Saturday, November 30, 2013

Richard Howe’s Criticism of Covenantal Apologetics

If you have had the opportunity to watch the debate between Jason Lisle, Richard Howe, and Scott Oliphint at the SES Apologetics conference you are familiar with Richard Howe’s basic rejoinder against Covenantal Apologetics (CVA), aka, Presuppositional Apologetics. Howe argues that every approach to theology and apologetics uses extra biblical sources to acquire and defend knowledge of the truth. In fact, it is impossible not to use extra biblical sources to do so. Therefore, when classical apologetics employs natural theology in its defense of the faith, it is doing what every other discipline does as well, to include CVA. Howe points us to the field of biblical hermeneutics, and specifically, to the philosophy of language. He contends that proponents of CVA are just as guilty of relying on concepts and principles that are external to Scripture as are the classical folks. Is Howe correct in his criticism? Personally, after hearing Howe talk about the subject on a few occasions now, with all due respect to his academic standing as a professor of philosophy, I am suspicious of his ability to understand CVA. I do not think this is a reflection of his intellectual ability. I think it is more likely attributable to his lack of interaction with CVA.

I hear the breezes of autonomy in Howe’s criticism. This is precisely the fundamental difference between a biblical apologetic that remains faithful to God’s revelation and one that compromises with the autonomous desires of fallen man. I am not accusing Howe of compromising Scripture. I am accusing him of employing an apologetic method that is less than consistent with sound biblical theology. Does the Bible provide rules for its own interpretation? Howe and Frank Turek answer in the negative. They argue that it does not. Are they correct in their assessment? I do not think so.

First, there is a difference between understanding the uniformity of human language and adopting a biblical hermeneutic. A person’s philosophy of language could never provide for the very first rule of interpreting Scripture: the Scripture is the Word of God. How do we know this? There are only two ways we can truly know that Scripture is the Word of God. First, Scripture claims to be the Word of God. Second, through the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit on our sinful hearts, we now have eyes to see, and ears to hear and understand this fundamental principle of hermeneutics. Without this understanding, interpreting Scripture rightly is a fruitless endeavor.

The second foundational principle of hermeneutics is what we call analgia fidei. This principle, translated the analogy of faith states that Scripture interprets Scripture. We come to the text in need of correction and we always will. It is a very comforting fact of Christian theism that we can trust God the Holy Spirit to continue to purge error from our thinking as we interact with the Sacred Text. These are the two most basic principles of hermeneutics in Christian theism. Abandon these principles and heresy instantly gains a foothold. And is not this the very problem we are experiencing in even some of our most conservative evangelical churches today? In fact, did we not hear Howe say that we would not lose anything from Christian theism if we lost Nahum? Indeed, we did. Oliphint issued a stern rebuke in response to that statement and rightfully so. Nevertheless, the statement is an excellent illustration that the fellows over at SES simply don’t get it. Now, one does not derive these two basic principles of hermeneutics from a philosophy of language course. What Howe is searching for is justification for the CVA presuppositions necessary for biblical interpretation. In addition, what he really wants is for CVA to provide justification that meets his personal criteria for principles of interpretation. What he fails to understand is that Aristotelian logic and natural theology will not provide the sort of justification he seeks.

Howe, without saying so, is arguing for neutrality in human communication. He is seeking to show that hermeneutical method, or the rules of interpreting human communication, is free from the effects of sin. Such an enterprise proves utterly ridiculous. We have to look no further than the profusion of miscommunication in the world today as proof that Howe's view seems naive at best. In addition, we can look to Babel and recognize that human communication is especially cursed. Human language became cursed with the fall of man, and then it became the specific target of divine wrath at Babel. Therefore, it is more than a little naïve to think that human language resides on the ground of neutrality. Human language, like logic, is nothing more than a tool we use to accomplish certain tasks. Neutrality is impossible because the user of human language is never neutral. Without a user, language cannot exist. Language only exists in relationship to a user. Metaphysically speaking, if there is no human, there can be no human language. Howe’s view of language seems to ignore this connection even though I am sure he is aware of it. Perhaps he has not thought this one through as well as he has other ideas.

