Interview with Dr. Travis Campbell

TravisCampbell2014Through RTB’s Visiting Scholar Program, we often have the pleasure of hosting and working with experts in various fields of study. This summer theologian Dr. Travis Campbell spent two months at RTB headquarters penning articles and recording podcasts. Dr. Campbell received his PhD in philosophical theology from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) in 2004, and currently serves as a history teacher at Deerfield-Windsor School in Albany, GA.

RTB editor Maureen Moser sat down with Dr. Campbell to discover what books, people, and experiences have shaped his approach to Christian apologetics.

****

Outside of the Bible, what are the two most important books that shaped your Christian theological and apologetics perspective?

It’s hard narrow them down, but looking back right now, I’d say the two books that had the most impact on me were Hugh Ross’ The Fingerprint of God and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s God: His Existence and Nature.

When I first read that latter book I was wrestling with the existence of God and I found that Gerrigou-Lagrange laid out the case for God’s existence so clearly. He also convinced me that Molinism is untenable.

Who is your favorite Christian thinker from the past and why?

Well, I have three. Jonathan Edwards may be my all-time favorite theologian because he had a huge passion for God, but he never wanted to bypass the mind to get to the heart. John Calvin is another favorite because of the impact Institutes of the Christian Religion had on the Reformation. I also like Thomas Aquinas for similar reasons. I think Aquinas is the most intelligent Christian that ever lived.

Which Christian apologist today do you hold in high regard?

I think the greatest living defender of the faith is William Lane Craig.

Now, isn’t Craig a Molinist?

Yes, he is. I’ve actually published two essays on Craig’s work: one defending what he’s done and the other critiquing his position.

But despite your disagreements on that topic he ranks at the top of your list.

Yes, he has literally gone around the world and confronted the top atheistic philosophers. He’s done a heck of a job defending God’s existence in light of the criticisms from skeptics. And he’s also gone up against the top New Testament scholars in the world who deny the Resurrection.

So, he’s defended the two pillars of the faith—God’s existence and the Resurrection—better than, or at least as well as, anybody. Plus, he brings so much erudition to the discussion. He’s made major contributions to five or six areas of study. Craig is a force to be reckoned with. I don’t know why he’s not more appreciated in the evangelical community.

I’d also put Hugh Ross in my top five. I’m working with Reasons to Believe because I believe that.

What argument or fact or piece of evidence do you view as being the most probative in support of the truth of Christian theism?

The strongest argument for God’s existence, in my opinion, is the Thomistic cosmological argument.1

How does that argument differ from the Kalām cosmological argument?

The Thomistic cosmological argument assumes that the universe is eternal and still shows that God exists. That’s why I like it. Even if the universe were eternal, God still has to be there.

Thomas Aquinas, for whom the argument is named, was familiar with versions of the Kalām cosmological argument in his day. He knew that some people—especially some Muslims—were trying to argue that the universe had a beginning. He didn’t think you could do that; he thought those arguments were bad arguments. He said that as a matter of faith he believed the universe had a beginning, but he couldn’t prove it through reason. So, he assumed, as he argued for God’s existence, that the universe is eternal.

In regards to Christian theism specifically, I’d say the historical evidence for the Resurrection is the strongest proof. So, if you put the argument for God’s existence and the historical evidence for the Resurrection together, you have a case for Christianity.

As an apologist, what is the greatest sin that you wrestle with?

Self-reliance—I sometimes forget that it’s really the grace of God that wins sinners to the kingdom and not my arguments. This is one of the reasons I appreciate my Reformed convictions. I’m always being pulled back to that truth.

What important apologetics lesson has working with RTB taught you?

One of the things that was driven home to me is how important the peer-review process is.

Yes, peer-review is very important for scientists. Is there a similar process for theologians and philosophers?

The kind of peer-review you get in theology or philosophy is different from the kind you get in science. If I’m giving an argument for the Resurrection, I’m defending a core belief. If it’s false, then my faith is false. So, any argument I give for the core belief has to be grounded in a consensus argument. It’s very encouraging that the majority of scholars hold to the basic facts from which we make the case that Jesus arose from the dead.

So, imagine that in establishing one of those facts, a particular translation of the Greek had to be true—but the translation was controversial. This would mean that my case for that fact is really shaky. I don’t think that would pass peer-review. When considering core beliefs I believe it’s very important that the facts they stand on pass peer-review.

