The Church in America is in a Missionary Situation

4645-everyday-church.jpgImagine you woke up one day to discover that you had become a missionary in a foreign land. The language, the culture, the worldview, and the values are all unfamiliar. Fortunately you are part of a team. What are you going to do? Together you are going to learn the language and the culture. You are going to explore how the Bible story interacts with the outlook of the people around you. You are going to try to connect them with at a relational level.

This is the situation in which the church in the West finds itself. The culture has moved on. It is not what it was a hundred years ago when it was significantly shaped by the Bible story. We need to wake up and realize we are in a missionary situation.

Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Everyday Church

The Hole in Our Holiness

31ArGG9+ClL._SL500_AA300_Kevin DeYoung’s little book, The Hole in Our Holiness (Crossway, 2012), is an excellent antidote to the seemingly prevalent view of many Christians today that have either grown up in the weak world of broad evangelicalism or have cast off legalism and have drifted into a form of libertarianism. Such brothers and sisters from the latter group, having escaped the gospel-destroying clutches of Pharisaical burdens, often throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to holiness. They mistakenly think that freedom in Christ and the grace of God mean that they can indulge in whatever practices they desire.

This reaction is due to the comprehensive nature of legalism. Because legalists fail to distinguish extra-biblical, manmade commands from the actual commands of Scripture, when a brother or sister casts off the strictures of the legalistic system, they reject everything, including biblical truth. In this way, legalism fails to teach discernment. The sheep are considered too dumb to be able to distinguish, and so are taught to “just trust what they are told.” Additionally, a sound, biblical approach to Christian liberty is often not taught out of fear that members will decide for themselves how to apply Scriptural commands.

All of these factors often lead to some degree of a libertarian bent in those who have escaped legalism. They think that holiness is a return to the former bondage, and cannot see any place for it in their new life of “grace.” This kind of thinking, as DeYoung says, leaves a hole in the Christian’s desire for holiness. He suggests that many Christians think of holiness like non-campers think of camping.

It’s fine for other people. You sort of respect those who make their lives harder than they have to be. But it’s not really your thing. You didn’t grow up with a concern for holiness. It wasn’t something you talked about. It wasn’t what your family prayed about or your church emphasized. So, to this day, it’s not your passion. The pursuit of holiness feels like one more thing to worry about in your already impossible life. Sure, it would be great to be a better person, and you do hope to avoid the really big sins. But you figure, since we are saved by grace, holiness is not required of you, and frankly, your life seems fine without it (p. 10).

DeYoung cites J. I. Packer’s claim that holiness is considered passé by many Christians today. Packer cites three pieces of evidence in his book, Rediscovering Holiness (Regal, 2009): 1) We do not hear about holiness in preaching and books, 2) We do not insist upon holiness in our leaders, 3) We do not touch upon the need for personal holiness in our evangelism.

DeYoung also addresses the mistaken notion of many who are trying to be truly gospel-centered that to speak of holiness is to reintroduce a moralism or a legalism from which we have just escaped. Not so. Holiness is the reason God saved us. Ephesians 1:3-4 reminds us that God saved us for holiness:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. (Ephesians 1:3-4 ESV)

DeYoung concludes his book with a call and encouragement:

God wants you to be holy. Through faith he already counts you holy in Christ. Now he intends to make you holy with Christ. This is no optional plan, no small potatoes. God saved you to sanctify you. God is in the beautification business, washing away spots and smoothing wrinkles. He will have a blameless bride. He promises to work in you; he also calls you to work out. “The beauty of holiness” is first of all the Lord’s (Ps. 29:2, KJV). But by his grace it can also be yours.

Sexual Wholeness, and Not Just Purity, Is the Goal

Every other October we sponsor a Sexual Wholeness Week in seminary chapel. The intent behind this series of chapels is to exhort our students in what it means to be sexually whole. This concept goes beyond just helping students avoid adultery in seminary and ministry. The greater concern is that they would be sexually whole people who are not perpetuating brokenness in themselves, their families, and their ministries.

One of the most helpful books I came across in preparation for this series is Judith and Jack Balswick’s book, Authentic Human Sexuality (IVP, 1999). They explain the complexity of human sexuality and seek to define sexual wholeness.

