It was written in response to a talk that Scott Oliphint gave at the ReformedCon 2016 conference called Reformed or Romanist? Dr. Oliphint reviewed and critiqued a book entitled Evangelical Exodus, a collection of testimonies by former students and faculty from Southern Evangelical Seminary who had apostasized to the Roman Catholic Church. As Dr. Oliphint points out in his lecture, according to their testimony, those individuals went to Roman due in part to their exposure to Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy.
Thomism is the backbone philosophy behind Roman Catholicism and classic apologetics, and because it is the philosophical methodology taught at SES, Dr. Oliphint’s talk obviously ruffled some feathers. The author of this article took umbrage with Dr. Oliphint’s lecture, and so he in turn attempts to alleviate his criticisms by explaining why classical Thomism is more robust an apologetic methodology than presuppositionalism. However, in doing so, he offers up some head scratching irony, at least in my opinion.
He begins by telling us how he held to presuppositionalism for nearly 15 years after having read Van Til who he says gave him the certainty he longed for; but then he moved to classical apologetics.
Those remarks makes me wonder about his overall theology. Presuppositionalism is derived from a Calvinistic soteriology. In other words, when the presuppositionalist engages the lost person with the Gospel, the revelation of Scripture informs him of specific anthropological descriptions of the person with whom he is speaking. The Bible tells us that all men are separated from God and blinded in their sins. Hence, what is needed in the conversation is a proclamation of the Gospel message that will bring that person to a saving knowledge of Christ. For the presuppositionalist, answering apologetic objections is a secondary matter in the overall encounter with a lost person.
I can only assume he still maintains a biblical understanding of man’s sin nature and the noetic effects of the fall, but I find that hard to believe given that he writes, “The classical method, however, is rooted in realism and the reliability of sense-perception, and is therefore the better path.” and “Rather, because sense-perception is reliable, I can have common ground with unbelievers, and show them the evidence for Christianity in a robust, yet simple way.”
Like all classicists, he naively places a lot of faith in the “sense-perception” of unbelievers. If he held to presuppositionalism for 15 years, I would think he understood what Van Til taught about unbelievers and the so-called reliability of their “sense-perception.” While it is true that they may perceive things with their senses, that doesn’t mean their perception is reliable. God intends for mankind to perceive reality according to the manner in which He created it. Scripture declares, however, that unbelievers suppress that truth in unrighteousness. Put another way, they intentionally deny or explain away the reliability of their perception, because they hate God and want nothing to do with Him.
I was also curious about his comparison of Van Til’s apologetics to that of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. He writes,
…presuppositionalism was my meat and potatoes for nearly a decade and a half, ever since reading Cornelius Van Til. Van Til gave me the certainty I longed for. That is, Hume’s radical skepticism was solved by the Kantian notion of transcendentals, but with a different spin: it is the Triune God and Holy Scripture which are the necessary preconditions of knowledge.
He then goes on to conclude why Thomism is a better apologetic method by stating,
I can demonstrate important truths, like the existence of God i.e. Aquinas’ 5 Ways, and the historical reliability of Scripture without resorting to lengthy discussions about Hume’s problem of induction, Kantian transcendentalism and resultant idealism, and the supposed epistemological certainty that presuppositionalism attempts to offer (a form of realism, it seems, based upon presupposing the ontological Trinity and the Bible as the Word of God).
Now it is important to distinguish what Kant meant by the word “transcendentals,” because it is not the same thing Van Til meant.
I would encourage folks to pick up John Frame’s massive work, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, so as to get firm overview of the development of general philosophy and all the accompanying terms, as well as how philosophy interacts with biblical theology. Frame has an extended discussion on Kant’s philosophical worldview that is insightful.
Without getting bogged down in a lot of the philosophical gobbledygook, Kant’s predecessors, like David Hume, believed philosophy was essentially an exploration of discovery: a person started at one philosophical landmark and followed a trail to the next. The starting point was self-evident axioms (rationalism) or sense experience (empiricism). The method was to follow the axioms or the sense data wherever they seemed to lead the person, [See Frame, 254].
