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.


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