Saturday, March 8, 2008

A WTS graduate?

I originally began this blog at the behest of others. I've become too busy to maintain it properly, but I will post as frequently as I can for the sake of those who might be benefitting from it. I have come across discussions where people are surpised to learn I'm a WTS grad and are wondering about who my main influence might have been at WTS. Well, that second question is a very easy question to answer: Prof. Oliphint.

I came to WTS after attending Liberty for a semester. There I took a semester of languages and apologetics. Before attending Liberty my apologetics diet was more or less restricted to healthy doses of Moreland and Craig. At Liberty, my teacher was Gary Habermas who knew these guys personally; we hit it off from the start. I did well in my classes, but after a semester of being down there, for a number of reasons (including to pursue the beautiful blonde who is the love of my life) I decided to move back to NJ.

An intense religious experience some years before initiated in me an awareness of Jesus Christ that I had not experienced before, after which I felt an irresistable compulsion to constantly read and memorize scripture and also to attend services regularly. The churches that I attended at the time emphasized inerrancy and used the doctrine to help distinguish themselves from the liberals. They weren't as interested in distinguishing themselves from non-Christians as they were in distinguishing themselves from other persons who called themselves Christians but were in spite of themselves working against the kingdom. [They were especially eager to distinguish themselves from the Catholics, many of them being ex-Catholics themselves.] The easiest way to identify these types of pseudo-Christians was to determine in each case how strongly they believed in God's Word, the Bible [preferrably the KJV of the Bible]. So anything that even smelled like evolution was a big deal, as was anything really that ever questioned the Bible in slightest detail. Emotionally and culturally I ate all this up, but intellectually I always had some reservations about it. Either way, door-knocking, tracts, homilies, teaching, the whole kit and kaboodle, whatever the church needed, I volunteered (I even wrote songs for junior church). The culmination of this very intense phase of my life was the time when I, at the advice of a mentoring pastor, gathered everything I owned (which wasn't much) in a small U-haul truck and drove down to Lynchburg to find a place to live while I learned to study God's Word in the original languages.

Ok, so now I'm admitted to WTS and they won't accept Habermas' apologetics course. I email Gary and ask him about it and he said that he was surprised to hear it because if the tables were turned he would certainly accept WTS's apologetics course from a WTS student transfering to Liberty. So I decided to investigate why WTS would not accept Habermas' course. (Gary has given approximately 1600 lectures at about 100 universities, colleges and seminaries in the States and abroad. Why in the world won't WTS accept one of his courses, especially a standard one like intro to apologetics?) So I looked around online and found at first that everyone who didn't think about the Christian faith the WTS did is an Arminian, or at least acting like one. As I searched around a little more, I found that it seems also to be the case that anyone who does not think about Christianity in the way that WTS does is an unbeliever, or at least acting like an unbeliever. Now the thing is, it is not so much that the rest of Christianity from its inception til now has gotten it all wrong that bothered me--I mean that would not have been so hard to swallow, for, interestingly enough, my fundamentalist surroundings had already opened me up to the idea. It was rather the spirit with which these claims were being made that troubled me--and the lengths to which some in the WTS crowd would go to argue on behalf of the presuppositionalist position.

Some WTS writers would claim that non-WTS believers were all acting like unbelievers. Not only that, but they seemed more than willing to go to the lengths of destroying one's faith to show they were right. For example, Greg Bahnsen had no problem pointing out to Christians that "Under cross-examination most of the considerations brought forth by evidentialists can be dismissed as overstated, gratuitous, or inconclusive." (See his "The Impropriety of Evidentially Arguing for the Resurrection.") The irony really, really bothered me. I found it very curious at the time that there were Christians here at this school, Christians who claimed that every other kind of Christian is a functional non-Christian, doing exactly what non-Christians really and actually do, what anti-Christians, especially, like to do: deliberately set out to tear down the arguments of the most prominent defenders of the faith regarding the existence of God and the resurrection. As far as I could see, these guys were not merely attempting to show flaws in arguments for some matter of tangential importance, either for the purpose of reconstructing it or for showing that the matter should be re-conceived. These guys were matter-of-factly declaring that the arguments for the resurrection of Christ do not hold water, period. They were essentially bullying people, almost exclusively fellow believers (who else would bother reading these guys except interested Christian inquirers?), into deciding between WTS presuppositionalism or no faith at all. "Ok," I thought to myself: "antithesis or no, now I know for myself, these WTS guys are not pastorally minded." Off to class I went.

So at WTS I was taking the standard fare of classes and I was especially excited to sign up as an audit for "Philosophy for Theologians," a ThM/PhD course that happened to be taught by Scot Oliphint. Louis P. Pojman's anthology was the text. One by one we discussed at length why the writer in question paled in comparison with van Til. I was disappointed to say the least. I stopped attending after the class where I complained about why we should content ourselves with doing each of the readings and hearing each of the presentations and have the main objective be, "Show how the writer in question does not meet the standard set by van Til." Who cares about van Til? Here we have the greatest minds to have ever written on these topics and we're going to keep going on and on about van Til? After all, Van Til didn't make it into the anthology, these guys did, and it seemed to me that the van Til argument as I understand it is a cosmological argument in disguise anyway. Well, the PhD students were intrigued by all that I said (not because they agreed, but because, ah! finally a different viewpoint!), but an animated Prof Oliphint turned to me and asked: "Do you believe in God?" I was taken by surprise and remained silent, not understanding the purpose of the question. "Do you believe in God?" he boomed again. "Yes...I cannot say no [I wanted to at this point, being extremely bothered by the class], something inside me prevents me." He then turned to the board and began an explanation to the effect that Aquinas' cosmological argument requires that God was not free to create, but rather that God had to create and that's not the kind of God we want.

