January 2023 Academic Newsletter

Cornelius Van Til and Presuppositional Apologetics at P&R

by John J. Hughes

As a young Christian and philosophy major at Vanderbilt University in the 1960s, I longed to lay my hands on biblically faithful, academically solid apologetics books, but all I knew at the time were C. S. Lewis’s books, for which I was and am grateful. During my senior year, at a weekly Campus Crusade for Christ meeting, two recent graduates of Westminster Theological Seminary passed out free copies of Francis Schaeffer’s Escape from Reason, in which they had stamped the name, address, and phone number of their new church. I devoured Schaeffer’s little book, and then called these men. If there was one book like this, maybe they knew of others!

The men told me about Cornelius Van Til and said that if I were to write to him and include $5 for postage, he would send me some of his books. I followed their advice, and Dr. Van Til sent me a whole library in four or five of the largest padded mailing envelopes I had ever seen! I dove in headfirst, and by the time I surfaced, I was dead set on going to WTS, which I did.

I soon learned that most of Dr. Van Til’s books had been published by Presbyterian and Reformed, now P&R Publishing, which subsequently became the publisher for John M. Frame’s large corpus, as well as for other apologists, such as Vern S. Poythress, William Edgar, K. Scott Oliphint, Richard L. Pratt Jr., Richard B. Ramsay, Greg L. Bahnsen, and Ronald H. Nash, many of whom are WTS graduates and professors. 

P&R is widely recognized for pioneering the publishing of books on presuppositional apologetics, all of which, to a greater or lesser extent, can trace their lineage to Van Til’s groundbreaking insights. We have updated these five most significant and helpful Van Til books by restoring the full text of their original editions and by annotating the volumes:

  • Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed., edited by William Edgar.
  • Christian Theistic Evidences, 2nd ed., edited by K. Scott Oliphint.
  • Common Grace and the Gospel, 2nd ed., edited by K. Scott Oliphint.
  • The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., edited by K. Scott Oliphint.
  • An Introduction to Systematic Theology, edited by William Edgar.

Van Til’s most famous student is John M. Frame, who taught at WTS, WSC, and RTS (Orlando), until his retirement. John’s best-known apologetics books are: 

  • Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief, edited by Joseph E. Torres.
  • No Other God: A Response to Open Theism.
  • A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, which won the 2017 ECPA Gold Medallion Award in the Bible Reference Works category.

Other noteworthy P&R publications on apologetics include:

  • Vern S. Poythress, Philosophy, Science, and the Sovereignty of God.
  • William Edgar, Reasons of the Heart: Recovering Christian Persuasion.
  • K. Scott Oliphint, Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology.
  • Richard L. Pratt Jr., Every Thought Captive: A Study Manual for the Defense of the Truth.
  • Richard B. Ramsay, The Certainty of the Faith: Apologetics in an Uncertain World.
  • Ronald H. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man.
  • Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis.

P&R’s apologetics books have fostered presuppositionalism, and this has had a deeply formative intellectual influence on Christians throughout the world. Presuppositionalism is a self-conscious recognition of God’s lordship in the area of human epistemology. It is, as John Frame has written, “a basic commitment of the heart to bring all reasoning under the lordship of Christ” (Systematic Theology, 1134).

Because he is Lord, God necessarily speaks with absolute authority. His words are trustworthy and true; they are not to be doubted. His written Word should be the basic presupposition for everyone who wishes to know him and his world. No other words should take precedence over his Word. To grant any other words greater authority than the Lord’s words is a form of unfaithfulness. His Word is the word we should use to judge all truth claims. Thus, a distinctively Christian epistemology is grounded in God’s lordship and his revelation of himself in Scripture. Reasoning autonomously is antithetical to a true Christian epistemology. 

When I was a student at WTS, I was privileged to study under Dr. Van Til and to help edit one of his books. Dr. Van Til had a great sense of humor, a deep compassion for people, and a razor-sharp mind. In 1971, P&R published Dr. Van Til’s Festschrift, Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til. This was a big event at WTS, and we students eagerly started reading it. One of the most helpful chapters was written by Dr. Van Til himself and is called “My Credo.” This basic, non-philosophical introduction to his thought is one of the best summaries available, and I encourage anyone interested in Van Til and in presuppositional apologetics to read it.

