St. Ephraem—Syrian Apologist of the Fourth Century?


Students of the life and work of Ephraem the Syriac agree that he died on this date in 373 A.D. He wrote hymns, poems, sermons, and biblical commentary. His style and the tenor of his theology was a blend of the mystical and the intellectually staid.

In Theandros, the online journal of Orthodox Christian theology and philosophy, Mary C. Sheridan recounts his huge significance for the Syriac church. Her essay is interesting both for its insight into the life and work of Ephraem and for its discussion of the historical context of his activity.

In my series of posts on Christianity and its tradition of apologetics (see links below), I’ve introduced lesser-known figures and highlighted their contributions. I’m pleased to add this brief post about St. Ephraem (ca. 306-373). In his case, we find a fascinating reflection on apologetic themes in ancient poetry. I don’t know much about his work. But Mary Sheridan includes in her article a sample of his poetry where he acknowledges the value of nature as a source of revelation and places it in relation to Scripture as revelation. The medium of poetry may here be specially valuable for showing how natural theology draws men and women into contact with special revelation.

Ephraem considered both nature and Scripture the “twin sources of revelation.”

Once Nature and Scripture had cleaned the land
–they sowed in it new commandments
in the land of the heart, so that it might bear fruit,
praise for the Lord of Nature
glory for the Lord of Scripture.

He called Nature, the Old Testament, and the New Testament three lyres used in singing the Word of God. He says:

The Word of the Most High came down
      and clothed himself in
a weak body with two hands.
He took up and balanced two lyres,
one in his right hand and one in his left.
A third he put in front of him,
to be a witness for the other two;
for it was the middle lyre corroborating
that their Lord was singing to their accompaniment.

I encourage you to visit Sheridan’s page for more about St. Ephraem.

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Conrad Emil Lindberg—On God and Revelation


On this date in 1852, Lutheran theologian Conrad Emil Lindberg was born at Jönköping, Sweden. In 1871, Lindberg (1852-1930) moved to the United States to attend Augustana College and Theological Seminary. In due course, he was ordained and appointed to ministry in American churches serving Swedish immigrants. Later he returned to Augustana College where he was professor of theology. At Augustana, Lindberg taught systematic theology, hermeneutics, apologetics, dogmatics, ethics, liturgics, and church polity. Lindberg’s Christian Dogmatics (published first in 1898 in Swedish, and in English in 1922) includes material of interest to the Christian apologist.

Conrad Emil Lindberg

Conrad Emil Lindberg

Concerning the Existence of God

Inasmuch as it cannot be proved that man and the world are not eternal, they must have had a beginning and in such case necessarily a cause. The concept of causality has therefore great weight in proving God’s existence. . . . In accordance with the concept of causality as a proof of God’s existence we consider God as a cause by reason of the fact that we know ourselves as causes. We know ourselves as causes because we are conscious of our will. To will is to cause. (19)

The Value of Theistic Arguments

Generally speaking, a Christian needs no such proofs, but in the hour of doubt and spiritual assault they become of great value and help. (20)

Arguments Without Force

In presenting arguments to prove the existence of God the following methods must be rejected: 1) When men essay to prove God’s existence as they would that of a material object; 2) when proofs are asserted to be based on direct or intuitive experience; 3) argumentum a tuto, which implies that it is doubtful whether or not God exists, but that it is safer to assume His existence and does no harm, while it may be dangerous to deny His existence, if He does exist; 4) argumentum ab utili, which sets forth the great benefit of faith in a personal God.

The Ethico-Theological Proof for God’s Existence It is not Lindberg’s aim to advance arguments for God’s existence, but only to present brief statements of the basic thrust of each of the main “ordinary” arguments. Here is his statement of the ethico-theological proof;

The will of man cannot be ethically determined by any human will, nor in the last instance can it be determined by impersonal nature. The human will points to a personal God by whom it is materially determined so that the formal freedom receives its proper content. This proof has two forms or names: 1) Argumentum ad conscientia recti or the proof of conscience, which implies that conscience is aware of the moral law and that man perceives an inner voice which convinces him of the existence of a higher being. 2) Argumentum morale or the moral proof by which man, conscious of the union of virtue and blessedness, draws the conclusion that a higher being must exist who shall reward the virtuous and punish the unrighteous. (24)

Lindberg attributes arguments of this general form to Cicero and Seneca, Abelard and Raimund of Sabunde, and Immanuel Kant. On General and Supernatural Revelation Lindberg asserts that “if a God exists, He must reveal Himself in some way” (28). There are two main modalities of divine revelation, the “general,” or revelatio generalis, and the “supernatural,” or revelatio speciales.

