Sunday, March 24, 2013

James White and Southern Evangelical Seminary:

Sola Scriptura, Hermeneutics, and Biblical Authority in Apologetics
I recently had the opportunity to listen to the James White’s dividing line episode in his round table discussion with Southern Evangelical Seminary. I have made some effort to determine who the other contributors were without any progress. If you listen to the discussion, there is a professor of apologetics or philosophy who lives in Atlanta and commutes to Charlotte during the week that takes several opposing positions to Dr. White. This professor makes several interesting and revealing comments that I want to address because I think his remarks provide some clues as to why evangelicalism is drifting in a sea of current theological confusion.

The professor admits that several graduates of SES have converted to Catholicism after graduating from the seminary. He then states that he does not understand this, but hints that it could be due to the high esteem placed on Thomas Aquinas by SES. In addition, he admits that the seminary takes no stand on Genesis 1-3. This permits young earth and old earth proponents to work together in harmony. In addition, he does not pass on the opportunity to disparage Ken Ham’s apologetic, which I thought was unprofessional, discourteous, and misplaced given the setting. He does not simply say he disagrees with Ham, but that he actually says that Ham’s apologetic is awful. Without providing any examples, his tone was one of disdain and remarkably arrogant. I wonder if Ham simply doesn’t use enough philosophy for the good professor. Perhaps Ham’s insistence on a grammatico-historical reading of Genesis 1-3 and his tenacious position on the age of the earth could be one reason why the professor finds Ham’s simple apologetic so objectionable.
Finally, this professor repeatedly (and unwittingly I presume)attacked the doctrine of sola scriptura, saying things like, the only way to get to sola scriptura is if there are rational antecedents in place to begin with. And, of course, those rational antecedents are located in the area of philosophy. Therefore, at the end of the day, when it is all settled, the entire protestant system of theology rests not on sola scriptura, but the philosophical construct that leads us to the conclusion of sola scriptura. With one statement, the apologetics professor at SES has destroyed the entire reformation.

Since we do theology only by exegesis of Scripture (or at least that is how it is done correctly), it follows that the only way to examine theological arguments is by Scripture. Since this unnamed apologetics professor at SES is arguing that sufficiency of Scripture requires philosophy of language at a minimum to get going, it is this proposition that I want to examine. For example, would Paul, or does Paul agree that the common use of everyday language ipso facto equates to doing secular philosophy? Since Paul used everyday language to condemn the use or integration of secular philosophy among Christians, I think the answer is clear.
So what exactly is wrong with the professor’s argument? For starters, he is engaging in equivocation. To infer that rules for human communication are parallel with secular philosophy is confusing two very distinct disciplines. The presuppositional method argues that Scripture is entirely sufficient to bring men to saving faith. This experience is not merely intellectual. God saves men miraculously by the preaching of His word. Scripture is the means by which God regenerates fallen sinners. The classical approach is not content to give men a gospel proclamation. I have had numerous classical apologists tell me that the unbeliever may not be ready to hear the gospel just yet. Classical apologetics seeks to prepare the way. The classical method asserts that we must show the unbeliever that Christian theism is true before they can know it to be so. In addition, some have argued that such the presuppositional approach is overly simplistic, naïve and even anti-intellectual. In the classical approach, you must demonstrate that theism is true using rational argumentation and evidences before you given them the gospel. In other words, apologetics is the antecedent to Scripture. Once this work is accomplished, the classical apologist can finally preach the gospel. The presuppositionalist objects to this method because it contradicts Scripture by necessarily assuming the view that men are neutral in how they evaluate theistic proofs, be they rational arguments or historical evidence. Presuppositional apologetics will drag the sinner before the courtroom of God’s gospel and show him not only the irrational position of his own views, but more importantly, the divine wrath that hangs over his head, and it will not leave off the discussion without demanding repentance of the unbeliever in accord with Scripture, which is precisely what Jesus, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, and the rest of the apostles did.

Norman Geisler says, “If we can establish that all nontheistic views engage in unaffirmable statements germane to those views, then we can reject them as false. If we can show that theism is the only affirmable view or that it is undeniable, then it will be established as true.” [Geisler, Christian Apologetics] There are two fundamental problems with these statements. First, Christian theism has already been established as true, and therefore, all non-Christian views have been established as false. Paul clearly informs us in Romans one that God has made Himself undeniably known to all of humanity. The work that Giesler talks about has never been necessary. Secondly, fallen sinners, even though they know God exists, they will deny this truth, suppressing it everywhere they turn. Rational argumentation and proofs will not dissuade men from loving their sin and hating the God who hates their sin. The reason is that both our argumentation and our proofs have characteristics that fallen men find highly objectionable. Their standards for divine proofs are absurd and their arguments are fatally flawed with the noetic effects of sin. God is not duty-bound to provide the sort of proofs they demand.
Paul tells us in Col. 2:2 that true knowledge of God is Christ Himself. The only way to have true knowledge of God is through Christ. The knowledge of God men have by natural revelation is filtered through the perverse reasoning of wicked intellects. The mind is depraved. Man knows God is there, but he distorts, and perverts and suppresses that knowledge, that truth that God has graciously given him. This leaves man ignorant, blind, and foolish in terms of his understanding of God and the world around him. Paul goes on to say that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are not just found in Christ, but they are hidden in Christ. In other words, it if is wisdom and knowledge you seek, you will not find them outside of Christ. True knowledge and true wisdom are veiled from men who are outside Christ. The Greek word is apokruphos. It pertains to not being able to be known and thus is secret. In other words, outside of Christ, man is resigned to not being able to possess true knowledge and understanding of God nor is he able to possess true reasoning abilities.