Considering what I have learned from the classic apologists I have interacted with for a while now, that is exactly how they describe their apologetic methodology. They affirm what they call “first principles” or “self-evident” truths regarding reality, and then using Aristotelian philosophy and the five proofs of Thomism, build a cumulative case for the existence of God and the reliability of the Christian faith.
Coming back to Immanuel Kant, he believed that our most basic knowledge comes about not by the world’s impressing it on the mind (following the “self-evident” landmarks and building a case), but by the mind’s imposing various concepts on the raw data given to it by the world, [see Frame, 256]. Put simply, for Kant, in order to understand the nature of reality, a person must examine the reasoning process that governs the nature of experience. Philosophical knowledge begins with men who already know because they are men with minds, and how it is they interpret the world with that knowledge.
Van Til, on the other hand, speaks of transcendentals and the need to confront the reasoning process that men employ when interpreting the world, but he is building his apologetic approach from the revelation of Scripture.
The Bible provides us with specific descriptions of fallen man’s nature and reasoning abilities, which, according to the Bible, is hostile to God, Romans 8:7. They want nothing to do with their creator. So what may be considered “self-evident” truths for the classical apologist is not at all “self-evident” for a hostile person in spiritual rebellion against his creator. His reasoning will bring an entirely different set of interpretations to those so-called “self-evident” truths and he will draw entirely different conclusions about them.
Van Til recognized the spiritual dimension to man’s fallen reasoning and his interaction within the world where God, his Creator, has placed him. Because man, according to Scripture, hates God, he will not reason about that world in the way God expects him to do. Van Til zeroes in upon that inconsistent disconnect between the way the fallen man wrongly reasons about the world in which he lives and challenges him with the Gospel. Man’s reasoning problem is his spiritual separation from his Creator. When Christ saves a person, that individual is now clothed, as it were, and in his right mind, Mark 5:15.
Having stated all of that, those points were not the most glaring examples of irony. Keep in mind that this post was written as a brief rebuttal to a talk Scott Oliphint gave in which he suggested that Thomistic philosophy was turning a number of SES graduates into Roman Catholics.
In his effort to respond to Oliphint, the author highlights a book he says is recommended by SES faculty entitled The Last Superstition: A Refutation of New Atheism, by a guy named Edward Feser. The book allegedly demonstrates the intellectual ability Thomism has in trouncing the foggy thinking of new atheism, because Thomism, based upon Aristotle’s four causes, explains reality much better than what Kantian transcendentalism can.
The irony: Feser is a Roman Catholic!
I hope we can appreciate the humor here, because it is as obvious as the pope’s funny hat.
In fact, if you go to Feser’s Wiki page, it tells how he was an atheist for about a decade before his reading of Aristotle — and get this, THOMAS AQUINAS — led him back to the Catholic Church. A book written by a Roman Catholic, explaining how he read Thomas Aquinas’s apologetic philosophy that led him back to the arms of Rome, is recommend by the faculty of SES for the students to read. Hello?
In a podcast put out by the folks at SES, it was suggested that it may be a good thing to shore up their teaching on the Reformers by exposing the students to them in class. That, I would agree, would be a fabulous idea. The problem, however, is that I can never see that happening as long as Norman Geisler is alive; I don’t believe he would allow it if he has any say in the matter.
However, if that does happen, may I suggest that the administrators at SES secure some solid lecturers on the subject and require all the student body to hear from them, rather than assigning an associate professor to teach a few elective classes on a general overview of the Reformation. There are a number of excellent teachers the students would benefit from immensely, like Stephen Nichols at Ligonier Ministries, or Sinclair Ferguson, or Carl Trueman, or even, *gasp,* James White, who I know would be absolutely elated to come and teach. Pulling together classes like that would go a long way in inoculating the kids from the bitter waters of the Tiber.