Human sexuality must be understood in light of a variety of influences, including biological, sociological, psychological, theological, as well as gender, emotions, behaviors, attitudes and values. We begin with the presupposition that authentic sexuality is meant to be a congruent, integral part of one’s total being. Further, we believe that God intends for our sexuality to be a real, genuine, believable and trustworthy part of ourselves. In this way we embrace what God has created and declare with God, “It is very good.” (p. 13)


This book is filled with chapter after chapter of some of the best writing I have ever read on sexuality. Since sexual issues are one of the most, if not the most, pressing issues in the American church today, I highly recommend pastors get this book and read it.

Here’s an example of the kind of wisdom gathered in the book. The Balswick’s quote Lewis Smedes on the need to go beyond an emphasis on sexual purity in marriage to sexual wholeness:

A man or woman can be just too busy, too tired, too timid, too prudent, or too hemmed in with fear to be seriously tempted by an adulterous affair. But this same person can be a bore at home, callous to the delicate needs of the partner. He or she may be too prudish to be an adventuresome lover, and too cowardly to be in honest communication and too busy to put oneself out for anything more than a routine ritual of personal commitment.

One may be able to claim to have never cheated…but may never have tried to grow along with their partner into a deep personal relationship of respect and regard within marriage. Their brand of negative fidelity may be an excuse for letting the marriage fall by neglect into dreary conformity to habit and, with that, into a dull routine of depersonalized sex. I am not minimizing the importance of sexual fidelity, but anyone who thinks that morality in marriage is fulfilled by avoiding an affair has short-circuited the personal dynamics of fidelity.

Lewis Smedes, Sex for Christians (Eerdmans, 1976), 168-9.

Wayne Grudem’s 24 Moral and Spiritual Issues at Stake in the Election

A useful PDF file comparing the major political parties on 24 issues.

God’s Word in Human Hands, Part 7: Conclusion

Several additional corrections to Kenton Sparks’ characterization of presuppositionalism need mentioning. Third, in regard to the nature of man’s knowledge, Van Til believed, with Reformed theology, that there exists a distinction between God’s knowledge and man’s, but rather than being entirely similar, they are analogous. That is, God’s knowledge is archetypal and man’s is ectypal, patterned after God’s.[1]Archetypal knowledge is perfect knowledge and is only possessed by God. God is identical with his knowledge; his knowledge is not a universal external to Him. All human knowledge, on the other hand, is ectypal, patterned after God’s knowledge. This has two implications: first, since man’s knowledge is derived from God’s knowledge, it is true knowledge; second, because it is not archetypal, it is necessarily finite. This distinction, then, allows for humans to possess true, but incomplete knowledge. Nowhere in this distinction is “perfect” knowledge demanded or expected, as Sparks seems to characterize most of evangelical theology. Human language is, therefore, adequate to communicate true knowledge. Van Til recognized the difference between archetypal and ectypal knowledge, and knew that man could never attain perfect knowledge.

The bridge between archetypal and ectypal knowledge is revelation. In revelation, God condescended to man and revealed himself, making knowledge possible. The two main forms of special revelation, incarnation and inscripturation, communicate clearly and perfectly what God wanted man to know. Sparks’ epistemology, like that of many evangelicals, does not require revelation. Revelation is added later, but is not necessary to make the system coherent. Sparks’ division between God’s knowledge and our knowledge makes God’s knowledge unattainable. Human knowledge (all human knowledge), therefore, must contain error. Sparks leaves no room for revelation in which God condescends to reveal himself through his Word. Scripture seems primarily human, and only distantly divine in his reading.

Fourth, Van Til’s presuppositional epistemology takes the fallenness of humans far more seriously than Sparks’ practical realism. While Sparks makes much of the effects of the Fall on knowledge, Van Til emphasizes the effects on man himself. “Owing to man’s ethical depravity, man is unwilling to recognize himself as a creature. Accordingly, he assumes that the foundation of the validity of human reasoning lies in himself.”[2] Again, “The result for man was that he made for himself a false view of knowledge. Man made for himself the ideal of absolute comprehension in knowledge…In conjunction with man’s false ideal of knowledge, we may mention here the fact that when man saw he could not attain his own false ideal of knowledge, he blamed this on his finite character. Man confused finitude with sin.”[3]

Finally, Van Til would never have accepted the idea that only presuppositionalists can arrive at proper interpretations. What he would say is that only presuppositionalists have rational warrant for their epistemology, because only Scripture provides the principium for human knowledge.[4] Van Til did not often discuss biblical hermeneutics as Sparks supposes. This is another indication that Sparks’ failure to distinguish epistemology from hermeneutics has left him with confusion on this point. Van Til was more concerned with demonstrating that any attempt to establish knowledge by means of autonomous human reason was necessarily flawed and irrational.