Now Thank We All Our God — Excerpt taken from 40 Favorite Hymns for the Christian Year

Now thank we all our God

With heart and hands and voices,

Who wondrous things hath done,

In whom his world rejoices;

Who from our mothers’ arms,

Hath blessed us on our way

With countless gifts of love,

And still is ours today.

________________________________

O may this bounteous God

Through all our life be near us,

With ever-joyful hearts

And blessed peace to cheer us;

And keep us in his grace,

And guide us when perplexed,

And free us from all ills

In this world and the next.

________________________________

All praise and thanks to God

The Father now be given,

The Son, and him who reigns

With them in highest heaven—

The one eternal God,

Whom earth and heav’n adore;

For thus it was, is now,

And shall be evermore.

________________________________

This hymn was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth, who claimed that her calling was to translate German hymns for English Christians. The first step toward gaining an understanding of the poem is to reconstruct the historical context in which it was written. As were many great hymns, this one was forged in the crucible of terrible suffering.

The author was a Lutheran pastor in Eilenburg, Saxony, during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). Martin Rinkart arrived to begin his pastorate in the city the year before the war broke out and died the year after it ended. The walled city of Eilenburg not only was overrun three times by hostile armies but was also subject to famine and epidemic illness. During his pastorate in the besieged city, Rinkart presided over more than four thousand burials—including that of his wife.

Knowing this context is important to our experience of this poem in two ways. First, it dispels any suspicion that the extreme sentiments expressed in the poem are facile or glib. Second, it shows us that we can be grateful to God even amid terrible deprivation and misery.

If we ask what makes this hymn the “signature” Thanksgiving hymn, an obvious answer is its magical opening line, which strikes the authentic thanksgiving note. At the beginning of a Thanksgiving service, members of the congregation are of one mind and expectation. They are “all” there to “thank .  .  . our God,” and they are primed to do it “now.” The opening line of the poem captures all of that. To add to this exuberant spirit, the second line claims that this thanks is springing forth from heart, hands, and voices. All the organ stops are pulled out. The triad of heart, hands, and voices foreshadows a technique used throughout the poem of enumerating two, three, or more items—as though one on its own is totally inadequate to express the heightened feelings of the occasion.

The remainder of the opening stanza is a short catalog of blessings for which the thanks in the first line is being expressed—a catalog that ranges from an all-inclusive wondrous things to personal blessings beginning back in our earliest infancy in our mothers’ arms to an expansive countless gifts of love.

The second stanza shifts from a corporate giving of thanks to a corporate prayer or wish. The rhetoric of exuberance continues to explode with an ongoing list of things that the poet wishes for—four of which follow his initial request and are all introduced with “and.” It is as though once the poet started thinking about his subject, his thoughts kept tumbling out one after another. To clinch this expansive burst, the last line speaks of both this world and the next. This poem “thinks big.”

After this middle stanza of prayer, the poem’s final stanza returns to the mode of giving corporate thanks to God. The high style continues unabated in this stanza. Its opening line expresses not simply thanks but praise and thanks. The recipient of this praise is identified not in a general sense as God but as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the latter of whom is given the exalted epithet him who reigns with them in highest heaven). This eternal God is adored both on earth and in heaven and praised in the past, the present, and the future.

This poem goes “all out” in its exuberant expression of thanks. It exudes energy because its lines are mainly run-on, meaning that a thought keeps flowing at the end of a line instead of stopping. In this and other ways, it perfectly expresses the excitement of a Thanksgiving church service.

Any attempt to link this poem to Bible verses yields the proverbial embarrassment of riches—hymn websites list dozens of examples. One of the passages is the prayer David offered in the assembly of Israel when the people brought contributions for the building of the Temple. After extolling God’s greatness, David prayed,

And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name. (1 Chron. 29:13)



Author Interview with Esther Smith

This week’s author interview is with Esther Smith. She is the author of our brand new release: A Still and Quiet Mind: Twelve Strategies for Changing Unwanted Thoughts as well as Chronic Illness: Walking by Faith (31-Day Devotionals for Life).

  • Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am originally from a small town called Darlington located in Western, PA. After college, I moved to Baltimore with my husband and we have lived in the area ever since. We have been married for 12 years and share our home with two huge cane corsos named Bella and Bug. 

I have worked as a counselor for the past 10 years and feel so grateful for the work I get to do every day. I recently began counseling through my own private practice and specialize in offering care to people struggling with anxiety, trauma, and chronic pain. I also teach online Christian meditation classes, which is one of my favorite things I get to do each week! 

In my free time, I enjoy cooking dishes from around the world and creating my own recipes from whatever happens to be in the fridge. I also love being outside any chance I can get, especially if my dogs get to come with me. And you can usually find me in the middle of a few books, some for work and some for fun. For pleasure reading, I like to read a wide variety of genres from science fiction and fantasy to memoirs, mysteries, and psychological thrillers.  

  • What inspired you to write this book, about this topic?

A lot of ideas converged in my counseling and ministry work that led me to write this book. I was first prompted to consider this topic when a friend invited me to speak on “taking every thought captive” at a church event. This talk left me wrestling with some questions. What does this phrase actually mean? Is thought change really as simple as getting rid of one difficult or unbiblical thought and replacing it with a true thought? 

At the same time, I was counseling people who were suffering with a wide range of challenging thought patterns. They would often lament to me that their attempts to replace difficult or untrue thoughts with what they knew to be true from Scripture weren’t effective. Many of the messages they had heard about thought change felt too simplistic for their complicated struggles and simply were not working for them. And I could relate. In my own struggles with feeling stressed and anxious and dealing with chronic pain, I felt like I needed more help for my thoughts. 

I began experimenting with a number of practical strategies to help people address their thoughts more specifically and more holistically. I also developed a personal Christian meditation practice that I began sharing with my clients. As I worked with more and more people, I found that with a lot of practice and customization to a person’s individual struggle, these strategies really worked. And these are the strategies that form the basis of this book that I hope will be helpful to many more people. 

  • Do you have a specific spot where you enjoy writing most?

I love to write outside. That usually looks like dragging my favorite chair out to a sunny spot in our backyard. My dogs might be playing in the background. I might have a drink to sip on. And I always move my chair little by little to follow the sunshine wherever it goes. 

  • Do you have a favorite author? Who is it and why? 

One of my favorite authors is Diane Langberg. She was one of the first authors I read who helped me understand how to be a professionally competent counselor who brings Christ into my counseling. The way she connected the gospel to helping people heal from the wounds of trauma was groundbreaking for me and helped me consider how to make similar connections in other areas of counseling work. I go back to her devotional for counselors time and time again because it is so relatable and grounds me in what really matters. 

  • What book are you reading now?

Right now I’m in the middle of a memoir by Daniel Nayeri called Everything Sad is Untrue. He is an expert storyteller and weaves his family history into a beautiful book that is hard to put down. 

  • How can readers discover more about you and your work?

NOW AVAILABLE — A Still and Quiet Mind: Twelve Strategies for Changing Unwanted Thoughts

Amazon: $15.99

Christianbook: $13.29

P&R Publishing: $9.59

WTSBooks: $10.39

Kindle: $9.99

iTunes: $9.99


Author Interview with Ryan Kelly

This week’s author interview is with Ryan Kelly. He is the author of our brand new release: Calls to Worship, Invocations, and Benedictions.

  • Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’ve lived in a number of states and usually outside of major cities: I spent my childhood near Chicago, my teens near Houston, two years near Oklahoma City, a number of years back in Texas, three years in Michigan, and the last ten years near Philadelphia where my wife Noelle and I currently live with our three daughters. Like many professional musicians, my career has spanned multiple disciplines. I work partly in the academic sector (I’m a professor of music at West Chester University of Pennsylvania) and partly in vocational ministry (I’ve spent decades as a music director and liturgist in churches around the country). Hobbies . . . I enjoy playing softball, smoking brisket Texas-style, composing music, and writing. 

  • Have you always enjoyed writing?

I’ve enjoyed writing since I was in my early teens when I started writing articles for neighborhood newspapers and regional periodicals. Though I speak publicly in many venues and enjoy doing so, I always feel I’m at my most persuasive when writing. 

