Afterthoughts: My Discussion with Dr. K. Scott Oliphint

Allow me to begin this post by stating that I believe Presuppositionalism has a lot to offer non-presuppositionalist approaches.  Perhaps more so than how it is currently being credited.  Additionally, I believe that many non-presuppositionalists do misunderstand some of what the Presups are saying, which also leads me to think there is more common ground between the differing apologetic approaches than people think.  However, there is disagreement on some fundamental issues.  The following are some points from the discussion that I did not address or would like to make again regarding those fundamental issues.  And though some (or much) of this post may seem like petty points, once you get down to the fundamental differences, there will be petty points to debate.  I don’t have the time-markers or transcript available, so if one were to question my accuracy of expositing Dr. Oliphint, I’d be happy to provide the info for you.  For those who have yet to hear my interaction with Oliphint, here is a link to it.

 

Oliphint stated that we both agree with Original Sin.

This is technically not true. I affirm what the Eastern Orthodox call Ancestral Sin.  Essentially it is similar to Original Sin, except that it does not affirm inherited guilt from Adam nor does it affirm Inability.  Perhaps the best and most recent work done on Ancestral Sin was by the 20th century Orthodox theologian John Romanides.

 

Oliphint clarified that we’re talking about Total Depravity, not Original Sin.

We’re both right. Inability is often brought under the label, Total Depravity.  However, Total Depravity boils back down to Original Sin, because the Reformed believe that Total Depravity comes from Adam and is passed on to his posterity (which is what Original Sin addresses).  So if one were to look at the aspects of Original Sin, there he/she would find Inability.

 

Oliphint stated, “If you speak more broadly in terms of Christendom, there are two basic options in Christianity. One is, what we call, a more Arminian approach to theology where you give some credence to a notion of what we call libertarian free will.  And then the approach that I take is that we are dead in our trespasses and sins and because of that, the only way that people will move from raft to grace is by the power of God the Holy Spirit changing our hearts so that we can believe.”

This is the same false dichotomy I received in my undergraduate Bible courses at Biola University.  The Calvinist-Arminian debate is a multi-lateral debate, not a bi-lateral debate.  I disagree with both Calvinsts and Arminians that all men are totally depraved.  I, like many Wesleyans, disagree with the classical Arminians in that I don’t believe humans inherit the guilt of Adam.  Lastly, if we are speaking “broadly in terms of Christendom” we must include Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who certainly are neither Calvinist nor Arminian.

Side note: I’m not convinced that it’s helpful to label your opponent, and then proceed to not label but describe your position with Bible verses. It gives an unfair hearing to the views in question since your Christian opponents, too, believe the truth of the Bible verses used.  I think this tendency happens with people who are arguing that their view is the biblical one.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we should let individuals decide if our views are true by showing why our view best describes the biblical data instead of using a verse as if our interpretation is the only possible one.

 

Oliphint said, “Would you preach to someone who has absolutely no capacity to even understand the terms or ideas that you’re communicating?  Of course you wouldn’t.  There is a capacity there but the problem is, those who remain in their sins, unless the Lord changes them will always twist and turn those truths of the Gospel into something that to them is something not believable.”

Oliphint here, without providing a more detailed nuance, appears to contradict himself.  He says that nonbelievers have no capacity, but then corrects himself to say that there is a capacity.  I also think he conflates Inability with Unwillingness, which I think is the reason why people reject the Gospel.  The Scripture teaches that man is unwilling to believe (Psalm 10:4, Isaiah 7:9, Habakkuk 1:5, Malachi 2:2, Matthew 18:16, Luke 9:5, John 5:40, Acts 3:23, et al.), not that he is unable.

 

Attack against bare theism. (White also spends time on this issue.)

I’m delighted to agree that we can’t just stop at bare theism (I don’t know of any Christian that would disagree).  But arguing for theism is a stepping-stone to get people to Christianity.  If one rejects theism then they reject Christianity.  So, arguments for theism are useful in leading some people to Christ.  The Presuppositionalist attack against bare theism is a sort of straw man; they’re attacking a position non-presups don’t hold to.

 

All things considered, I enjoyed my discussion with Dr. Oliphint.  I hope to have further conversation with him in the future, perhaps once I get around to publishing some articles or books.  One of the goals that I have in my theological aspirations will be to illustrate that there are alternative biblical and theological ways of understanding the nature of man.  Even if you would like to disagree with me, I hope that you can take that away; this is not a bilateral, Calvinist or Arminian debate.

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Kurt Jaros is the Director of Operations at Apologetics.com, where he oversees various projects, including Real Clear Apologetics (which he founded). He holds a Master's degree in Christian Apologetics from Biola University and a Master's in Systematic Theology from King's College London. He teaches part-time at Naperville Christian Academy and also blogs at ValuesAndCapitalism.com, a project of the American Enterprise Institute.

5 Comments

  1. Nick - July 5, 2013, 8:17 pm

    I find presuppositionalists spend more time defending the method than they do the faith.

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      John Bowling - July 18, 2013, 3:25 pm

      Nick,

      I’ve heard that retort more than once. It’s used as a sort of smear against Presuppositionalists. It’s a ridiculous and baseless charge.