Much more could be said about Van Til’s revelational epistemology.[5] Suffice it to say that Van Til saw only two options for epistemology. A revelational epistemology begins with the ontological Trinity as the principium essendi of knowledge, and Scripture as the principium cognoscendi by which we know the principium essendi. All other epistemologies began with autonomous human reason as that which judges all truth claims, including those of Scripture. Revelational epistemology begins with God and proceeds to human knowledge, unlike other epistemologies that add God after the system has been established. Whereas rationalist and empiricist epistemologies begin with human belief and seek to progress to knowledge, revelational epistemology begins with the sensus divinitatis, the implanted knowledge of God in every person, which is true knowledge. On the basis of this sure, universal knowledge, it proceeds to judge beliefs as true or not. In addition, the role of the Holy Spirit in leading a believer to truth plays a central role in Van Til’s thought. He took seriously the Scripture’s distinctions between the knowledge that fallen man possesses and that which redeemed man possesses, especially when it comes to knowledge of God through the Scriptures.

In contrast to practical realism, then, which posits high confidence in human perception, and low confidence in human ability to know, revelational epistemology places lower confidence in human perception and high confidence in human ability to know, and more importantly, total confidence in Scripture to judge both. The problem, as Van Til saw it, was not that humans want to know, but are hindered by their limitations (a metaphysical problem). The problem is that humans have the ability to know, but their fallenness has resulted in rebellion against knowledge, even the most basic knowledge—that there is a God—making man’s problem an ethical problem (Rom. 1:18-25). The portrayal of man as suppressing truth in rebellion against God is absent in discussion of realism, whether it be Sparks’ practical realism, Murphy’s holism or Hiebert’s critical realism. Realism assumes that humans are, for the most part, on a genuine search for the truth. This contrasts sharply with the futile thinking and foolish hearts of unbelievers in Romans 1:21. While this view of man may not hinder the unbeliever from discovering truth, he can never account for his discovery properly. It also means that his “search for truth” will always be taking place simultaneously with his suppression of truth in rebellion against God.


God’s Word in Human Words faces a dilemma. If its epistemology is flawed and inadequate, its conclusions regarding the text of Scripture are suspect. Practical realism has been shown to be unable to support its own weight. The adoption of this epistemology by some evangelicals is troubling, for to subject Scripture to the scrutiny of autonomous human reason can only result in theological and spiritual disaster. While the “humanity” of the text of Scripture must be addressed, the answer lies not in a proposal undergirded by practical realism.[6] Any doctrine of Scripture must begin with its primary characteristic—its supernatural inspiration. Only in light of the divine authority of Scripture can an exploration of its “humanity” be safely pursued.

Wrestling with difficulties in the Scripture must begin with an epistemology that proceeds from God himself, bounded the Word of God. Sparks, by contrast, has begun with an approach that places too much confidence in the conjectural conclusions of scholars examining “evidence” in a self-professed neutral and objective fashion. This is too much like foundationalism to be plausible for evangelicals. For an epistemology to be faithful to Scripture it must proceed from Scripture. By this method alone can evangelicals be sure that they have not accommodated the truth to the criticism of human reason.

[1] Van Til describes these types of knowledge as “original” and “derivative.” He notes that our knowledge is not merely symbolic, but true, though derivative; Intro to Systematic Theology, 324 n9.

[2] Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 98.

[3] Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 36-37.

[4] For a detailed explanation of the role of principium in epistemology, see K. Scott Oliphint, Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006).

[5] Another important distinction Van Til made was between created reason, fallen reason and redeemed reason. Each of these bears on the question of the nature of reason in human knowledge today.

[6] For a more orthodox treatment of this topic, see Gaffin, God’s Word in Servant-Form.

