RPM, Volume 14, Number 48, November 25 to December 1, 2012

A Review of Clifford McManis' Biblical Apologetics (2012)

By Jamin Hübner
Instructor of Bible and Theology, Librarian, John Witherspoon College Author, The Portable Presuppositionalist
Contact realapologetics@gmail.com

It was only a matter of time before someone wrote a book entitled "Biblical Apologetics." Professor Clifford McManis is the author, publishing Biblical Apologetics: Advancing and Defending the Gospel of Christ (foreword by John MacArthur) earlier this year. He attempts to restore the proper place of the gospel in apologetics as well as refute the many faults in traditional apologetic methodologies.

The book is essentially presuppositional in nature and the majority of its arguments can be found in the works of Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen and K. Scott Oliphint, which are heavily cited throughout (especially Bahnsen). However, McManis adds his own unique twist to the subject, which is sometimes for better, but often for worse.

The book makes some positive contributions to the field of apologetic methodology, such as specific criticisms of Dr. William Lane Craig's apologetic, an emphasis on "internal apologetics," a reexamination of the nature of "truth," and a reexamination of the nature of saving faith. However, as others (in unpublished reviews) have rightly pointed out, 1

McManis often oversimplifies and overstates his case in a way that may do more harm than good.

Clearing the Table

The majority of McManis's book essentially tries to clear the table, correcting a number of misconceptions that relate to the field of apologetics. As we might expect, then, only one chapter directly addresses a topic often debated in Christians' defense of the faith (nine, "Evil? No Problem for God!"), while the rest addresses methodology. Below is a summary of chapters.

McManis begins by examining the definition of "apologetics," which he contends has not so been accurately defined. He argues that ten traits separate traditional definitions of apologetics from a truly biblical definition of apologetics: rationalism, philosophy, natural theology, pre-evangelism, selectivity, formalism, probability, appeasement, novelty, and obfuscation. All of these things, McManis argues, have no place in a truly biblical apologetic. 2

He then moves on to correcting misunderstandings of 1 Peter 3:15-16, ("…be prepared to make a defense…"). Like Frame, Bahnsen, and others before him, McManis points out the importance of "honoring Christ the Lord as holy," an important phrase that is often overlooked by traditional apologists. 3

He also shows that merely appealing to the word apologia and its origins does not make automatically apologetics a practice in philosophy.

The third chapter shifts to the subject of "internal apologetics," which the author believes is "missing in action." What McManis means by "internal apologetics" is explained by his quotation of John MacArthur: "When I came out of Seminary…I never thought I would spend most of my life on the broader evangelical front defending the gospel and sound doctrine." 4

Christian apologetics, then, is not simply to be understood as a defense from external ideas and teachers, but from false teachings and teachers within the professing church. McManis appeals especially to Acts 20 and Jude 3-4 in support of this conclusion.

Chapter four exposes the "myth of natural theology," which generally falls in line with the classic Reformed critique of natural theology (though with some misconceptions, see below).

Chapter five critiques standard philosophical definitions of "truth." McManis contends that it is harmful for Christians to simply assume what are essentially secular definitions of truth (e.g., "that which correspond to reality"), especially at the neglect of the fact of God, who is truth. Thus, the first of his four "glaring deficiencies in the typical traditionalists' definition of truth" is that "they do not include God or the Bible in their definition of truth. They allege truth can be defined without reference to God." 5

Chapter six is entitled "Harmartiological Hangovers: Roadblocks to Unbelief." Here, McManis essentially reaffirms the doctrine of total depravity and makes a case for the noetic effects of sin. These theological teachings, as McManis and presuppositional (or "covenantal") apologists would argue, have been overlooked or altogether rejected in traditional apologetic methodologies.

Chapter seven is a unique look at the place of philosophy in apologetics, which McManis basically believes is none. Philosophy, as the chapter title indicates, is simply "the love of big words." McManis paints broad strokes outlining the place of philosophy in the history of the church, beginning with the early church fathers and then moving towards the Reformation and beyond. He attempts to restore apologetics under a theological discipline as opposed to being an exercise in secular philosophy.

In an interesting shift of gears, McManis directs his next chapter towards a critique of the three-fold definition of saving faith, noticia, fiducia, and assensus. McManis finds this definition of saving faith both unbiblical and absent from the teaching of the Reformers. 6

Thus, this "trichotomous" understanding of saving faith confuses the Christian apologist in how unbelievers are converted.