      Did Greg Bahnsen, perhaps the most well known presuppositionalist outside of the founder (Van Til), spend more time defending the method than the faith? What about presuppositionalist James White? Does he spend more time defending the method than the faith? That’s laughable. What about presuppositionalist Sye Ten Bruggencate?Of course the Choosing Hats website does spend, on average, more time explaining and defending presuppositionalism than engaging in apologetics with unbelievers. But that’s the purpose of the website: to educate people about presuppositionalism and defend it from the myriad of misunderstandings that evangelicals have about it. You can’t fault them for having that purpose. And even the members of Choosing Hats have frequently engaged in debate with unblievers (see the “Debates” tab). Finally, you can go to my other website and see that I interact with unblievers far more than I write about apologetic method.

      The only thing such a statement exemplifies, is that the person making the statement doesn’t know many presuppositionalists (though that doesn’t stop them from disliking them a lot).

  2. David Parker - July 13, 2013, 12:06 am

    As far as I can tell, presuppositionalism is mainly about tactics: we know that Christianity is right and therefore is the only worldview that matches reality, so you avoid being baited by arguments that erroneously assume some “neutral” common ground and force them back to their own crumbling (or non-existent) worldview foundation, and then invite them over to join you in reality (Christianity). In apologetics (defense of the faith), the best defense is actually a good offense. Both views use evidence, but presuppositionalism has the added element of never letting the opponent “cheat ” by borrowing from our worldview.

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    John Bowling - July 18, 2013, 3:13 pm

    Mr. Jaros,

    >>This is the same false dichotomy I received in my undergraduate Bible courses at Biola University.

    While there may be a spectrum of nuances among non-Calvinist positions, that doesn’t show that Dr. Oliphint’s claim itself is a false dichotomy. Virtually all non-Calvinist positions give credence to libertarian free will. Can you think of any that don’t? When it comes down to it

    >>if we are speaking “broadly in terms of Christendom” we must include Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who certainly are neither Calvinist nor Arminian.

    Actually Roman Catholics agree with the essential elements of Arminianism, as I understand it. I don’t know about Eastern Orthodox, but there really isn’t much middle ground to be taken in the essential issues of the debate between Calvinists and Arminians. Either grace is sufficient or only necessary. There isn’t really another option unless you want to defend heresy. I’m not saying that as a dogmatic Calvinist, it’s just a matter of logic as far as I can see it. Either regeneration must precede faith because man is incapable of exercising it apart from regeneration or else regeneration follows faith and man is capable of exercising faith apart from it. Again, what third category are you going to carve out (for Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox) that doesn’t just end up equivocating?

    While Roman Catholics are not Protestant or Wesleyan, I don’t see what essential Arminian teaching they would deny. I’m not familiar with Eastern Orthodox, but maybe you could point out which essential element of Arminianism they would deny.

    >> It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we should let individuals decide if our views are true by showing why our view best describes the biblical data instead of using a verse as if our interpretation is the only possible one.

    If another interpretation is possible then it’s the detractor’s responsibility in most cases to make that argument.

    >>Oliphint here, without providing a more detailed nuance, appears to contradict himself. He says that nonbelievers have no capacity, but then corrects himself to say that there is a capacity.

    An irrelevant observation. William Lane Craig once tried to show the incarnation was logically coherent by using a particular illustration. At the end of the illustration he said “So you see there is nothing logical about it.” Well, sure, by your measuring stick Craig contradicted himself. But we all know he just mispoke. Not really worth pointing it out.

    >> I also think he conflates Inability with Unwillingness, which I think is the reason why people reject the Gospel.

    Since Oliphint doesn’t mention unwillingness in your quotation of him, and I can’t see where the concept is employed in that quote either, how could he be conflating the two?

    Maybe *you* think people reject the gospel because they are unwilling but not unable. But that’s not Oliphint’s position. Oliphint’s position would be that they are both unwilling and unable. Suppose you ask a mother, with proper cognitive functioning, to eat her own child. I think you can see how it may be correct to say that at a psychological level the mother is both unwilling and unable to do such a thing. Are we conflating the two if say that?

    >>The Scripture teaches that man is unwilling to believe (Psalm 10:4, Isaiah 7:9, Habakkuk 1:5, Malachi 2:2, Matthew 18:16, Luke 9:5, John 5:40, Acts 3:23, et al.), not that he is unable.

    Of course quoting verses that say man is unwilling does not demonstrate that it is not the case that he is not unable. And Calvinists believe they can respond with a list of verses showing he that the unregenerate man is not just unwilling but unable: Jeremiah 13:23; Matthew 7:18; John 3:27; John 14:17; Romans 6:17; Romans 8:7–8; 1 Corinthians 2:14; 1 Corinthians 12:3

    >> But arguing for theism is a stepping-stone to get people to Christianity. If one rejects theism then they reject Christianity. So, arguments for theism are useful in leading some people to Christ. The Presuppositionalist attack against bare theism is a sort of straw man; they’re attacking a position non-presups don’t hold to.

    A point of clarification: some presups don’t think a piecemeal apologetic is viable. I think Dr. Oliphint would take that position, though I’m not sure. And I’m not sure I agree with them on that point. But they would want to point out that your accusation of a straw-man actually misses what they are getting at when they criticize arguments for bare theism. They aren’t saying Evidentialists are satisfied with bare theism. They are saying that arguments for bare theism aren’t stepping stones to Christian theism, the only true theism.

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