[The following is my full interview with Veritas Domain, from March 26, 2014]
Note: We appreciate Brian Rickett taking the time to contribute to this interview in light of his busy schedule with ministries as a Professor and a Pastor. It is my prayer that God will allow him a full recovery after his accident that led to a broken neck. Mr. Rickett also maintains a blog that you might want to bookmark. –SLIMJIM
1.) Describe your current ministry to the Lord and your educational background.
I’ve always considered myself to be a minister who tries to seize every legitimate opportunity to serve the Lord, not exclusively any one thing, but just a minister, generally speaking. This has at times included pastoring, church planting, and academic work, often simultaneously.
Since my M.Div. days, though, I have been a classroom instructor specializing in biblical languages. My testimony about this can be found here. I began with the Logos Bible Institute of Grace Community Church, then added The Master’s Seminary, and then College. I taught on an adjunct basis from 1998-2008, for a combined 10 years, the last 5 of which was in a full time staff position for the biblical counseling department at TMC. During that 10 year period, I was blessed to be able to teach the Bible in five languages in a variety of settings, as well as in each of the divisions in a typical theological curriculum.
Most relevant to this interview, I considered my emphasis to be the application of original language exegesis to theological systems/methods, particularly apologetic and counseling methodology. During my time at TMC/TMS, I was able to teach both apologetics and counseling, and integrated these into a single MABC course—BC509: Apologetics and Biblical Counseling.
Those familiar Van Tillian thought will know that nouthetic counseling is essentially Van Til’s model applied to the ministry of discipleship. Even more, though, one of his fundamental contributions was to urge a consistent application of reformed theology to every area of thought, life, and ministry. The guys who started/currently oversee the Biblical Counseling department at TMC did their terminal degrees at Westminster and understand this. This was part of the reason John Street hired me to work in his counseling department back in ’04.
When we moved to Arkansas in 2008 to plant the church where I now pastor, we naturally incorporated the best of what I had learned and taught into our church’s ministry philosophy. In that sense, our whole philosophy of ministry is a Van Tillian model applied to a Bible Church, i.e. non-Presbyterian ecclesiology. Here’s a sample of how we typically present it:
Our philosophy of ministry is three pronged.
1. Preaching/Teaching. Key to the health of any church is biblically faithful preaching and teaching. God takes the preaching and teaching of His Word extremely seriously (James 3:1). So, a key distinctive of The Bible Church of Beebe is a very high view of those tasks (Ezra 7:10; 2 Tim 2:15). Specifically, our pulpit and teaching ministries strive to be characterized by passionate, word by word and verse by verse expositional preaching/teaching that bring biblical principles to bear on the life of the believer. Typically, we gather three times a week. On Sunday mornings I preach from the NT. On Sunday evenings I preach from the OT or address some or another issue. On Wednesday nights I typically teach theology, counseling, or apologetics. Currently, though, our Wednesday evening services are suspended due to a car accident in which I broke my neck. We hope to recommence Wednesday evening services this summer.
2. Shepherding the Flock. As the most basic function of shepherding, discipling believers is fundamental to our ministry. Discipleship means to train believers to faithfully follow Christ. We work hard at this. Further, our shepherding model includes biblical counseling, which we also describe as intensive discipleship. Biblical counseling means that we endeavor to assist believers in honoring Christ through specific challenges. Finally, we endeavor to equip the saints “to do the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12). So, one of our distinctives is that we are committed to Christ-centered discipleship, an important component of which is biblical counseling (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:1-3).
3. Evangelism/Apologetics. We are committed to faithfully obeying the many commands of Scripture to engage in evangelism and apologetics (Matt 28:18-20; 2 Cor 10:3-5; 2 Pet 3:15; Acts 17:23-31). In evangelism, we endeavor to proclaim the Gospel to unbelievers with a message and method that honors Christ (2 Tim. 4:5). In apologetics/irenics, we actively endeavor to defend the system of Christian truth, and to respond biblically to the many challenges that come against biblical Christianity (Titus 1:9; 2 Tim 4:3-5). So, we are committed to evangelizing the lost and to providing a reasoned defense of the system of Christian truth. We boldly proclaim that Christianity is not a blind faith, but that it is the only internally coherent and rationally viable worldview.
The academic year following the church’s organization, I returned to the classroom teaching biblical language and other courses for the Baptist Missionary Association Theological Seminary. BMATS was founded in the 1950s, has about 175 students on its two campuses, in Jacksonville, Tex. and Conway, Ark. The Ark. campus is about 25 miles from our church. We planted the church relatively close to the seminary to give students an opportunity to study our ministry model, while reaching an area without a similar church.