Chapter nine deals with the place of evidence in apologetics, and chapter ten the "problem of evil." The book concludes with chapter eleven, which reasserts that Christian apologetics is part and part of preaching the gospel. Apologetics and evangelism cannot be separated.

Reviewer's Evaluation

It is difficult to find fault with McManis's overarching goal and the basic conclusions outlined above. The basic premise is correct: the Christian's concern should be doing apologetics according to what God says in His Word, as opposed to what creatures say in the world. This goal manifests itself in many fruitful ways, such as in an emphasis on the gospel and the power and necessity of Scripture. Against the backdrop of ordinary epistemological definitions, it is also refreshing to see in a book on apologetics truth defined as "that which corresponds to reality as defined and determined by God" and "the tests of truth are God Himself, the Holy Spirit, Jesus, Scripture, and the gospel." 7

Though it is unfortunate, Roger Nicole's essay, "The Biblical Concept of Truth" from Scripture and Truth did not enter the discussion, since it would have been most beneficial. 8

McManis's personal testimony about his college classes under William Lane Craig and his dropping out of Craig's theology course were thought-provoking. (It also may explain McManis's passionate, continual refutation of Craig's methodology throughout the Biblical Apologetics). Nevertheless, McManis tends to oversimplify and overstate his case in many corners of his argument. This is unfortunate since it may reaffirm various Christians' misconceptions about presuppositionalists being excessively dogmatic, narrow, and uninterested in any kind of meaningful dialogue with contemporary philosophy. Just a handful of examples will suffice to demonstrate.

McManis rightfully argues that the apologetics mentioned in 1 Peter 3:15 and elsewhere is directed towards the lay Christian. The "apologist" is you, the average Christian. McManis says, "In the New Testament there is no special office for the select few who are uniquely called to serve as 'apologists'. All Christians are called to practice apologetics as a way of life." 9

But in making this argument McManis continually looks down upon the idea of "formal" or "professional" apologetics. He says "apologetics is not a formal discipline reserved for special, pre-planned formal debates between the elite academically astute as traditional apologetics at times tend to portray," 10

and "traditional apologetics can give the impression that apologetics is reserved for special occasions, planned in advanced, whereby two predetermined heavyweight intellectuals are scheduled to battle it out like gladiators in the coliseum of a formal, televised debate in front of a live, under-educated audience." 11

At no point does McManis acknowledge the benefit of academically trained "apologists." Readers are left wondering about the legitimacy of apologetics ministries (e.g., Alpha and Omega Ministries, Stand to Reason, RealApologetics.org, etc.), and what to make of Apollos in Acts 18 (who, oddly enough, doesn't appear in Biblical Apologetics). In contrast, K. Scott Oliphint's words appear more balanced: "Peter does not say that apologetics is reserved exclusively for the professionals. There may be a need for those who are trained specifically in apologetics (I hope there is!). But the focus here is on every Christian." 12

Second, McManis rightfully argues that apologetics is not merely "external," but also "internal," but in making this argument (from Acts 20 in this case), McManis says "the work of apologetics is first an d 13

foremost 'internal,' safeguarding the church, the people of God, the precious Bride of Christ." 14

But, this isn't necessarily true – especially if we give adequate weight to 1 Peter 3:15-16 which specifically says that our defense is "so that [??a] when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame." Furthermore, even if McManis is right, he must at least acknowledge the broader context so that "apologetics [would be] first and foremost 'internal'" for the first century church. It may be the case that a church in America today is actually healthy and doesn't have regular attacks from the inside out. The pastor and congregation may even be doing evangelism to Mormons or Watchtower Society members. "Apologetics," then" would be rarely "internal" and primarily external. In short, it is an oversimplification to say "the work of apologetics is first and foremost 'internal.'"

Third, McManis misconstrues some texts of Scripture in his apologetic for internal apologetics. He says, "Like Acts 20, Jude 3-4 is a five-star passage on apologetics. I have a stack of books standing over two-feet high on Christian apologetics. Not one of them refers to Jude 3-4 when discussing apologetics. This is mind boggling." 15

His third exegetical point of the text is, "Jude says that apologetics is fundamentally internal." 16

But, when one actually looks at the text, Jude says no such thing:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jd 3-4, ESV)

Jude encourages his audience to "contend for the faith" because, in their particular church, some "crept in unnoticed" and perverted "the grace of our God into sensuality." Is this contending for the faith against the backdrop of error "apologetics"? Perhaps. But is that the same as saying that "apologetics is fundamentally internal" for all churches for all time? Perhaps not. If the situation were different (like it is for countless churches in existence today), Jude could have easily said "contend for the faith…some of you are being intellectual lazy" or "contend for the faith…ungodly people are causing you to sin" or "contend for the faith…your God is watching" or any other number of reasons to uphold the truth. Indeed, the call to defend the gospel does not always need to arise from internal ecclesiastical problems. Thus, it is an overstatement to force Judges 3-4 to support the conclusion that "internal apologetics" is "primary," or that "apologetics is fundamentally internal." Little is "mind-boggling."

