decades now.

I want to share Oliphint’s insights into apologetics in a Muslim context, for that is what most excited me about the book. In the “covenantal” model, one searches for an underlying, architectonic contradiction between an unbeliever’s principals, or presuppositions, and their practice, or the life they build on top of it. We search for what makes the foundation incompatible with the building they lay on top of that foundation. The Muslim believes that God is absolutely free. Nothing whatsoever can possibly bind God. He is absolutely transcendent. In our terms, God has libertarian free will. The Koran is not a revelation of who Allah is, but rather a revelation of Allah’s will (that is a key difference with Christianity: we believe the Bible reveals who God is, and not just His will for us). For the Muslim, Allah cannot enter into a relationship with a person, because that would bind Allah, and Allah cannot be bound by anything. This has several implications. Firstly, Allah is not powerful enough to enter into a relationship and yet remain God. Allah cannot be both transcendent and immanent. Secondly, they have no assurance whatsoever that God will not, at the end of history, declare that all Muslims are wrong and all Christians are correct, or even declare that what Muslims believe and what Christians believe are exactly the same thing (they’re not, by the way!). The Koran does not bind Allah, and so they have no way of knowing whether Allah will always act as the Koran says he will. They further have no assurance that living the way of Islam, namely the five pillars, will guarantee any kind of favorable reception of Allah at the last. All they can have is a hope that is not based on knowledge, even though they claim up one side and down the other to believe in a rational religion (and they castigate Christians for believing in such “irrational” things as a Trinity and a God-man). If Allah were to reverse everything in the end that Muslims hold dear, would they still reply “Allah be praised”? The Koran sinks underneath the weight of a god so utterly transcendent (even to the point of being trapped by that transcendence to the point where he cannot relate directly to a single person in a relationship) that the Koran cannot be any kind of reliable indicator of what Allah is like.

This is only the barest bones of the already truncated version of what this apologetic looks like in a Muslim context, but it was extremely helpful to me to have that great contradiction pointed out. Take up and read. You will be glad you did.

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27 Comments

  1. tominaz said,

    October 1, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    thanks for this brief review. I’ve been wondering about getting this book.
    Having been taught by CvT himself, I’ve longed for an updated work, Frame notwithstanding. You’ve convinced me to buy it.
    Blessings,
    Tom
    WTS-PA, 1973

  2. October 1, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    On the surface, it sounds like you’d have to have a degree in Muslim theology and the Koran to have enough knowledge of their theology to even have that conversation in the first place. On the other hand, though, I imagine that most ordinary Muslims have probably not thought through their own theology enough to be able to engage a Christian at that level. So, does covenantal apologetics only work when one is having a highly intellectual conversation with an unbeliever, no matter what his religion?

  3. Joel S said,

    October 3, 2013 at 2:09 am

    I’m very excited to read the book, as from other things I have read from Oliphint, the “covenantal apologetics” route seems to be a helpful direction for those of us who have identified with the presuppositional approach.

    I think Richard’s above concern is valid, though. Additionally, one difficulty with such an approach is that not all Muslims would share the view that he attributes to Islam. There have been many internal debates among Muslim scholars, and they have taken quite different approaches to those questions. And most average people in the Muslim world would not be able (or interested) in engaging on that kind of level.

    But I suspect that the framework he develops for covenantal apologetics would still work in a variety of Muslim contexts, but it would need to be refined and applied in each specific situation.

  4. Alan D. Strange said,

    October 3, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Lane:

    Thanks for this notice. This is an excellent book (I’ve reviewed it in the upcoming Mid-America Journal of Theology) and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

    To answer Richard’s question–no; you needn’t be an intellectual or an expert to engage the Muslim or any other religionist. One has to know something about the subject matter in view, of course, to engage in an internal critique, but I think that you will find Scott’s book quite refreshing and invigorating.

    Consider the alternative apologetic approaches. Some of them require philosophical sophistication; others, scientific prowess. Ever heard Bill Craig debate an atheist? He argues with him about science (at the micro and macro levels) and those who have not studied such have a hard time following.