The existence of human language and our ability to understand one another, albeit imperfectly, is part of God’s general revelation. It has nothing to do with natural theology, which is altogether different. All human knowledge is revelational in nature. We know what Scripture means when it uses numbers because we know the laws of mathematics. Does this mean that we are employing something outside of God’s revelation in order to understand it? That would only be true if the state of affairs that has obtained is different from what Scriptures affirms it to be. Covenantal apologetics does not contend that general revelation is useless. It does not assert that there are no principles of general revelation that help us interpret and understand special revelation. For Howe to suppose it does is more than a little foolish on his part. That is not where our differences rest and if Howe does not understand that, then he knows less about covenantal apologetics than I had imagined. The objection from CVA is that classical apologetics tends to elevate the autonomous employment of logic, language, and science in order to interpret the truth about reality. Man supposedly can use these tools in a neutral fashion and discover truth autonomously, independent from God's revelation. Brute facts do exist.

In closing, I will address the one example Howe used to attempt to refute CVA. In keeping with his view that CVA proponents employ an obvious contradiction between their apologetic and their hermeneutic, Howe pointed to Joshua 10. He argued that it is impossible for a CVA to reject geocentricism if they wish to maintain consistency between their hermeneutic and apologetic principles. Personally, I think Howe should have located his criticism elsewhere because this highlights the fact that he is no exegete for sure, and even less is he a theologian. Why is it that philosophers think they can grab an exegetical bull by the horns and walk away unscathed? That would be like grabbing a Jiu Jitsu instructor, or even practitioner, and thinking you can somehow avoid serious injury. It's just not a very smart thing to do.

The response to Howe is about as simple as one could be. I was hoping that Dr. Lisle or Dr. Oliphint would have pointed it out but they did not. So, I will take a few words to help you understand why Howe’s criticism was more than a little silly. The book of Joshua was written in the second half of the 15th century BC. Joshua was attempting to convey the miraculous event of God which led to the providential destruction of the enemies of the children of Israel. Now, given that we are talking about this audience, at this time, and their knowledge or lack therefore of the universe, and the sun and the moon, what would be the best way to express this miraculous event? Would they have understood it if God had inspired Joshua to record the event only in terms that a modern person would understand? What would an ancient Israelite have thought if Joshua had stated, “And the earth stood still?” If Howe thinks CVA is inconsistent because in its hermeneutic it recognizes the phenomena of accommodation in the divine revelation, he is mistaken. Human language is simply the use of symbols in an attempt to communicate. God was communicating to a different people at a different time. He used language they understood, just as he uses language we understand. In fact, our knowledge of their knowledge at that time helps us understand what God was communicating at the time, and why He communicated the way He did. When we apply this principle to Genesis 1, the opposite happens. If God did not intend for His audience to understand 6 real days, why did He choose to communicate it in such simple fashion? The audience understood what day meant. It seems somewhat deceptive for God to intentionally use ordinary language with the audience knowing full well that they would not have really received His meaning. When accommodation is necessary, God does not hesitate to use it. We must make sure we are not classifying language as accommodative in some way simply because it is consistent with our philosophical or theological agenda.

The fundamental difference between classical apologetics and
covenantal apologetics is not our hermeneutic, per se. It is our respective difference on the subject of neutrality. It is how we view the fall. It is how we view Romans one to be blunt. Classical apologetics holds that the facts of general revelation are brute facts, waiting to be interpreted by the very capable minds of autonomous human beings. All we have to do is construct really good arguments, and since we all employ language, logic, and science from a neutral starting point, we can persuade men that God exists, and then move to the arguments for Christianity. Covenant apologetics, in contradistinction to this, believes that neutrality is a myth. Logic, science, and even language are nothing more than tools in the hands of unregenerate men who are anything but neutral where God is concerned. CVA contends that unregenerate men are natural born enemies of God, that they are hostile to God, that they suppress the truth of God in any and all circumstances. Romans one tells us that all men know God and that all men universally respond the same way to God but for grace. Therefore, it is irrelevant how perfectly one uses logic, science, or language. Unless God changes the black heart of His dead enemies, they will reject his grace and love and seek to destroy Him wherever they find Him. This is not to say that we should not employ the tools of logic, language, and science well. Rather, it is to say that we must make sure we keep them in their proper place. The power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts through the gospel is no excuse for intellectual slothfulness on our part. We are diligent in these matters not for pragmatic reasons, but because it honors and glorifies God!

The principles for interpreting Scripture begin with Scripture. Scripture is self-justifying. There can be no scheme for justifying Scripture, apart from Scripture, that does not at the same time result in the entire collapse of Christian theism. For CVA, human language is one more phenomenon among many that demonstrates that the only plausible explanation for its existence and uniformity, is Christian theism. Atheism surely has no way of justifying this phenomenon. The existence of human language is only intelligible if Christian theism is true.