Fourth, McManis misrepresents presuppositionalists and their arguments. McManis is particularly critical of John Frame's methodology 17

(and not concerning the transcendental argument). In a discussion on general revelation, McManis says:

History is also routinely included in many definitions of what general revelation constitutes. But not one of the seven biblical texts above teaches that history is part of the rubric of general revelation. This is particularly important point to keep in mind when scrutinizing the legitimacy of traditional apologetics which presupposes history to be general revelation. Presuppositionalist, John Frame, confuses the issue here when he says, "God has revealed himself plainly in nature and historical events." In context, he puts ordinary history on the same plane as general revelation. But history cannot be generally revelation, for its contents are not universally available for all people for all time…History is not revelation; history is discovery. Revelation is initiated by God alone. The study of history is initiated by man." 18

It is not clear what is meant by "ordinary history," or why McManis interprets Frame in that way. But, whatever the case, it is clear that McManis makes the common error of confusing history with the past. 19

History is not the past, though the two are often conflated. The past is what has objectively happened (e.g., "events," like the falling of a meteor). History is the human study of the past, the subjective retelling and interpretation of events (e.g., the story of the meteor how it fell, its origins, speed, burning up, etc.). Frame is talking about the past, for he clearly says "historical events." McManis, however, confuses this with the study of history.

So McManis is right when he says "the study of history is initiated by man," but Frame isn't talking about this at all. God reveals himself in nature – which includes things that happen in creation ("historical events"). In fact, one could easily argue that McManis's argument contradicts itself since the heavens proclaiming the handiwork of God in Psalm 19 (one of the "seven biblical texts" McManis refers to) is a historical event. Countless other events qualify as general revelation. The process of breaking down food into energy in the human body is just as much a revelation of God's genius and wisdom as the fact of inanimate and impersonal objects like the stars in the sky or mountains on the earth.

If McManis rejects this distinction between history and the past and asserts that his reading of Frame as faithful, then it is clear that McManis is critiquing not just Frame, but Reformed theologians across the board. John Calvin speaks at length about the historical events and conditions of human persons, and how they reveal God's power:

His power shows itself clearly when the ferocity of the impious, in everyone's opinion unconquerable, is overcome in a moment, their arrogance vanquished, their strongest defenses destroyed, their javelins and armor shattered, their strength broken, their machinations overturned, and themselves fallen of their own weight; and when their audacity, which exalted them above heaven, lays them low even to the center of the earth; when, conversely the humble are raised up from the dust, and the needy are lifted up from the dung heap (Ps. 113:7); the oppressed and afflicted are rescued from their extreme tribulation; the despairing are restored to good hope; the unarmed, few and weak, snatch victory from the armed, many and strong. Indeed, his wisdom manifests his excellence when he dispenses everything at the best opportunity; when he confounds all wisdom of the world [cf. 1 Cor 1:20]; when "he catches the crafty in their own craftiness" [1 Cor. 3:19 p.; cf. Job 5:13]. 20

Herman Bavinck, likewise, said in his Reformed Dogmatics:

God's revelation began in creation and continues in the maintenance and governance of all things. He reveals himself in nature all around us, displays in it his eternal power and divinity, and in blessings and judgments alternately shows this goodness and wrath (Job 36; 37; Ps. 29; 33:5; 65…). He reveals himself in the history of nations and persons (Deut. 32:8; Ps 33:10…). He discloses himself in the heart and conscience of every individual (Job 32:8…). This revelation of God is general, perceptible as such; and intelligible to every human. 21

In brief, there is much room for reevaluation in McManis's approach. In another section of his book, McManis also criticizes Cornelius Van Til, saying that he majored in the realm of theological prolegomena and sophisticated philosophical ratiocinations rather than in biblical exegesis and theology. In his classic work on apologetics, The Defense of the Faith, out of 300 pages he dedicated only two pages to gospel matters under the title of, "The Doctrine of Salvation." Amazingly in this short section he never explains the gospel. He never refers to any Bible verses either and he fails to mention expected fundamental soteriological terms of the gospel including "justify," "righteous," "law," "punish," "propitiation," "forgiveness," "eternal life," "heaven," "cross," "believe," "faith," "grace," "love," "hell," and "repent." He mentions the word "gospel" but never mentions Christ's death, resurrection, burial or ascension. 22

