Social Network Links
Powered by Squarespace
Search the Riddleblog
"Amillennialism 101" -- Audio and On-Line Resources


Living in Light of Two Ages



Thomas Reid on "Common Sense" (Part Three)

Part Two

Reid on “Common Sense”

For Reid, first principles and common sense are closely related.  In Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, Reid writes, “first principles, principles of common sense, common notions, [or] self-evident truths” are “no sooner understood than they are believed.  The judgment follows the apprehension of them necessarily, and both are equally the work of nature, and the result of our original powers” (Reid, Intellectual Powers, in Works of, 1:452).  Previously, Reid identified common sense as “necessary to all men for their being and preservation, and therefore it is unconditionally given to all men by the Author of Nature” (Reid, Intellectual Powers, in Works of, 1:412).

More specifically, common sense refers to “the consent of ages and nations, of the learned and unlearned, [which] ought to have great authority with regard to first principles, where every man is a competent judge” (Reid, Intellectual Powers, in Works of, 1:464).  Such principles are identified as common sense because they are common to humanity and held by all people across time and cultures.  Reid grounds his belief in common sense in an empirically justified generalization that this is the necessary state of affairs for humans to know anything–especially that the external world exists.  To put it simply; this is “common sense” because it is demonstrably common to all of humanity.  If all people see an object, and then universally assign the same qualities to that object, without any prior explanation or self-reflection required before doing so, this can only because their knowledge of that object is “true.”  All people instinctively think this way, unless convinced to doubt this knowledge by teachers of the ideal theory.  

While Reid argued common sense was virtually self-evident because universal (in this regard, Reid is a foundationalist of a sort), his critics then and now, attacked him at this very point by claiming his common sense philosophy was nothing more than an appeal to majority opinion–the “wisdom of the vulgar.”  If true, this chips away at the very idea of the supposed universality of Reid’s first principles.  If common sense is really nothing but popular opinion verified by counting noses, and by observing how the uneducated rabble make decisions, then such first principles amount to nothing of value in settling truth claims.  No philosopher worthy of the name would dare make such an appeal.  

But Reid anticipated this line of criticism and as a good Newtonian, made clear that his first principles were actually empirical and psychological observations, reflecting the way people actually think and interact with the world around them.  To give this point some teeth, at several places, Reid appeals to universal elements in the structure of human language (anticipating the later work of G. E. Moore and J. L. Austin).  Reid points out that all human language is built upon a distinction between the active and passive voice, and that all languages distinguish between the qualities of things, and the things themselves.  This goes a long way toward making Reid’s point.   

To put it another way, Reid’s first principles are not true because most people accept them.  Nor are they true because this is how the common man or woman expresses themselves when asked about how they know what they know.  Rather, people think and interact with the world as they do, precisely because this is how their creator has made them to think and act.  Reid, to my knowledge does not refer to the “divine image” while discussing these common sense capabilities–although he does speak of the divine image in humanity when discussing moral liberty, and conscience (Reid, Active Powers of Man, in Works of, II.564, 585, 615).  But are not the abilities given us by our creator something akin to humans reflecting the image of their creator?  We are born with the capacity to utilize these first principles without any self-reflection, or without being able to give any reasons for doing so.  This is how God made us, and is his way of enabling and equipping his creatures to live in the world which he has made.

Part Four


Forty Years Ago Today . . .

Micki and I were married forty years ago today.  It takes a truly remarkable woman to put up with me for all these years!

God has blessed us with good health, a happy marriage, a good life, many joys and few sorrows, and with two wonderful sons, Dave and Mark.  Our most recent family photo shows Micki and me with our son Dave (he's got the beard and is with his girlfriend, Nancy Robles), and Mark and his fiance, Brianna Lynch.

I am so very thankful!


Thomas Reid on "First Principles" (Part Two)


Part One: Who Was Thomas Reid?


Reid on "First Principles"

The great conundrum faced by philosophers since time immemorial is the question “how do we know what we know?”  This question falls under the sub-category of philosophy known as epistemology.  Those who contend that all human knowledge arises through our senses are called “empiricists.”  Those who believe that our knowledge is grounded in our ideas (i.e. our mental powers and state of mind) are often identified as “idealists.”  

Enter the much better known contemporary of Reid, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1722-1804), whose volume Critique of Pure Reason, was first published in 1781.  What made Kant’s philosophy so important and ground-breaking was that Kant made a compelling case that while all knowledge begins with sense perception–the data received via our senses–the knowing process does not end there.  Without the mind having the innate ability to act upon these sensations so as to transform them into knowledge, the world would remain unintelligible to us despite the data coming from our senses.  Kant believed that there are specific mental categories which owe nothing to experience, and which are hard-wired into us which shape those sensations we do receive.  

These so-called a priori categories (i.e., they are in place before we experience the world) include notions of time and space, logic, and mathematics.  A creature without such categories would have the same sensations and see the same appearances we do, but would have an entirely different experience of them.  My dog and I see the same tree.  Since he does not have the mental categories I have, we experience the same tree quite differently.  According to Kant, we see not “the thing in itself,” but only the thing as interpreted by our minds according to the a priori categories.  This is reflected in Kant’s well-known distinction between the noumenal (the world beyond experience but which can reasonably be inferred from experience) and the phenomenal (the world which is actually experienced and accessed through the senses).

Reid, it has been said, worked backward from Hume’s skepticism to ask, “what would be necessary” if we are to know the world as it is?  Reid wonders “what capacities must the human mind possess in order to truly know the external world?”  He classifies these capacities as “first principles” which he believes are grounded in the so-called “common sense” of humanity.  These principles are simply assumed and cannot be proven.  We utilize them without any prior reflection upon them, nor can we “prove” them, because to do so we must utilize the very capabilities we are trying to prove.  Although people universally reason from these first principles even if they do not believe in God, whenever we seek to get behind “common sense” to discover why things are the way they are, Reid argues there is no way to explain the existence of these first principles and the common sense of humanity apart from God who created the world and has designed us to live and act within that world.  Reid writes,

I thank the Author of my being, who bestowed it upon me before the eyes of my reason were opened, and still bestows it upon me, to be my guide where reason leaves me in the dark.  And now I yield to the direction of my senses, not from instinct only, but from confidence and trust in a faithful and beneficent Monitor, grounded upon the experience of his paternal care and goodness.  In all this, I deal with the Author of my being, no otherwise than I thought it reasonable to deal with my parents and tutors.  I believed by instinct whatever they told me, long before I had the idea of a lie, or thought of the possibility of their deceiving me (Reid, Inquiry, in Works of, I.184).

