Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Response to Richard Howe’s Criticism of Ken Ham’s Apologetic

The Illegitimate Dichotomy of Apologetics and Evangelism

Recently, James White had a round table discussion at SES. I wrote about how that discussion carried on. In that post, I admitted that I was unable to discern the identity of a particular professor who had been, in my opinion, less than gracious in remarks he made about Ken Ham’s apologetic. The mystery has been solved thanks to some work of a couple of brothers behind the scenes. That professor was Richard Howe. In that discussion, Dr. Howe mentioned that he had written a blog criticizing a particular lecture Ken Ham had recently delivered on how to defend the faith. I cannot say if Ken Ham is a consistent presuppositionalist. I have not read all his materials. What I can say is that I have never read or heard Dr. Ham say anything that would contradict the presuppositional method of apologetics. Therefore, I am comfortable saying that from what I have heard and read Dr. Ham seems to take a consistent presuppositional approach to defending Christian theism. Admittedly, however, Dr. Ham is not a philosopher. He is a Christian scientist. And most of Dr. Ham’s work is in the area of science, specifically, the defense of the Christian claim that God created the world and all that is in it in six literal days, contrary to modern philosophies and the unproven hypotheses of contemporary science. Dr. Ham’s work, in my judgment, in this field is pristine. Now, I want to turn your attention to Dr. Howe’s criticism of Dr. Ken Ham’s apologetic method.

Dr. Howe titles his article, “It’s Worse Than I Thought”. In his introductory remarks, he refers to a colleague, whom he apparently respects, but who is also an old earth creationist. This is not a fact that should go unnoticed. It just so happens that Ken Ham is highly critical of old-earth creationism and he is right in his criticism of this view. Howe begins with a “strong objection” to how Ken Ham approaches the task of apologetics. He goes on the call the method “bankrupt, if not self-defeating.” One thing is certainly clear; Dr. Howe has little regard for Ken Ham’s apologetic approach.

Howe’s first objection is really quite puzzling coming from an apologetics professor with years of experience in the field. Howe’s first objection concerns Ham’s assertion that there are only two ways of understanding reality. We either understand reality according to God’s word or according to man’s word. Howe launches into a number of questions as to what it could possibly mean to understand reality according to Scripture. Howe seems to infer that Scripture provides no dogma of ontology. I must confess that I find Howe’s questions puzzling. Surely he understands what Ham means when he says that we can either understand the created order in accord with God’s word, or in accord with man’s word, which is worldly wisdom, philosophy according to how the worldly man reasons. In other words, there are only two standards by which we arrive at truth about reality: one is right and the other one is the product of man’s vain philosophical investigations. Howe implies he is familiar with Van Til and Bahnsen, but one is hard-pressed to understand exactly why Howe would characterize Ham’s view on this subject as far removed from presuppositionalism. In this simple form, taken at face value, it most certainly accords with the presuppositional approach. Van Til and Bahnsen both would agree that there are fundamentally two ways of looking at reality and that a distinctly Christian metaphysic would demand that Scripture would serve as the self-attesting authority by which every Christian should see the world. Howe seems confused as to what presuppositionalism affirms in terms of metaphysics.

Howe argues that by making God’s word the starting point, Ham is reasoning in a vicious circle. Howe drives home his point:

And if we are able to understand the part of reality that is God’s word without any appeal to another (antecedent) part of reality, then why can we not do that with the other parts of reality? In other words, if we need that part of reality which is God’s word to understand the rest of reality which is not God’s word, then how is it that we are able to understand the part of reality that is God’s word in the first place? Why should the part of reality that is God’s word be understandable by us if the rest of reality that is not God’s word needs another part of reality (viz., God’s word) to understand it? It gets worse.”

 In other words, where is the entry point? If we need God’s word in order to understand reality, and God’s word is part of that reality, then what from reality do we need in order to begin to understand God’s word? What is the necessary antecedent? If we can understand that God’s word is part of reality without calling on God’s word, then it follows that we do not need God’s word to understand reality. At first glance, Howe’s argument almost makes sense. However, the problem rests in our ability to understand and make sense out of anything apart from God’s word. It is only due to common grace that fallen men can reason at all. All unbelieving systems lead to indefensible irrationalism. What is the answer to Howe’s assertion? The answer is the work of the Holy Spirit and the supernatural revelation that is the word of God. Howe makes no mention of the work of the Holy Spirit in the project of helping men arrive at a metaphysic that is in accord with the truth of God’s word. That is more than a little puzzling. To answer Howe as directly as possible: the antecedent to understanding God’s word, which is our metaphysical starting point, is the work of the Holy Spirit. His role is essential to all Christian ministry.

“Second, Ham never even acknowledged the issue of how does one interpret the word of God? From where would one get one’s principles of hermeneutics (i.e., principles of interpretation)? He cannot say that we get these principles from God’s word, because we would need to be able to understand God’s word in order to get the principles. But then, if we are able to understand God’s word in order to get our principles of hermeneutics, then that would mean that we were able to understand God’s word before we got our principles, which would mean that we wouldn’t need the principles after all. This is a contradiction.”