There is much more that can be said along these lines, but space dictates that I save that for another post.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Oliphint, Howe, and Lisle: YEC Debate at SES Apologetics Conference

Before I get started I must confess that I thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Oliphint's direct and extremely strong approach to this conversation. Someone finally posted the video of the presuppositional apologetics/YEC discussion over at SES here in Charlotte between Jason Lisle, Scott Oliphint, and Richard Howe. I had a chance to watch the discussion yesterday between Thanksgiving football and turkey. I must confess that Scott Oliphint was disappointing in his view of Genesis 1-3. Oliphint argued that we cannot know if the days of Genesis 1 carry the same meaning as our use of the word day because, in his words, “the first five days were God’s days.” I appreciate the use of caution when we are interpreting difficult passages of Scripture. I am not a fan of undisciplined speculation. I also appreciate the humility that Oliphint brought. Even more refreshing was his conviction around the command for all Christians to do apologetics and that such an enterprise does not require a seminary degree. I applaud Oliphint’s direct remarks about philosophy and the relationship of apologetics and theology. It needed to be said, especially at that conference and in that seminary.

The one thing that really took the air out of my balloon was Oliphint’s unusual departure of what I think is an otherwise excellent hermeneutic, especially as it relates to Genesis 1. As I said above, Oliphint informed the audience that the “first five days of creation” were actual days, but they were “God’s days,” seemingly implying that we cannot be sure they were literal days. I am afraid that Oliphint’s approach, while giving the appearance of hermeneutic humility at first glance, abandons sound exegesis.

Jason Lisle gave us an excellent argument for why we could not view the six days of creation any differently than six literal days. He pointed us to Exodus 20 and did what I love to do on this subject. He used the Sabbath command to show that if we understand the language of Exodus 20, then we also understand the language in Genesis 1. In Exodus 20 God informs us that He created, or worked on creation for six days and on the seventh day He rested. Therefore, we are to work six days and on the seventh day we are to rest.

Is it tenable to claim that Exodus 20 is talking about six long periods of time? Is there a single solitary commentator that thinks Exodus 20 could or should be taken as a figure of speech? I know of no commentator that does not interpret Exodus 20 in the plain literal sense in which it is given. I suppose Oliphint could argue that our days and God’s days are not equivalent and therefore the writer is simply using a parallel. But I think there are at least two problems with Oliphint’s position.

The very first issue is the hermeneutic employed by Oliphint in order to arrive at his conclusion. When God communicates to humans, He speaks our language. When Moses penned these words in Genesis 1, God was communicating something to humanity. Indeed, that something was not insignificant. In fact, what God was communicating was one of the most significant events in redemptive history. When God communicates something this significant with human beings, why would He choose to do so in a way that ensures we will not understand what He means? Why would God use the term days in a very literal sense, within a historical narrative, but actually mean something entirely different from what the audience would have understood? From a hermeneutical standpoint, when reading historical narrative, the rule is to take the text in its plain sense unless doing so obviously results in nonsense. In this case, if we preclude all modern scientific advancements so-called, we have no interpretive reason to take the days in Genesis as anything other than literal days. An objector might say that you cannot get light without the sun and the moon. My response is that you cannot get something from nothing either, can you? There will be no sun in eternity future but there will be light. Why is that so hard to understand? Obviously the sun and moon serve as temporal substitutes to provide light until the culmination of God’s plan is realized.

The second problem with Oliphint’s view is less significant but something I must reject. Oliphint says those days were God’s days. How it is that God, who is eternal, without beginning or end, can have days? Man has days. Time has days. Jesus as God incarnate had days. I cannot see anywhere nor anyway from Scripture how God actually has days in the sense that we have days. I think this is simply a weak attempt on the part of Oliphint to find a middle path between the two sides of this debate. I do not think he finds much success.

The days in Genesis are our days, days we know as days. Moses wrote in human language using human terms that he and his audience understood. There is no need for accommodation in this text. The audience understands what day means. I have examined Genesis 1 to find any reason at all from an exegetical standpoint to take the text as anything other than literal and I cannot find one. Lisle’s point that something outside creeps in to influence and shape the figurative interpretation given to Genesis 1 is spot on. It is spot on because we cannot find anything from an exegetical or hermeneutical standpoint to take it as anything but literal. Whether it is science or philosophy or something else that results in this dreadful interpretation of Genesis 1, one thing is certain: it is not in keeping with sound exegesis. There simply is no reason to take the days in Genesis as anything other than the meaning humans would have naturally assigned to it.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am working through a series of posts related to Scott Oliphint’s book on Covenantal Apologetics. However, I will also sprinkle in some thoughts around the debate between Lisle, Oliphint, and Howe along the way.

