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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Apologetic Book Review - Biblical Apologetics: Advancing and Defending the Gospel of Christ

Clifford McManis’ motivation in Biblical Apologetics: Advancing and Defending the Gospel of Christ is commendable: offer a straightforward summary and how-to guide for Presuppositonal Apologetics (PA). And he would appear to be exceptionally qualified. Besides having a deep knowledge of apologetics, an earned PhD, teaching pastor at a church, he is a professor of apologetics at a seminary. Biblical Apologetics starts well, with an engaging survey of non-presuppositional philosophical and apologetic ideas and methods. When he leaves this setting, however, his attempts to advance his version of PA as the lone construal sanctioned by Scripture are unsatisfactory.

The fabled Cornelius Van Til, who birthed the Presuppositional School of Apologetics in the 20th century, emphasized a need to initiate epistemology upon the ontic truth of the Triune God, a message influenced by Bavinck with traces derived from Kuyper, as well as the truth campaigner Machen. Additionally, a duo of protégés: Greg L. Bahnsen (McManis calls aspects of Bahnsen’s work “masterful,” p. 214)  and John Frame refined (some say Frame distorted important Van Tilian features) Van Til’s epistemic emphasis--starting with the ontological Trinity revealed in Scripture. Features of PA contend that one must have a ground with the ontic capacity to account for logic, ethics, science, knowledge, and human experience. Only God has the attributes to account for changeless universal truths utilized in these pursuits; deny the Triune God and one is devoid of the preconditions required for intelligibility. The author observes: “The intramural debate about apologetics among Christians (which is what this whole book is about) is really a battle over epistemology” (p. 212).

Even in these fascinating primary pages, however, McManis’ argument is marred by an off-putting personal apologetic exclusivity, as when he claims that Van Til, Bahnsen, Frame, and everyone but McManis (and MacArthur) are greatly mistaken in essential facets of their apologetic approach. Only his “healthy fideistic” apologetic is correct (the term fideist is not my designation--he with great ardor designates himself a fideist; pp. 426-456). As he begins to impugn isolated ideas from Van Tilians, McManis’ venture falls off the rails. His descriptions of what these apologists were trying to accomplish biblically or intuitively, become increasingly unfair.

Some of McManis’ critical estimations concerning Van Til and Bahnsen, directly or insentiently, include:
  • “Presuppositionlist, Cornelius Van Til, has many good things to say about Christian apologetics, but frequently got sucked into the metaphysical malaise of esoteric, specialized jargon.”
  • “Cornelius Van Til, made many helpful, unique contributions to the debate on Christian apologetics. But like his traditionalist contemporaries he never made a comprehensive delineation of the gospel a part of his system of apologetics. He majored in the realm of theological prolegomena and sophisticated philosophical ratiocinations rather than in biblical exegesis and theology” (p. 528).
  • On Bahnsen “Here's an example of his fundamental confusion as he conflates Law and gospel: ‘We are compelled to conclude that the old covenant--indeed, the Mosaic law--was a covenant of grace that offered salvation on the basis of grace through faith.’ Contrary to Bahnsen, the Mosaic Law was not covenant of grace! And it did not have the power to impact salvation. The Bible clearly teachers that ‘a man is not justified by the works of the Law’ (Galatians 2:16). For Bahnsen, the gospel was ‘the whole Bible.’ Such a view overgeneralizes and actually smothers the distinctive features of the true, saving gospel” (pp. 529, 530).
  • “His bibliology is rock solid. Nevertheless, Bahnsen, like the rest, does not incorporate an explication of the gospel, it is almost non-existent in his 290 pages.”
The good professor frames his exegesis around the unexceptionable idea, ultimately derived from biblical narratives, that a rational apologetic methodology is inadequate without the unfounded fideistic and spiritual methods derived from his understanding of Scripture (Van Til & Bahnsen contend that there is “certain proof for the existence of God” and offer versions of TAG and other biblically based arguments). Many Van Tilian advocates would dispute McManis' interpretation and application of the scriptural accounts. Since we bring ourselves, our background and our preconceptions to our apologetic approach, there are no non-biblical principles or ideals of defending the faith to which Christians must conform. McManis, as an active mûrir l'étudiant of George Zemek, draws the wrong conclusion from this. He argues that Christianity is faithfully defended through the non-rational (not irrational) principles of his version of fideism. Men, he rightfully says, rely on autonomous reason to attempt to judge the truth revealed in Scripture. This is not only ineffective, but unrighteous. Yet, logically and scripturally his fideism doesn’t follow.

A heartening observation is the author is a type of biblical realist in his approach to truth. He opines: “Truth is that which corresponds to reality as defined and determined by God; notice this proposed definition includes God as the determining referent, unlike Geisler and Craig’s … definition. In simpler terms, truth is what God says it is. YHWH is the ‘God of truth’ (Psalm 31:5). Everything about the truth issues from this reality. The Triune God of the universe defines truth. The Holy Spirit is ‘the Spirit of truth’ (John 16:13). Jesus is the Incarnation of truth. He declared, ‘I am the… truth’ (John 14:6). The statement that prompted Pilate’s famous question, ‘What is truth?’ was Jesus’ proclamation to Pilate: ‘You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice’ (John 18:36). Why was Jesus born? Why did he become human? What was His mission? To save sinners?  Yes. To conquer the devil? Yes. To overcome the world and evil? Yes. And also to bear witness to the truth!”