    This whole approach of Scott’s is gospel-saturated. Apologetics is not seen as pre-evangelism (which permits all sorts of rationalism), but as part of the gospel task itself. Our call is to herald the gospel of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Objections raised to this by the Muslim, atheist, etc. are then answered both by defending the faith on its own terms and by internally critiquing the one attacking Christianity.

    This approach is not an intellectualist one but one that truly seeks to encourage and equip us all both to be ready to give an answer to all who ask a reason for our hope and to help us take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

    Run, do not walk, to your nearest computer terminal and order Professor Oliphint’s latest!

  5. RBerman said,

    October 3, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    “Allah is not powerful enough to enter into a relationship and yet remain God. Allah cannot be both transcendent and immanent.” As noted above, it would be a pretty sophisticated Muslim who thinks of God in terms of these questions in the first place. Even then, he would not describe this issue as one of whether Allah is “powerful enough.” It’s more that they think of transcendence and immanence as mutually contradictory, so that any argument becomes internally inconsistent which seeks to apply both erms to the same being, whether Allah or anything else.

  6. Tony said,

    October 3, 2013 at 11:38 pm

    actually muslims do believe their god can be blinded by something- his own majesty

  7. CD-Host said,

    October 13, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    As an aside there is a thread here where Ted and Jeff did presuppositional apologetics with me. Some of it was also on oldlife. So you have 2 very smart reformed guys with an atheist.

    I’d say it went badly off script.

    1) They got caught in the issue of whether there is truth outside an epistemology.

    2) Can a moral system that would work for all humans under all conditions act as an absolute even if it dependent on humanity for its definition?

    3) They were caught off guard by biblical interpretations that are common in atheist circles i.e. history of religions type thinking.

    ____

    In general these one sided apologetics arguments are fun to construct but often the interlocker in real life is shocked where the debate happens in a real debate. To pick a much simpler example in pro-life apologetics there is an assertion that the fetus is human and then from there a debate about whether all human life is of equal value. When I debate this I go after the fetus is human assumption. This standard pro-choice philosophy for but some reason pro-life practice debates never hit this point. So when they suddenly have to argue why a fetus is a human while a cancer tumor is not, they run into real trouble.
    ____

    As for the critique that Allah is unknowable only his will is knowable and only in so far as Allah reveals it. That is absolutely true to Islam. But I’m not sure how Christianity solves that problems. Once you presuppose that Yahweh intends to deceive you have exactly the same problem if Allah intends to deceive. The Koran is reliable in precisely the same way any revelation from any high power divine being can be reliable.

  8. Reedhere said,

    October 14, 2013 at 8:25 am

    CD, ok, I’ll bite, Yahwey intends to deceive?

  9. Phil D. said,

    October 14, 2013 at 11:00 am

    Re: CD Host #7

    Even (or maybe especially) a child knows the difference between a tumor and a embryo. One has the potential for death, the other for new life. Not a difficult judgement for any reasonable (sane) person to make concerning the morality of trying to eliminate one vs. the other.

    I’m not interested in, nor will I carry on an extended conversation on this. I know you love to debate, and are even quite masterful at it. But frankly I find you to be a tragic, even pathetic person in terms of your sanity and spiritual condition. May God have mercy on your soul, and truly call you unto Himself.

  10. CD-Host said,

    October 14, 2013 at 11:33 am

    @Reedhere —

    That’s a conditional. I think you may have lost the context.

    I.e. if you assume Yahweh and Allah both intend to deceive the situation is equivalent, they would both be successful in their deception. If you assume neither intends to deceive the situation is equivalent both holy books are truthful. Since in both situations the situation is equivalent the argument that Allah’s transcendence reduces assurance doesn’t hold.

  11. Reed Here said,

    October 14, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    CD: but if Allah intends to deceive whereas Yahweh does not? Sounds like you’re offering an argument based on an inference from what Lane has said. I don’t see the necessity of the inference.

    Are you offering an equivalency between the Bible and the Koran on this basis? Don’t think that follows from what Lane said. Lane’s point seems to be that the Koran does allow for that, in that allah is essentially unknowable.This is decidedly different from the BIble’s expression of God’s nature.

