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Defending the Faith

October 20th, 2013 Comments off

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”.

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PC(USA) General Assembly 2012

July 14th, 2012 3 comments

imgresIt’s been interesting, and sad, to track developments in the mainstream Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) during its recent General Assembly in Pittsburg. Conservative elders and ministers may have been encouraged by the relatively narrow majority vote on same-sex marriage, but they must have been depressed by the much larger vote against restoring the traditional ordination standard for its ministers and elders. It seems that when it comes to sexual ethics, PC(USA) is divided and confused, especially on what constitutes Christian marriage, and that it needs two years to think about it.

One of my former students at Westminster Seminary, Justin Marple, made good use of his 60 seconds at the microphone.

After several hours of debate on Friday, the Assembly defeated a motion from its Assembly Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues to propose an amendment to the Book of Order that would change the definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people.” The vote was 308-338. Along the way the Assembly declined to issue an authoritative interpretation that would have allowed ministers at their own discretion to perform same-gender marriages in states where those marriages are legal.

And by a vote of 489-152, the Assembly “in a desire to promote the peace, unity and purity of the church” voted to “move the whole Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) into a season of serious study and discernment concerning its meaning of Christian marriage between now and the General Assembly in 2014. The Office of Theology and Worship was asked to prepare educational materials for the effort that include “the relevant Scriptures, key methods of biblical interpretation, current understandings of our Constitution, and some suggested guidance for prayerful and reconnecting ways of listening to one another.”

The Assembly also debated its ordination standards and by a vote of 437-169, the Assembly refused to restore “fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness” to the Book of Order. That language was removed a year ago in voting by the presbyteries. The defeated language would have added the clause “the commitment to live a chaste and disciplined life, whether in holy marriage between a man and a woman or in single life.”

By a vote of 329-275 the Assembly voted to propose an amendment to the ordination standard that the manner of life of church officers should “include repentance of sin and diligent use of the means of grace.” The Assembly also adopted a statement that “acknowledges that faithful Presbyterians earnestly seeking to follow Jesus Christ hold different views about what the Scriptures teach concerning the morality of committed, same-gender relationships” and that “the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not have one interpretation of Scripture in this matter”.

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The Doctrines of Grace

January 11th, 2012 14 comments

I recently began a new series in our Midweek Fellowship on the Doctrines of Grace, sometimes known as the Five Points of Calvinism. The purpose of this series is to make explicit some of the key doctrines in our confessional standards, the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Catechisms, and to help members of the congregation have a greater zeal for the glory of God and for the task of mission.

Knowing and understanding these doctrines of grace is also crucial for knowing and understanding the gospel. The gospel stands or falls by grace, and the gospel is not really good news unless it is a gospel of grace. So it is crucial that we have a clear understanding of God’s grace.

The great Princeton theologian, B.B. Warfield said that evangelicialism stands or falls with Calvinism. Jim Boice and Philip Ryken in their excellent book, The Doctrines of Grace, point out that Warfield made that statement at a time when Calvinism still had a major influence on evangelicalism, helping to define its theology, shape its spirituality, and clarify its mission. This is no longer the case. Most evangelicals today are suspicious of Calvinism, and the result is that the gospel of grace has been diluted or lost.

A number of years ago, a group of evangelicals in North America expressed their concern at the changes they observed within the world of evangelicalism and summarised their views in The Cambridge Declaration. Part of that declaration states,

“Unwarranted confidence in human ability is a product of fallen human nature. This false confidence now fills the evangelical world; from the self-esteem gospel, to the health and wealth gospel, from those who have transformed the gospel into a product to be sold and sinners into consumers who want to buy, to others who treat Christian faith as being true simply because it works. This silences the doctrine of justification regardless of the official commitments of our churches. God’s grace in Christ is not merely necessary but is the sole efficient cause of salvation.”

It is sometimes claimed that Calvinism reduces and restricts one’s passion and enthusiasm for evangelism. That view is mistaken both in its understanding of Calvinism and in its understanding of evangelism. In fact, properly understood, the doctrines of grace give the most solid foundation and greatest motivation for sharing the gospel. Only when we hold thoroughly biblical convictions about divine election, the atonement, and the irresistible grace of God can we have any confidence that the gospel has the power to accomplish God’s saving purposes. With their emphasis on the glory of God in salvation, the doctrines of grace can help evangelicalism grow and mature by restoring a proper view of God’s majesty, sovereignty and grace.

C.H. Spurgeon was a great evangelist and a staunch defender of the doctrines of grace.

