Defending the Faith

unknown-11unknown-21Scott Oliphint’s new book, Covenantal Apologetics, is an important book for anyone who wants to present a well-reasoned, biblical apologetic for the Christian faith. For several decades, Dr Oliphint has studied and reflected on the ground-breaking work of Cornelius van Til, who was professor of apologetics at Westminster Seminary for over 40 years. But in this work Dr Oliphint advocates that, instead of presuppostional apologetics, a more apt name for a biblically-informed defence of the Christian faith is covenantal apologetics. He takes his point of departure from the way the Westminster Confession of Faith describes God’s relationship to his creation in terms of a covenant.

“The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.” Westminster Confession of Faith VII.1

In creating humankind, God voluntarily determined to establish a relationship with us. That covenantal relationship places obligations on everyone such that all “owe obedience unto Him as their Creator”. We were created as covenant beings who have an obligation to worship and serve the Creator. Of course something went terribly wrong when humans rebelled against God and sinned and consequently lost the ability and the desire to worship and serve their Creator. But there still remains a relationship even though many people’s relationship with God is now one of denial and rebellion. Covenantal apologetics seeks to take the truth of Scripture as the proper diagnosis of the unbelieving condition and challenges the unbeliever to make sense of the world he has made. Oliphint makes this point pungently and clearly:

“Scripture tells us that a world built on the foundation of unbelief does not exist; it is a figment of an unbelieving imagination, and thus is basically irrational.”

“Man’s denial of God is not something done in ignorance. It is evidence of the suppression of the knowledge of God within us. Our refusal to acknowledge God is not, as has been supposed, an agnostic refusal – that is, it is not a refusal based on ignorance – but it is culpable rebellion. Since the fall we are and remain, as Paul clearly states, without excuse.”

He then proceeds to set out ten theological tenets that are necessary for a covenantal, Christian apologetic. But rather than just discussing these tenets, Oliphint shows how they can be put into practice. His major concern is to apply these tenets in defending the Christian faith. Only by reading the book in its entirely will anyone be able to judge how successful the author has been.

Oliphint describes his notion of “persuasion” through what he terms the trivium of persuasion comprised of ethos, pathos, and logosEthos focuses on the character of the apologist. Those defending the faith must commend Christ and the gospel by the manner of their words and life. Pathos focuses upon the specific needs of the person to whom the apologist is speaking and asks the question “What will persuade this person?” The final stage of the persuasion trivium is logos in which the truth of the gospel is presented. The apologist shows how the truth of God can sustain itself and how it is able to explain reality as we know it. The weakness of a system of unbelief is exposed and the alternative of the gospel is shown to be substantial and sustainable where unbelief fails.

What makes this book particularly helpful is the way the author includes several dialogues between a Christian apologist and those defending humanism, atheism and Islam. By challenging the initial assumptions of unbelief, Oliphint shows how Bible-believing Christians may enter into a serious conversation with unbelievers. While this volume will not answer all the questions and issues for those who wish to defend the faith, it does, as one reviewer puts it, “offer an arsenal of apologetic insight”.

Motyer on preaching

alec-motyerThis week I have been reading Alec Motyer’s excellent little book on preaching, “Preaching? Simple Teaching on Simply Preaching”. An Irishman and an Episcopalian, Motyer has contributed to many aspects of evangelical life in the UK, and is a respected Old Testament scholar. This little gem of a book contains many valuable insights and will be a source of help to pastors and preachers. Here are a few of the passages that I found most insightful.

“What makes a sermon ‘bad’? The majority of (if not, to a degree, all) ‘bad’ sermons are ‘bad’ because they are muddled. ….muddle is something that can be sorted out. Some people have a natural capacity for setting a subject out, and there is never any doubt what they have said, or why they have moved on to the next aspect of their subject. And in the end it is all a clear, rounded whole. Their minds work in distinct ‘points’ with precise subdivisions. For most of us that sort of thing is a matter of hard work and detailed preparation. That is exactly my point. ‘Good’ preaching, in the sense of being plain and unmistakable in the pulpit, is something that can be achieved. Once we have seen it as a target to aim at, it becomes a target we can hit, a step in the right direction to being an acceptable preacher.”

“A sermon is like dressing a shop window. When we first lived in a remote village, the window of the village shop was just an extension of the stock room. Everything the shop had on offer was there! In fact, there was so much in the window that no one even bothered looking in it; there was so much to see that the passer-by saw nothing. Contrast window dressers who know their business! They put into the window what they are, at that moment, setting out to sell …. Sermons are equally selective. What are we intending to sell? We have a stockroom full of the most amazing collection of goods to offer – real bargains too! So what shall we put in the window this Sunday morning or evening, this Wednesday ‘mid-week sabbath’? Everything must lead to that central truth.”

“In Gethsemane Jesus trembled, prayed, and never trembled again all through the ordeal of our salvation. The disciples failed to pray, and after that never stopped trembling. To keep alert and pray is to follow our Saviour and become like Him.”

“Our position as ministers in the church gives us the right to preach, but it does not give us the right to be heard. I once attended a service at a church where the minister was not only known as a skilled preacher, but also was widely in demand as a lecturer on pastoral work, pastoral care and pastoral problems – subjects which he handle with notable ability and helpfulness. I came from that service with a sense of incase which I could not at that time define, but years later I had the chance to ask the minister in question how he found time, with his preaching and lecturing commitments all over the country, to engage in the pastoral care of his people. “Oh”, he said, “I do all my pastoral work in the pulpit.” Not in home visitation? Not in personal ministry to the sick and bereaved? Not in one-to-one counselling of the troubled? Only in the pulpit? My original unease suddenly had an explanation. I remembered my attendance at his church: he was preaching but no one was listening! It was the minister’s Sunday performance before we could all go home! His position gave him the right to preach; but Monday to Saturday he was not purchasing the right to be heard.”

“[The seven golden lampstands of Revelation 1:12] remarkably were not designed to shine the light of God’s truth into the darkness of the surrounding world – though doubtless they did that as a by-product of their golden radiance. No, their lamps were turned inward in order to reveal the presence and glory at their centre of ‘One like the Son of Man’. One way or another this expresses our intention and longing as preachers – that He should be at the centre, ever the Focus of all truth and fully illuminated for every eye, for ‘we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord’, that all may see ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’.