Books on apologetics are peculiar things. People often ask me for recommendations and before I offer one, I always ask “for whom and for what do you want the book?” Because the purpose and audience of the request greatly affects which book I will recommend.
I suppose that’s true of all genres of book, to some degree, but more so I feel with apologetics. There are some books that are brilliant for recommending to someone who is exploring the Christian faith with big questions, either as an agnostic/atheist or a new Christian. For example, Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God or Andrew Wilson’s If God, then what?. Then there are some that are plainly written for Christians, as a nuts and bolts ‘how to’ manual, and which you would not want to put in the hands of someone exploring the faith from the outside, as it were. They are incredibly helpful for helping people better explain their faith but often employ jargon, or ‘us and them’ terminology that would be frankly embarrassing if a friend read it. (Somewhat like stumbling over a cannibal’s cookbook and realising ‘so that’s how you intend to eat me!’) Into that category I would put books like Greg Koukl’s Tactics. And of course, in between there is a range of other books that I would recommend to people according to their specific questions or appetite for logic-chopping, ranging from the RZIM guys to Geisler, Kreeft, Lewis, Lane Craig, et al.
I really don’t know how I would categorise John Frame’s offering!
Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction plainly, as the title suggests, sits somewhere towards the second end of the spectrum. A guide for believers to help them understand the apologetic task and to sharpen their reasoning. But to be honest I found it such an exasperating read that I can’t fathom ever recommending it to anyone. That’s not to say it was unhelpful in every respect – far from it – but there were too many things that made me wince and annotate my copy with question marks, exclamation marks or a combination thereof, to make it clear who I would ever be comfortable recommending it to. Perhaps some earnest Reformed eager beaver with a huge appetite for theology but few friends and/or communication skills. But if they asked, I would probably want to suggest something that just encouraged them to lighten up and smile little more.
The overall tone of the book is heavy. Not dense or heavy philosophically but just… weighty. I didn’t find a lot of joy in it. I suppose ‘earnest’ may be the best term for it.
A good deal of the early part of the book is spent discussing the distinction between the presuppositionalist (or Van Tillian, since Frame is a devotee of Cornelius Van Til, and has questions about the term presuppositionalist) and classical approaches to apologetics. Much of this discussion I found helpful, since I have come on a journey myself from the classical approach whilst studying philosophy as an undergraduate, towards the presuppositionalist approach in later years and especially as I have grappled with the authority of Scripture in my postgraduate Biblical Studies. Maybe I’ll write more about this at some point…
But what surprised me was how turned off I felt by the particular packaging of Frame’s presuppositionalism. The way he exposed the presuppositions of others was brilliant, demolishing the myth of neutrality, and he made some useful suggestions for how to help others recognise the underlying assumptions that all of us hold which colour of our interpretation of data. But I never felt he gave reason enough for the Christian presupposition in the authority of Scripture; not a reason, at least, that would be compelling to anyone who didn’t already believe it. And so the barrage of bible quotes that he threw out became somewhat tiring. I feel that at some point the presuppositionalist does need to do some more work at establishing good reasons for the authority of Scripture and also communicating some basic hermeneutics to explain how one gets from Scripture to a reasoned worldview.
Frame’s presuppositions are rooted in Scripture, but not only that; in a particular approach to Scripture – a Reformed approach. I have no problem with that, being largely Reformed in my own theology. But although it is a cliché to say it, I just find that there is a ‘Reformed tone’ that comes through in writers of a particular type, which I find quite off-putting. (And before one rejects a cliché, one should always ask why that cliché came into being in the first place and whether there may be an ounce of truth it in. Books like this don’t help to undo the clichéd claims that Calvinists are joyless, logic-chopping pedants!) Frame is dismissive of Arminian views, or quick to argue that if the Arminian thought through his view properly he’d end up a Calvinist. His chapter on unbiblical approaches to theodicy too quickly (to my mind) dismissed the free-will argument and didn’t sufficiently address whether a combination of these failed attempts might yield some fruit, or whether one approach may be a genuinely helpful argument in certain (if not all) situations.
What’s more there are moments where he just feels a little inflexible, offering quasi-fundamentalist rants about subjects like creation and evolution or inerrancy which are hardly backed up and which paint anyone who may have an alternative view (however nuanced) as idolaters who have sold out their biblical worldview. That doesn’t endear me to him.
What should have been a delightful end to the book turned out to be quite frustrating (though illuminating!). A fourteen page imaginary dialogue between John and a guy he bumped into on an aeroplane, showing how the theory of the previous chapters can be put into practice. What struck me most was how Al (the agnostic) comes across as a normal, likeable guy and John sounds pushy, arrogant and at times downright rude! If I had been Al, I would have begged the flight attendant to move me to a different seat by the end of page 2, and if my request had been denied I might seriously have considered throwing either myself or my interlocutor off the plane by about page 6.
To be fair, Frame does admit that discussions with people on the street (or in the air) are not his natural milieu, and he also does preface the chapter by saying the following:
This is not a realistic dialogue. In most real conversations of this sort, much time is wasted through misunderstandings, impoliteness, digressions, incidental occurrences, failed attempts at humour, etc. (p204)
And perhaps therein lies the thing that wound me up about the chapter, and the book as a whole. If someone considers the normal etiquette of day-to-day conversation to be time wasting, then that tells me a great deal about his approach to relationship and evangelism. For me, any one-on-one apologetics discussion that does not include all of those elements is likely to be pretty forced, inauthentic and combative. I did those discussions during my philosophy degree and they won me some arguments, lost me some friends and made no discernible difference for the Kingdom. Rather than wasting time, humour, misunderstanding, digressions and the suchlike often build relationship; and it is out of relationship, trust and mutual enjoyment that I want to have honest and open conversations about matters of faith.
Having said all that – which has mainly been a critique of tone rather than content – there were three takeaways that I am genuinely very thankful for, and one of which especially has given me a lot to think about.
These will be the subjects of my next posts…