The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what The Big Box is all about.
In preparation for this series, I made a list of all the CDs in my Big Box. If you read the introductory post, you already know that there were around 40 of these, so yes, it was a little overwhelming at first! So many lectures, so little time!
Or so I thought. As it turned out, the longer I looked at the list, a pattern began to emerge. Some titles were clearly about Vision Forum’s core doctrines; some were about important practices derived from said doctrines. Others “zoomed in” on those practices, examining them in more detail. And still others seemed almost unimportant, at best only peripherally related to the core doctrines or not related at all.
These four categories turned out to be a godsend. I quickly sorted the titles and decided I would chart my course through the Big Box from the center outward – begin by analyzing the core doctrines themselves; move on to looking at the broad outlines of the practices they foster; examine some more specific implications of those practices; and end by looking at the peripheral matters, which add detail to the picture but probably won’t tell us much on their own about Vision Forum’s distinctive beliefs. Thus, we’ll begin The Big Box with the “first tier” titles – those that deal with the central, foundational doctrines Vision Forum promotes.
As I looked at the “first tier” CDs, one jumped out at me as especially important – How to Think Like a Christian. What could be more foundational than Vision Forum’s definition of a Christian? If we have this definition wrong, we will misunderstand everything from here on out. This really is the “foundation of the foundation”!
And so, without further ado, let’s begin our journey through the jungles of the Big Box. Grab your machete, and keep a sharp eye – you never know what might be lurking in the bushes.
The theme of How to Think Like a Christian (speaker Doug Phillips) turns out to be “the war of the worldviews.” As you might expect, this is a pun on H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds. Phillips derives his metaphor from the infamous 1938 radio dramatization of the novel (see Wikipedia article here), which caused widespread panic when listeners believed that “little green Martians” were actually invading Earth. There are no “little green Martians,” Phillips says, but there are “little green Martian philosophies” which, just like Wells’ Martians, are invading your home and your church.
After quoting Hebrews 11:1 (“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”), Phillips expands upon this “war of the worldviews” theme:
Christianity is supremely rational. Christianity is a belief system based on faith, but it is a faith which is supremely rational. … Every other worldview, every other thought system, is also based on faith, but they are inherently irrational. I’m gonna make that case during this talk, that if you are a Christian, and you believe even when you don’t have empirical evidence, and you believe because the Bible says it, that is rational, but if you are a person who only believes like Thomas, when you put your finger through the holes of the hand or when you have empirical evidence, you are a humanist.
It is easy to deduce from the above that Phillips believes an empiricist, and for that matter any non-Christian, is inherently “irrational” in their thinking.
Though many may not realize it, Phillips uses extremely significant language in the above quote. The terminology of Christianity being the only “rational” religion is drawn from Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), a Dutch Calvinist theologian widely known as the father of presuppositional apologetics. For those unfamiliar with this term, here is a handy summary from Steven Cowan’s book Five Views on Apologetics (I recommend reading his descriptions here of the other four views to fully understand what makes presuppositionalism unique):
Due to the noetic [of or relating to mental activity or the intellect] effects of sin, presuppositionalists usually hold that there is not enough common ground between believers and unbelievers that would allow followers of the prior three methods [classical, evidential and cumulative case apologetics] to accomplish their goals. The apologist must simply presuppose the truth of Christianity as the proper starting point in apologetics. Here the Christian revelation in the Scriptures is the framework through which all experience is interpreted and all truth is known. Various evidences and arguments can be advanced for the truth of Christianity, but these at least implicitly presuppose premises that can be true only if Christianity is true. Presuppositionalists attempt, then, to argue transcendentally. That is, they argue that all meaning and thought – indeed, every fact – logically presupposes the God of the Scriptures.
Notice especially the last sentence. If all meaning, thought and facts logically require the Christian God to make sense, then anyone who does not believe in the Christian God, according to presuppositionalists, cannot by definition think rationally as they must abandon logic and reason to accept their worldview. Van Til put it more succinctly:
The argument in favor of Christian theism must therefore seek to prove if one is not a Christian-theist [he means a regenerate believer] he knows nothing whatsoever as he ought to know about anything … On the contrary, the Christian-theist must claim that he alone has true knowledge about cows and chickens as well as about God.