Revelatio generalis . . . is that natural revelation of God through which He reveals Himself in the conscience of man, in the kingdom of nature, and in history. (28) Revelatio speciales . . . is that external act of God by which He reveals Himself to man through the Logos, the personal Word, and through the Holy Scriptures, so that all men may receive saving knowledge of Him. (30)

Lindberg’s discussion of supernatural, or special, revelation is divided into four sections: (1) the possibility of revelation, (2) the necessity of revelation, (3) the reality of revelation, and (4) the relation between reason and revelation (pp. 31-34). The conditions for the possibility of revelation are set forth. Objections come from deists and pantheists. Deists interject that for God to reveal himself by some external means would disturb the natural order of things determined by the Creator. In addition, it would reflect negatively on the supposed power and intelligence of God to create a universe that reflects his genius. Lindberg answers that:

All nature is permeated by spiritual power and God is ever active in sustaining the universe in never-ceasing creational activity. (31)

The Necessity of Special Divine Revelation Lindberg’s two paragraphs on the necessity of revelation are especially good:

The necessity of a special revelation was recognized even by the heathens, such as Plato. The history of religion clearly demonstrates this necessity. The founder of every religion has claimed a special revelation. The history of philosophy itself reveals the need of a special revelation when we consider the contradictions and conflicts that have arisen on all the most important subjects. The necessity of a special revelation is grounded in the need of salvation, the occasion for it being the Fall into sin. This revelation was accidental on the ground of sin as a presupposition, but it was not accidental in the sense that it could have been inhibited after sin had entered the world. Revelation was necessary from the divine viewpoint in order that the design and purpose of creation and salvation might be realized. Revelation was necessary for man because he was powerless to save himself from the power and condemnation of sin. (32)

I concur with this general statement of the need for revelation. A complete Apologetic should include a description of the need for revelation. If revelation is possible, as it seems easy to establish, then we should first consider whether to expect any further special revelation in the interest of determining whether God has in fact produced a revelation of himself that goes beyond what is learned from general revelation. There is strong independent support for the claim that God has produced a revelation, and for the specifically Christian revelation claim. But remembering (a) what is revealed about God by natural means, (b) the probability this lends to the supposition that God both could and would produce a revelation, and (c) the independent human need for revelation, does two things for us when we ask whether God has produced further special revelation. First, we are made to expect additional revelation from God; second, we are provided some means of identifying appropriate criteria for (a) recognizing what should be included as content of any revelation claim, and (b) confirming the authenticity of a particular revelation claim by means of a suitable miracle. With these elements in place and logically-ordered, presentation of evidence for the Christian revelation claim should enjoy a more positive reception.

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Great Dates in the Apologetics Calendar—June 8


June 8 is unusual for the many dates bearing some relation to Christian apologetics.

1686 – Humphrey Prideaux graduated with D.D. from Christ Church, Oxford (installed as Dean of Norwich on this date in 1702)

1809 – Death of Thomas Paine, antagonist against Christianity and author of The Age of Reason (published in three installments: 1794, 1795, 1807)

1810 – Death of William Finch, whose 1797 Bampton lectureship was titled “The Objections of Infidel Historians and other writers against Christianity” (eight sermons)

1889 – Death of Christian metaphysical poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, famous for “Pied Beauty” (written in 1877, and published in 1918) and “God’s Grandeur” (also composed in 1877); also the sonnet “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I conted”

1894 – Birth of Wilbur M. Smith, author of the thick volume of Christian evidences called Therefore Stand

1903 – Birth of G. C. Berkouwer, theologian in the Dutch Reformed tradition, whose many books include The Providence of God (1952) and General Revelation (1955)

1941 – C. S. Lewis preached his sermon “The Weight of Glory”

1954 – Death of Kenneth Escott Kirk, bishop of Oxford who wrote in defense of Christian moral philosophy

2007 – Death of Richard Rorty, postmodernist critic of religion

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William Warburton’s 18th-Century Defense of Christianity