Currently, I am both the Pastor-teacher of The Bible Church of Beebe as well as Professor of Biblical Studies for BMATS—amazingly, by God’s grace I get to teach all of my favorite subjects in both the church and classroom. Beginning June 1st, however, I will add an administrative role. At that time I will become Administrator of BMATS, Arkansas. There will be some other exciting developments at our campus that may be of interest to your readers. You’ll want to check up with the seminary in early June to see what’s happening.
As Administrator/Director of BMATS, Ark, I hope to continue refining our curriculum, and training students in the tasks of expository preaching, biblical counseling, and presuppositional apologetics based on solid exegesis. Already we have brought in a biblical counseling professor (John Street) from The Master’s College on an adjunct basis to teach Introduction to Biblical Counseling. There are other things as well, but check back in June.
Educational Background: I did a BS in Bible (1996, Central Baptist College, Conway, Ark.), M.Div. (2000, The Master’s Seminary), Th.M. in OT (2003, TMS), and did Th.D. work in OT (2004-07) for a time until a debilitating eye condition forced me to become inactive. However, in connection to improvements with my eyes, increasing cultural challenges, and my new administrative role at BMATS, I’ve begun the new D.Min. program in Christian Worldview and Cultural Engagement at SWBTS. I know what you’re thinking—yes, they knew who I was when they accepted me.
Going forward, I expect to devote a strong percentage of my energies to issues related to worldview and cultural engagement and in preparing Christian leaders to do the same. I invite readers interested in getting this sort of diverse, cutting edge training to shoot me an email. I would be glad to talk about how BMATS can give them a robust set of ministry tools they can use in their chosen ministry environments.
2.) How did you became a Presuppositionalist?
I became a presuppositionalist at TMS during my M.Div. days. I am attracted to multi-perspectival thinking in the vein of Poythress (cf. Symphonic Theology)—considering the details of things from various perspectives, systematizing the details into a whole, developing a method, and then evaluating and practically testing the method. Presuppositionalism was/is attractive to me for this reason. Even more, though, I have found it to be the most biblically faithful model, as well as the most powerful method for apologetic interchange. When I employ Van Til’s “indirect method,” I have the sense that not only am I’m honoring the Lord intellectually, but I’m engaging in a palpable act of worship.
3.) What is a typical objection to Presuppositionalism that you hear?
The objections I encounter have changed with a change in ministry venue. Before, criticisms were based largely on misconceptions and superficial analysis. The charge of fideism often came up, which I addressed in Chapter 2 of my Th.M. thesis on ‘04. One interesting challenge that sometimes comes up is related to differences between Frame and Bahnsen. I understand these, but am not disturbed by them.
Another common criticism is that it’s too philosophical. Admittedly, often it is, but it doesn’t have to be. The justification for the system gets philosophical real fast, particularly as proponents seek to justify the method theoretically in contrast to other approaches. Practically, though, there is little reason for this. People in your church can learn to use presuppositional apologetics without having to ever hear about the more philosophical stuff. Quite frankly, most of us enjoy talking about the philosophical, theological, and nuanced aspects of such things and so we overdo it and turn people off in the process. This is particularly true in connection to another often valid criticism—when enthusiasts go about charging non-proponents with heresy or making other overly aggressive assertions.
Right now, we have a college student in our church who is benefitting from training in presuppositional apologetics. This semester he is sitting under a hostile professor in his philosophy course at the state university down the road. Our student’s ability to interact with the professor’s thinking is impressive, and we’ve rarely exposed him to all of the philosophical stuff.
In our current environment, no one really questions presuppositionalism, because few people here really take apologetics seriously. Our biggest challenge is anti-intellectualism generally. In California, there was a clearer distinction between believers and unbelievers. Here, most churches are seeker sensitive, tend towards mysticism, or are just dead. Discussions over apologetic methodology just don’t come, it just isn’t where people are.
To expand the “overly aggressive” idea mentioned above, I remember years ago when a friend of mine who is a Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics introduced me to his wife. As I recall, he is thomistic in his approach. When we met, she was genuinely surprised to learn that I was a presuppositionalist, friendly, and didn’t intend on attacking or making trouble for her husband. Apparently, she had been very hurt by something like that in the past and held all presuppositionalists in suspicion. The point is that one of the criticisms of presuppositionalism that has concerned me most is this one.
4.) Some people believe that Dispensationalism and Presuppositional apologetics are incompatible. Do you believe this is so? Why or why not?