  12. CD-Host said,

    October 14, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    @Reed

    Don’t think that follows from what Lane said. Lane’s point seems to be that the Koran does allow for that, in that allah is essentially unknowable.This is decidedly different from the BIble’s expression of God’s nature.

    I got Lane’s argument. But the bible’s expression assumes that Yahweh is not intending to deceive regarding his nature. If you assume that Yahweh had an entirely different nature and were desirous to deceive us regarding his nature he could send the same prophetic visions down…. Similarly, the Koran assumes that Allah does not intend to deceive us regarding his will. Allah could however deceive us regarding his will in just the same way as Yahweh deceives regarding his nature.

    Yahweh, at least in Reformed theology, is unknowable except in so far as he chooses to reveal himself. Again just alternate. Assume they are both deceptive, they are both successful in their deception. Assume they are both honest, then both books give assurance.

    I don’t see how the argument holds up.

  13. Reed Here said,

    October 14, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    I guess the difference comes down to how the Koran describes allah. I admit to not being the expert but I think Lane’s take is probably right.

    The Bible says that what we can truly know of truth about God. One of these revealed characteristics is that he does not lie. In this sense God self-obligates himself to man.

    The Koran presents allah (at least from what I’ve learned) as a being who does not obligate himself to his creation in any manner. The idea of fate in the Koran is that allah will punish/reward man as he sees fit. He may keep his word (as presented in the Koran), he may not. Man has no way of knowing.

    If this understanding of the Koran is correct, I fail to see how your equivalency actually applies. It is not that your observation is wrong (not logical). it is that it does not apply to the matter.

  14. CD-Host said,

    October 14, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    @Reed

    I’m not an expert either but Allah makes rather explicit promises to believers in the Quran.

    5:9 & 2:277 Those who believe and do good will be rewarded
    7:128 The earth will be given to the righteous (and thus we can tell whom the righteous are)

    he also gives indications of his nature
    3:152 Allah is full of grace for the believer

    etc… I don’t see the difference.

    ___

    As for Yahweh you can’t reveal that you cannot lie. That’s an impossibility, a lying God can claim that and a truthful God can claim that.

  15. Andrew B said,

    October 14, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    a lying God can claim that and a truthful God can claim that.

    And an honest atheist enters a theology combox to teach us all about what God is like. I’ve now seen it all.

    Good night.

  16. Andrew B said,

    October 14, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    a lying God can claim that and a truthful God can claim that

    I’ve seen it all, an atheist who wants to teach Christians about the nature of God.

  17. Reed Here said,

    October 15, 2013 at 9:23 am

    Yeas, got it. But you mean “claim”, not “reveal”. God’s revelation is not synonymous with mere claiming. This is an error flowing from rationalism presuppositions.

    As to allah’s promises, Lane’s observation about his absolute transcendence still stands. It is not that the Koran does not claim allah makes promises; it is that it also teaches that no one can hold allah to his promises.

    Yahweh insists on being held to His promises.

  18. CD-Host said,

    October 15, 2013 at 9:46 am

    @Reed —

    OK you are losing me here.

    1) What is the distinction between a revelation and a claim? That is assume:
    a) Yahweh makes a collection of of claims, call them X
    b) Yahweh makes a collection of revelations, call them Y
    c) Yahweh states or through prophecy sends message z.

    How do I tell if z should be part of X or Y? I don’t follow at all.

    2) I don’t know what you mean “being held to his promises”. I suspect this may be a regional / cultural problem in English not a theological disagreement but I’m unsure. When I use that term I generally mean I can sue someone. Clearly you aren’t implying I can sue Yahweh. So what does it mean to hold Yahweh to a promise? If he breaks it what can I do about it?

  19. CD-Host said,

    October 15, 2013 at 9:50 am

    @Andrew —

    All atheists who engage in apologetics would love to teach theists about the nature of God. But in this thread all I’m trying to do is figure out if I’m missing something in what Oliphint / Lane is talking about regarding this asymmetry between the Quran and the Bible. No grand goal beyond seeing if they wrong or am I wrong.