Much of what is said here is untrue. From the very pages that McManis is referring to, Van Til says "For that reason Christ told the disciples it would profit them if he should ascend to heaven. It would only be after his ascent that the Spirit could come and finish the work that Christ had begun to do while on earth." 23

Clearly, Van Til did mention Christ's ascension. Pages earlier in the same chapter (though in a different section) Van Til says "We say that Christ arose from the grave" and speaks about "the resurrection." 24

McManis's representation of Van Til doesn't seem very honest.

This is further confirmed from the fact that the context of Van Til's work is being ignored. The chapter is entitled "the structure of my thought." The purpose is to highlight some of Van Til's unique contributions, especially as they relate to historic Reformed orthodoxy and traditional apologetic methodologies. Despite the title of the section, this is not the place we would expect a systematic treatment of the doctrine of salvation or a long list of biblical citations. It is unnecessary to rehash the doctrine of, for example, justification and the imputation of Christ's righteousness, for these are things assumed (not neglected, as McManis would have it). Even so, one can find plenty about the gospel in Van Til's work, especially Introduction to Systematic Theology and The Intellectual Challenge of the Gospel. Although, Van Til (and countless others) may not ever meet McManis's standards for how often one should use theological terms like "propitiation," "righteous," "justify," and so forth. But it is certainly possible that Van Til is talking about the truths of the gospel without using all of the terms McManis would prefer (indeed, one wonders if Jesus and Peter themselves even qualify for McManis's biblical apologetic, since one can easily find them lacking to use the terms "justify," "propitiation," "cross," and "righteous" in various portions of the gospels/their written works). Whatever the case is, McManis is again very imbalanced.

Fifth, McManis misunderstands general revelation and natural theology. He says "General revelation is always rejected, or suppressed, by unbelieving sinners." This isn't quite right. The knowledge and truth that the unbelievers have in Romans 1 is suppressed. They may or may not reject the specific general revelation that is being talked about in the text. Every non-Christian theist who acknowledges a powerful and wise Creator is testimony to that fact. Yes, the knowledge obtained by the unbeliever from general revelation is not sufficient to become Christian and is not the basis of our apologetic. But that is not the same as saying "general revelation is always rejected, or suppressed, by unbelieving sinners."

Likewise, McManis also oversteps when saying, "there is no such thing as natural theology." 25

Yes there is. Whether one understands "natural theology" to be the immediate knowledge of God revealed through nature and creation (Rom 1) that resides in every human person, or the theology constructed by the unbeliever's reasoning abilities (or inabilities), there is such thing as natural theology. There is a difference between arguing that natural theology is useless to the unbeliever and should not be the basis of our apologetic and arguing that natural theology doesn't exist at all. McManis does not seem aware of this distinction.

McManis criticizes Hugh Ross by saying, "His website declares that 'an honest study of nature…can prove useful in a person's search for truth.' Such an assertion denies the truth of Romans 1 where Paul declared that unbelievers always reject the truth about God found in natural revelation." 26

On the contrary, Romans 1 in no way rejects that "an honest study of nature…can prove useful in a person's search for truth." Perhaps what McManis means to say is that there is no such thing as "an honest study of nature" if you haven't committed yourself to the Lordship of Christ (like the unbeliever in Romans 1). That we can be sure of. Total depravity and the noetic effects of sin have left human persons radically corrupt and bent on deceiving themselves in order to escape God and His moral standards. But that's not the same as saying that an honest study for truth is useless. On the contrary, if only our unbelieving friends would study nature (and Scripture) honestly and sincerely, they might they come closer to the truths of the gospel.

