115 Unapologetic Apologetics

Until 1943, apologetics was required of Princeton Theological Seminary students. In 1944, as a result of the influence of Barthian and Dutch Reformed professors, apologetics was no longer offered! Falling in line with other mainline seminaries, Princeton embraced the position of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who renounced, nearly two centuries ago, “all attempts to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity,” relying solely “the inward certainty” believers feel in their hearts. In 1995, some Princeton seminarians formed the Charles Hodge Society, holding weekly meetings known as the Princeton Apologetics Seminar and reviving the Princeton Theological Review, a journal Charles Hodge had launched in the 19th century.

For their efforts to espouse classical orthodoxy–what St. Vincent of Lerins defined as: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all–they “were threatened” with lawsuits “physical violence, accused of racism and sexism, denied funding that other campus groups readily received, had posted signs destroyed and removed, and were explicitly informed by faculty that membership in the Charles Hodge Society jeopardized their academic advancement” (p. 26). So much for the much celebrated “tolerance” of the modern academy!

Some of the seminarians’ essays appear in Unapologetic Apologetics: Meeting the Challenges of Theological Studies, edited by William A. Dembski and Jay Wesley Richards (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 2001). “At stake in apologetics is the question whether Christianity is true–objectively true” (p. 12). Nothing matters more than ideas. As J. Gresham Machen, long a luminary at Princeton, said, in What Is Christianity, “False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the Gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.” Dembski and Richards believe Christianity contains true ideas which need champions. Thus this book.

William Dembski sets the stage for the volume in “The Task of Apologetics,” which is nothing less than the calling of Jude: “Contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (1:3). Refining and updating the Vincentian Canon, Dembski identifies the “core” of the faith as including: 1) physical content; 2) theoretical content; and 3) regulative principles. “Given that the Christian faith has a stable core, the general task of apologetics is now clear enough, to wit, defending that stable core” (p. 41). Having established his position, Dembski then critiques one of its main foes in “The Fallacy of Contextualism.” Widely espoused by legions of “postmodernists,” contextualism insists that truth and goodness are shaped by cultural contexts. Ironically, as a form of skepticism, “hardcore contextualism claims itself to be a universal truth. Hardcore contextualism tries to pass off as the universal truth that their are no universal truths. This is the fallacy of contextualism” (p. 47). As such it is guilty of what logicians call “self-referential incoherence” and deserves to be dismissed by careful thinkers.

Deconstructionists, following Derrida, also founder in the fallacy of contextualism. If consistently employed, there is no end to deconstruction, so in the process of deconstructing texts deconstructionists deconstruct their own position. Derrida, and his epigones, urge the deconstruction of texts such as Shakespeare’s tragedies or biblical passages. But, of course, they rarely invite others to “deconstruct” their own writings, which are apparently to be accepted as conveying certain truths.

Other essays deal with the history of apologetics at Princeton, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, Christology, Theology, science and religion. All-in-all, this is an impressive collection! “Every evangelical who attends seminary must read this book before he or she graduates,” writes J.P. Moreland of Talbot School of Theology. It certainly bears witness to the intellectual prowess of a young group of scholars who, as Peter Kreeft notes, “make more sense than their professors. Goliath cannot stand for long.”

In 6 Modern Myths About Christianity & Western Civilization (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 2001), a British scholar, Philip J. Sampson, brings historical data and a questioning stance to bear on some of the “truths” men live by. That well-educated people still refer to the “Dark Ages” when folks thought the earth was flat or “the war between science and religion” indicates how powerfully certain myths reign in the modern mind. Two popular books–John Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science and Andrew White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom–still shape many people’s understanding of the past. Basic to both of them, and to most modern myths, Sampson argues, is “Naturalism, the belief that the supernatural is either nonexistent or powerless” (p. 23).

The first myth examined is that of Galileo, the oft-celebrated hero in the science versus religion story. “Armed only with a telescope and reason, plucky Galileo stood against the might of the church. He was tortured by the Inquisition, condemned as a heretic, and wasted away in a prison cell; Italian science floundered” (p. 29). But, Sampson adds, “The main drawback to this plot is that most of it is untrue” (p. 29). In fact, Copernicus’ heliocentric theory had been circulated and discussed for 70 years before Galileo. His astronomical studies and insights were widely applauded. His staunchest critics were Aristotelian university professors rather than biblical fundamentalists. Centuries earlier, Catholic scholars, such as Aquinas, had clearly explained how biblical language applied to ordinary men and their common sense understanding of the world, and Cardinal Baronius had declared that the “Holy Ghost intended to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go” (p. 41). Galileo’s problems with the church came when he decided to interpret biblical passages in accord with his astronomical theories. He mocked and thus alienated Pope Urban VIII, who had earlier supported him, and suffered only mild reproof and restrictions following the church’s condemnation of his position.