What does John Frame think? I’ll side with him on this issue. To me, this sounds like the debate over who’s the most reformed, where the guy who thinks he is the most reformed wins. What is the minimum set of criteria required to be a presuppositionalist? If I employ a methodology where I seek to expose the internal tensions inherent within the unbeliever’s world and life view, and then to show the unbeliever how his irrationality is immoral due to his failure to acknowledge and submit to the Christian God in his thinking and living, do I qualify? What if I successfully expose the rational/irrational dialectic in my friend’s thinking and then present the gospel as the only means via which he may ever hope to have his irrationality/immorality resolved, do I qualify as presuppositionalist? Here’s what I teach in my classes. See if this makes sense:
The presuppositionalist argues that: a. the espoused presuppositions of the unbeliever (his articulated worldview) cannot account for reality as we know it, andb. reality is as our experience and knowledge demonstrates it to be because it has its ultimate basis in the Christian God, without whom nothing—including reason itself, can be accounted for. Furthermore, c. at heart the unbeliever knows this to be so, but sins against better knowledge by suppressing the truth about God in his unrighteousness (though evidence for God is abundant—existing within him and without, screaming at him from every existing fact with the result that he is culpable for his disbelief and without excuse). Finally, d. as explained in Scripture, the unbeliever’s irrationality is fundamentally immoral and must be confronted with the gospel.
So, following Bahnsen, here’s what we do methodologically:
Step 1: Identify the opponent’s crucial presuppositions. Do this by asking key worldview questions. Then, once you have done the necessary data collecting, proceed to step 2. Step 2: Criticize the autonomous attitude that arises from a failure to honor the Creator-creature distinction. That is, call the unbeliever to account for his attempt to operate out from under the authority of God and in accord with his own reasoning. Step 3: Expose the internal and destructive philosophical tensions that attend autonomy. That is, perform an internal critique (transcendental critique) of his worldview. Demonstrate to him how his worldview is unable to provide the necessary preconditions for the intelligible interpretation of reality, i.e. expose the rational—irrational dialectic in his thinking. Be sure to demonstrate to him how his professed world and life views contradict his ultimatepresuppositions and render rationality impossible. Step 4: Set forth the only viable alternative. Expound the Christian position by providing him with the biblical answer to the tensions you have uncovered in his worldview and specifically show him how Christian-theism provides the fundamental preconditions for the intelligible interpretation of reality.
A simplified way to express this would be: 1.) Identify what the unbeliever believes or thinks; 2.) rebuke your friend for his failure to submit to God; 3) Show your friend how his espoused worldview is contrived and makes no sense based on what he has said; 4.) Present the Gospel as the solution to his folly and call him to repent.
Perhaps the critic of dispensational presuppositionalism has some specific objections he needs to have clarified. I suspect these will be person variable, but part of the problem may result from a misconception that this means a rejection of covenantalism in the sense employed by Oliphint in Covenantal Apologetics. Honestly, I haven’t heard what I thought was a credible charge of incompatibility.
By the way, the first time I taught a seminary presuppositional apologetics course, it was at The Master’s Seminary in ’04. The opportunity came up quickly and I needed some help preparing. So, I emailed John Frame, who was one of my thesis readers, for help. He emailed me his personal teaching notes and gave me access to many of his own files. The result: he aided and abetted me—a dispensationalist teaching presuppositionalism at a dispensationalist seminary. Now who wins?
Note: John Frame is so humble, he doesn’t remember helping me, so whenever I remind him, it’s as though he’s hearing it for the first time. Admittedly, though, he has more important things to do than to think about me.
5.) What prompted you to write your thesis on Psalm 19 and Presuppositonal apologetics?
I gave an extended rationale for this in the first chapter of the thesis. In part, it was related to: 1.) the debate over which apologetic method was most consistent with biblical theology, and 2.) the lack of exegetical work that had been done to validate presuppositionalism. Those familiar with Van Til will remember this was an issue he admitted.
6.) Any resources on apologetics, worldview or theology that you recommend?
Read everything by Frame and Poythress. Read James Sire’s The Universe Next Door. Familiarize yourself with the complete works of Francis Schaeffer including valid criticism’s of his work. Don’t forget Bavinck’s Creation Theology. Get a good feel for the best of what has come from the reformed epistemology movement. A good little free book for Kindle that serves as an introduction to Greek Philosophy is John Marshall’s A Short History of Greek Philosophy. It’s dated, in a good way, free, and imminently readable. Familiarize yourself generally with logic and logical fallacies. You can find this sort of thing for free on the internet, but try to make sure you are reading a credible source.