The 18th century produced a great many thinkers who made lasting contributions to the study of Christianity’s credentials. On the skeptical side, David Hume has been most significant. William Paley and Bishop Butler have had the greatest enduring influence on behalf of Christianity. Lesser lights from today’s vantage point were leading figures in their time. Among them, William Warburton, who died June 7, 1779—236 years ago today. Warburton’s greatest work was the nine-volume treatise with the odd title The Divine Legation of Moses. The full title was The Divine Legation of Moses, demonstrated on the principles of a Religious Deist. Deist contemporaries, who claimed they believed the doctrine of immortality, argued against the divine authorship of the “Law of Moses.” They reasoned that if the Law of Moses was divine, it would propound the doctrine of an afterlife, which it does not.

  1. Any divinely authored text will affirm a doctrine of immortality.
  2. The Law of Moses does not affirm a doctrine of immortality.
  3. Therefore, the Law of Moses is not a divinely authored text.

The argument has an odd appearance. It isn’t immediately obvious why deist writers, or anyone else for that matter, would think that a divinely inspired text must teach a doctrine of immortality. But, of course, the books of Moses were all there was of the Bible for generations of God’s people. As the source of their knowledge of God’s ways and plans for humanity, it may seem odd, if it is of divine origin, that nothing is ever said for immortality of the self in that source. Surely, if men and women are immortal, and this is by God’s design, then God’s revelation to humanity would indicate that this is so. Men and women are immortal, said these deists, but the Law of Moses says nothing about this. The implication is that the Law of Moses could not have been written under God’s own guidance.

William Warburton

William Warburton (1698-1779)

You don’t come across an argument of this sort much these days. And you don’t encounter the sort of argument Warburton made in direct response. Warburton turned the deistic argument on its head, arguing that silence on the question of immortality was actually evidence of divine authorship. The Law of Mose was the “Divine Legation,” and the absence of any direct reference to life after death is evidence of this. If the deist argument seems at all strange, Warburton’s reply seems more so. But the strategy intrigues. Ancient religions contemporaneous with the Jewish religion were unanimous in affirming an afterlife. These were, all of them, manufactured religions. The Jewish religion differed in this one striking respect: no doctrine of an afterlife. This anomaly in the history and sociology of religious belief invites explanation. For Warburton, the best explanation is that the Jewish religious system, rooted in the Pentateuch, was of divine origin. Warburton’s argument was sufficiently compelling that many critics took pains to respond. But this isn’t only because of the core argument. Into the Divine Legation, Warburton squeezed a host of other evidences for Christianity. Among them was the argument from prophecy, which he considered sufficient in itself to establish the truth of Christianity with moral certainty. Warburton was a colorful figure, with many enemies and some surprising friends. He crossed swords with the famed Conyers Middleton in public, but got on well with him personally. The story of Warburton’s life is told with candor, in the Preface to the Divine Legation, by his friend, agent, and executor, R. Worcester (signed at Hartlebury Castle, August 12, 1794). For a catalog of Warburton’s writings, available in PDF, click here.

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Justin Martyr—Apologist for Today


Justin Martyr Stained GlassToday is the Feast Day for Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165 AD), considered by many to be the first great apologist of the Christian church. The apostle Paul is surely a better candidate for that distinction. But Paul was an inspired author of Scripture. This is not true of any of the other great Christian apologists. And Justin apparently was the first of these. Certainly, he is the first whose writings have survived and are available in English translation.

Justin is mentioned with admiration by many of the ancients. Tatian, his pupil (according to Irenaeus), was fond of Justin. We learn from Tertullian that he was martyred for his advocacy for Christianity. Eusebius of Caesarea, the first church historian, who was himself an apologist, has much to say about Justin.

We have an account of Justin’s conversion in chapters 7 and 8 of his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. What he recounts sounds like the story of a stranger’s witness to the truth of Christianity by various evidences and the stranger’s persuasion of an open-minded philosopher—namely, Justin—by these evidences. With the word of the stranger’s testimony, says Justin, “my spirit was immediately set on fire.”

Justin’s meditations, in addition to further study, led him to conclude that Christ had revealed “the only sure and useful philosophy.” Though the authenticity of this account is uncertain, Justin’s zeal for Christ and perseverance in defense of the faith are incontestable. Chapter 2 in the Second Apology reflects a debt to the faithful testimony of other Christians in his movement from Platonism to Christian belief (see also Second Apology, chapter 12).

