Apologetics

In Pursuit of Christ

Christ in the DesertIt was on an Easter Sunday many years ago that God stirred my heart to seek Christ in all truth. Beginning this journey in the best way I knew how at the time, I began attending a Pentecostal “non-denominational” congregation. While attending services I continued to study as much as I could about theology and philosophy. It was during this time of attendance, study, and reflection that some of the things being said from the pulpit started to bother me quite a bit. The dangerous message of the health and wealth prosperity gospel had always been lurking underneath the surface, but it started to openly manifest itself in more obvious ways. The leaders were saying that if you love God and have “real” faith you will be rich, successful, and never get sick. If your life was lacking any of these things, if you were not healthy and wealthy, then it was your fault because you obviously did not have enough faith. In other words, the lack of health and wealth was the direct result of not “naming and claiming it” due to an inherent lack obedience to the promises of God. Moreover, charlatans such as Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen, Joyce Myer and others were being endorsed as faithful ministers of God’s word.

When I first began hearing this message it struck me as being highly problematic considering the overwhelming majority of men and women God has used throughout history (and still uses today) to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ have not been wealthy, have actually lived in poverty, and suffered various bodily afflictions. The health and wealth prosperity “gospel” seemed to be in direct conflict with the true teachings of Scripture and Church history.

I started to bring some of these issues up in discussions with the leaders of this church. Instead of taking my concerns seriously they were met with hostility. By the grace of God I left that dangerous environment and continued to pursue Christ. God had moved too powerfully in my life to give up despite this initial setback.

I want to emphasize that I did not go around the pews trying to divide the people against the “pastors” of this “church”. I brought these things up privately and I did this out of love for my friends. This was not welcome so I had to leave.

During this time I had joined the Army and began attending a Southern Baptist church in Georgia. In addition to attending a Baptist church, I had started listening to “reformed” preaching. I was attracted to both the Baptist and reformed no-nonsense style of communicating, especially when compared to the pathetically weak and flamboyantly heretical teachings of the health and wealth prosperity peddlers. In 2010 I deployed to Iraq and it was during my deployment that I discovered the systematics of Reformed Theology informing the preachers I had been listening to. It was R.C. Sproul’s book, What is Reformed Theology, that first challenged me to try and organize my commitment to Christ in a coherent way.

Following this work by Sproul and others writing in this tradition, it seemed to me that Calvinism was Christianity properly exposited.

Something else that had become quite important to me over this period was Christian apologetics. My mindset was then, and still is today, is that if I am going to tell people that Christianity is true, and Christ is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”[1] then I need to be able to defend these claims against those in opposition to them or explain them to those seeking truth in these matters. Prior to committing myself to the Calvinist tradition of Protestant theology I was a follower of the Neo-Classical/Evidentialist school of apologetics epitomized by William Lane Craig. But during my research into school of John Calvin I was curious to find out if there was an apologetic method derived from this tradition.

Is there a distinctly “reformed” method of doing apologetics as opposed to the mere Christianity, evangelical method?

This question can be answered in the affirmative.

Cornelius Van Til and his method of presuppositional apologetics (re-branded by K. Scott Oliphint as covenantal apologetics) is a methodology that is closely united to the theological framework of Calvinism.

This too was an exciting discovery for me at the time because it allowed for a completely systematic and logically consistent view of the Christian faith. Calvinistic theology and presuppositional methodology seemed to be biblical, and therefore Apostolic Christianity.

Let’s pause for a moment to summarize the beaten path I had been traveling on my journey to pursue Christ. I began as a loner attending a Pentecostal congregation; I eventually joined the Army and started to attend a Southern Baptist church in Georgia; while deployed to Iraq I discovered the systematic theology of Calvinism; following my deployment and honorable discharge from active duty service I discovered Cornelius Van Til and presuppositional apologetics; and at this point began attending a Presbyterian church committed to these basic Calvinistic tendencies.

