Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Reflections on Reformed Apologetics

reid Looking back over four years of module choices at HTC, they have been largely focussed on biblical studies and biblical theology.  However, in my final semester I took two more Systematics modules: Reformed Apologetics and Reformed Theology.  These are both taught by Dr Rob Shillaker.

The Reformed Apologetics module aims to show something very important: the relation between philosophy, scripture and theology in determining apologetic method.  It covers the three main apologetic traditions within the Reformed theological community: evidentialism, foundationalism, and presuppositionalism.  And, it was a most enjoyable module – Dr Shillaker uses video and audio excerpts to illustrate the various arguments (made easier by the incredibly flash IT systems newly-installed in the HTC classrooms – Warp Factor 6, Mr Sulu!).  Some very brief highlights and reflections follow:

  • Listening to a reading of Plato’s ‘The Cave’ when looking at ontological arguments in class.  Excellent!
  • Alvin Plantinga and Reformed Epistemology.  This part of the course was a real highlight for me.  Looking at the roots of Reformed Epistemology in Scottish Common Sense Realism was hugely instructive.  Plantinga’s work on basic and non-basic beliefs, and on warranted belief is particularly important.  Clifford’s classic statement of modernism: ‘It is wrong, always and anywhere, for anyone to believe anything without sufficient evidence’ was challenged by Reid’s argument that everyday life is based upon beliefs which are not supported by evidence.  Plantinga has taken this on: he attempts to demonstrate that theistic belief is properly basic.  Of course, Reformed Epistemology is subject to critique: it is too reductive; it is too broad.  However, I think it has a lot to offer.  The ‘fuzzy logic’ of Reid and his successors works in the real world, whereas the sterile, rigid logic of rationalism ends up being unworkable in its hubristic self-reliance.
  • Presuppositional Apologetics.  Of course, this is the meat and potatoes for any self-respecting Reformed (Calvinistic) apologist!  Van Til’s work in Westminster was refined in the crucible of the battles with liberalism within the Church, where one of the main foes was the tyranny of reason.  Van Til rightly swings the pendulum back to revelation and the need for faith, but I do think that (like many positions forged in the heat of battle) his resultant views were not nuanced enough.  I was helped a great deal by Frame, who backpedals somewhat from his tutors certainties.  For me, Van Til almost becomes Kierkegaardian in his emphasis on faith and revelation.  I think some kind of synthesis (not Hegel again!) between Presuppositionalism and Reformed Epistemology might offer dividends (seeing as they do share some common ground and common roots) – but such an analysis is beyond me!
  • Theodicy.  One of our assessment papers was to review Plantinga’s book, God, Freedom and Evil.  It’s a very good book, and surprisingly easy to follow, due to Plantinga’s accessible style.  I was dubious about some of his arguments (on side issues) but in the main his approach is promising.  It stops short though of being a theodicy – which Plantinga acknowledges; it is cast as a Defense.  Fair enough, but as such it represents the first stage of what ought to be a significant and more satisfying project.  For some more stimulating thought on Theodicy, see Blocher’s work.