The theistic implications of Reid’s first principles ought not be overlooked.  We reason via common sense because our Creator has designed us to do so.

Immanuel KantSince Kant too was awakened through his interactions with Hume, we should not be surprised that both Reid and Kant were chasing the same goal.  Reid wanted to challenge Hume’s skepticism, as did Kant–albeit Kant’s method of doing so was quite different than Reid’s.  Reid appealed to those things assumed by all humans in all ages and across all cultures–identifying those first principles which ground human knowledge in the real world–and in not mere experience or in mental categories.  This makes Reid a “common sense realist”–we do indeed apprehend the world as it is through ordinary daily activity.  Reid really ought not be classified as a pure empiricist, although he does fit within the empiricist camp.  Kant, on the other hand, thought the best way to do this was to define the limits of human reason by identifying those a priori mental categories which transform mere appearances of things into our knowledge of them.  Kant’s so-called “transcendental idealism” sets out the premise that knowledge begins when we receive appearances of external things via sense perception, but we cannot regard these appearances as objects of knowledge until our minds organize these appearances through a set of fixed a priori categories already present in the mind.

The critical issue with which Reid and Kant were wrestling is that we all have to start the knowing process somewhere.  But where, exactly?  We must assume certain things to be true and already in place in our minds from our earliest years of self-consciousness and prior to experience of the world, otherwise our sensations would remain just that–mere sensations and never pass into knowledge.  

Reid identified two types of first principles–necessary (certain) and contingent (probable) which provide the a priori framework to necessary understand the external world (Reid, Intellectual Powers, in Works of, 1:435).  Those first principles Reid identified as “necessary” (i.e., it is impossible to deny them) include logic (i.e., the law of non-contradiction) certain rules of grammar, mathematics, morals (unjust actions cause harm) and metaphysical realities–what we perceive actually exists.  Reid is certain that God would never allow an evil demon to deceive us as Descartes once wondered.  Reid also believed that whatever exists has a cause–in direct opposition to Hume’s skepticism about accepting things as “true” which he could not actually observe.
Those first principles which Reid identified as “contingent” include things such as consciousness of our own person (self-awareness), knowledge of the external world, that what I remember really did happen, that my personal identity truly exists as far back as I can remember, and that those things which I see and perceive really do exist.  Reid also argued that we have power as human agents to determine our own actions (we learn about causality, through our own agentic powers, as when infants, we strike the mobile above our heads which causes it to move), that we are able to tell truth from error, we know that other minds exist, and that human testimony is ordinarily true unless we have good reasons to believe otherwise.  Reid added that the future course of the world will be similar to what it has been in the past.

Reid was clear as to the importance he placed upon such first principles.

All reasoning must be from first principles, and for first principles no other reason can be given but this, that, by the constitution of our nature, we are under a necessity of assenting to them.  Such principles are part of our constitution, no less than the power of thinking:  reason can neither make nor destroy them; nor can it do anything without them. . . . A mathematician cannot prove the truth of his axioms, nor can he prove anything unless he takes them for granted.  We cannot prove the existence of our minds, nor even of our thoughts and sensations.  A historian, or a witness, can prove nothing unless it be taken for granted that the memory and senses may be trusted (Reid, Inquiry, in Works of, 1:130).

To deny these principles, Reid thinks, is absurd.

We must start the knowing process by assuming certain capacities are in place whether we can prove this or not.  Reid begins with first principles, both necessary and contingent.  Kant, on the other hand, rejects Reid’s realism, instead contending that we cannot see things as they really are, only our perceptions of them mediated through his famous “categories.”

Part Three


Who Was Thomas Reid and Why Does His "Common Sense Philosophy" Still Matter (Part One)

Reid's Official PortraitThomas Reid (April 10, 1710 – October 7, 1796) is best known as the founder and principal philosopher of “common sense,” or more properly, “Scottish Common Sense Realism” (SCSR).  Reid was highly respected and quite influential in the days of the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment, but the popularity of Reid and his common sense philosophy quickly faded in subsequent generations.  Although destined for relative obscurity, Reid’s influence did remain strong in several quarters.  Of late, there has been a Reidian resurgence of sorts, reflected in several volumes about Reid’s philosophy, the publication of a new critical edition of his works (by the University of Edinburgh), and through favorable treatment by so-called “Reformed Epistemologists,” Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff.  

The purpose of this series is to introduce Thomas Reid’s philosophy of “common sense,” which, I believe, has been far too long misunderstood and therefore neglected, and which still has an important role to play in formulating a “common sense” apologetic for the Christian religion–an apologetic which centers in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ as Christianity’s chief truth claim.

The Life and Times of Thomas Reid

Reid was born and raised in Strachan, near Aberdeen, Scotland.  The son of a Church of Scotland minister (the Rev. Lewis Reid, 1676-1762), Reid’s mother was Margaret Gregory, one of twenty-nine children, and from the famed Gregory clan.  Her first cousin, James Gregory (1638–1675), was a respected mathematician and astronomer who invented the reflecting telescope.  Reid began attending Marischal College in Aberdeen in 1723, and graduated Master in 1726.  Reid was only 16, but this was typical for the time.  Reid was greatly influenced by his teacher, George Turnbull.  Turnbull was a follower of idealist philosopher Bishop George Berkeley–Reid later came to oppose the Bishop with great vigor, as he did the empiricist philosophers John Locke and David Hume.  During his time at Marischal, Reid became thoroughly acquainted with Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathmatica, and showed much appreciation for Newton throughout the course of his career.

Before becoming a philosopher, Reid served as a parish minister.  He was licensed to preach by the Church of Scotland in 1731, and briefly pursued theological studies after licensure.  In 1737, Reid was ordained and took a pastoral call to a small church in New Machar (near Aberdeen).  While in New Machar (1740) Reid married his wife, Elizabeth.  Together they had nine children–eight of whom, sadly, Reid outlived.  Little is known about Reid’s ministry in New Machar, but the story circulates that he was not near as popular in the parish as was his wife.  This was due to rumors that Reid was given his call through patronage–an unpopular practice in small, rural parishes like New Machar.  

It is likely that Reid belonged to the “moderate party” of Hugh Blair (a popular Scottish minister).  The so-called “Moderates” focused on Christian morality, not the Calvinistic doctrines found in the Westminster Standards, to which all ministers of the Church of Scotland were required give to affirmation.  Reid’s sermons are lost to us, but his deep personal faith and piety is expressed in a prayer in which he praised God for his providential mercy after Elizabeth had been spared during a serious illness.