I protested that the argument itself does not force such a position upon us and that he was importing other assumptions in. Furthermore, Van Til was pointing back to something to explain some facet of the universe, I argued. That's a cosmological argument he's groping for. He raised his voice and said that the cosmological argument is fallacious. If the cosmological argument is sound then God had to create and God did not have to create, so the argument is no good. I objected again that that did not follow. He told me that he had been teaching for many years and that logically the cosmological argument implies that God had to create and that heh could not not create. I deferred to him, saying that he was the expert and that he would know better than I whether what he was saying was logically necessary. I held my peace, but "Do I believe in God?" What kind of school is this?

I did not return to class the following week, but for the rest of my time there the PhD apologetics students--who always seemed to come out of the woodwork at the bookstore to see who they might proselytize for the mighty van Til--frequently wanted to strike up conversations with me, to practice their apologetic method. Every now and then, when they would make some argumentative mistake, they would say, you should talk with Oliphint, he is really good at this. At first, I tried to engage the PhD apologetics students. Lane, for example, had just gotten there from California and was trying to finish up his degree. [He was not in the class. The other students introduced me to him in the bookstore.] I remember citing Frame to Lane and he encouraged me to read Bahnsen instead, saying Bahnsen had a better grasp of van Til than Frame. [That was one thing that helped lose me as a conversation partner, any time I tried to reference van Til myself or even invoke an authority on him, they would say that I am misinterpreting him.]

Now during the course of the conversations with these other guys, I would often be called an unbeliever. One time to one of the bookstore workers I laughed and said, "So you sitting over there can somehow spiritually come over here into my soul and see whether I am saved or not. Don't you think that's a little arrogant?" He said that that's what Paul did and that that's what they can do. [Ironically enough, there was another group of students--and these guys had no relation (to my knowledge) with these PhD guys I'm talking about now, nor did they know of our conversations--who were very into Jonathan Edwards. One of them was insisting upon annointing me with the spirit of assurance of salvation that Jonathan Edwards talked about and said that once he did, I should be sure not to abuse it, because once I was annointed, I would never be able to doubt my eternal salvation. I remember this guy being very persistent, but I still refused. He approached me two more times during my time at WTS.] Another time, two PhD apologetics students were disagreeing with a point I was making and I decided to say to them that they were only disagreeing with me because they were unwilling to let go of their sin. Their eyes opened wide--and the look they gave me! I said, "How do you like it? It doesn't feel so good, does it, when someone all of a sudden says to you that the reason you disagree with him is because you're in rebellion against God and because you don't want to confess your sin!" Ah, those were the days; I'm glad they are behind me now. [You can imagine the impression that gave me of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven when I moved on to ICS...]

In any event, the whole experience of those few weeks in Oliphint's class in the context of my cultural shock between two apologetic cultures gave me a brand new lease on the faith: Christians deny (and sometimes attack) what other Christians hold dearest--that's the way it's always been and that's the way it'll always be. As the semesters went by, my intellectual doubts were raging with regard to inerrancy while my cultural and emotional commitment to the doctrine and the communities that helped hold that doctrine together had all but eroded. Yet to my consternation, the same was happening to some of my friends at the seminary. While I was busy moving along on my own journey, they were moving along on theirs and began noticing an acute, spiritual dissonance between their expectations of scripture and the phenomena of scripture. The practice of reading scripture in Greek and Hebrew while still trying to theorize about scripture in terms of inerrancy and all the rest was proving more than difficult. When one experiences the phenomena first hand, they said, one cannot ignore the details they encounter. What's more, the theories were not encountered first hand in a similar manner, so the students were very interested in reexamining the theory in their classes in light of the scriptural phenomena.

But, unfortunately, the theorists were not budging and were quite unwilling to stand for any talk about phenomena. Their focus was on the tradition, the WCF tradition, that is, conjoined with van Til. I had some very painful conversations with students about how in the world they were ever going to get ordained, and once ordained, how were they to get along in that world. That's when I decided to approach the dean of students at WTS in order to gain permission to speak at chapel to try to encourage some of the students I had gotten to know. The dean of students informed me that you need to be ordained to speak at chapel and also did not think that a talk during chapel would be all that effective. So I did the only thing that came to mind as an alternative: I wrote an open letter to the faculty and administration at WTS and mailed it to the top three administrators at the school. I pinpointed van Til and inerrancy as the source of my acquaintances' troubles and asked if they were even aware that a number of students were experiencing such existential crises. My letter was suggesting that the seminary's foundational principles were askew. I even enumerated how many of the WTS faculty had been trained at WTS, an unhelpful pattern of spiritual incest, I said. In retrospect, I muse: Even on the off chance that some of them thought I was right (which is, of course, unlikely), who could ever publicly admit it? [What can one say publicly in conservative evangelicalism?] After ICS, I thought to publish a book on the subject of how inerrancy might be setting students up for a fall. [I bet those people who ask "How can he be a WTS grad?" and "Who was his main influence there at WTS?" have not bothered to read the book.] There's got to be more students out there wrestling with this stuff. As long as there are, I'll try to keep blogging.

In any event, I hope this helps answer the question, "Who was my main influence at WTS?" which I interpret to mean, "What happened to this guy at WTS?" To some, it may seem I have fallen to the dark side. They might be thinking, "It's nothing less than a shame that that guy graduated from WTS." I, of course, am persuaded that I have seen the light. Now, I had to give up my hope's of doing some kind of ministry in an official capacity and of teaching theology and scripture professionally in order to get to the point where I am now, but it's certainly much brighter here in terms of being able to ask honest questions and in terms of being able to look myself in the mirror. No dark clouds following me around. No fundamentalist enforcers itching to turn me in. I'll take that kind of light over darkness any day. Hell, even if it's darkness, I much prefer it to the light:

If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!