His chief works in Christian apologetics include Dialogue with Trypho the Jew; First Apology; and, Second Apology. There is much that is admirable and worthy of fresh consideration in all of his writings. As to the first, the following understatement, from The Oxford Classical Dictionary, very nearly says it all: “He seems never to have been attracted to Judaism.”

Here are a few nuggets from Justin’s First Apology:

Criteria for Rational Belief

Early in his First Apology, Justin set forth a controlling principle, which we today might call a basic intellectual virtue.

Reason dictates that those who are truly pious and philosophical should honor and love only the truth, declining to follow  opinions of the ancients, if they are worthless” (chapter 2).

He invited scrutiny of the evidence and did not expect an irrationalist response to Christian preaching. And he urged his audience to weigh the evidence and resist any temptation to accept what is less reasonable because it is more palatable.

The Possibility of Resurrection

David L. Edwards relates that “as a young man he [Justin] had been a Platonist, until he had ceased to believe that souls could, if they tried hard enough, remember their pure life before birth.” This belief gave way to Christian hope in a future resurrection. For anyone who thinks it laughable that a dead body, dissolved into its constituents and diffused into the earth, might be raised physically from the dead, Justin makes an interesting observation. He asks them to imagine that they had no knowledge of the means of procreation, and to consider how they would react if they were shown both human seed and a picture of a mature human person, and then were told that from such a seed the man was produced. This would exceed anyone’s capacity to believe. And yet it would be true. As it is by the power of God that this thing comes to pass, so it is no less possible that God clothes the soul again in the future with the same body of the person who has died. He then recites Matthew 19:26 and Matthew 10:28. (See chapter 19.)

Common Ground in Reasoning with Nonbelievers

Justin also took pains to seek common ground with nonbelievers in his proclamation of Christian doctrine. The details of his method cannot be developed here. But students of Justin have examined his appeal to ancient philosophers (e.g., Socrates and Plato) in drawing out the truth of Christian belief. He held that many vital elements of God’s truth—shown forth more fully and in greater glory through the Old Testament prophets, Jesus Christ, and the New Testament writers—are latent in ancient pagan philosophers.

This point served at least two purposes. First, it pointed to the incompleteness of secular philosophies; second, it suggested such a connection with the complete truth realized in Christ that this would count in support of the Christian philosophy. (See chapters 20-23). Still, whereas “we say things similar to what the Greeks say, we only are hated on account of the name of Christ” (chapter 24). Christ’s philosophy goes beyond the classic creeds of the pagans, and this is a point of resistance for many.

Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

I find especially interesting a passage in chapter 28. Speaking of God’s delay in bringing final judgment on on Satan and his minions, Justin writes:

For the reason why God has delayed to do this is His regard for the human race; for He foreknows that some are to be saved by repentance, and perhaps some not yet born. In the beginning He made the human race with the power of thought and of choosing the truth and of acting rightly, so that all people are without excuse before God; for they have been born capable of exercising reason and intelligence.

Observe, first, Justin’s doctrine of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. He is not altogether explicit here, but he intimates that God knows in advance what men and women, including perhaps those who do not yet exist, will freely do when presented with the opportunity to repent. His mention of those who have not yet been born invites curiosity about how he might regard the Molinist doctrine of divine middle knowledge. Second, he stresses the accountability of men and women for believing what is true, on the grounds that they are created with the capacity for “exercising reason and intelligence.”

Fulfilled Prophecy

Justin put much stock in the evidence of fulfilled prophecy to support the Christian verdict about Jesus Christ. He lists many prophecies of the Hebrew prophets and reasons that they are fulfilled in Jesus. He notes that the work of Christ was predicted even by Moses (see Gen. 49:11). He appeals to Isaiah 7:14 as a foretelling of the virgin birth of Christ (see Luke 1:32 and Matt. 1:21), and to Micah 5:2 regarding the place where Christ, as Messiah, would be born. He sees in Jesus fulfillment of such  prophecies as we find in Isaiah 52:2, 58:2, Psalm 22:16, and Zechariah 9:9-10. (See chapters 30-53.)