While in New Machar, Reid continued to read and study philosophy, specifically the work of  Glasgow moral philosopher Francis Hutcheson and his influential book, Inquiry into the Origins of the Ideas of Beauty and Virtue.  Reid also read and digested fellow Scot David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature (1738-40).  Reid’s first publication, an essay On Quantity, was published for the Royal Society in October of 1748.  This is a good indication that philosophical interests–not theological matters–were driving Reid’s intellectual life even while serving in the parish.

In 1751, Reid took a professorship at King’s College Aberdeen, becoming a teacher, lecturer and regent.  In accepting this call, Reid was required to give up his ordination and did so in 1752.  Along with John Gregory and other notable intellectuals, Reid founded the Aberdeen Philosophical Society (popularly known as the “Wise Club”), which continued meeting until 1773.  During this time, Reid completed his doctoral work, but did not publish his first book until 1764, An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, when Reid had reached the age of 54.  As was the case with Immanuel Kant, who claimed to be awakened from his “dogmatic slumbers” after reading a German translation of David Hume’s Treatise, Reid too was stirred by Hume–in Reid’s case by Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, first published in 1748.  Hume’s published works were a continual source of discussion within the Wise Club, and Reid’s Inquiry is thought to be largely based upon lectures developed for Wise Club discussions.  
David HumeReid’s Inquiry was primarily a response to Hume, but Reid also took aim at other advocates of the so-called “ideal theory.”  According to Reid, in addition to Hume, those who held the “ideal theory” included Rene Decartes, John Locke, and George Berkeley.  Ideal theorists placed the mind and our ideas between sensation of the external world and our knowledge of it.  Ideal theorists were necessarily skeptical of the even the possibility of direct knowledge of the external world–although they never expressed their skepticism as boldly as the logic of their theories dictated.  Reid, who quickly became Hume’s most powerful critic, sought to challenge what Reid identified as the “monster of skepticism” given life by Hume.  If anything characterizes Reid’s philosophical work, it is his fierce opposition to all forms of epistemological skepticism typified by his Inquiry.  Reid’s challenge to the ideal theorist still stands.  Can your philosophy actually assure us of the existence of the external world?  Or does the author (however unintentionally) ultimately drive us to skepticism by placing a representational or mental “theory of ideas” between the world which exists and our perception of it.

Shortly before Reid’s Inquiry was published, he was offered the prestigious Professorship of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, where he became the immediate successor to Adam Smith (1723-1790), the author of the influential Wealth of Nations (1776).  Reid accepted this call and remained at Glasgow until his retirement in 1781.  Productive in his retirement, Reid turned his university lectures into the books, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785) and Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind (1788).  

In these volumes on intellectual and active (and agentic) powers, Reid defends a libertarian notion of human freedom–i.e., that human agency is responsible for free actions of men and women, who are morally accountable for their choices.  But Reid thought his view perfectly compatible with the Westminster Standards which prescribes the agency, but not the causality of human action in light of the mystery of “the predestination and foreknowledge of God in conjunction with the liberty of man” (Reid, "Prescience and Liberty," in Works of, II.977).

Reid also directly attacked Hume’s notion of personal identity, in which Hume famously held that human identity is nothing but the on-going memory of our experiences over time.  Hume once wondered whether he still existed while he slept, and if his existence was reconstituted each morning upon awakening.  Reid appreciated Hume’s wit, but held that any sequence of memories we may have is grossly insufficient to ground personal identity and self-awareness, which are common sense beliefs held by all–even by those like Hume, though the latter candidly admitted to doubting them.

One of Reid’s most effective methods of criticism of his opponents was to argue that philosophers like Hume often raised provocative questions in the safety of their private studies, boldly going against widely accepted “common sense” human convictions of the day (i.e., causality and on-going personal identity).  As Reid pointed out, such men cannot live out their philosophical convictions in the real world they actually inhabit.  Reid playfully jabbed Hume, stating that if he (Reid) chooses not to believe my senses, “I break my nose against a post that comes in my way, I step into a dirty kennel; and after twenty such wise and rational actions I am taken up and clapped into a madhouse” (Reid, Inquiry, in Works of, 1:184).  Hume may question whether there is a third thing (causality) between the billiard ball and cue which strikes it, but presumably such skepticism never stopped Hume from playing billiards.  Hume’s theory does not stop us (nor Hume) from trusting our senses.

By all accounts, Reid was a modest and humble man, well-liked, and widely respected.  His obituary (in the Glasgow Courier) describes his as “a life distinguished by an ardent love of truth, an assiduous pursuit of it in various sciences, by the most amiable simplicity in manners, gentleness of temper, strength of affection, candour, and liberality of expression.”

Thomas Reid on "First Principles"


“For the Sake of the Gospel”—The Apologetic Speeches of the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts (Third and Final Part)

Part One

Part Two

Paul’s “Proclamation-Defense” in Acts

First, when we analyze these apologetic speeches in Acts, it is clear that Paul sought to be all things to all men for the sake of gospel, as evidenced in the fact that throughout these encounters with various forms of unbelief, the Apostle repeatedly was able to find common ground with his audience.  With those with whom he held the Old Testament in common (Jews and God-fearing Gentiles), Paul appeals to fulfilled prophecy by setting the Old Testament prophetic expectation side by side with the facts of the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  With pagan Gentiles, on the other hand, Paul begins with general revelation, not by proving God’s existence, but simply by proclaiming the God of Israel in language which echoes the Old Testament throughout.  We also see the Apostle challenging whatever underlying pagan assumptions were present. 