He presses: “No epistemology is complete that neglects this greatest of all epistemological factors--generically a definition of truth must have God as its referent, and specifically it must be Christological.” As the reader can discern McManis offers a fine amplified definition of truth. His specific definition that “truth is what God says it is” is beneficial. Nonetheless, I favor the Van Tilian definition that truth is “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”

The author adds: “The Bible is also truth--ultimate spiritual truth. Jesus said categorically as He prayed to God the Father, ‘Thy word is truth’ (John 17:17). The author of Psalm 119 said Scripture is ‘the word of truth’ (v. 43) and ‘Thy law is truth’ (v. 142) Psalm 119:160 declares autopistically: ‘The sum of Thy word is truth.’” Those precepts from God’s word should be presupposed as one effectively communicates with nonbelievers.

McManis offers the following apologetic notions to consider:
  • Christians need to have an accurate appraisal for every unbeliever as diagnosed by God in the Bible.
  • Christians need to remember that unbelievers have darkened minds and cannot understand spiritual truth apart from God's Spirit and His Word.
  • Christians always need to be cognizant of the blinding work of Satan on unbelievers.
  • Christians need to employ God's methods when doing the work of apologetics, not commonly accepted counterfeits modeled after worldly wisdom, philosophy, and science.
  • Christians need to realize there is no neutral ground with unbelievers in epistemology.
  • Christians need to appeal to unbelievers based on their ontological common ground of internal and external general revelation.
  • Christians need to trust God for the results of their work in apologetics, for only God can change a hardened unbelieving heart.
  • Christians need to bathe all of their apologetics work in prayer, asking God for protection against Satan, supernatural courage, heavenly wisdom, and the conviction of sinners (pp. 294, 295).
The author then aims his cannon on Christian philosophy using sometimes inordinate exaggeration: “Philosophy has hijacked apologetics. The biblical and theological task of defending the faith has been co-opted and commandeered by the professional metaphysicists. The New Testament practice of all Christians aggressively and confidently defending their faith with Scripture on a personal level has been abdicated. It has been supplanted by the subtle takeover of elitist scholars with their knack for obfuscation and purported profundity with all things ontological and theoretical. The evidence is ubiquitous. I own countless books on Christian apologetics. Not one was authored by a non-philosopher. The understood pre-requisite for having a worthy say about anything related to apologetics in today's Christian world is a PhD in philosophy. We noted earlier that all the authors chosen to represent the various Christian approaches to apologetics in the Five Views book were selected because of their expertise in philosophy and logic, not because of their role as church men or acumen to exegete the Scriptures” (pp. 296 and 297).
In some disagreement I would note: Obviously, there has been abuse and misuse of human reason and philosophical pursuits; yet the Greek word “philosophy” merely means “love of wisdom.” Thus in some ways, all men who pursue truth and wisdom are engaged in philosophical endeavors.  There is some fine as well as wayward work going on in Philosophical Theology today. The outworking and extension of biblical truth in fields of ontology, epistemology, and ethics are errant only when they are conceited assertions that move away from the Word of God. The beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord; moreover, in Christ is found all wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). So let one strive to discuss difficult notions within the constraints of the truth found in Scripture and the general equity of its principles and guidelines. Furthermore, I own numerous apologetic books authored by non-PhDs.

The author in Biblical Apologetics professes:
  1. I believe in God's existence because of the evidence of internal general revelation.
  2. I believe in God's existence because of the evidence of external general revelation.
  3. I believe Christianity is true because of the evidence of the person ministry of the Holy Spirit.
  4. I believe Christianity is true because of the evidence that Jesus saved me and changed my life.
  5. I believe Christianity is true because of the evidence that Jesus rose from the dead.
  6. I believe Christianity is true because of the evidence of and from the Scripture (p. 436).
The author offers considerable help to the PA apprentice including his drawing out the proper antithesis vis-à-vis:
  • TA (Traditional Apologetics) = the Bible is God's Word because it can be proven by evidence; vs.
  • BA (Biblical Apologetics) = there are evidences because the Bible is God's Word.

  • TA = the Bible is God's Word because it is logical; vs.
  • BA = the Bible is logical because it is God's Word.

  • TA = the Bible is God's Word because of the impossibility of the contrary; vs.
  • BA = all contrarian views are impossible because the Bible is God's Word.

  • TA = the cosmological argument makes sense, therefore God probably exists;
  • BA = God absolutely exists; therefore the cosmological argument makes sense.

  • TA = there is universal morality, therefore God exists; vs.
  • BA = the God of the Bible certainly exists, therefore there is universal morality (pp. 452 and 453).
The only way that we can avoid falling into absurdity is to follow the Word of God and apply its truth to reason and experience. Life's meaning is derived from a single source: God. Christian Apologetics is not merely, or even importantly, a work based on human reason, fashioned merely by autonomous minds on the lookout for a nonbeliever to debate. We contend for the Truth as we inform the disbeliever that God must exist, he already knows it, and human experience fails to make sense without God; so repent and trust in Jesus Christ.

McManis’ rich book demonstrates, ultimately, that there is no proper non-biblical apologetic; all the methodologies entirely based upon human reason fail. What we do have is a potent and effective defense of the faith found in the outworking of biblical truth, knowing and implementing such, that, in doing so, we will not divest ourselves of a God-glorifying endeavor.

Review by Mike Robinson