This method in Christian apologetics is nothing new. Justin even addresses the objection that the alleged fulfillment of prophecy is evidence for fatalism (see chapters 43 and 44; see also Second Apology, chapter 7). And he mounts an inductive argument, from the fulfillment of past prophecies to the reasonable expectation that those that remain will also be fulfilled. This claim serves both as a confirmation of Christianity and as a warning not to neglect the philosophy of Christ. (See chapter 52.) Justin even rebuts the objection that the Christian doctrine of salvation is compromised, since those who, living before Christ, could not have obeyed Christ for salvation (see chapter 47).

The Second Apology

If the First Apology is a more general treatise in apologetics, the much shorter Second Apology addresses more practical concerns due to the experience of Christians under pagan persecution. He touches on the problem of divine wisdom in the permission of suffering. He includes a note about why persecuted Christians do not commit suicide (chapter 4).

Extensive Source List for the Study of Justin Martyr

  • L. W. Barnard, Justin Martyr: His Life and Thought (1967)
  • L. W. Barnard, “Justin Martyr in Recent Study,” Scottish Journal of Theology 22 (1969): 152-64
  • L. W. Barnard, Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies (Engl. trans.) (1997)
  • L. W. Barnard, “The Logis Theology of Justin Martyr,” Downside Review 89 (1971): 132-41
  • A. Bellinzoni, The Sayings of Jesus in the Writings of St. Justin Martyr (1967)
  • R. M. Berchman, From Philo to Origen: Middle Platonism in Transition (1984)
  • A. Bery, Saint Justin: Sa vie et sa doctrine (1911)
  • A. W. F. Blunt, The Apologies of Justin Martyr (1911)
  • L. R. Bush, Classical Readings in Christian Apologetics: A.D. 100-1800 (1983), 1-29
  • H. Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and Classical Tradition (1966)
  • H. Chadwick, “Justin Martyr’s Defense of Christianity,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 47 (1965): 275-97
  • F. H. Colson, “Notes on Justin Martyr, Apology,” Journal of Theological Studies 23 (1922): 161-71
  • F. L. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
  • J. Daniélou, Message évangelique et culture héllénstique (Eng. trans. 1973)
  • I. J. Davidson, The Birth of the Church: From Jesus to Constantine (2004)
  • A. J. Droge, “Justin Martyr and the Restoration of Philosophy,” Church History 56 (1987): 303-319
  • D. L. Edwards, Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years (1997)
  • M. J. Edwards, “On the Platonic Schooling of Justin Martyr,” Journal of Theological Studies 42 (1991): 17-34
  • A. A. T. Ehrhardt, “Justin Martyr’s Two Apologies,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 4 (1953): 1-16
  • M. S. Enslin, “Justin Martyr: An Appreciation,” Jewish Quarterly Review 34 (1944): 179-205
  • S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, eds., The Oxford Classical Dictionary (2003)
  • N. L. Geisler, “Justin Martyr,” in Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (2006), 395-97
  • B. L. Gildersleeve, The Apologies of Justin Martyr (1877)
  • E. R. Goodenough, The Theology of Justin Martyr (1923, 1968)
  • R. M. Grant, “Aristotle and the Conversion of Justin,” Journal of Theological Studies 7 (1956): 246-48
  • R. M. Grant, Greek Apologists of the Second Century (1988)
  • R. M. Grant, “A Woman from Rome: Justin Apol. 2.2,” Church History (1985): 461-72
  • A. Harnack, Judentum und Judenchristentum in Justinus’ Dialog mit Trypho, Texte und Untersuchungen 39 (1913)
  • H. S. Holland, “Justinus Martyr, St.,” in Dictionary of Christian Biography 3:560-87 (1882)
  • R. Holte, “Logos spermatikos: Christianity and Ancient Philosophy According to St. Justin’s Apologies,” Studia Theologica 12 (1958): 109-168
  • Justin Martyr, “Apologia,” in The Anti-Nicene Fathers, edited by A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, volume 1
  • Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (various editions)
  • Justin Martyr, First Apology (various editions)
  • Justin Martyr, Second Apology (various editions)
  • Justin Martyr, “Fragments of the Lost Work of Justin on the Resurrection,” in The Anti-Nicene Fathers, edited by A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, volume 1
  • P. Keresztes, “The Emperor Antoninus Pius and the Christians, Journal of Ecclesiastical History (1971): 1-18
  • P. Keresztes,”The Literary Genre of Justin’s First Apology,” Vigilae Christianae 19 (1965): 99-110
  • P. Keresztes,”The ‘so-called’ Second Apology of Justin,” Latomus 24 (1965): 858-69
  • M. J. Langrange, Saint Justin, Martyr (1914)
  • C. C. Martindale, Justin Martyr (1921)
  • H. Musurilla, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (1972)
  • E. F. Osborn, Justin Martyr (1973)
  • G. T. Purves, The Testimony of Justin Martyr to Early Christianity (1988)
  • J. S. Romanides, “Justin Martyr and the Fourth Gospel,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 4 (1958-1959)
  • W. A. Shotwell, The Biblical Exegesis of Justin Martyr (1965)
  • O. Sarksaune, “The Conversion of Justin Martyr,” Studia Theologica 30 (1976): 53-73)
  • O. Sarksaune,The Proof from Prophecy: A Study in Justin Martyr’s Proof-Text Tradition (1987)
  • C. I. K. Story, The Nature of Truth in the Gospel of Truth in the Writings of Justin Martyr (1971)
  • D. Trakatellis, The Pre-Existence of Christ in the Writings of Justin Martyr (1976)
  • C. J. de Vogel, “Problems Concerning Justin Martyr,” Menemosyne 31 (1978): 360-88
  • J. C. van Windon, An Early Christian Philosophy: Trypho 1-9 (1971)
  • C. M. Watts, “The Humanity of Jesus in Justin Martyr’s Soteriology,” Evangelical Quarterly 56 (1984): 21-33
  • P. R. Weis, “Some Samaritanisms of Justin Martyr,” Journal of Theological Studies 45 (1944): 199-205
  • D. F. Wright, “Christian Faith in the Greek World: Justin Martyr’s Testimony,” Evangelical Quarterly 54 (1982): 77-87
  • J. E. Wynne-Morgan, “The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience in Justin Martyr,” Vigilae Christianae 38 (1984): 172-77