But given Paul’s theological core convictions about the nature of human sinfulness, it is clear that in finding “common ground,” Paul does not in any sense expect to find so-called “neutral” common ground, as though the Apostle could somehow place both himself and his hearers in a “neutral” frame of mind, without any influence upon the discussion by prior intellectual commitments to faith or various forms of unbelief.  The common ground that Paul does successfully and repeatedly find is in every case necessarily based in God’s self-disclosure, either the “book of nature,” or in the redemptive acts of God associated with special revelation and ordinary history.  Throughout Paul’s encounters with unbelief,  it is the non-Christian (Jew, God-fearer, or pagan Gentile) who is confronted with the consequences of knowing God through this self-disclosure both in general and special revelation, but who instead inevitably suppress that knowledge in unrighteousness.  Paul not only demonstrates his desire to be all things to all men by finding non-neutral common ground with his hearers, but he is repeatedly able to skillfully adjust his own “proclamation-defense” to each specific audience.  The Apostle repeatedly exploits the internal tensions of suppressing truth in unrighteousness as he seeks to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

A second point that must be made when looking at these speeches is that Paul began with the proclamation of the gospel, and once challenged, he was deftly able to give an apologetic by “reasoning” and “proving” from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ, and by challenging the very presuppositions underlying pagan unbelief.  As we have seen in two instances (Lystra and Athens), Paul does this by using a form of the argument from contingency—the creation does indeed depend upon a creator.  Neither Greek mythology nor Stoic or Epicurean cosmologies can give a satisfactory explanation of the world in which we live.  Paul does not attempt to “prove” God’s existence typical of so-called “classical apologetics.”  Instead he proclaims Christ crucified, and then attempts to refute his opponents, showing the futility of unbelief.  Paul places no confidence in the flesh, rather he believes that the proclamation of Christ crucified is the power of God unto salvation.  He does not attempt to get his audience “to make a decision for Jesus,” he simply proclaims the truth, and then attacks the unbelieving assumptions of the opposition, trusting all the while in the power of God, the futility of unbelief, and the strength of the evidences God has given.  

Third, throughout these speeches, it is clear that the supreme apologetic argument for Paul is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  No doubt, this is the case for it was Paul, the great persecutor of the church, who became Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, because while en route from Jerusalem to Damascus to hunt down and arrest Christians, the Risen Lord Jesus Christ himself confronted Paul, and Paul refers to this life-changing event in his apologetic speeches before the good citizens of Jerusalem (Acts 22:2 ff) and before king Agrippa (Acts 26:9-18). 

In Psidian Antioch, Paul concluded his sermon before the synagogue by declaring, “but God raised [Jesus] from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people” (Acts 13:30-31).  Just as Peter had done in the Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, here Paul also makes appeal to the prophetic significance of our Lord’s resurrection.  “God raised [Jesus] up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”  There was not only factual evidence for Christ’s resurrection, there was theological necessity.

In the synagogue in Athens, Paul followed a similar tact, explaining that Jesus had to first suffer and then rise from the dead (Acts 17:3).  While standing before the pagan philosophers of the Areopagus, Paul ends his apologia “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, `This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’”  In one amazing account, Paul spoke of his hope of the resurrection of the dead in the very presence of the assembled Sanhedrin, apparently to provoke an argument between his accusers, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who disagreed among themselves about the resurrection (Acts 23:6 ff.). 

Before Felix, Paul does much the same thing, proclaiming his hope in a resurrection, and acknowledging that it was this very hope that has brought him before Felix in the first place (Acts 24:15, 21)!  Even Felix’s successor, Festus, when conferring with King Agrippa, was forced to concede that Paul was incarcerated because of his proclamation “rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive” (Acts 25:19). 

And last, when Paul makes his defense before Agrippa, his apologetic appeal is to the hope of the resurrection.  Paul tells Agrippa . . .

For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me.  To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”  And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.”  But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.  For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner.  King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.”  And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”  And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains” ( Act 26:21 ff).

Paul’s “proclamation-defense” is clearly anchored in the death, burial and especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not in the formal proofs of “classical apologetics.”  But neither can we view Paul’s apologetic through the lens of semi-Pelagian Evangelical evidential apologetics which see Christian evidences are merely additional inducements for one to make a “decision” for Jesus.  Paul’s apologetic is grounded in his theological core and given human sinfulness and moral depravity typical of this present “evil age,” evidential “facts” by themselves cannot tip the scale from unbelief to faith.  Paul knows it is the gospel–the wisdom of the age to come–which is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.  His use of Christian evidences is to be seen in the context of the content of his proclamation, namely the historical events associated with the dying and rising of Christ.  The same man who put no confidence in the flesh, is the same man who “reasoned,” “discoursed,” “persuaded” and “debated” with his audiences that the content of his preaching was true, because the Lord of Glory rose again from the dead.

This point, it seems to me, is critical in developing a biblical and effective apologetic for our times and must be a central theme in the contemporary debate over apologetic metholodogy and tactics.


“For the Sake of the Gospel”—The Apologetic Speeches of the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts (Part Two)

Part One

Paul in the Synagogue

Throughout the first and second missionary journeys of Acts, Paul begins his efforts in each new city by finding the local synagogue, and then immediately making it the base of his operations (See for example, Acts 13:5, 14 ff; Acts 14:1 ff., Acts 17:2, 10, 17; 18:4, 19 etc.).  As Luke puts it in Acts 17:2, Paul went to the Synagogue in Thessalonica, “as was his custom,” and for three successive weeks “Paul went in . . .  and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, `This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ’” (Acts 17:2-3).

By taking a closer look at this, we can learn a great deal about Paul’s approach to proclamation-defense with those with whom he found common ground in the pages of the Old Testament.  Unlike the pagan Gentiles, who did not have and did not know the Old Testament, when dealing with Jews and “God-fearing” Gentiles who knew and believed the Old Testament, Paul could go to the synagogue, find a willing audience, and then “reason” with them directly from the Scriptures.  Paul did this by “explaining” and “proving” that it was necessary for Jesus to suffer unto death and to rise again from the dead as Paul tried to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah promised to Israel throughout the Old Testament (6).  In the original language we are given a bit more of a clue as to how Paul did this, when Luke tells us that Paul set the Old Testament teaching regarding the Messiah, “side by side” with the account of the historical events of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.  Paul used what are apologetic arguments from fulfilled prophecy and miracle to demonstrate the truth of the Christian faith.  Jesus was the one of whom the Scriptures spoke, because the events of his life and death, and especially his resurrection, are exactly what the Old Testament predicates of the coming Messiah.  The very fact that the expectations of Israel’s prophets all come to fruition in the historical events surrounding the life, death and burial of Jesus Christ is a very powerful and compelling argument, and Paul uses it repeatedly.
Paul and Barnabas in Lystra

Things were markedly different when Paul encountered pagan Gentiles who did not know much, if anything, of the Old Testament and the God of Israel.  We have two accounts of such incidents, the first being that of Paul and Barnabas’ encounter with indigenous paganism recounted in Acts 14:8 ff.  According to Luke, the whole incident began with an amazing miracle.  “Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet.  He was crippled from birth and had never walked.  He listened to Paul speaking.  And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, `Stand upright on your feet.’  And he sprang up and began walking” (vv. 8-10).