The second myth Sampson scrutinizes is Darwin’s story of origins. Andrew Brown declares: “Evolutionary theory is now one of the main myths of our time. It has to bear the weight of most of our hopes and fears about what being human really means” (p. 47). The idea of evolution is, of course, ancient. Aristotle considered it and rejected it as implausible. Darwin’s success resulted not so much from a new idea as from the power of his metaphors, providing a naturalistic story of origins, a rival to the Christian story. His champions, T.H. Huxley in his debate with Samuel Wilberforce, and Clarence Darrow, in the Scopes trial, prevailed more through rhetoric than solid evidence. In fact, the theory has, from the beginning, had distinguished critics. Lord Kelvin found it doubtful, given his understanding of physics. Paleontologists have always wondered at the lack of evidence for the theory in the fossil record. Contemporary mathematicians and physicists, including Sir Fred Hoyle, find “that the probability of biological systems evolving according to a new-Darwinian model is ‘insensibly different from zero,’ making Darwinian evolution’ an uneasy combination of dogma and wishful thinking'” (p. 60). A distinguished biologist, Lynn Margulus, calls neo-Darwinism “‘a minor twentieth century religious sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon biology'” (p. 62). Nevertheless, the theory must be upheld by the faithful, so Darwinism remains entrenched within the modern mind.

The third myth considered is environmentalism. Lynn White’s 1966 essay on “the historic roots of our ecologic crisis” quickly attained canonical status in environmental circles, primarily because “it offered a way to preserve trust in science by pinning the responsibility for disaster on unpurged vestiges of the old enemy–religion” (p. 73). Ignoring mounting evidence cited by Sampson showing the strong emphasis on stewardship in Scripture and Christian tradition, environmentalists still propagate untruths so as to sustain their worldview.

The final three myths Sampson deals with are: the alleged oppression of Christian missionaries, contempt for the body in Christian thought, and persecution of witches in the 16th and 17th centuries. Granted their failures, Christian missionaries were the best emissaries of the West, and they in fact did much good wherever they went, as is evident in the testimony of indigenous peoples initially encountered. Neither the human body, nor the female body, were despised by Christians, and the largely feminist fulminations on this issue must be discarded as frivolous.

Witches were, of course, burned at the stake at times. But far fewer were persecuted than is often alleged. Human history abounds with accounts of massive killings. “The anthropologist Marvin Harris estimates that the pre-Columbian Aztecs sacrificed about fifteen thousand people each year from a far smaller population base than that of Europe. They would have exceeded the total number of witchcraft executions in less than a decade. The terror that followed the Enlightenment-inspired revolution in France resulted in some fifty thousand deaths in two years; witchcraft trials took hundreds of years to reach a comparable total” (p. 137). Still more, Sanders shows, it was usually the church which urged restraint in punishing them.

Sanders considers only six of the reigning “myths” of modernity. But he points us in a constructive direction. Historical facts, scholarly, documented, solidly demonstrated, are often the best apologetic tools.

Robert W. Jenson is one of America’s premier (Lutheran) theologians. Looking back over his career, he collected, in chronological order, some of his essays and has released them as Essays in Theology of Culture (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, c. 1995). The essays are, he emphasizes, “essays in theology of culture” and “are specifically and brazenly trinitarian and churchly” (p. ix). Though they address diverse subjects, at least one theme recurrently appears: nihilism. Like a towering, threatening thunderhead, Nietzsche looms over the past century. Ever more clearly, Jenson says, he has realized that “the threat of nihilism’s advent has been the chief spiritual determinant of life in the West since the turn of the twentieth century, as it still remains” (p. x).

In “The Kingdom of America’s God,” Jenson adumbrates one of his central critiques. The civil religion espoused by the likes of Josiah Strong, in Our Country, “was simultaneously Christian and political. Whatever we may critique, that much at least was good” (p. 52). What was bad was the assumption, rooted in classic Reformed (Calvinistic) theology, that God’s Kingdom was coming into being in this nation. cannot but pervert the true faith. As is evident in the works of William Ames, who greatly influenced New England’s Puritans, God’s sovereignty is evident in His laws, which make possible the covenant between Himself and man. In New England, especially, civil authorities assumed the responsibility of implementing God’s laws and thus establishing a salvific covenant. “To ‘own’ the covenant with God is simultaneously to make socio-political covenant with other men” (p. 56). Reformed theology, with its focus on a thoroughly transcendent Sovereign God, easily slipped into Deism during the Enlightenment and “may be understood as the religion of Puritans who had lost their christological faith” (p. 58). The American Revolution, consequently, inculcated a sacred character to the secular system designed by the Founding Fathers. Subsequently, the eschatology of the Puritan’s descendents transformed the longing for a “holy commonwealth” into the progressivism of the Social Gospel and its postmillennial hopes. In this succinct essay, Jenson brings a theologically-informed mind into an interpretation of American history which is full of insight and truth.