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The Great Dane—Remembering Kierkegaard


Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Today is Søren Kierkegaard’s birthday. He was born May 5, 1813, in Copenhagen, Denmark. He’s been called a Christian existentialist, a fideist, a satirist, and “the melancholy Dane.” He was concerned about the disconnect between Christian profession and the lived reality of true Christianity. He called his contemporaries to a deeper personal encounter with God. And he wrote with penetrating insight about the failure of the purely aesthetic life—what we today might call secularism—which seeks pleasure without discerning its natural and ultimate end, namely, despair. Kiekegaard’s contribution is considerable, even for the evidentialist. In fact, his sermonic style may be of value to the apologist who insists on the value of evidence. E. J. Carnell, mid-twentieth century, did the most to bring Kierkegaard’s insight into an overall “combinationalist” approach to apologetics. Carnell wrote:

There can be no question that Søren Kierkegaard gave a profoundly convincing defense of the third locus of truth.

Carnell was speaking of a “third way of knowing,” which respects the tendencies of the human heart, properly submitted to God, to discern religious truth. In this, Kierkegaard (and Carnell) were like Blaise Pascal, who spoke of “reasons of the heart which reason cannot know.” Carnell’s commentary on Kierkegaard continues:

What Christianity has always assumed, Kierkegaard made explicit. . . . Saving faith is not simply an intellectual assent to objective facts. Faith is cordial trust; it is a concerned, inward response to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Until the end of time, therefore, men who remember what it means to be a person will defend the supremacy of truth as inwardness. God sent His Son to make us good, not simply to make it possible for us to recite the creeds of the church.

Carnell is saying that few apologists have noted this vital aspect of Christian belief and conduct. But he issues a caveat:

But what must be questioned is the prudence of Kiekegaard’s attempt to secure inward truth by opposing it to objective evidences. It is from his lips, not those of the biblical writers, one learns that faith must believe what understanding finds contradictory—and for that very reason. Scripture’s healthy balance of the loci of truth has been upset by Kierkegaard. Rationality was bequethed by Jesus Christ as a light by which men may penetrate the darkness of error. ‘The true light that enlightens [gives a spiritually rational nature to] every man was coming into this world’ (John 1:9). Being a rational creature, thus, man must proportion his spiritual commitments to what the mind can conscientiously clear. Apart from this distribution of authority edification is impossible. . . . Saving faith germinates only after the mind is first convinced of the sufficiency of the evidences. If Christ taught plain logical nonsense . . . a balanced man would turn aside from Him as one to be pitied, not trusted. The reason why we are able to trust Christ is that He spoke and lived in a way which is congenial with our axiological expectations.