  20. Andrew B said,

    October 15, 2013 at 10:04 am

    CD Host, I appreciate you clarifying. From what I’ve read, your (religious?) affiliation does not mean you rule out God’s existence, I think it just means you find His existence improbable. Don’t get me wrong, I welcome you to share your thoughts and to learn among Christian theists here. You need not become one of us to talk to us, of course. I just find your continued presence I theology blogs to be of interest, at least to me. I’ll be reading.

    Thanks again, and take care.

  21. Reed Here said,

    October 15, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    CD: the Biblical doctrine of revelation is not the same as what we mean by the word claim. I.o.w., God does not (via the Bible) make mere claims, “I assert so and so is true.” Do you recognize this?

    Your three subcategories technically do not exist when speaking of the nature of God’s revelation. When he speaks it is to reveal something that IS true AS true. Human claim/proof conventions are insufficient to characterize this.

    On God’s promises, in Scripture God presents himself as a Being who makes promises and invites His creatures to hold Him to His promises. Cf., the sacrifice in Gn 15 as foundational to this. Interestingly, the idea of suing God, bringing suit against him, is basic to the message of Malachi. Job likewise has a strong sense of lawsuit against God to it.

    i”m wondering if this is a bit of speaking past one another. I think you are speaking from the perspective of “proof”, as in we cannot rationally prove any of the “claims” of Scripture. I agree.

    But that is not the manner through which God through Scripture speaks. It is rational, but it is not merely rational.

    I apologize for being short-worded here. Just don’t have the time to fully engage. Suffice to say if you limit Scripture to the rules that apply to other books you will miss the nature of its revelation.

  22. CD-Host said,

    October 17, 2013 at 11:16 am

    @Andrew

    Just remember an even better example. Hannah Arendt was an atheist (ethnically Jewish BTW) who was working on her degree in theology under Karl Jaspers, her dissertation was on Saint Augustine. Her best friend in class was Hans Jonas and she was boffing, Martin Heidegger, another professor at the time. So she’s got my handing out on theology blogs beat by a mile.

  23. CD-Host said,

    October 17, 2013 at 11:21 am

    @Reed —

    We may be talking past one another. From my perspective. I think you are failing to really defend Lane’s argument here. Lane is proposing an asymmetry. It is not defending scripture so much as being true as arguing that there is something fundamentally that a faithful Muslim couldn’t say about the Quran.

    I totally get that you believe that Yahweh defines truth. But a faithful Muslim could say the same thing. Alternatively we could assume that both are false, take an outside perspective and talk in terms of “claims”.

    What doesn’t work for an apologetic based on asymmetry is assuming Yahweh / Bible while denying Allah / Quran because then you are introducing the asymmetry.

  24. Reed Here said,

    October 17, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    CD-Host, I am a bit tender to the appearance that I am just arguing with you. Don’t like that and really do not want encourage that appearance.

    Maybe we can agree to this: you are interpreting and critiquing Lane (and my defense of him) on the basis of rationalism-based apologetics (i.e., things have to be proven via the use of rational based argumentation). I do get this.

    I could be wrong, but I think you’ve introduced the asymmetrical apologetic here, the “well, what you claim about the Koran may also be the case with the Bible.” To be sure, as this is consistent with your apologetic method, it is understandable that you do so.

    But that is not the way presuppositional apologetics work. The issue of “proof” is not a part of the method. Thus, when you apply a proof-based method to statements that are non-proof based, there is a disconnect.

    Sense we’re getting into the weeds here. I’d love to sit down and jabber together for an hour or two over this. I think I’d need to the time to work out my own clarity (my weakness, not yours). But I just don’t have the time.

    Suffice to say, presuppositional apologetics is not about proving things. It is not about securing reasons for mere human-sourced surety. It is rather about removing false reasons for such surety. Some, to be sure, will use the method to “prove” things, but that is their misunderstanding of the nature of the method.

    Lane’s main point, the absolute transcendence of allah, is verifiably the teaching of the Koran. Such a god is unknowable. Therefore assurance in Islam is unattainable.

    The Bible presents a God who is both transcendent AND immanent. It presents a relationship with that God in which He Himself gives assurance.