Sixth, McManis overstates his case in critiquing philosophy (chapter 7), essentially throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Broadly speaking, the typical Reformed theologian (a) points out the harm of poor philosophy (following Col 2:8), (b) seeks to restore the importance of theology over philosophy, 27

and (c) seeks demonstrate the importance of biblical studies over abstraction and speculation. 28

McManis, however, seems to criticize philosophy in general. In the chapter entitled "Philosophy: The Love of Big Words," McManis essentially mocks Christian apologists for being too complex in their argumentation. He finds some of the most abstract, sophisticated, and articulate parts of apologists' arguments (from Moreland, Sproul, Plantinga, Van Til and Alston), quotes them side by side, and lumps them together saying, "All of the above excerpts supposedly are examples of giving an account to the unbeliever of the hope that is in the believer (1 Peter 3:15). But I would suggest that Peter, nor God, never [sic] intended the Christian hope to be so complicated, ethereal, theoretical or accessible to the average person." 29

Surely McManis has a point (the apologist can get too sidetracked into the abstract and sophisticated), but surely he has overstated it (essentially asserting that there is no use for deep articulation, and Christians should avoid the complex and just speak in biblical terms or layman's terms). If we are consistent with McManis, then we should cite parts of Athanasius speaking about homousious, parts of Turretin's discussion on God's knowledge, parts of various Intelligent Design proponents demonstrating the scientific impossibilities of Darwinism, parts of a textual commentary and its explanation (using symbols) of a New Testament textual apparatus, and countless portions of exegetical commentaries (much content of which is not in English) – because most Christians would find them equally "complicated." Indeed, it is clear that the argument being made in this section of Biblical Apologetics is highly subjective. McManis may not be able to understand or see the usefulness of certain arguments, but other Christians certainly can.

Aside from oversimplifications and overstatements, Biblical Apologetics may also suffer from being consistently and thoroughly biblical. It has already been demonstrated that Romans 1 and Jude 3-4 have been more or less misused – even though sound exposition is precisely what McManis is aiming for. But consider also that if Jude 3-4 and Acts 20 merit pages of exposition, then how much more would Apollos the apologist in Acts 18, and Paul's apologetic ministry in Acts 19:8-10? But neither of these (relevant) texts appear in any of the 640 pages of McManis's work. It is unclear why one should think the absence of Jude 3-4 in apologetics books is any more "mind-boggling" than the absence of both Acts 18:20-24 and Acts 19:8-10 in a book entitled Biblical Apologetics.

Conclusion

One step forward, one step backward. Biblical Apologetics has value insofar as research materials have been organized and gathered into an accessible volume. The work legitimately corrects some imbalances and oversights in the field of Christian apologetics. However, it adds little to what has already been said by Bahnsen and Oliphint. Due to substantial setbacks, it might also alienate Christian scholars from their more philosophical thinking brothers and sisters, and give those suspicious of Van Til and "presuppositional apologetics" all the more reason to remain traditional and evidential. Biblical discussions do appear, though one awaits perhaps a more systematic presentation of the biblical data. 30


Notes:


1 See Chris Bolt, "Two New Apologetics Books," Choosing Hats. http://www.choosinghats.com/2012/03/two-new-apologetics-books/ (accessed August 1, 2012); Mike Robinson, "Clifford McManis' Biblical Apologetics: Advancing & Defending the Gospel of Christ: Review," The Lord God Exists. http://thelordgodexists.com/2012/04/clifford-mcmanis-biblical-apologetics-advancing-defending-the-gospel-of-christ-review/ (August 1, 2012).

2 Clifford McManis, Biblical Apologetics: Advancing and Defending the Gospel of Christ (Xlibris, 2012), 35.

3 Ibid., 78-81.

4 Ibid., 109.

5 Ibid., 221.

6 Ibid., 373-74.

7 Ibid., 253.

8 See D.A. Carson and John Woodbridge, eds., Scripture and Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992) ch 10.

9 Biblical Apologetics, 104.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., 97.

12 K. Scott Oliphint, The Battle Belongs to the Lord (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2003), 33.

14 Ibid., 11

15 Ibid., 116.

16 Ibid.,

17 See page 162, 173, 290-91, 458, etc.

18 Ibid., 162-165.

19 See Arthur Marwick, The Nature of History, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Lyceum, 1989), ch 1.

20 John Calvin, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, trans., Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 1.5.8.

21 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 1:310, emphasis mine.

22 Biblical Apologetics, 528.

23 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008), 40.

24 Ibid., 28.

25 Biblical Apologetics, 138.

26 Biblical Apologetics, 189.

27 See, for example, K. Scott Oliphint, Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006).

28 As Bavinck rightly notes, "Scripture does not reason in the abstract. It does not make God the conclusion of a syllogism, leaving it to us to ask whether we think the argument compelling or not. Instead, it speaks with authority." Reformed Dogmatics, 1:76.

29 Biblical Apologetics, 367.

30 See Jamin Hübner, An Introduction to Apologetics (forthcoming, 2013).

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