For Carnell, our “axiological expectations” include both what is existentially compelling and what is rationally convincing. “Faith” without the soul’s commitment may not be faith at all. But what is faith if it is not grounded in good reason? For anyone can have faith in anything.

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Remembering Edward John Carnell—Some Reflections of a Great Apologist


On this date in 1967, the church lost a great Christian philosopher and apologist named Edward John Carnell. He was almost 48 years old. Today marks the 48th anniversary of his death. He was a graduate of Wheaton College and of Westminster Theological Seminary. He later earned doctoral degrees in theology and philosophy, at Harvard Divinity School and Boston University, respectively.

E. J. Carnell (1919-1967)

E. J. Carnell (1919-1967)

E. J. Carnell, was an ordained Baptist minister and one-time president of Fuller Theological Seminary. He authored numerous books, including four major works in Christian apologetics. All of these are in my personal library, well-marked and much-appreciated. He was intellectually rigorous and pastorally sensitive, a rare combination among defenders of the faith. His chief work in apologetics is the book An Introduction to Christian Apologetics. In the preface to the 4th edition (1952), Carnell asked, “If Christianity is not worth defending, what then is?” Here are a few of my favorite quotations from that book. On philosophy, logic, and experience:

Philosophy may not bake bread, but it has a strange power for making people do things. (32) We cannot choose between logic and experience. Without logic our experience cannot be normative; without experience our logic cannot be relevant to the human situation. (39) Coherence cannot stop with a segment of our experience; it must go on to embrace it all. (95)

Speaking of truth, he wrote:

The true is a quality of that judgment or proposition which, when followed out into the total witness of facts in our experience, does not disappoint our expectations. (45)

On faith he said,

Too often faith is used as an epistemological device to avoid the hard labor of straight thinking. (65)

I often ask students who are tempted to abandon their Christian faith, “But what will you believe instead?” Carnell made a similar point:

In considering Christianity, then, one must pay attention not only to the implications which flow from it as a given hypothesis, but also those which flow from its denial. (97-98)

Carnell sought to develop a full-orbed apologetic, one that is realistic about all dimensions of human aspiration and sensitivity:

The mind is drawn by the true, the will by the good, and the feelings by the beautiful.

I especially like his take on the necessity of special divine revelation:

The fundamental reason why we need special revelation is to answer the question, What must I do to be saved? Happiness is our first interest, but this happiness cannot be ours until we know just how God is going to dispose of us at the end of history. . . . Until we have definite information on the subject, we have no sure guarantee that He who made us will not also destroy us. (176)

On atheism he said,

A man must be everywhere at the same time to say there is no God, which is nothing but a short way of making himself God. (186)

What about science versus the mysteries of Scripture?

The very presence of mystery in the Bible is prima facie evidence for the fact that it is dealing with, not avoiding, reality. (208-209)

He held that our verdict regarding Jesus is worldview defining:

What a man thinks of Jesus Christ, therefore, determines his entire view of God and man. (212)

I agree. And that is why I have every confidence that settling the question of Jesus’ identity, in relation to ourselves, is the most important task any of us will be asked to consider. What about science? It is useless in dealing with the human situation:

What scientific experience can change the vile heart of man? What chemical formula can prevent man from plotting that last war which shall destroy all life? Man, as ever, needs God to give his moral life direction and reason. (229)

On the believer’s hope in the resurrection, if it never happened:

If a miracle—which never occurred—can be the basis for a real spiritual hope, then the time has come at last when we can put a square peg into a round hole and make it fit snugly. (245)

Carnell’s other great work in apologetics, called Christian Commitment, is truly original. From this book, I will allow myself only one quotation. It captures what is fundamental to any prospect of coming into Christian conviction—a willingness to be willing to obey God, come what may:

But how do we explain the fact that the Psalmist loved the law of God? The answer is, he loved the law of God because it was the will of God. (289)

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Other posts in this series . . .

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