God’s Word in Human Hands, Part 6: Cornelius Van Til and Revelational Epistemology Correctly Understood

Sparks gives a brief nod to Van Til before summarily dismissing him as a Cartesian foundationalist. Sparks is correct to criticize Cartesian foundationalism, but wrong to associate Van Til with that epistemology. Those who understand Van Til know that his epistemology was developed (through the influence of Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper among others) with the express purpose of refuting foundationalism. Van Til believed that a Christian epistemology must necessarily flow from an explicitly Christian philosophy. Foundationalism, on the other hand, is anything but necessarily or explicitly Christian. As Jonathan Wilson states, “A foundationalist epistemology seeks to ground knowledge in truths that anyone can accept. Thus an inerrantist who applies a foundationalist epistemology might say, ‘Set aside any convictions about Jesus Christ, God and salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ. I will show you that the Bible is true through historical, geographical and scientific study that everyone agrees on.’”[1] This is clearly not the approach of Van Til’s epistemology. In fact, this is exactly the model Van Til argued against in almost everything he wrote.[2]

Sparks misunderstands Van Til’s epistemology as radicalizing the postmodern claim that all interpretation is contextual. He believes Van Til to say that, “we must know everything (the whole context) in order to know anything (that which we are interpreting).”[3] Based on this statement, Sparks concludes that to know anything, a person would have to know the ultimate thing—God. Since an unbeliever does not know God, he would be missing the most important element in interpretation, and therefore, his interpretations would not be good. Sparks believes that Van Til held that correct interpretation requires a belief in God. Sparks disagrees, for he has great confidence in the ability of unbelievers to arrive at truth, often doing so more consistently than believers, in his account.

Additionally, says Sparks, presuppositionalists deny that the Christian beliefs required for good hermeneutics can be acquired through general hermeneutics. The only healthy way to interpret anything is via a special hermeneutic that presupposes the truth of Christian belief. Sparks concludes that this makes presuppositionalists “strong Cartesian foundationalists, for whom the basic beliefs needed to reach incorrigible truth are gifts of grace available only to genuine Christians.”[4] Unless one approaches Scripture presuppositionally, he will fail as an interpreter. Hence, good interpretations are only available to presuppositionalists.

A Van Tilian presuppositionalist will immediately see serious problems with this characterization of presuppositionalism. First, Van Til’s discussion of particulars and universals took place in the context of the way that the Christian belief in the Trinity solves the philosophical problem of the one and the many.[5] So, Sparks’ reference to this unrelated point of Van Til is not germane to epistemology.

Second, Van Til never claimed that theological constructions by presuppositionalists or anyone else were incorrigible. What he claimed was that unless one utilizes a revelational epistemology in which the search for knowledge begins with the ontological Trinity as revealed in the Scriptures, there would be no logical necessity for any truth proposition, and no way to prevent irrationality. Apart from God in whom actuality and necessity exist, and in whom possibility finds its grounds, these properties are difficult to imagine, let alone demonstrate conclusively.

In Part 7 we will conclude this critical analysis of God’s Word in Human Words with the conclusion of Van Til’s revelational epistemology.

[1] Jonathan R. Wilson, “Toward a New Evangelical Paradigm of Biblical Authority,” in The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation (Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 155.

[2] Representative works include Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (4th ed. K. Scott Oliphint, ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008); An Introduction to Systematic Theology (2nd ed. William Edgar, ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007); A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, no date)..

[3] Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words, 45.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Specifically, Van Til was answering the question of how we can know how any one particular relates to another. Because philosophy could not find a universal, there was no way to establish any necessary link between any particulars. Van Til’s answer to philosophy was that the unity of God in his oneness, and the diversity of his triunity gives an answer to the question of the one and the many. All the diversity in the world finds unity in that it is all created by God who is distinct from all created matter. We know everything truly, therefore, only in light of the unity and diversity of the Trinity. “In God’s being there are no particulars not related to the universal, and there is nothing universal that is not fully expressed in the particulars.”[5] What Van Til said about particulars and universals is, therefore, true. Unless one accepts the biblical picture of the Trinity and all it entails, he can never know the why of any particular, even though he may know a great deal of the what of that particular. Would Van Til accept the idea that an unbeliever may arrive at a proper theological interpretation? Certainly, but the unbeliever could never account for why that interpretation is correct.

God’s Word in Human Hands, Part 5: How Epistemology Affects Ontology and Why It Matters

In choosing an epistemology of practical realism, Sparks alters the ontology of the Bible. That is, he reimagines the essence of the Bible itself. In adopting an epistemology that does not require the existence of revelation of God,[1] Sparks has altered the very nature of Scripture. The ontological implications of epistemological revision were noticed already in the late 19th century by B.B. Warfield. “A special school of Old Testament criticism, which has, for some years, been gaining somewhat widespread acceptance of its results having been accepted, a ‘changed view of the Bible’ follows which implies a reconstructed doctrine of inspiration, and, indeed, also a whole new theology.”[2] One cannot evoke an epistemology counter to that presented in Scripture and expect to maintain the same ontology of Scripture.