This should sound vaguely familiar if you know the earlier chapters of Acts.  Luke is, no doubt, drawing a parallel here between the ministry of Peter and that of Paul.  What Peter had done in the Jerusalem temple before watching Israel (Acts 3:1 ff.), Paul is doing here before the Gentiles.  The reference to bold preaching supported by signs and wonders occurs not only here, but also in Iconium (Acts 14:1 ff.).  In both cases, Paul proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ and God himself confirms the content of the preaching by the miraculous signs that follow.  The parallels to Peter healing the man crippled from birth and Paul doing the same here in Lystra, serves to put Paul on the same footing as Peter, and the mission to the Gentiles on the same footing with the original work in Jerusalem, especially in the accounts we find in Acts 3-4 (7).  God confirms the truth of his word as proclaimed by Paul when the lame man stands up at Paul’s command, jumps around and begins to walk.  This serves to confirm the legitimacy of the Gentile mission, a point that will be especially germane in the debate that takes place in the next chapter (Acts 15).

The result of this is recounted by Luke. 

“And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, `The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’   Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.  And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds” (Acts 14:11-13).  

As Luke puts it, the crowds present were so amazed at what had happened, word quickly spread throughout the city that Zeus and Hermes had come to them disguised in human form.  The background to this is important.  Some fifty years earlier, a legend began circulating throughout the region of southern Galatia that Zeus and Hermes had wandered through the local hill country disguised as mere mortals seeking lodging.  They supposedly stopped at nearly a thousand homes but were not able to find a place to stay and were refused hospitality wherever they went.  When a humble peasant took them in, his home was transformed into a glorious temple.  He and his wife were transformed into beautiful oak trees which still stood in the region.  Those who refused to take the gods in, instead, saw their homes destroyed and they were left destitute.  This legend, along with the presence of a temple to Zeus just outside the city, meant that the expectation of the return of the gods to the region for a repeat performance was quite prominent in the minds of the Lyconians.  When Paul healed the lame man, it must have meant that Zeus and Hermes had returned. (8)  As a result, Paul finds himself face to face with superstitious pagans wanting to worship him!

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, “Men, why are you doing these things?  We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.  In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.  Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.  Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them” (Acts 14:14-18).

Paul and Barnabas rush headlong into the crowds which had gathered, tearing their clothes, which was an act of pious Jews in the presence of blasphemers.  Paul shouted to them, “why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you” (Acts 14:15).
Once the miraculous healing had gotten the Lyconian’s attention, Paul begins to proclaim to them the true and living God.  Luke gives us but a very brief summary of Paul’s proclamation-defense (9).  In this case, even though the Lyconians had no Old Testament, the Apostle begins by proclaiming “the good news to them,” but he also attempts to show them the untenable nature of paganism, pointing out the uselessness of idolatry and telling his hearers to turn from “these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (v. 15).  In this, we see a simple form of the argument from contingency, as created things depend upon a creator.  Paul is also very clear that unbelief has serious consequences, for Paul also tells his hearers that the same God who has created all things, will not let these false religious practices go on.  God has demonstrated his common grace to the Lyconians in the fact that the rain falls upon their crops and thereby provides them with food and joy, and the Lyconians are, therefore, without excuse.  Where his audience is not familiar with the Old Testament, Paul proclaims the “good news” of Christ crucified, but the proclamation is, apparently, soon followed by a direct challenge to those false notions upon which Lyconian paganism was based.  The pattern here is clearly “proclamation-defense,” as the good news is proclaimed and pagan assumptions are challenged.  But all this was of little avail, for as Luke tells us in verse 18, “even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.”  This must have been an amazing scene
Paul Before the Areopagus

In Acts 17:16-34, Luke recounts for us Paul’s visit to Athens during what is known as the Second Missionary Journey.  We have no idea if Paul’s previous travels had ever brought him to Athens before, but we can just imagine what was going through the mind of the apostle as he walked through the city, which beyond all others, represented the high water mark of paganism and the “wisdom of the age.”  According to Luke, Paul’s reaction was one of great distress.  As with all of the kingdoms of Satan, “the bloom was off the rose,” so to speak.  By the first century, the city of Athens was but a faint shadow of its former self, for the glories of the city of man are always fading as moth and rust go about their inevitable and tireless work of decay.  With the faded glories of Athen’s past still everywhere evident, Luke tells us that as the Apostle wandered through the city “his spirit was provoked” when he saw that the city was so full of idols.

Once again, Paul finds the local synagogue and “as was his custom,” the Apostle was soon reasoning with Jews and “God fearers,” from the Old Testament, probably following the same methodology that he had used while in Thessalonica–setting the Old Testament prophetic expectation of a coming Messiah, “side by side” with the historical events of the life of Christ, and in doing so “proving” that Jesus was the Christ.  But while in Athens, Paul also took the opportunity to go into the Agora (the marketplace), where the Apostle preached Christ to those who happened to be there.

According to Luke, it was not long before Paul attracted the attention of some of the more influential locals, a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, two of the major schools of philosophy then found among the intelligentsia of Athens.  When Paul, then, proclaims  the gospel to them, the Stoics and Epicureans begin disputing with Paul, calling him “a babbler,” a word which is literally translated as “seed-picker,” but which came to mean a “charlatan,” or a kind of amateur dabbler in esoterica.  Others among the group saw Paul as a “proclaimer of foreign deities,” “a propagandist,” for some kind of unknown foreign religion.  These philosophers take Paul before the Areopagus.  

Meeting upon the “Hill of Ares” – hence “Mars Hill” to the Romans–the Areopagus had a long and illustrious history and is often regarded as the historic birthplace of democracy.  By the first century, the Areopagus no longer exercised political authority over the city (as in the case of the magistrates of the other Greek cities), but its authority was limited to passing judgement in matters of religion, philosophy and ethics.  Paul was brought here, not for a trial, nor likely against his will, but instead so that his strange views regarding this novel religion could be evaluated by these experts in Greek religion and philosophy.  While Paul is horribly distressed by the idolatry he sees in the city, the Athenians, on the other hand are, apparently, quite amused and intrigued by this novel teaching from Paul.  The Athenians took great delight in listening to novel ideas and speculating about religious claims and Luke does not exaggerate when he declares about them in verse 21—“ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”  The following encounter between Paul and Greek paganism results from his prior proclamation of the gospel.  The balance of Luke’s account includes Paul’s defense before the Areopagus.