  25. CD-Host said,

    October 17, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    @Reed

    Lane’s main point, the absolute transcendence of allah, is verifiably the teaching of the Koran. Such a god is unknowable. Therefore assurance in Islam is unattainable.

    Maybe I’m being dumb but I still don’t see how that follows. I don’t see how transcendence changes anything for Yahweh or Allah.

    Case A: Yahweh/Allah is lying. Then there is no assurance.
    Case B: Yahweh/Allah (or Gabriel) are truthful. There there is assurance.

    I can’t know if Yahweh is being truthful anymore than I can know if Allah is being truthful. Both simply claim stuff about themselves and about their desires. Both are infinitely more intelligent than I and thus fully capable of tricking me. Hence I can never exclude Case A in either the Islam or the Christianity cash.

    Let me take Lane’s original quote:
    The Koran does not bind Allah, and so they have no way of knowing whether Allah will always act as the Koran says he will. They further have no assurance that living the way of Islam, namely the five pillars, will guarantee any kind of favorable reception of Allah at the last.

    But of course Allah through the angel Gabriel indicated what his will was and what he will do. So what’s binding Allah here, what insures his desire for the five pillars is the belief that he / was telling Gabriel the truth and about he wants in the Quran revelations. That’s precisely the same thing for the bible and Yahweh.

    The second charge is I’m demanding reason… and yes I’ demanding that conclusions follow from premises. Any argument and thus any apologetic is inherently based on the validity of chains of reason. An unreasonable argument is a major failing in an argument. Once we allow arbitrary non sequiturs then we are debating claims structured like, “Oranges are tasty therefore Zeus is the true God”.

    I can tell you want to quit so I’ll let this drop here, but to the best of my knowledge Van Til, whom I consider an intellectual nihilist, at least demanded that once you accepted his premises that his conclusions followed.

  26. Reed Here said,

    October 17, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    CD: the problem is focused here

    “I can’t know if Yahweh is being truthful anymore than I can know if Allah is being truthful. Both simply claim stuff about themselves and about their desires. Both are infinitely more intelligent than I and thus fully capable of tricking me. Hence I can never exclude Case A in either the Islam or the Christianity cash.”

    It depends on how you define “know”. Your definition is essentially materialistic, consistent with your own presuppositions about the nature of the world.

    The Bible proposes a different basis for knowing, one not dependent upon, although not in conflict with, man’s reasoning. This basis is relational.

    I can know that allah does not exist because he cannot enter into relationship with me. I can know that Yahweh does exist because he does enter into relationship with me. I cannot prove this existence via materialistic rational means; nor can it be disproven via the same means.

    This is not an irrational or illogical argument, given the presuppositions upon which it rests:

    A divine being can exist.
    He can choose to prove his existence to one, and
    Not prove his existence to another.

    Again, not irrational, illogical. And yes, I recognize that these presuppostions establish a “trump” scenario. Yet the atheism position argument does the same; it’s presuppositions preempt the possibility of a divine being in the first place.

    It could be me, but I did not read Lane making a contrasting argument. He was rather assessing the Koran on its own terms. That’s eminently reasonable. Those terms do not apply to the Bible. That’s eminently reasonable too.

    Trying to be clearer. Hope I am.

  27. Andrew B said,

    October 19, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    @ CD-Host, no, you are correct, to some degree, there’s nothing peculiar about anyone (atheist, agnostic, etc etc) talking to Christian ministers on the internet, since they put themselves out here as they do for that purpose, in the hopes that someone such as yourself, who disagrees, will engage in meaningful dialog. Maybe for it’s that you happen to hang out in the same blogs that I like to lurk around in. Anyway, it warms my presbyterian heart to see you talking to ministers and elders who are of my persuasion. I feel I’ve been very blessed to find the reformed tradition as a teenager and God has sustained me and my family in it to where I am now. I encourage you to keep up your reading and commenting in places like this, maybe they’ll point you to some good books to further your study, or give you new ways of looking at things that you hadn’t considered before you started talking. Anyway, just a bit of rhetorical flourish here, don’t mind me. Take care.


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