“I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and him crucified unless we preach what is nowadays called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel …. unless we preach the sovereignty of God in his dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the Gospel unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of his elect and chosen people which Christ wrought upon the cross; nor can I comprehend the Gospel which allows saints to fall away after they are called.” (quoted by J.I.Packer in his “Introductory Essay” to John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (London, Banner of Truth, 1959), 10.)

If Warfield and Spurgeon were right, then it is crucial that evangelicals understand and affirm the doctrines of grace. Quite simply, the doctrines of grace preserve the gospel of grace. More than that, understanding these doctrines enables us to be the humble worshippers that God calls us to be. As John Piper puts it about the doctrine of election,

“Unconditional election delivers the harshest and the sweetest judgments to my soul. That it is unconditional destroys all self-exaltation; and that it is election makes me his treasured possession. This is one of the beauties of the biblical doctrines of grace: their worst devastations prepare us for their greatest delights. What prigs we would become at the words, “The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6), if this election were in any way dependent on our will. But to protect us from pride, the Lord teaches us that we are unconditionally chosen (7:7-9). “He made a wretch his treasure,” as we so gladly sing. Only the devastating freeness and unconditionality of electing grace lets us take and taste such gifts for our very own without the exaltation of self.”

If you want a fuller statement on these doctrines then one place to start is here.

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Backing marriage is “evil” according to Tesco boss and Tesco response

December 17th, 2011 17 comments

tesco01_180pxAs you plan your Christmas shopping, you may be interested to read this.

Christians are “evil” if they resist the redefinition of marriage to allow for same-sex marriage, the Head of Research and Development at Tesco.com has said.

The company has already faced criticism for dumping its support for the Cancer Research ‘Race for Life’ and sponsoring London’s gay pride festival.

If you won’t be shopping at Tesco this Christmas, tell them so on their Facebook page: facebook.com/tesco or email CEO Philip Clarke: [email protected]

The “evil Christians” comment was made by Nick Lansley, Head of Research and Development for the Tesco website.

He wrote: “I’m also campaigning against evil Christians (that’s not all Christians, just bad ones) who think that gay people should not lead happy lives and get married to their same-sex partners.”

The comments appeared on Mr Lansley’s profile page on the photo-sharing website, Flickr.com, where he lists his employment as “Head of R&D at Tesco.com”. But following complaints to Tesco the remarks have now been removed.

Postscript:

The Daily Telegraph carried an apology from Tesco on Tues 20 December 2011 over the “evil Christians” outburst. The report said that faced with the prospect of a Christmas boycott, the supermarket chain distanced itself from Nick Lansley, the head of research and development at tesco.com. A Tesco spokesman said Mr Lansley’s remarks “in no way reflect the views of Tesco. We are very sorry that anyone might have thought there was any blurring of the boundary between his personal comments and work for Tesco”.

PPS:

This is a reply to my email to the Chief Executive of Tesco which I received on December 22. I appreciate the spirit and content of this response, and am happy to withdraw the final sentence of my original posting.

Thank you for your e mail addressed to Philip Clarke, our Chief Executive, regarding the on-line activities of one of our staff.

I can appreciate your concern that comments made on the internet by a Tesco member of staff, Nick Lansley, might represent the views of Tesco itself.  I want to reassure you in the clearest possible terms that Mr Lansley’s comments and postings, made in a personal capacity, in no way reflect the views of Tesco.  Our values as a company are such that we abhor criticism of any religion, and we knew nothing about Mr Lansley’s comments and postings until they were brought to our attention.  It is not for us to dictate or limit those private views but we do not tolerate statements that insult others or their beliefs.  For that reason, when Mr Lansley was found to have posted material on his blog which insulted the religious beliefs of others, he was reminded of Tesco’s policy and the material was removed forthwith.

We know that being the UK’s leading retailer carries unique responsibilities.  We have a responsibility to show leadership, as we do on issues like climate change and helping to develop our people’s skills.  We also have a responsibility to listen carefully to our many and diverse customers and stakeholders, respect their views and seek to balance their opinions in the decisions we make.  This is not always easy, particularly on issues where opinions can differ markedly.  Whatever the issue, it is never our intention deliberately to inflame or polarise opinion or to make an already contentious debate more contentious.

We very much accept that, however well-intentioned we are, we do not always get everything right for everyone.  I do hope, however, that the explanation gives you some reassurance about how seriously we take the views of all our stakeholders, and the value we attach to tolerance and inclusion. I hope also that it begins to restore your confidence that Tesco does try to do the right thing and does indeed listen to your feedback.