 Howe seems to ignore entirely the reformation principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. Howe confuses the universal laws of human communication with some authoritative set of principles that exist outside of Scripture by which we are to interpret Scripture. No such set of authoritative principles exist. Howe is not far from the Roman Magisterium in this specific point. It seems he has no idea that he is so close to Rome that I can almost hear the whisper of Pope Francis from where he stands. For Aristotle, the key to knowledge was asking the right question. It was the question of first principles. For moderns, however, the key is being able to justify one’s beliefs. It is not hard to see Howe’s demands that justification for belief in the self-attesting Scripture is antecedent to accepting it. The discussion at this point concerns the relationship between God and Scripture; understanding Scripture within the context of reality and how Scripture informs our view on that part of reality that is apart from Scripture. Vanhoozer remarks,

“I submit that the best way to view God and Scripture together is to acknowledge God as a communicative agent and Scripture as his communicative action…it follows that in using Scripture we are not dealing merely with information about God; we are rather engaging with God himself – with God in communicative action.” [First Theology, 35]

The close proximity of Howe and SES with Aquinas and Rome is hard to miss and perhaps this explains his position better than any other factor. The answer is located in the concept of the hermeneutical spiral. We begin with the first principle that God is, and that He gave us His word and language as gifts so that He could communicate with His people. Our view of God informs our view of language and His word, and this moves us down the path to biblical investigation, which helps refine our understanding of God and His creation, and even the gift of language, which serves to inform our hermeneutic. With each movement, the spiral moves deeper into an understanding of God and His revelation all through the agency of the Holy Spirit’s work on the human heart beginning with the miracle of regeneration. Without regeneration, it is absolutely the case that we have no starting point.

Howe then criticizes Ham’s argument saying, “Instead of trying to defend his faith by claiming that it only is according to God’s word, he should be claiming that the Christian faith is true. By ‘true’ here I mean that the claims of the Christian faith correspond to reality.” Apparently, Dr. Howe thinks it is more appropriate to argue for the truth of Christian faith by claiming that it corresponds to reality than it is by claiming it is what God says is true. Does Howe think that everyone’s view of reality is the same? Are the atheist and the Christian in complete agreement on the facts of reality? To ground apologetical argumentation in ontological interpretations seems to me to be the worse way to try to make the case for Christian theism. Ham grounds his argument in the immoveable, unshakeable, self-attesting word of God and Howe thinks a better place would be in the subjective interpretations of reality, naively assuming that we all have the very same understanding of what is real. Apparently Howe has failed to notice the competitors to his correspondence theory, to name just three, the coherentist, pragmatist, and verificationist. Howe prefers to anchor the immoveable, unshakeable, self-attesting truth of Scripture in the ground of fallen, sinful, subjective interpretations of reality. I find this approach alarming to say the very least.

Howe fails to recognize that reality is not something that is simply there for humanity to know and to understand without the necessary process of interpretation. There is an indelible relationship between epistemology and ontology that Howe seems disinterested in admitting. In other words, there is no such thing as uninterpreted reality in the world of finite beings. Contrary to Howe’s premise, there are no brute facts. Finite beings are forever relegated to the ground of interpretation. That is, our knowledge of reality is derivative. Derivative of what, you ask. That is exactly the issue! There is only one way for humanity to truly know their world and that is by divine revelation.

Howe closes his criticism of Ham with this final point:

“The unbeliever can be made to understand and apprehend the claims of Christianity. Apologetics can serve to demolish skeptical arguments and demonstrate the truths of much of the Christian faith (e.g., the objectivity of truth; truth as correspondence to reality; sound principles of hermeneutics; the existence and attributes of God, the historicity of the Bible) even if it cannot demonstrate the truths of other claims of Christianity that must be taken by faith (e.g., Christ died for our sins, Christ is coming again).”

Two things are wrong with Howe’s argument: first, his view that unregenerate men can be made to understand and apprehend the claims of Christianity is in serious opposition to the clear teaching of Scripture. For instance, Col. 2:2-3 tells us that true knowledge of God is only in Christ, and that all wisdom and knowledge have been hidden in Christ. Without Christ, understanding and knowledge are impossible. John 6:45 informs us that everyone who has learned from the Father comes to me. There is no unbeliever who really learns the truth of Christianity, who gets it, and rejects it. Eph. 4:17-18 teaches that all unregenerate men walk in the futility of their mind. Their minds are useless, futile, and empty concerning the things of God. Paul goes on to say, they are darkened in their understanding, and excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them. No unregenerate person can escape this description. They are consigned to this state by God’s decree. Yet they willingly embrace it, loving darkness rather than light. John 1:12-13 informs us that men only understand and receive Christian truth as a result of being born of God. John 3:19 tells us that men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. Men are not just blind and ignorant, they are willingly blind and ignorant. 1 Cor. 4:4 says that the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving. All unbelievers are blind in their minds. 1 Cor. 2:15 says that the natural cannot understand or receive the things of the Spirit of God. He is both unable and unwilling to do so. Rom. 8:6-8 tells us that the natural mind is fixated on the flesh. It is not neural toward God. The unregenerate mind is hostile toward God in every way. It will not and cannot do anything to please God. Eph. 2:1 says that men are dead in their trespasses and sins. Being dead, how can they understand, evaluate, or comprehend God’s truth? Rom. 3:10-18 describes the spiritual condition of men as bereft, contemptible, and rotten. Here man is described as being totally depraved and unrighteous in every part of his being. Rom. 1:28 informs us that God has turned them over to a depraved mind. Howe is simply wrong to claim that the unbeliever is in a position to evaluate the truth claims of Christian theism in an objective sense and understand those truths when he sees them.