  • What inspired you to write this book, about this topic?

First, I wanted to offer worship leaders a resource to help them plan worship—not solely a collection of calls, invocations, and benedictions, but a sourcebook that might help them match a theme, scripture, time of year, etc. I also wanted to offer some historical perspective on the development and liturgical function of these elements. 

  • Do you have an interesting writing quirk?

Years of computers crashing in the late-90s and early-00s instilled in me a habit of hitting “Ctrl-S” to save my work multiple times a minute, saving drafts of works in multiple files (in case one of them got corrupted), and e-mailing manuscripts to myself . . . all to ensure I had multiple backup copies in case of a disaster. One can’t be too careful!!

  • What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Teaching talented writers to improve their craft is difficult; teachers usually spend more time with struggling students than with those who aren’t. I found myself nearing thirty years old when one of my doctoral dissertation committee members gave me the lowest grade on a paper I’d ever received. I was upset because all their red marks were, in my opinion, stylistic; however, I was determined to learn. So, I set up a meeting with the professor. When I told them, “There are no errors in this paper,” they responded, “Just because there are no errors doesn’t make it good.” This short sentence tremendously impacted me as a scholar, professional, and writer. Lack of error is never the final benchmark for “good.” To aspiring writers I would say: Learn how to edit your own work. Bloat and redundancy kills readers’ receptivity to your message. Less is more. If you have to explain what you just wrote, then you didn’t write it simply enough. If you want to get better—ask a friend or colleague to meticulously criticize your work and learn from them!

  • Favorite flavor of ice cream?

German Chocolate Cake

  • The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia?

Can I change the question to Star Trek or Star Wars? Star Trek, hands down. Yes, I can name the supporting guest actors going back to episodes in the 60s. Yes, I have been to a Star Trek convention. Yes, I own Star Trek novels. And yes, I have been to the Star Trek Original Set Tour in Ticonderoga, New York. Oh . . . I forgot, you asked about Lord of the Rings and Narnia? I like both. But I don’t love them like I love Star Trek!

  • Tea or coffee? 

Coffee, black, very hot. 

  • Favorite sport to watch? Favorite sport’s team?

Chicago Cubs baseball forever!

  • How can readers discover more about you and your work?

NOW AVAILABLE — Calls to Worship, Invocations, and Benedictions

Amazon: $19.99

Christianbook: $15.99

CVBBS: $13.50

P&R Publishing: $11.99

PCA Bookstore: $15.59

WTSBooks: $13.35


The Heart of the Cross — NOW AVAILABLE

The Heart of the Cross by James Montgomery Boice & Philip Graham Ryken

176 pages | Hardcover | Price: $17.99 $10.79 | SAMPLE CHAPTER

About

In twenty-one meditative readings, pastor-theologians James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken meet the troubled, skeptical, and restless. And, with insights both simple and profound, they draw us to the heart of our faith: Christ and his cross.

Reprint of the 1999/2005 book from Crossway

Endorsements

“This book is pure, undiluted gospel: biblical, accessible, and worshipful. I warmly commend it.”

—Dane Ortlund, Senior Pastor, Naperville Presbyterian Church; Author, Gentle and Lowly

“Ryken and Boice reveal how both the wonder and the work of Jesus impact time and eternity, informing our worship and our discipleship.”

—Ed Stetzer, Founding Editor, The Gospel Project; Editor in Chief, Outreach Magazine

The Heart of the Cross takes the reader on a personal journey to the real cross of Christ, where one stands amazed at the unfathomable grace of God.”

—Gary Chapman, Author, The Five Love Languages

“Here you find not only beautiful Lenten messages on the purpose and power of the cross of our Lord Jesus but messages that will enlighten and encourage you all year long.”

—Kevin M. Smith, Senior Pastor, New City Fellowship Church, Chattanooga

“Philip Ryken and the late James Boice have given us a timeless gift. Read it devotionally, and be enriched by the paradoxical glory and wonder of the cross.”

—Irwyn L. Ince, Executive Director, GraceDC Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission; Author, The Beautiful Community