Now, despite the amount of studying I put into learning about the reformed theological tradition and presuppositional apologetic methodology, there were still quite a lot of things within this tradition of thought that I found to be disconcerting. I could not fully accept a lot of the claims being made because they seemed to be theologically and philosophically problematic. For example, the claim made by Van Til and his followers that presuppositionalism is the only apologetic methodology truly honoring to God struck me as obviously false. On this view, every other method is faulty because it does not begin and end with God, which from the reformed perspective means the other methods do not begin and end with Scripture. And while various criticisms of other apologetic methods might be reasonable, this sweeping claim is problematic.

There are several issues with this declaration. First, not every Calvinist even believes this to be the case. For example, R.C. Sproul is a committed Calvinist, but he adheres to the classical traditionalist view for defending the faith, which recognizes the legitimacy of reason and philosophical preambles as a foundation for revealed truth. Moreover, Sproul was a strong critic of Van Til’s methodology and wrote a scathing rebuttal in his book, Classical Apologetics. Second, presuppositional apologetics completely begs the question regarding the most important claim pertaining to revealed truth, which is the demonstration of the existence of God. To be sure, the presuppositionalist will utilize what they would call the transcendental argument for God’s existence, but this argument is deficient since it asserts God’s existence rather than demonstrating it. Third, it is a methodology that is completely ahistorical. Van Til’s methodology was not constructed until the 20th century. If the claim that presuppositional apologetics is the only method that honors God is true, this would necessarily mean that any apologetic effort before Van Til was successful only in spite of itself, which of course would be the chastisement of many of the most revered names of the Calvinist theological tradition, R.C. Sproul already being one example, and most ironically John Calvin would be another. On the presuppositional view, then, apologists had deluded themselves into thinking that they were defending the faith when in reality they were dishonoring God the entire time.

Another view I was never able to fully accept is the Calvinist (and Lutheran) denial of free will. The reformed theological tradition strongly denies freedom of the will, which in my view, is to deny human nature as being created in the image and likeness of God. At least one of the issues that arises directly from this Calvinistic pretension is blurring the line between God and man regarding the responsibility of sin. On Calvinistic theology, man can only act in accordance to what God has decreed. If it is the case that God has so made a decree that a specific state of affairs will be obtained in salvation history by way of human actors, then man cannot act in any other way than this sovereign decree. This pushes us to immediately ask who bears responsibility for the fall of man in the Garden of Eden? If every state of affairs in salvation history is obtained due to the sovereign decree of God, then it follows from this position that God had decreed that Adam and Even sin. But if God had so decreed, and Adam and Eve were not free to do otherwise, then the result of the fall ultimately rests with God and not man’s sinful action.

This, of course, is an unthinkable declaration, if not a blasphemous one.

These were just some of the misgivings I had with Calvinist theology, but I did not want to let my ‘autonomous’ reasoning influence my conclusions so I did my best to work through these issues and overcome them. To try and come to grips with these challenges I even applied and was accepted to Westminster Theological Seminary, the home of Calvinism and presuppositional methodology. Thankfully, I ended up not going to this school

My confidence in what leading Protestant thinkers’ were telling me was true began to wane even more when I started to examine their declarations regarding philosophy, the history of philosophy, and the history of Christianity. It did not take me long to find out that many of their claims were either misleading or completely false. In addition to that, when weighing their philosophical arguments with basic tools of analytic thought the opinions being presented seemed to fall apart in dramatic fashion. Upon finding gratuitous mistakes in what is supposed to be areas of their intellectual expertise I asked myself a very simple, and yet, a dangerous question, “If these individuals can be so drastically mistaken about things that they are supposed to be well versed in, what is the chance that they are also wrong about the Catholic Faith?”

I made the decision to find out for myself what exactly was so “reprehensible” about the Roman Catholic Church.

I had been a Protestant for roughly 7 years, and in that 7 years I must admit, I had never taken the time to actively examine in any serious manner Protestant theological positions such as Sola Scriptura or Sola Fide against the claims of the Roman Catholic Church. In addition to that, I had never taken the time to investigate whether Protestant assertions about Roman Catholic theology were in fact true.  I merely took it for granted that what I was being told was true and rooted in intellectual honesty. The culture of Protestantism presupposes these theological positions, which would then implicitly presuppose the suggestion that the Catholic faith is in error. When I finally took the time to examine Catholic theological claims versus what Protestants say are Catholic claims, it becomes evident that these assertions do not withstand any objective or honest scrutiny.