Calling non-Christians “irrational” is not the only way Phillips reveals his sympathies with Van Til. Throughout the lecture, he also emphasizes that there are no “zones of neutrality” between Christians and unbelievers. From D. R. Trethewie:
Van Til is critical also of the idea of common ground implicit in the traditional apologetic. “On this point I may say that if the idea of neutral territory (common to Christians and unbelievers) does fairly represent the traditional view, then I can only disagree with it.” Common Grace and the Gospel, page 155. What he castigates is, “The Aquinas-Butler type of argument (which) assumed that there is an area of fact on the interpretation of which Christians and non-Christians agree.” Introduction to Warfield’s Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, page 20, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970.
Van Til suggests, as noted above, that believers and unbelievers have the facts in common, but the perspective of unbelievers so distorts the facts, that their view of them is so substantially different from that of Christians that there can be no agreement.
It follows from this perspective that, since Christians and non-Christians can never agree on anything, there must be a distinctly Christian position on each and every subject. After all, if there is not, then we run the risk of agreeing with an unbeliever, which is, according to Van Til, impossible unless we as Christians compromise our presuppositional integrity.
You may be thinking at this point that Van Til is overstating his case. I’m sure we can all think of areas in which we as Christians agree with our non-Christian friends, and not only on inconsequential matters such as our preferred brand of cheese puffs. Most people, for instance, agree that murder and child molestation are heinous crimes. We can also think of substantial areas of agreement between Christianity and certain other religions – for instance, the shared belief in one God between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, though Christians, Jews and Muslims would disagree on the nature of that deity. This would seem to contradict Van Til’s assertion that the search for common ground will inevitably end in failure. From Trethewie:
…reason is therefore capable of apprehending and acknowledging the first truths of religion, i.e. that God exists and that the Bible is the Word of God. Also that the unconverted are quite capable of making valid judgments concerning natural, moral and political questions. They affirm also that unbelievers, although dead to saving faith, are able to acknowledge much gospel truth, e.g. that Jesus is the Messiah. …
Now we would say that not all unbelievers deny the existence and work of God. Some do in word, and all do so, more or less, in a practical way, but many would defend the truth of His existence and work.
The apostle James teaches this clearly, ‘Thou believest there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe and tremble.’ James 2:19. To the unregenerate king, Agrippa, Paul says, ‘Believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.’ Acts 26:27. Paul’s bold remark includes the affirmation of their common agreement in this belief. Paul also, in a spirit of gracious acknowledgement, intrinsic to the glorious gospel of peace, and quite contrary to the aggressive unfriendliness of Kuyperianism [Van Til’s belief system] to the lost, over whom Christ would rather weep, affirmed common ground with the Greeks in Athens, when he said, ‘As certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.’ Acts 17:28. .. Jesus’ gracious and encouraging remark to a scribe, not yet a Christian, clearly acknowledges this man’s reasoning ability, ‘And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said to him, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.”‘ Mark 12:34. The context shows Jesus’ agreement with this as yet unregenerate scribe in their common affirmation of the two great commandments.
Surely if common ground can be found between Christians and demons – belief in one God – then our non-Christian neighbors should be no problem!
The above should make us very leery of accepting Phillips’ statements about neutrality and unbelievers’ supposed “irrationality.” Unfortunately these ideas are central to Phillips’ entire view of Christianity. One of his “key Christian worldview foundations,” outlined near the end of the lecture, is that there are no “zones of neutrality” in life, due to Jesus’ lordship over all things. Another is that the Bible is sufficient to address all possible questions we might have about how to conduct our lives:
God has given us everything we need in the Scripture by way of precept (direct command) or pattern (normative examples) or principle (broad conclusions drawn from patterns or precepts)…such that we can wisely live and choose our life…
In another place Phillips urges his listeners to try “the desert island challenge,” by which he means to imagine themselves trapped on a desert island with nothing but a Bible and see if they can still justify their beliefs using only that standard. He also says several times that there is no subject on which the Bible is silent, most notably near the beginning of the lecture:
…every possible subject, including your educational methodology, all you need to go to is the Bible to find the principles, the precepts and the patterns whereby you can build your entire world and life view, and to challenge you that to the extent you are not building your worldview on the Scripture, you are a humanist.