Paul’s approach will naturally be similar to that we saw him take in Acts 14:15-17, only here in Athens, the audience is much more sophisticated than were the citizens of of a rural backwater like Lystra.  These were men, who, while aware of all of the latest religious speculations of the day, also knew very little, if anything, of the Old Testament or the God of Israel, as would the Jews and “God-fearers” in the synagogue.

Standing before the professional philosophers, Paul begins his speech by again appealing to the common ground that he holds with his hearers—the religious nature of humanity.  “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.”  Paul does not see human religious nature as an end in itself.  He immediately moves on to point these religious men to the source of that religious nature and intuition, the true and living God, the creator of all things.  This is precisely the point that Calvin makes in the opening words of the Institutes

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.  But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.  For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone....On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself (10).

If one starts with humanities’ innate religious nature, we are quickly pushed to the existence of God for an explanation.  On the contrary, when we start with God’s existence, only then are we able to explain the human predicament.  In this case, Paul thought it best to begin by appealing to the religious nature of the Athenians, again finding common ground with his audience.

Next, Paul reminds the Athenians that their own philosophy amounts to practical atheism.  For as he was passing through their city, he saw an altar dedicated “to the [or] an unknown god.”  The reference to an “unknown God,” is very likely a reference to an altar dedicated to a “god” whose original name had been defaced many years before, and which was now long-since forgotten to subsequent generations.  The altar may have been repaired and re-dedicated, “to an unknown god.”  While the Athenians were willing to worship one whom they did not know, Paul now sets before them “the God who is there” —to use Francis Schaeffer’s term.  “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you!”

Consistent with the records of Paul’s previous encounters with paganism, he now sets forth the God of Israel, the only true God who has made the heavens and the earth and everything in them without appeal to what we call the so-called classic proofs.  God’s existence is not “proven”– it is proclaimed!  For Paul, there is no middle man between God and created order, typical of Greek cosmology and its stress upon a demiurge, who placed himself between matter [evil] and pure Spirit [good].  Though Paul doesn’t specifically cite the Old Testament here, the language that he uses is clearly full of Old Testament echoes.  Paul’s God is the creator of all, therefore, no temple made from human hands no matter how glorious can contain him or his glory.
As the “Lord of heaven” the true and living God proclaimed by Paul is utterly transcendent and eternal, and, therefore, in no way subject to the whims of men.  This leads to Paul’s next point recounted in verse 25: “ nor is [the creator] served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”   In fact, it is the other way around.  He depends upon his creatures for nothing, but his creatures depend upon him for everything!  Again, Paul uses a form of the argument from contingency, all created things depend upon a creator.

But the God of Israel is not only the creator of all things, he is also the sustainer of all.  Paul now appeals to the providence of God, that is, his fatherly superintendence of the world he has made.  Here we find a clear echo from Deuteronomy 32:8–“when the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God”– in Paul’s argument.  To the Athenians, Paul declares in verse 26, “and he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.”   Since Paul’s God is the creator of all men and nations, all men are descendants of the “first man,” and all nations belong where God has placed them.
But God does this not merely in an exercise of brute power—this ordering of the affairs of the nations is also part of God’s purpose to draw men and women unto himself.  It is important to note that Paul does not quote the Hebrew Scriptures directly, though he constantly alludes to them.  But at this point in his speech, Paul does quote directly from two Greek poets, Epimenedes and Aratus, demonstrating to his audience that even their own philosophers have correctly analyzed the human dilemma, even if, apart from special revelation, they had no solutions to them.  First, Paul cites from Epimenedes, “‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”  The point is that because God is creator and sustainer of all he is never far from his any of creatures.  This is virtually the same point that Paul will later make in Romans 1:20:  “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”  As creator, God is not only transcendent and beyond his creation in such a way that he is distinct from the world he has made, nevertheless, as sustainer of the world he has made he is also immanent, always being near us since we are his creatures.  This is, perhaps, a shot at the deistic tendencies of the Stoics in the audience.
The second Greek poet that Paul cites is Aratus, “for; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”  Paul is able to point out that some of the Athenians “had realized the folly of trying to represent the divine nature by material images, worship at material altars, or house it in material temples, and had perceived, however dimly, how near God was to those who truly sought him” (11).  We are the offspring of God, not because we are part of God, a kind of “little spark off the big flame” so to speak, but we are God’s offspring because we are created in his very own image.  At this point, the Athenians were no doubt perplexed and taken aback by the force of Paul’s arguments, who as Cornelius Van Til has noted, certainly challenged the “entire framework of non-Christian thought” (12).

But Paul is not finished.  Immediately he calls for repentance.  “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31).  With the coming of Jesus Christ, the man God has appointed to judge the earth, the period of time when God overlooked such ignorance in his forbearance is now past.  The Athenians must repent and turn from their false conception of God, and instead embrace the true knowledge of God as found in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  God has commanded this and there is a coming day of judgement when those who do not obey him will be punished.  Paul’s point is simply that since God is creator, sustainer, and redeemer of all men, he is also the judge of his creation.  Indeed, says Paul, there is coming a day when he will judge the world in righteousness—an idea quite foreign to Greek thinking.

But the climax of Paul’s apologetic speech occurs when he turns to his great apologetic argument, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  The God who created, sustains and governs all things, enters into human history in the person of Jesus Christ.  This same Jesus has died for our sins under Roman justice after being rejected by his own people, and his resurrection from the dead is “proof” that God has dealt with human sin once for all, since the wages of sin—death, is overcome in Christ’s resurrection.  Paul, no doubt, appeals to the Areopagus on the basis of his own encounter with the Risen Christ while Paul was on his way to Damascus (as we see elsewhere in Acts, 22:3-16; 26:9-18).  For the God who has made the world, in whom we live and move and have our being, became man, died and was buried, and rose again.  This is the great apologetic fact for the Christian faith!

The idea of the resurrection of the body was difficult for Paul’s hearers to comprehend.  The Greeks almost universally believed in the immorality of the soul, but the concept of the resurrection of the body [the prison house of the soul] was apparently seen merely as another foreign novelty from this “seed-picker.”  A number of the members of the Areopagus sneered at Paul’s demand for repentance.  And true to form, a number of those present thought that Paul’s little “chat” was very interesting and would make a great topic for yet more interesting and seemingly endless discussion.  But in the sovereign grace of God, several believed, including Damaris and Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus.

Part Three



(6).   For the use of these terms by Luke, see Richard N. Longenecker, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 468-69.

(7).   Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994) 177.