With that being said, I decided to be fair to the Catholic faith and assess their claims as they make them instead of starting the investigation with a dissenting bias. I did not want to be hasty in my conclusions so the method I adopted in my investigation was to read what Catholics believed with regard to certain theological positions such as Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide, and then I would go back and read Protestant objections to the Catholic claims. Throughout this process I found that the Protestant objections, which I had believed to be impenetrable, were ultimately inadequate; from their presupposed commitments to Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide, their rejection of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, their disjointed views on the sacraments, arguments against the Pope, Marian doctrine, etc. all turned out to be errors of epic proportion. The fact of the matter is that the every single argument presented by the pretended ministers of the reformation and their contemporary followers are nothing more than a rationalization to spurn the authority of the Church, rather than convincing arguments against what is claimed to be Roman Catholic error.

During this period of investigation it was important to try and find an adequate explanation for the rampant division among Protestants.  If the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is correct regarding revealed truth and the authority of that truth, then why is the normative condition pervasive disagreement? If the Bible is perspicuous and obvious in its teaching (as it is so often claimed) that any person of normal cognitive functioning should be able to study the Scriptures and come to the correct interpretative conclusions absent training in the Hebrew and Greek languages, no training in historical theology, or Church history – why are there so many disagreements on what is supposedly clear, recognizable, and self-evident?

When faced with these questions the common response is to revert back to the problem that initiated the line of questioning. One will often hear, “It doesn’t matter what I think the Bible says. It doesn’t matter what you think the Bible says. It doesn’t matter what Luther, Calvin, or Roman Catholics think the Bible says. What matters is what the Bible actually says.”

No one denies the important and primary issue of coming to the correct interpretation of Scripture. But if scripture is as crystal clear as Protestants claim it is, then why the division? The issue isn’t what the Bible says; the issue has to do with interpretation and meaning. And in the Protestant frame of thought, as I had experienced it, Roman Catholicism is a non-starter when considering who is properly handling the Bible. On this view, it is a given that no Catholic has ever properly handled the written word of God, which allegedly justifies Martin Luther and the entire Protestant revolution. The task at hand given this cultural embeddedness is to figure out which protestant denomination is the closest to true Christianity.

Which sect has it mostly right? How do we come to the correct interpretation of what is being said in Holy Scripture?

The principle proclaimed, or rather, the slogan repeated, is Sola Scriptura. According to Protestantism generally, and Calvinism most specifically, the basic claim is that if a person is one of God’s elect, and Christ’s sheep hear the Shepard’s voice, the believer or potential believer lead by the Holy Spirit will become acquainted with God’s revealed truth, and hence, the correct interpretation of Scripture.

But can this be true in the Protestant sense?

For example, has the Holy Spirit brought Protestants to the truth about baptism?  If He has, which understanding of baptism is correct?  Who decides? Can it be the individual Christian that makes such weighty decisions? The point I am making is not one of skepticism. I am not saying there is no way of discerning the truth on these matters, but rather, the truth of these matters is not found, indeed cannot be found if only by accident, within a Protestant framework.