Kind regards

Modupeola Ogutuga

Customer Service Executive

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The Rights of Parents

November 29th, 2011 2 comments

imgresIn recent months, the First Minister has opened up the debate on the future of education in Northern Ireland by stating a clear intention to bring the current segregated situation to an end. He made his wishes clear in a speech in October, and in his speech at the DUP conference he reiterated his desire to bring the “them and us” division in our society to an end. Other senior members of the DUP team have spoken about ending the “educational apartheid” that currently exists. This will, and ought to, stimulate a good debate on the nature and fundamental principles of education.

All kinds of questions arise: What kind of system of education does the First Minister envisage? Will it be a religiously “neutral” system where all religion and spirituality will be excised and everything will be unashamedly secular? Will it be spiritually sanitised to remove all Christian values from the curriculum?  Or will there be an attempt to work creatively towards an agreed Christian ethos for all our schools that garners the support of believing people from all traditions?

At the heart of that debate will be the issue of the rights of parents to determine how their children will be educated. Catholic parents have consistently argued that they have a basic human right to educate their children according to their beliefs and convictions. They have fought hard, and have put in place a system of education that has delivered benefits for its pupils. Protestant parents should also be ready to argue for the same rights.

One Reformed theologian who gives good expression to that right is Nicholas Wolterstorff, Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School. Wolterstorff correctly places the issue of rights in the context of moral responsibilities, since moral rights are never free-floating entities. They come as correlatives of our responsibilities. Since parents have the primary responsibility for determining the character of their child’s education, they also have the primary moral right to do so.

The argument runs like this. Children come into the world as the result of the physical union of their parents, and as the product of their physical substance. “Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” is how the ancient biblical writer described it. The result of this relationship is natural affection, in fact, the deepest of all natural affections, so wonderful and mysterious that there is no adequate scientific explanation. It is the delight and joy of parents to love and provide for their children, and they have a right and a responsibility to do so. Prominent within that love and nurture of their child is the desire to see their child mature into a person who acts responsibly and who finds joy and fulfilment in his or her life. That right and responsibility of parents therefore inevitably involves education.

imgres-1Wolterstorff says that if we were all agreed on what constitutes responsible action and what is necessary for joy and fulfilment in life, then there would be no debate about the character and nature of education. But one of the most fundamental features of our situation is that we do not agree on those things. We have differences on what constitutes responsible action and on what is required if we are to live full and happy lives. Many of us believe that life cannot be enjoyed, and that we cannot function as fully mature human beings, unless we understand that our “chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever”. Without that spiritual dimension, we fail to live as fully as we ought. That is why it is the right and responsibility of parents to determine the character of their child’s education. As a parent, my rights and responsibilities extend into the classroom and do not stop at the classroom door. Any system of education that fails to provide for my child’s spiritual needs, as well as his intellectual and physical needs, is inadequate.

Politicians and others will argue that while parents have rights and responsibilities, theirs is not a primary or exclusive right. It will be claimed that, given the sad and tragic history of our community, the welfare of the wider community must take precedence over the rights and wishes of parents. Wolterstorff notes that totalitarian regimes have always claimed that when left to their own devices, parents will often give a character to their child’s education that is injurious to the wider society. To prevent that from happening, those who are responsible for the welfare of the state or community, namely the officers of the state, must have primary responsibility for determining the character of education within that state. Whatever may be said in praise of the beauty and goodness of parents’ love, it is argued that that love must be sacrificed on the altar of a higher good.

There is indeed the good of the wider society and community that must be acknowledged, and we in Northern Ireland must recognise the particular challenges that we face as we try to move forward. But whatever plan or programme we adopt, we must see the exercise of parental love and affection as an indispensable ingredient within it. To preserve that love and affection, we must preserve the primary right of parents to determine the character of their child’s education.

As an orthodox Christian parent who desires that my children mature into responsible adults who find joy and fulfilment in their lives, I cannot jettison my Christian principles and fail to see them reflected in the character of my children’s education. I love them too much to allow that to happen. If I were not to educate my children to become responsible agents who enjoy life, which is the Christian vision, I would be failing at a most fundamental point of my parental rights and responsibilities. A successful educational system requires the full support of the parents of the children it seeks to serve, and it must reflect the basic commitments which those parents hold.

If we are to move towards the shared future that the First Minister desires, and for which we all long, then he is right to pinpoint education as an important element in its development. But if the educational model that emerges denies parents their rights and responsibilities to determine the character of that education, and especially the Christian character of that education, then our hope for a new future will never be realised. A totally secularised educational system will not get us to our goal.

What could get us there, given the right conversations and context, and the commitment of parents, is a new system of education which is unambiguously Christian but which stretches across the ancient divisions and is thoroughly inclusive. That would be a goal worth striving for.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Life (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2002) Chapter 12, Human Rights in Education

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