Second, Howe is wrong when he attempts to separate apologetics from evangelism as if apologetics comes prior to evangelism. Nowhere in Scripture is this true. In fact, apologetics, the defense of Christian claims always follows evangelism. When Peter issued his famous apologetic imperative, it is clear that this imperative followed from previous claims of the hope that is in us. Everywhere we see apologetics taking place in Scripture it is always, always, always a response. In Acts 17, Paul’s Areopagus address was a response. I would challenge Dr. Howe to prove his contention that apologetics and evangelism are recognized as different according to Scripture. There is not a shred of exegetical support for such a claim. Finally, 1 Cor. 1:17 tells us that the preaching of Christ is not done in sohia logou, cleverness of speech, or in wise words. This sort of method voids the cross by emphasizing the intellectual and focusing on our persuasive abilities. Men convert to the Christian religion because it is intellectually and philosophically impressive, but not because of heart-change rendered by the work of the cross. Hence this is why Paul says it nullifies the work of the cross. But this is precisely what many in American Christianity have done. Paul says in v. 18 that the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. He says in v. 19 that God has destroyed the wisdom of the philosopher. In v. 20, Paul points out that not very many at all from the intellectually elite have been chosen. Rather, it is the simple, the poor for the most part, the uneducated that God has called to Himself. In v. 23-24 Paul says our gospel is a scandal, a roadblock to Jews and absolute folly to Greeks. Nothing can change this.

Clearly, the gospel is intellectually offensive to the unregenerate. In what sense could they understand it, could they really know it? Who could ever really understand the beauty and power of the gospel and still find it scandalous and offensive? To really know it and to really understand it is to embrace it, to love it, and to proclaim it. Paul says the world does not come to God through its wisdom. They do not evaluate the evidence using their philosophical methods and then decide that Christian theism is the way. Paul tells us that God intentionally, deliberately has chosen the weak, the poor, and the simple, passing over most of the intellectuals, the rich, and the philosopher. In v. 30, he says it is by God’s doing that we are in Christ Jesus. It is not by our own decision or intellectual abilities. We are born into the Christian community. We do not join it.

Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 2:1-4 that he came to the Corinthians, a Church not far from Athens that his preaching was not with persuasive words of philosophy and rhetoric. His preaching was in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. The gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe. But to those who are blind, ignorant, and hostile to God, it is utterly ridiculous.

It is completely illegitimate to drive a wedge between evangelism and apologetics. I recognize that many in the Church view this approach as acceptable. The idea finds no support in Scripture. Moreover, biblical apologetics is not doing philosophy while evangelism is preaching. Biblical apologetics is the defensive proclamation of the gospel to those who ask, challenge, or even accuse us.

Eph. 2:8 informs us that faith is a gift of God. It is not given through sophisticated philosophical argumentation or clever rhetoric designed to warm the unbeliever up to hearing the real gospel. If we want unbelievers to change their mind, to change how they think, there is only one way: the gospel of Jesus Christ. Cliff McManis wrote, “Proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ is the most potent, lasting, penetrating, life-changing, liberating thing a Christian can articulate to any unbeliever, under any circumstances.” [Biblical Apologetics, 91]

It is tragic to hear lettered men like Dr. Howe, men are who supposed to be firmly committed to the Christian worldview, prefer the views of worldly philosophy to those of the simple, certain, stable truths of Scripture. Yet, this is mostly the case in modern, American Christianity. Today is resurrection Sunday. Rather than write paragraph after paragraph trying to prove that the resurrection actually happened, because of the glorious work of the Holy Spirit in Scripture and in my heart, I am delighted that I can simply declare, He is risen! He is risen indeed!

1 comment:

  1. I had occasion last year to engage a particular disciple of Howe (who I consider to be an amiable chap in spite of his inconsistencies). I had a great exchange with him exploring apologetic methodology. Some of those articles can be located here,

    (you can also scroll down to find some where I interacted with Howe).

    At any rate, the Howe disciple sent me to his blog you highlighted where he blasted Ken Ham (Who I happen to know a little bit - He's not a "Dr." by the way, or a scientist. His study is in education). I had the same problems with his criticisms you seem to have and wrote about them here,

    If you go to his "virtual office" page, he apparently led a men's Bible study critiquing Ham. You can find the pdf outline to the study here,



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