The fact of the matter is that in the Protestant theological and philosophical framework, each individual gets to choose their authority based on whichever method utilized to make such decisions. In Protestantism a person can decide on many issues by choosing from various sectarian positions. Each individual can build a Christianity fitting to what they want it to be; if a person is not comfortable with transubstantiation and the priesthood, these doctrines can be denied for consubstantiation or even a view of communion that is only a symbol celebrated on Christmas and Easter; if a person doesn’t like baptismal regeneration it can be denied for a view of baptism as only a symbolic gesture of faith; if a person doesn’t like confessional baptism they could endorse infant baptism, but only as a symbol of dedication and not regeneration; A person can deny the sinners prayer as the beginning of one’s Christian life (Paul Washer) or adopt the sinners prayer as the official point of salvation (Billy Graham); A person can decide if they want a literal millennial reign during the end-times or a non-literal millennial reign; A person can adopt the rapture as biblical or deny it; A person can believe in imputed righteousness or infused righteousness; A person can believe that divorce is acceptable behavior in Christian marriages or deny it; A person can decide whether or not the gospel hinges on how they interpret the first three chapters of Genesis and adopt a literal creationist view of the world; if a person disagrees with literal creationism they can adopt the framework view, or the gap theory, or an “old earth” view, or a purely allegorical view; A person can accept a worldwide flood during Noah’s time or a local flood; A person can view Christianity as sacramental or deny the necessity of sacraments; A person can be a Van Tillian presuppositionalist or a classical traditionalist; A person can choose reformed theonomy as a theory of civil government or the Two – Kingdoms view; a person can argue that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is meant for all people everywhere or reduce the atonement to a very specific elect that is invisible even to those who claim to be one of them; A person can believe ‘once saved always saved’ or they might take the problem of apostasy seriously.

All of this is available as a set of viable options in the Protestant world. Individuals are free to decide which they are going to believe because the authority to claim one over the other as being objectively true simply does not exist if Sola Scriptura is going to be truly followed. This collection of competing truth claims becomes especially problematic when it is understood that these individuals, and/or denominations, presenting any one of these views claim their conclusion is based on the clear teaching of Scripture! To allow another measuring stick or source of authority into the process that could assist in interpretative efforts would be to leave Sola Scriptura.

So the question that must be pressed is – If the Bible is so clear why is there so much division among Protestants?

At least one way the Protestant will deal with this is to try and argue that these are all periphery issues existing only as an internal discussion among fellow believers.

But this is to avoid the issue rather than deal with it.

Protestants within their various factions will condemn outsiders as heretics, if for example, one chooses to adhere to a Federal Visionist view of theology instead of a reformed theonomist view; people are charged with dishonoring God and Scripture if they reject Van Tillian Presuppositionalism; people are told that if they are not a literal creationist they are denying Scripture, questioning Christ’s authority, and risking the entirety of the gospel. To sweep this under the rug as periphery issues is a maneuver to avoid the seriousness of the doctrinal confusion.

During my investigation of these issues I had a meeting with a Lutheran Pastor. He was concerned about my interest in Catholicism. We had a long discussion and it was an eye opening experience. What was so eye opening is that even when we would go directly to the Roman Catholic Catechism of Faith in order to read official Catholic dogma, the Lutheran Pastor would not let the Church have a voice in the discussion. He kept arguing that Catholics believe contrary to official Catholic teaching. For example, he would argue that Catholics believe they are saved by works, and not by Christ. This is false and is a position officially condemned at the Council of Trent. No matter how many times I showed him his criticism was incorrect he would not budge an inch.

To be clear, Catholics believe that we are redeemed by Christ through the grace of God; it is that simple.  We cannot merit anything before God without His grace. To paraphrase Saint Augustine, when God crowns our merits, He crowns His own merits in us.

Another major issue that had to be grappled with was that of tradition.

In reality, Protestants have traditions that are authoritative like everybody else. The important question is whether or not these traditions are a part of the deposit of faith or man-made inventions created to undermine the Apostolic Church. Underneath the veneer of Sola Scriptura is an authoritative tradition of interpretation believed to properly discern, and exegete the truth that is found in Scripture. For example, Calvinism isn’t so much a theology that comes out of the Bible as it is a paradigm that forces the Bible to align with eisegetical theological commitments. Simply put, Protestants, especially of the Calvinist tradition, want to have their tradition-denying cake and eat it too. They want to say they appeal to Sola Scriptura absent of a tradition of interpretative methodology, but if they are going to appeal to the truth of an interpretation one must appeal to the authority of a tradition handed down.

The question is, a tradition handed down from whom?

It appears that the farther one departs from the authority handed down by those given the original authority, the more skeptical one should become that what he believes about Scripture is true. Calvinists may be right when they appeal to Calvin as the authority of their tradition and hold everyone else to that authority, but the problem is that Calvin’s authority does not derive from those we can be sure had the truth of the matter to begin with.