(8).  This is effectively summarized in Longenecker, “The Acts of the Apostles,” 435.

(9).   F. F. Bruce, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1977), 36 ff.

(10).   John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.i.1-2.

(11).   F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, NICNT, Revised ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1988), 338.

(12).   Van Til, Paul at Athens, 18.


Luther on Galatians -- A New Translation

Our Lutheran friends over at 1517 have just released Haraldo Camacho's new translation of Martin Luther's 1535 Commentary on Galatians.  This is a fantastic read and truly captures Luther's passion for the gospel. 

In the forward, Michael Horton exhorts the reader, "please read this new translation.  Tell a friend.  Pass it along, dog-ears and underlined sentences and all, to anyone who is doubting whether Christ is enough."  Amen!

You can find it here:  Camacho's Translation of Martin Luther's Commentary on Galatians


“For the Sake of the Gospel”—The Apologetic Speeches of the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts (Part One)


I am willing to acknowledge that the contemporary debate over apologetic methodology between “evidentialists” and “presuppositionalists,” however unpleasant, can be a vital and healthy exercise.  I think it important to have a biblically based and carefully honed apologetic methodology in place before confronting both the learned and not so learned paganism of our age.  In those instances when this is the goal of the evidentialist-presuppositionalist debate, it ought to be greatly encouraged. 

I am perplexed that the parties to this in-house debate spend very little time analyzing the Apostle Paul’s apologetic speeches in the Book of Acts (1).  It is from Luke’s record of the ever-extending reign of the risen and exalted Christ, that we are given a clear picture of how the Apostle Paul sought both to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and defend the Christian truth claim (2).  Paul does so not only in the synagogues of the major cities of Greece and Asia Minor–before Jews and “God-fearing” Gentile proselytes–but also before civil magistrates as well as in the marketplaces of those Roman and Greek cities where little or nothing was known of the God of Israel and the inspired texts of the Old Testament.  In Paul’s various encounters with Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in cities such as Psidion Antioch (Acts 13:13-52), Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 17:1-15), with superstitious pagans in Lystra (Acts 14:8-19) and sophisticated Epicurean and Stoic philosophers of the Athenian Areopagus (Acts 16:-34), or Gentile rulers such as Felix (Acts 24:10-27); and even a member of Israel’s ruling family, Herod Agrippa (Acts 26:1-32), we get a sense of the Apostle’s approach to confronting divergent forms of unbelief in specific historical contexts.

All Things to All Men For the Sake of the Gospel

As Luke recounts elements of
the apologetic speeches of Paul for us in Acts, it is apparent that Paul is putting into practice his own stated philosophy of ministry, expressed in some detail in his first Letter to the Corinthian Christians:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.  To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:19–23).

It is clear from these comments that Paul had thought very carefully about his unique calling as the Apostle to the Gentiles and his role as a loyal son of Israel, who’s heartfelt prayer for his people was “that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” Romans 9:2-3).  To win his own Jewish brothers and sisters to Christ, Paul became as “one under the law” (1 Corinthians 9:20), though he was free in Christ.  To the Gentiles who knew not Moses, the law, or Israel’s God, Paul instead become a man subject only to the law of Christ, so that those who were at one time “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world,” might be won to Israel’s Messiah (Ephesians 2:12).

Let us be careful to note that Paul was no mere pragmatist, adopting in chameleon-like fashion, the ideology of whatever group he happened to be facing at any given moment.  Paul was not concerned with demographics or success in the modern American sense of church planting.  He was concerned with being faithful to the commission given him by Jesus Christ.  As Pauline scholarship has pointed out, perhaps it is best that we think of Paul neither exclusively as systematic theologian, nor, on the contrary, as a theological  innovator.   Instead we should view Paul as a man called to be an apostle by Jesus Christ, who in turn applied his core beliefs of an unchanging gospel of free grace to very specific, yet very dynamic situations, which, in turn, became the occasion for a number of the Epistles of Paul which appear in our New Testament canon (3).  Throughout the various apologetic speeches in Acts, we see Paul proclaim one gospel to diverse audiences who stand poles apart from one another in terms of both their respective intellectual and cultural backgrounds and their interpretive “world and life” view.  How does the Apostle bridge this wide intellectual gap?

Christ and Him Crucified

There are several things that must be pointed out about Paul’s basic theological core convictions, so clearly and energetically expressed in his letters to the churches, and that also repeatedly surface in the varied apologetic speeches described in Acts.  The first thing that we need to consider is that Paul clearly thought in eschatological terms, seeing the course of human history as the unfolding of two successive ages–a present “evil age” (Galatians 1:4) and an “age to come” in which Jesus Christ himself rules (Ephesians 1:21).  This is the lens through which Paul sees much of the wickedness and unbelief of his own age (4).  For Paul, this present age is characterized as the dominion of death which has befallen us under the headship of Adam (Romans 5:12-19).  It is an age of a “worldly wisdom” that does not understand the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).  “This age” is characterized by speculative philosophy (1 Corinthians 1:20), and is an age in which the arch-enemy of God, Satan, rules by default, having blinded the minds of men to the truth of the things of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).  To be identified with “this age” is to be tragically bound to death and the things of this world, things destined to perish.
The “age to come,” on the other hand, is an age of eternal life in Christ, the second Adam (Romans 5:12-19; 1 Corinthians 15:50 ff.), in which mere flesh and blood are transformed by resurrection life.  The age to come is an age in which the eternal has swallowed up the temporal in the eschatological victory of Jesus Christ and the consummation of all things (1 Timothy 6:19; 2 Timothy 4:18).  It is an age characterized by the wisdom of God, revealed in the person and work of his son.
Opposition to Paul’s preaching arises directly from the “wisdom” of the citizens of this age, and such opposition cannot rise any higher than the innate idolatry of the human heart.  What men and women learn of God through general revelation can only condemn them, leaving all without excuse before God’s righteous tribunal, since what they do know of God is sinfully suppressed in unrighteousness, having exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Romans 1:19-25).  Apart from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the citizens of “this age” suffer from ignorance of God, the futility of being unable to think God’s thoughts after him, a darkened understanding of revealed things, a profound hardness of heart, and are,  according to Paul, “alienated from God” (Ephesians 4:17-18).  Paul would grant little quarter, I think, to those sentimental American Evangelicals who see the consequences of sin in purely moral categories.  Sin not only makes us “bad,” it renders us incapable of coming to faith apart from prior grace and spiritual illumination.  Human sinfulness renders us unwilling to believe what we know to be true about God and to trust in the saving actions of his son as our only hope of heaven.  Above all else, our sin places us under God’s just condemnation.  We are blind, because fallen in Adam, we would rather gouge out our own spiritual eyes, than bow our knees and confess “Jesus Christ is Lord.”  For Paul, sin has grave intellectual ramifications, which are fundamentally and essentially related to our moral depravity.