You can watch the debate by clicking here.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Faith We Defend

In his book, Covenantal Apologetics, Scott Oliphint lists what he calls the ten tenets for defending the faith. The objective of this post is discuss the first tenet: “The faith that we are defending must begin with, and necessarily include, the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who, as God, condescends to create and to redeem.” [Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics, 55]

Christian apologetics cannot get underway unless the apologist understands the nature of his enterprise, which is the defense of the revelation of God in Scripture. Christian apologetics has no interest in proclaiming and defending some theory of general theism. Far too often, the apologetic discussion fails to make progress because we have not properly defined precisely what it is we are defending. We must do a much better job proclaiming and defending the biblically revealed God as opposed to one of the many false conceptions or versions of God that exists in the world today. Unregenerate men have constructed more versions of God than one could possibly know. It is only by knowing the true God that the Christian apologist can proclaim and defend Him.

This concept points us up to the fact that Christian apologetics is not apologetics at all unless it has a theological foundation. In order for us to understand the God that we endeavor to proclaim and defend, we must study theology. Moreover, a study of theology requires some familiarity with exegetical process. In addition, exegetical process rests upon certain hermeneutical presuppositions. Just in case you were wondering, yes, these processes and presuppositions also rest upon theological foundations. The entire enterprise takes on a significantly spherical shape. Not to fear, every epistemological model ever developed in the history of humanity has been and will always be spherical in nature. This is one characteristic of epistemology we are not obligated to secure even if we do wish to illustrate how and why it is so.

What Oliphint is not saying is that every apologetic encounter must involve a theological discussion of the trinity. “Rather, we are saying that we must never assume that we are defending anything but what God himself, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has accomplished in creation and redemption.” [Ibid. 48-49] Two things emerge in this statement: Christian apologetics begins with an understanding of the nature and the acts of God. What we see in many apologetic systems at best is an imbalanced approach stressing one more than the other or even ignoring one altogether. However, you cannot overemphasize one without detriment to the other. If you overstress the love of God you will surely struggle with theodicy when the objection is raised. In addition, if you focus all your time on the resurrection of Christ, you will struggle when the objection of open theism presents itself. Christian theism comes to us in a complete package, not in bits and pieces put together as theologians and apologists react to attacks and challenges over time. Christian theism, while containing a biblical philosophy is not philosophy per se.

The Philosopher has created systems in search of truth that are in large degree modifications due their successive failure, over time, to deliver on their promise for knowledge. The evolution of philosophy will never end because it is the unregenerate quest to discover truth, to know, and live life apart from the Creator. Secular philosophy is the fruitless evolution of man’s quest for knowledge apart from God. At the end of each theory is the inevitable agnostic conclusion regarding why things are the way they are. The answer is simply that the philosopher does not know. In secular philosophy, the true quest for knowledge ends in mystery, and is as unsatisfying as it is empty. For Christian theism the case is quite the contrary. Moreover, when taken as a whole, as it is revealed in Scripture, Christian theism provides the only satisfying answer to man’s most basic questions. That answer inescapably begins, and ends with God and God’s acts in redemptive history.

Hence, all the websites, books, and even degree programs allocated to a philosophical methodology in Christian apologetics have worked to confuse and obfuscate the apologetic vocation far more than they have facilitated in making the task unpretentious. Does this mean we ignore the study of philosophy? I don’t think that is the right answer. I think it is helpful to understand how these systems are constructed. That understanding proves encouraging to the believing because we can clearly see the epistemological failures one after another. However, I do believe there is a balance to such an approach and one has to use wisdom, spending their time wisely in such endeavors. Believers should study the basics of secular philosophy. It is important to be able to speak their language and understand how they think. However, as with anything there is the danger that we allow ourselves to become so obsessed with secular philosophy that we ignore other, more important subjects, such as the biblical languages. There is also the danger of chasing every unbelieving rabbit that pops its head out of the hole and that is simply not in keeping with godly wisdom. In fact, that behavior is due more to the fact that some men simply turn the intellectual pursuit into idolatry while others turn an anti-intellectual bent into idolatry.

I think the point that Oliphint is getting at in his tenets is that Christian theism rises or falls as a unit. By its very nature, like God, it cannot come in bits and pieces. In similar fashion, Christian theology does not come in pieces either. The parts make up the whole and without the whole the parts would be unintelligible. Hence, a Christian apologetic, built upon the diverse and unified system of Christian truth must itself employ a methodology that faithfully expresses the unity and diversity observed in the divine revelation of the one true God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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