We can conclude from the above quote that Phillips does not believe in the silence of Scripture. This is confirmed by even a brief perusal of Vision Forum’s website, which reveals that Phillips and his colleagues think the Bible talks about dating, schooling, children’s toys, and even the food on our dinner tables. Most Christians outside of Phillips’ influence believe these are what Paul calls “doubtful things,” issues on which Scripture gives no clear answer or no answer at all (see Romans 14:1-13). Paul urges charity toward Christians who come to different conclusions than ourselves on these matters, yet Phillips, in this very lecture, calls those who disagree with him “humanists,” “Gnostics,” “unbiblical” and their arguments “folly.”
Perhaps you’re wondering by now how Phillips and his associates support the idea that the Bible is never silent on a given issue. Remember Phillips said above that God teaches us in the Bible through precepts, patterns and principles – precepts defined as “direct commands,” patterns as “normative examples,” and principles as “broad conclusions drawn from patterns or precepts.”
Let’s use the example of children’s toys to explore this issue. Anyone even remotely familiar with Vision Forum knows that they sell heavily gendered “pink and blue” toys, but if you’re like most Christians, you’re probably having trouble remembering the specific Biblical injunction against girls playing with “boy’s toys.” This is probably because there isn’t one – Vision Forum derives their stance on this matter from broader theological theories about gender roles and the role of women in home, church and society. And this is exactly why Phillips can claim that the Bible speaks, often in detail, to every possible problem. If he frames the issue broadly enough, he can make it apply to just about anything; and if you disagree with him about how the broader question should be specifically applied, you are denying “unchanging Biblical principles” and are thus “thinking like a humanist.”
Phillips’ stance on the silence of Scripture and his adherence to the theories of Van Til are only two of his “key Christian worldview foundations,” and the most troublesome. The others are much more mainstream but still deserve brief comment.
First, Phillips’ statements about the sovereignty and immutability of God are heavily Calvinistic. God, he says, is sovereign over our diet, our marriages, and our math textbooks. He planned and still controls every last microscopic detail of history and can elect to salvation whomever He pleases. Now there’s nothing wrong with Phillips being a Calvinist, but the fact that he tries to present Calvinism as the only acceptable Christian opinion is problematic, as it renders Arminians, Lutherans and any other non-Calvinists inherently un-Christian.
Second, Phillips makes some passing references to the Mosaic civil law when he talks about the Bible being relevant to today’s society. It is well-documented that Phillips is a Christian Reconstructionist (thus his fondness for the Mosaic civil law), but unfortunately I don’t have time in this review to fully address this point. For now, I will only point you to Frederick Clarkson’s work on the subject until a more opportune time.
So, to wrap up, let’s review what we’ve learned from How to Think Like a Christian:
1. By his own admission, and based on his statements about the “irrationality” of unbelievers and the impossibility of finding common ground between believers and unbelievers, Doug Phillips is a disciple of Cornelius Van Til. This is an important point, as the father of Christian Reconstructionism, R. J. Rushdoony, was also a great admirer of Van Til and Phillips is a Reconstructionist.
2. Phillips incorporates Van Til’s theories into his basic definition of Christianity. Thus, I can only conclude that if you do not accept these theories, you are, in Doug’s view, “sub-Christian” at best.
3. Phillips does not believe in the silence of Scripture. This will be an important point to remember as we examine the practices he derives from his Biblical “principles” (such as courtship, homeschooling, etc.).
4. Phillips is a hardline Calvinist and implies heavily that Calvinism is the only “Biblical” view (as opposed to Arminianism, etc.).
Looks like we’ve survived our first foray into the Big Box! But stay tuned, folks…this is just the beginning.