Paul then mentions two more things I want to add. First, he says that the reason he is saying these things is because he does not want anyone to delude them with pithanologia. This is an interesting Greek word. It means plausible, but false, speech resulting from the use of well-constructed, probable arguments—‘convincing speech, plausible language.[1] There is no question that Paul was dealing with secular, hostile philosophy at Colassae. No doubt, these philosophers were used convincing rhetoric. Paul issues sober warnings to the Colossian Church about such foolishness. He goes on in v. 8 to point out that secular philosophy founded on the tradition of men and the stoicheia of this world, rather than according to Christ. This word means the basic principles that serve to underpin something. This is the very basic ideas of the secular worldview. We would say that autonomous human reason would be one of those very basic principles. That man is able to discover truth on his own apart from God is a basic principle of worldly and unbelieving thought. By these things, the Colossian Church was in danger of being seduced and deceived. The Church existed in a culture that was highly philosophical to being with and hence, Paul was right to be on his toes. Contemporary apologists are negligent for not taking the same kind of precaution in their own thought and work.
The classical apologist operates under the assumption that the power of logical arguments and the weight of evidences and proofs will convince men of the truthfulness of Christianity and pave the way for evangelism. They operate under the assumption that men reject Christian theism because they simply don’t have enough evidence or they have not heard a good argument for it. This assumption is out of step with biblical descriptions of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. It ignores the noetic effects of sin and fails to grasp the significance and true nature of the curse.

The professor’s inference that we all must do some work outside of Scripture in order to even argue for the sufficiency of Scripture or to hold to the doctrine of sola scriptura is equivocation at best and a red herring at worse. Human communication is a phenomenon of human experience and as such is general revelation. Hence, it falls into the same category as the sensus divinitatis. Man’s knowledge that God is, is innate, properly basic knowledge. Just as we do not have to present evidence that God is, we also do not have to defend the idea of communication, word meanings, literary devices, etc. We know intuitively that such devices are at play. However, due to the sin nature, the gift of human language has also been corrupted and therefore must be subject to rules that are derived from the nature and character of God Himself. Many of these very rules can be arrived at inductively by serious study of how Scripture employs human language and literary devices in the divine communication and revelation of God to His creation.
To respond specifically to the professor’s challenge, I will turn to the text he used as an example. Gen. 3:8 tells us that Adam and Eve heard the “sound” of the Lord God walking in the garden. The good SES professor infers from this that we must engage in something external to Scripture in order to understand Scripture in this case. He argues this is a literary device and that such devices are no actually explained in Scripture nor are there rules given in Scripture itself to guide our understanding. He is correct. However, the fact that no such rules exist do not open the floodgates to the use of secular philosophy in the area of gospel presentation or biblical apologetics. First of all, the text does not actually say walking. The Hebrew word is הָלַךְ and it can mean walk, go, to move, etc. To fixate on the specific movement of walking is exegetically without warrant. We understand that this verse conveys the sense that Adam and Eve heard the sound of the Lord God moving in the garden. Where should our focus be? And for most normal Christians who read the text with the right purpose in mind, sanctification, what do we focus on? We focus on the fact that Adam and Eve just sinned and now they hear the sound of the Lord God moving in the Garden of Eden and that sound must have been incredibly frightening. God is holy, they have sinned, and consequences are sure to follow. That Scripture employs literary devices like anthropomorphisms without providing express rules for them is a sure indication that human beings are created with the natural ability to recognize such devices just as we can recognize the many other wonderful phenomena that are God’s natural revelation in creation. For an apologetic professor to resort this sort of argumentation is unnecessarily distracting on the one hand, and/or equivocation on the other hand.

It is easy to miss the implications of this approach on such issues as biblical authority. It Scripture is not sufficient to bring men to God, then how can we truly refer to them as authoritative, inspired, inerrant, and self-attesting? The sufficiency of the Scripture to bring men to Christ and keep men in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit is not ground that any God-fearing, Bible believing apologist should be willing to give up. After all, it is the Scripture and only the Scripture that is able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 3:15).

[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, vol. 1, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 392.


  1. The philosophy professor was Dr. Richard Howe.

  2. Its not hard to see why SES students keep becoming Catholics. I graduated from there and heard a lot of pro catholic talk. It turned out I had five classes by three different professors who all ended up being catholic, or at least they all appear to be catholic now. The extremely high view of Thomas Aquinas is probably also to blame. If he is the greatest philosopher \theologian ever and is catholic then surely we should be also. The belief that philosophy is more important than scripture is also an issue the school needs to get under control. These factors together should show its not that surprising.

    1. I would recommend you take a listen to the Shepherd's Conference lectures and sermons. They are great. I would especially listen to Michael Vlach. He names names when it comes to evangelical compromise and WLC and Licona are among them.

  3. If you want to know the reasons many have become Catholic (including Geisler's co-author), this will be coming out very soon:

    1. I already know the reasons: 1) They do not possess genuine faith; 2) They are taking their rationalistic approach to Christianity to its logical end. All the other reasons fold under these two to one degree or another.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.


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