Review of Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief

John M. Frame. Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief. 2nd ed. Edited by Joseph E. Torres. Philipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2015. 384pp. ISBN 9781596389380. $19.99 (Paperback).

If the measure of a theologian’s profundity is to be determined by the degree to which their writing is nearly incomprehensible—especially on the first pass—then Cornelius Van Til might be the most profound thinker ever produced by the Reformed and Presbyterian stream of Christianity. Whatever else he may be called—and he was certainly a devoted churchman and a gifted and spirited lecturer—Van Til was not a man to whom writing came easily; for evidence, one need only to attempt to read Christianity and Barthianism or The New Modernism. Fortunately, Van Til produced a number of students who sought, with greater and lesser degrees of success, to interpret his thought for the masses; chief among them is Professor John Frame.

Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief is an extensively reworked and updated edition of Frame’s earlier work Apologetics to the Glory of God, and includes two new sections, one of which provides an in-depth examination of probability arguments and the other of which attempts to solve the problem of evil. Much of the original structure of Apologetics to the Glory of God is left intact in this new edition; Frame’s introductory chapters set forth the basics of apologetics and the apologist’s message. Central to this is Frame’s tripartite understanding of the function of apologetics: (1) apologetics as proof (covered in chapters 3-6), (2) apologetics as defense (chapters 7-8), and (3) apologetics as offense (chapters 9-10). The book also includes a number of appendices, with much of the material having been previously published either in The Westminster Theological Journal or the previous edition of Apologetics to the Glory of God.

Perhaps the most central thesis to grasp if you desire to understand Van Til’s thought is his emphasis on the fact that there is no neutrality when it comes to arguing for the existence of God. Taking The Westminster Confession of Faith 7.1 as his starting point, Van Til hammers the fact that all men stand in relation to God by way of covenant; as such is the case, all those whom we encounter are either covenant-keepers or covenant-breakers. Those who are covenant-breakers are such in every area of their life—just as much in epistemology as in ethics. This is a point where Professor Frame really shines. He absolutely hammers those apologetic methodologies that don’t recognize from the outset that the Christian apologist, as one who has been redeemed by Christ, has given up every other allegiance for the sake of Christ, and as a disciple of Christ there is never a moment when he is “off duty.” If the apologist is a believer, he must reason and act like a believer, not pretending to religious neutrality in evaluating competing religious or philosophical claims. It is in this discussion of the question of pretended neutrality that you will encounter John Frame at his absolute best.

Most noteworthy is the inclusion of new material from Joseph E. Torres in Appendix C, which is an edited transcript of how Torres used transcendental argumentation in an actual, rather than theoretical, encounter with one who is hostile to Christianity. Given that much of the published output of those who hold to presuppositionalism in apologetics is concerned much more with theory and methodology than with practical application, Appendix C in Frame’s Apologetics may well be worth the purchase price of the book all by itself—especially since the last portion of Torres’ response deals with Michael Martin’s attempted response to Greg Bahnsen by formulating a Transcendental Argument for the Non-existence of God (TANG).[1]

The initial reviews of the original edition of this work were somewhat mixed. Eddy Field noted that there were “a number of problems [that] weaken this book,” most notably in those areas where Frame argues that Van Til overstated his case for the transcendental argument.[2] Steve Lemke noted that “Frame’s popular style results in a rather uneven work, capable of brilliant insights paired with trite truisms.” Perhaps his most stinging criticism is that, “Although he asserts that all apologetics should be biblically based, Frame in fact refers to his own works almost as much as to the Bible.”[3] The accusation that the presuppositional method as advocated by Van Til lacks a rigorous exegetical basis has a long pedigree, but doesn’t take into account the degree to which Van Til himself relied heavily on John Murray, his colleague at Westminster Theological Seminary, for his exegetical insights, and more to the point, Lemke’s criticism that Frame doesn’t refer to the Bible often enough says nothing about the exegetical labors undergirding Frame’s use of Scripture. To that extent, his criticism is immaterial.

Field’s criticism, however, is to the point, and the defect he observed in 1996 still exists in this updated edition of Frame’s Apologetics nearly twenty years later. After summarizing Van Til’s transcendental argument (73), Frame writes,

I question whether TAG can function without the help of subsidiary arguments of a more traditional kind. Although I agree with Van Til’s premise that without God there is no meaning, I must grant that not everyone would immediately agree with that premise. How, then, is that premise to be proved? If I say, “The existence of physical laws presupposes a personal God,” that statement cannot be the end of the argument. The unbeliever has the right to ask, “Why do you think that?” So Bahnsen himself, in the Stein debate, compares a theistic view of physical law (and logic, and morality) with as many non-Christian theories as he has time for, and argues that the Christian view is cogent and the others are not. But that is simply a traditional apologetic argument from causality, similar to Aquinas’s first two “ways”: physical law exists, therefore God exists. Is it that the meaning-laden character of creation requires a sort of designer? But that is the traditional teleological argument. Is it that the meaning-structure of reality requires an efficient cause? That is the traditional cosmological argument. Is it that meaning entails values, which in turn entail a valuer? That is the traditional values argument (74).

To the above quotation, especially in the final questions he asks regarding causality, design, cause and values, I would respond by saying, “No, that’s not the traditional teleological argument (or cosmological argument, or values argument), but it is like that argument.” I would remind Professor Frame that Van Til never rejected the traditional arguments—there is something to be said for the argument from value, to the argument from design, to the argument from cause—but the difference is that the traditional arguments have been formulated in such a way as to honor human autonomy. The transcendental argument doesn’t reason from cause in the world to one more cause, which, by the way, we call God, as the traditional cosmological argument does. The transcendental argument makes the case that if you don’t presuppose the Triune God, the concept of cause is unintelligible. When Frame says that transcendental arguments need “the help of…arguments of a more traditional kind,” he isn’t doing justice to Van Til’s distinction between the formulation and basis of transcendental and traditional arguments.

Despite this flaw, and others like it, for its clarity of style and its solid affirmation of the rejection of pretended neutrality, this book is an excellent resource for those who want to study presuppositional apologetics, though I couldn’t recommend it to the beginning student of presuppositionalism due to the misrepresentations of Van Til mentioned above. However, for those who already have some grounding in Van Til’s thought, this book should absolutely be on their shelves.

[1] Michael Martin, “The Transcendental Argument for the Nonexistence of God,” accessed June 17, 2015, http://infidels.org/library/modern/michael_martin/martin-frame/tang.html.

[2] Eddy D. Field III, review of Apologetics to the Glory of God by John M. Frame, in The Master’s Seminary Journal 7:2 (1996): 265.

[3] Steve W. Lemke, review of Apologetics to the Glory of God, by John M. Frame, in Southwestern Journal of Theology 38:3 (1996): 58.

 

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