Everybody by now has read Rosaria Butterfield’s book, Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert, but in case you haven’t, you should do so. By the way, she agreed to address my apologetics class at some point. We’re doing some different things with our seminary schedule, so we’ve made it a bit tough on her, but hopefully we can get to this.
7.) You have taught Biblical Hebrew, among other subjects. Do you see any relationship between Presuppositional apologetics and academic work in the Old Testament?
Absolutely, yes. My Th.M. thesis provides a presuppositional critique in Chapter 3 of many OT scholars & publications related to Psalm 19. There, I tried to show that their presuppositions have so predisposed them to modern, critical views of the text they may justifiably be accused of incompetence in their work.
Apologetics makes use of philosophy as a tool built on logic, employing it to engage in the critical evaluation and scrutiny of truth claims. In this way, it is appropriately suited to engage in critical analysis of various theories, including but not limited to literary theories/linguistic approaches to the text, as well as the methods and conclusions of such approaches.
Let’s consider some of Tremper Longman’s work for example. In His argument against Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes in his commentary, he commits several basic errors.
One that comes to mind combines a grammatical error with a procedural problem. Working off of the NIV, rather than the Hebrew text, He cites Ecc. 1:12 as an argument against Solomonic authorship. It states, “I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem” (NIV). He then argues that the verse identifies a time when Solomon had been alive but not king, basically concluding that since this doesn’t fit with what we know of Solomon it wasn’t really him.
This is a scandalous assertion. Longman seems not to know that, 1.) Hebrew uses the perfect conjugation to express either simple past or past perfect verbal ideas. Thus, “I was king” or “I have been king” are equally valid translations that any student of basic Hebrew would know—seriously. 2.) A consultation of other translations should have at least tempered his argument. 3.) In actuality, the statement seems merely to place Qoheleth’s attitude within its historical setting. This deficiency on the part of Longman suggests either incompetence in the language, or some unargued philosophical bias that prevents honest assessment here. But there’s more.
Citing 1:16, he argues, “It would be strange to hear Solomon state:I said to myself, ‘Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.’” Why is this strange—because there was only one king before Solomon? However, the chronicler in 1 Chronicles 29:25 uses this exact language to make the same case. He says, “The LORD highly exalted Solomon in the sight of all Israel, and bestowed on him royal majesty which had not been on any king before him in Israel” (1Ch 29:25 [emphasis mine]). Longman seems to arrive at his conclusion without adequate scholarly reflection on the wording. Is the phrase an idiom, figure of speech, a common way of taking into consideration powerful men including but not limited to the reigning monarch? These would be the normal sorts of questions to ask. These are not addressed though. When combined with other textual arguments, one can only conclude that Longman simply didn’t read/think carefully about this. So, failure at this juncture also looks suspicious. But there’s more.
Longman argues that Qoheleth is a pseudonym for the one assuming the Solomonic persona, or if applied to Solomon, a “nick-name.” He writes:
“One must ask what is gained or what possible reason could Solomon have had for adopting a name other than his own in this book? Is he hiding his identity from someone? If so, for what possible reason? Does the nickname add anything to the message of the book? After all, the connection to Solomon is tenuous, and no one has argued that the name contributes to the meaning of the book. It is much more likely that the nickname Qohelet was adopted by the actual writer to associate himself with Solomon, while retaining his distance from the actual person” (p. 4).
Apparently, Longman is unaware that Hebrew nouns typically come from verbs, so that the title Qoheleth is most likely derived from some activity for which he was noted. Since the verb is qahal, the title Qoheleth is connected with some assembling activity, perhaps the assembling of people or proverbs, etc.
Finally, at least for this interview, it is notable that Longman begins his arguments against Solomonic authorship seemingly by committing the “snob approach” variety of the argumentum ad poplum fallacy. He states, “Attentive readers of the Bible have felt uneasy about the simple identification of Qohelet with Solomon for a long time” (p. 4). And, “Even in the light of strong internal and external testimony to the contrary, a small, but vocal group of evangelical scholars still advocate this [Solomonic authorship] view” (p. 3). He then props this up with poor arguments including the ones above.
Notice how he is arguing that anyone who fails to recognize the truth of his assertion is not an intellectual (“attentive”), and it would be in the best interest of the reader to listen to himself. There are additional points in this particular case to argue, but this is not the place for that. I would just say that Longman’s argumentation against Solomonic authorship is scurrilous. To answer the question, is apologetics helpful for biblical studies generally and OT specifically, again, yes. Perhaps if more biblical scholars were trained in apologetics, a lot of the stuff that passes for biblical scholarship would never gain a legitimate hearing. Instead, junk scholarship is published and passed off as cutting edge and respectable.