With this in mind, we now can make sense of a second major category in Paul’s theological core, “the theology of the cross.”  We see this in Paul’s repeated comments about the gospel being “the power of God” unto salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18).  As the wisdom, not of men, but of God (1 Corinthians 1:21), what appeared to be foolishness to Gentiles and a stumbling block to Jews–both citizens of “this age”–the cross displays the very epitome of the wisdom of the “age to come.”  Says Paul, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentile.”  For “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  Indeed, “ Christ Jesus . . . became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-30).  This is why Paul can say to the erring Galatians–many of whom had returned to the works-righteousness principle of this “present evil age” (Galatians 2:16)–that it was the apostle’s desire to never boast, “except in the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:14).  The way to combat the unbelief of the “present evil age” is to confront it head-on, with the truth of the gospel in which the power of God and the wisdom of God are evident in the saving work of Jesus Christ in his death, burial and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)—Paul’s theology of the cross.

 This has profound significance for any defense of the Christian faith.  Paul’s theology of the cross is central to all his thinking.  The cross is the basis for his proclamation of Christ crucified to Jew and Gentile.  It also colors all of the historic encounters we find between Paul and unbelievers in the Book of Acts.  While desiring to be “all things to all men,” Paul has one gospel to proclaim, whether it be to “Jews and God-fearers” of the synagogues, the superstitious pagans of Lystra, or the learned pagans of Athens.  It is Paul’s theology of the cross which turns these encounters with unbelief into what may be called a pattern of “proclamation—defense.”  There is a profound sense in which we cannot understand any of these Lukan reports apart from the content of Paul’s preaching, which, in Luke’s account, is always prior to the defense.  This means that Paul’s apologetic will not be grounded in natural theology or the so-called “classical proofs” for God’s existence.  Paul’s apologetic will be firmly grounded both in general revelation through that which God has created, and in the redemptive acts of God in Christ which are, therefore, necessarily grounded in ordinary history.  Since redemptive-history involves the saving acts of God in time and space, redemptive-history is necessarily grounded in events which did or did not occur, a point made clear by Geerhardus Vos (5).

End of Part One

Part Two


(1).  Cornelius Van Til’s little booklet Paul at Athens, (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978) is a notable exception.  K. Scott Olpihant’s The Battle Belongs to the Lord (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2003), 143 ff), also addresses Acts 17, but in a rather superficial way.  Two of the books by the major parties to this debate make little, if any, mention of these speeches:  R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984); and John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994).  It would seem to me that the apostolic pattern of proclamation-apologia would be a major issue of contention.  Instead the apologetic speeches are barely given mention.

(2).  According to John Calvin, the theme of Acts is “the beginning of the reign of Christ, and, as it were, the renewal of the world is being depicted here.”  See John Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1979), 17.

(3).   I am thinking of the “contingency-coherence” model set out by J. Christiaan Beker, in Paul the Apostle (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1980), especially pages 23-36. 

(4).   Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1949), 20 ff.

(5).  Geerhardus Vos, “The Idea of Biblical Theology,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed., Richard Gaffin (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 18-19.


Synod Wheaton 2018 -- A Couple of Thoughts (Updated)


There were many important items addressed at the 2018 URCNA Synod in Wheaton, Ill.  It was a tremendous blessing and most profitable to attend a concurrent URCNA Synod/OPC General Assembly.  Our two churches have much in common and no doubt this will encourage more joint efforts between us in the future. 

But two things stand out as the most important take-aways in my mind.  One is the production of a joint URC/OPC Hymnal, the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.  This is a huge development in many ways.  First, we have an outstanding Psalter with appropriate numbering--Psalm 1 is on page one.  Imagine that?  Second, the Psalms are versified so you can tell what verse from the Psalm you are singing. Third, the revivalist tunes ("couples only on stanza three") are gone.  What a joy to have a first-rate Psalter which is faithful to the biblical text.

Another take-away from Synod/General Assembly is the stress on both domestic and foreign missions.  The amount of mission work and church planting in which these two small confessional bodies are engaged is simply astonishing and a testimony to God's gracious purposes.  There is much for the URCNA to learn from our OPC brothers and sisters about how to do mission work and plant churches.  That learning process was given a giant boost at Synod. 

I wish that every joker who claims Reformed Christians "are not interested in evangelism" be made to sit through a video recording of Wednesday and Thursday night's missions presentations.  Our two churches are driven by our love for the lost--even if we in the URCNA need to improve the ways we put this love for the lost into practice.

If you were to ask me, "what was the main theme of Synod?"  I would answer "missions."


I was privileged to work on the committee tasked with addressing the four overtures sent on to our synod requesting a statement regarding marriage, which would not only reflect our historic position on marriage so as to provide protection from litigation, but also serve as a teaching tool to our millennials who do not see gay marriage in the same way most of us over 40 do. 

I'm the bald guy in praying posture.  Dr. Brian Lee of the "other" Christ Reformed Church in DC was the chair.  Our reporter--who does the work of keeping track of the discussions (Rev. Talman Wagenmaker)--is the best at this in the URCNA.  I think we produced a very solid document.  Synod did too.  It passed without dissent.  It will be available soon on the URCNA website.


"Daddy, what did you do at Synod?"  Most of you who know me, know I'm not a "synod kind of guy."  I certainly do realize the importance of Synod but I don't speak to matters on the floor unless necessary--as when I chaired the liturgical forms committee a few years ago.  I think the networking which takes place over coffee (at lunch and at breaks), or the beer and cigar afterglow is where much fruitful conversation takes place about matters regarding both Synod and our future as a federation. 

I'm chatting with Rev. Mike Brown and Dr. Ryan Glomsrud of WSC--one of many such informal sessions,

I always dread going to Synod, but then am glad I went.


Off To Synod

I'll be at Wheaton College for the URCNA 2018 Synod this coming week, and upon return home, Lord willing, I'll begin my annual summer sabbatical/vacation. 

Our Synod will be held concurrently with the OPC, which is holding its 85th General Assembly.  This will be a historic occasion for both.

I do plan on blogging throughout the Summer, so I won't be entirely absent.