Therefore, while Sparks likes to speak of the similarity between foundationalism and anti-realism, it is the practical realist who arrives at a view of Scripture similar to foundationalism, and both are significantly different from how Scripture portrays itself. The foundationalist, arriving at certain truth through either rationalism or empiricism, subjects Scripture to tests of reason and historical and scientific scrutiny, and finds it to be lacking verifiability (this is the modernist critique). The practical realist, arriving at approximation of truth through a dialogue of text, community and culture, subjects Scripture to scientific, cultural and linguistic analysis, and finds the clear statements of Scripture about itself to be lacking verifiability (this is the postmodernist critique). Both approaches, modern and postmodern, in effect do the same thing to Scripture, albeit from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Warfield proceeds to consider exactly what Sparks is eager to discuss—the presence of “problems” in the text of Scripture. Warfield delineates the two-fold strength of the claim to inerrancy that any criticism of the Bible must overcome if it is to be considered a serious challenge to the authority of Scripture. First, there is the testimony of Scripture itself about its ontology. Cornelius Van Til, following Bavinck and Turretin, emphasized the self-attesting authority of Scripture. That is, the primary way of knowing what Scripture is requires us to take at face value what it says about itself. Any other starting point of determining the nature of Scripture places man’s autonomous reason over the Bible’s testimony about itself. After considering the genuine difficulties that the human involvement in Scripture brings, John Murray warns that to attempt to establish the authority of Scripture by any other means would be fruitless. “Thus, on the question of warrant for the proposition that Scripture is infallible, what are we to say? The only ground is the witness of Scripture to itself, to its own origin, character, and authority.”[3] So our starting point for claiming the authority, infallibility and character of Scripture must remain its own testimony about itself.

Second, says Warfield, there is the whole mass of evidence that shows that the biblical writers were trustworthy. Now, here is the very issue with which Sparks wrestles. For him, the external evidence shows that the Bible is not what it says it is, at least not as it has been historically understood. Certainly, no inerrantist would object to external evidence clarifying and sharpening our understanding of inspiration. Yet, this is not always recognized by critics of inerrancy. Many assume that inerrantists hold to an unsophisticated and unnuanced dictation theory of inspiration. This is simply not true. As an example of the complexity of evangelical positions on inerrancy, Norman Geisler lists eighteen clarifications regarding mistaken notions of inerrancy.[4] These clarifications take into consideration such elements as interpretation, context, style, differing accounts, phenomena, literary devices, genre, and grammar.

The options for evangelical theology of Scripture, then, are not limited to a either flat, dictation theory of inspiration or a text that is to be doubted and assumed to contain error. Inspiration and inerrancy can be held while recognizing the complexity of the issue, and taking seriously the apparent contradictions between what the text says about itself, and how it appears to us. Once again, one’s epistemology will either allow or disallow working toward a solution. Practical realism, as Sparks presents it, seems to disallow a doctrine of Scripture consistent with Scripture’s testimony of itself.

If practical realism, then, is inadequate, are evangelicals only left with foundationalism as an epistemology? The answer is, “no.” Sparks is right about many of his criticisms of foundationalism, but that, as we have seen, does not make his proposal any more plausible. There is another option available that avoids the pitfalls of both foundationalist and realist epistemologies. Sparks (improperly) dismisses Van Til as a foundationalist, and further misconstrues his epistemology, which can provide evangelicals with a theory of truth that is faithful to Scripture and can stand up to intense epistemological scrutiny.

In Part 6 we will look at the more biblically faithful revelational epistemology of Cornelius Van Til.

[1] In no way does practical realism require revelation. Practical realism can be and has been developed as a system with no need of revelation. As a result, its suitability as an epistemology adequate for Christian theology is in question..

[2] Benjamin B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Samuel G. Craig, ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1948), 170.

[3] John Murray, “The Infallibility of Scripture,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 1: The Claims of Truth (Carlisle, PA: the Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 10.

[4] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: Volume 1 Introduction, Bible (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002), 507-12.

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