A number of the essays ponder questions concerning Christian education. In “What Academic Difference Would the Gospel Make?” Jenson critiques the modern university for its lack of theological foundations. To a great extent, the social sciences have replaced philosophy and theology as sources for “wisdom” and guidance. “The laissez-faire university, in which students decide what is an educated many by voting with their feet for what already interests them, in which truth is supposed to be discovered by the competition of fixed ideas, is no accident. It is simply the university that has asked its own social scientists how to do things. Nor is it an accident that political science and economics departments are regularly so stodgily and obtusely mild-liberal or, if maverick, orthodox Marxist. Nor is it an accident that pop-psychological technique and bowdlerized Eastern religion cooperate so nicely” (p. 80).

Unlike the secular university (Jenson argues in “The Triunity of Truth”) with its disconcern for “the unity of truth,” Christian institutions, “churchly colleges” should devoutly pursue it. Indeed, for them, “the unity of truth must be the imperative joint concern” because it is, “inescapably a theological problem” (p. 85). Blending prayer and learning, in accord with the richest Christian teachings, aligns minds with Ultimate Reality. Anytime colleges divorce faith from learning, prayer from study, they lose their way. Indeed, Jenson says, “to put it as offensively as possible, the day we dropped required chapel and put nothing in its place–was the day we sold not our religious souls, but our scholarly and pedagogic souls. That was the day we condemned ourselves not to be communities of scholars and teachers but to be instead agencies of the state” (p. 87).

In “The Intellectual and the Church,” Jenson reminds us that to premodern thinkers “the created mind was not itself conceived as an agent, a doer of knowledge; the mind was rather a mirror or reality, or at most an eye, constituted in its knowing by what appears to and in it. Mirrors and eyes need light; to be mirrored or seen reality needs light. It was believed that God is the one who sheds that light” (p. 176). As is evident in Richard Rorty’s Mind as the Mirror of Nature, many modern thinkers have discarded this position. But Jenson would have us return to the wisdom of premodernity, knowing truth about God as we work in His world.

To do this, Christian scholars are called to labor in the “liberal arts,” which Jenson equates with “political arts” in “The Political Arts and Churchly Colleges.” No work is more important! According to Martin Luther, Satan seeks to “deprive us of the liberal arts. For both worldly rule and the preaching of the gospel depend on them, so that when the liberal arts fail, both the larger community and the church within it must become ‘a wild band . . . , a stall of swine, a rout of wild beasts'” (pp. 205-206). To distance us from the “liberal arts,” to damn us, Satan tempts us to pursue “my needs, my rights, my development and fulfillment” (p. 207). Christian scholars, however, must uphold the truth and help us seek God and His kingdom of righteousness.

This is best done, Jenson argues, in “God, the Liberal Arts, and the Integrity of Texts,” through rigorous attention to the great texts of the tradition. Importantly: “the existence of the liberal arts and so their teaching depends on texts. The liberal arts depend on the use of texts, on the use of certain texts, and on the subsistence of texts, that is on the possibility of distinguishing them from their interpretation” (p. 209). Postmodernists, of course, have launched an massive assault on both the texts themselves and their consensual interpretation in the Christian tradition. Jenson identifies such thinking as “Heidegger-by-the-way-of-the-French jargon in which it is usually couched” (p. 210). And it is, he insists, a grave threat. For without the texts, without the teaching of the texts, the Christian faith cannot survive!

Generally written for the general reader, concise and to-the-point, these essays richly reward the attentive reader.

Curtis Chang supervises InterVarsity Christian Fellowship ministries at Harvard, MIT, and Tufts. Understandably, he wants to provide intellectual resources for some of the brightest students in America. Rather than finding such in modish moderns, he takes us back to Augustine and Aquinas in Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine & Aquinas (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 2000). Both theologians “faced questions as what to proclaim to a society that previously understood itself to be ‘Christian’ but now seems to be fragmenting, and what to say when truths previously held to be universal are under assault from a disorienting religious pluralism” (p. 9). Thinking with them, deriving wisdom from them, may well give us needed guidance as we wind our way through the century ahead.

Chang utilizes Augustine’s The City of God and Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles. He locates each in its historical era, indicating why an essentially evangelistic and missionary stance was required of them. They both adopted an approach Chang identifies as: “1. entering the challenger’s story; 2. retelling the story; 3; capturing that retold tale within the gospel metanarrative” (p. 26). Augustine addressed a disintegrating pagan world. Aquinas faced the challenge of Islamic ideas rooted in Aristotle. Both sought to fully understand their challengers. Then they found, primarily in Scripture, ways to reach out and introduce non-Christians to the eternal truth of the Christian Gospel.

This book is interesting because of its thesis. Chang’s actual reading of Augustine and Aquinas, and his application of their thought to the “postmodern” students he deals with, are less impressive than the fact that he finds help in arguably the two greatest theologians in Church history. Coming from an entirely different perspective, he argues what Thomas Oden has argued for some time: to make sense in our world we must recapture the truths which have sustained classical orthodoxy. And no better exponents of that position can be found than Augustine and Aquinas. Those of us who work with collegians, those of us concerned for reaching the “postmodern” mind, will find meat to chew on in Chang’s case.

# # #