When it comes to knowledge based on the testimony of others, one forms his beliefs much more reliably when he interprets that testimony in a way that is in line with those who were the first to receive that testimony and interpret it. For instance, some people argue that the Bible is too old of a document for us to have a clue what the authors could have meant. But if one has a strong historical succession of interpretations and interpreters, there is less likely to be that much of a divide between us, the mindset, and conceptual schematic of the early Christians participating in the Body of Christ. Sometimes people interpret things written long ago anachronistically. They read back onto the text current categories of thought and try to fit everything into those modern categories.

But this is dangerous and unreliable.

The authors, in this case the Apostles and those associated with the Apostles, themselves must form our categories of thought if we are to understand them aright. But that is impossible if there is a complete disconnection between them and us. We’re just guessing. But if the testimony and the understanding of that testimony has been passed down continuously from one generation to the next, and has been codified and well preserved, we have more reason to believe we are understanding the original document correctly.

In this sense, there is no one outside the Catholic Church that is not completely severed from that history, and the passing down of living tradition and testimony. Since this is the case, no one outside the Catholic tradition should be confident in their interpretation of Scripture outside of the fact that when some views happen to be correct they are borrowing from the same authoritative Church previously rejected.

When conducting my investigation the solutions given for the division amongst Protestants was either a rejection of the concern or an answer that does not take the problem serious enough.

Protestants will not give this issue its due diligence.

In my view, if they were to do so, they would have a Christian existential crisis as I did. Why was I Presbyterian rather than Lutheran? Why attend a conservative Presbyterian church versus a more liberal Presbyterian Church? Why not a Baptist denomination, or a Lutheran denomination, or a Methodist denomination, or a Pentecostal denomination? Why not Episcopalian? How do I decide where to go? The answer will always be, “which one is a ‘Bible believing’ church?” But every serious Protestant contender claims to be a ‘Bible believing’ church. The next answer usually provided might be, “choose the one you feel comfortable attending.”

This is seriously deficient.

Should my comfort be a deciding factor when following the truth? When personal comfort is allowed to be a deciding factor when seeking truth it can be utilized as an excuse to avoid doing what is right or believing what is true. This is especially the case when pursuing Christ. Picking up your cross and following Him isn’t meant to be a comfortable experience. It is often times the opposite of that and suffering is the mark of a true conversion; following Christ is uncomfortable, difficult, and sometimes frightening.

G.K. Chesterton’s book, Conversion and the Catholic Church, argues that Protestants are Catholics that have gone bad, and any step made by a Protestant back to true Christianity is one closer to Mother Church. According to Chesterton there are 3 stages a person experiences when inching back to true and historic Christianity. These 3 stages are as follows; the first is the decision to be fair to the Catholic Church; the second is recognizing the truth of the Catholic Church; and the third is running away from the Catholic Church because the last thing a person wants to be is Catholic. Although the third step involves fleeing from the truth, the person running away ultimately acquiesces to the truth of Catholicism. As he so often does, Chesterton pretty much hits the nail on the head with his analysis. The moment I decided to give Catholicism a fair trial, the truth was evident.

The official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are unified doctrinally and theologically. I am not referring to a naive unity where every single person who professes to be Catholic agrees on everything that can be discussed. What I am referring to is unity in the objective and identifiable essentials of the faith. There is no need to have heated, fruitless debates on baptism, end times, creation, the Eucharist, communion of the saints, marriage, birth control, abortion etc. Catholics are unified on these matters by their confession and communion. If a Catholic begins to waiver in their commitment to these truths they can be directed to an objectively authoritative source for correction – the Magisterium of the Church – which is a part of the living tradition of the deposit of faith given by Christ to the Apostles.

I couldn’t resist falling in love with the beauty of the Catholic Church. In her exists the means to truly live a devout life dedicated to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In her exists the shared love of her members. In her dwells the Body and Blood of Christ contained in the mystery of the Eucharistic sacrifice. In her dwells the true understanding of the Sacred Scriptures. In her dwells the power of God and the Gospel unto salvation.

Catholicism is Christianity in the fullness of truth, and this is why I submitted to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

 

– Lucas G. Westman


[1] John 14:6

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