But now let’s say I want to speculate on something regarding eschatology. This field is so debated anyway and nobody—inside or outside the faith—has a clue as to what’s going to happen in the future. Thus, the fact that my eschatology might be very speculative is just not that big of a deal—as long as I’m trying to give a biblical rationale for it and as long as it’s reasonable and within the context of my Christian confession. If you come to me and say, “Wow, that’s really controversial,” I’ll respond, “Of course it is!” Everyone knows eschatology is a controversial topic. I shouldn’t be criticized for saying something debatable in this area, but I should be criticized for doing so when I’m defending a core belief.

What is your opinion on the current state of Christian apologetics?

I think it’s under attack, mainly from secularists, but I also think that the church is apathetic toward the questions apologetics addresses. The church would rather entertain students than equip them for college. Yet it doesn’t take a lot of training to answer basic apologetics questions. In my Sunday school class we’re going through Genesis using an apologetically oriented presentation. I did something similar in our study of Luke where I defended the historicity of the stories told there.

An apologetics thrust increases people’s faith in the text. I’d like to see more Bible teachers and youth group leaders going in this direction.

Endnotes

1. Another name for the Thomistic cosmological argument is Aquinas’s Argument from Contingency. Here’s one way of summarizing it:
a. Contingent beings are caused.
b. Not every being can be contingent.
c. There must exist a being which is necessary to cause contingent beings.
d. This necessary being is God.

 

Do You Like Being Alone with Your Thoughts?

I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. — Blaise Pascal1

iStock_000002775921SmallAre you comfortable being alone with your thoughts? Before you answer, recognize what it means. It means extended periods without access to all the “i-Stuff” (iPhones, iPads, iPods, iTunes, etc.). If you are comfortable being alone with your thoughts and untethered from all the electronic gizmos then you are likely in the minority—especially if you are under thirty years old.

Heidi Ledford, writing for Nature, describes how many young people feel about experiencing solitude:

Given the choice, many people would rather give themselves mild electronic shocks than sit idly in a room for 15 minutes, according to a study published in Science.2

Researchers performed an experiment where they asked college students to relinquish their cell phones and other electronic devices and sit alone in a sparingly furnished room for 15 minutes. The results seem to provide support for seventeenth-century mathematician and Christian apologist Blaise Pascal’s general contention about human beings.

Of the 409 students involved in the study, nearly half said they didn’t enjoy the time they spent alone with their thoughts. Moreover, when researchers repeated the experiment by allowing the students to be alone in their own homes, nearly one third of the students admitted that they didn’t stay idle and instead broke the rules out of boredom.

Another experiment allowed the students to have access to a machine that would give them a shock equivalent to a jolt of static electricity. Ledford reports:

When they were placed in a room to sit alone with their thoughts, 67% of the male participants and 25% of female subjects were so eager to find something to do that they shocked themselves voluntarily.3

For many people, and maybe especially for the young, contemplation equals boredom. And access to electronic toys seems to make matters even worse. It has been reported that some people handle their cell phone 100 to 150 times a day.

Receiving Life’s Most Important Call

As a reflective person by nature, I find spending time alone to process my thoughts a necessity. As a philosopher, reading, reflecting, and contemplating are essential daily activities of my life.

As a Christian, I certainly have a need to be part of the collective Christian community in partaking of Word and sacrament (Scripture and the Lord’s Supper) every Lord’s day (Sunday). Yet I also have a great need to spend time alone with the Triune God. This is my special time to be joyful, prayerful, and thankful in God’s presence as I contemplate the beauty and majesty of the Lord.

One of the blessings of living in the Western world is, of course, having access to modern technology. But with the blessing comes the challenge of being disciplined enough to not allow these electronic devices to divert us from the deeply needed virtue of contemplation.

In context, Pascal’s concern is that there are far too many powerful diversions in life that can keep human beings from asking life’s big existential questions. Yet Christians can also become diverted from the greatest good—spending time in contemplative prayer and worship of our Triune God.

Endnotes

  1. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, rev. ed., trans A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1995), 136/139, p. 37.
  2. Heidi Ledford, “We Dislike Being Along with our Thoughts,” Nature, posted July 3, 2014, http://www.nature.com/news/we-dislike-being-alone-with-our-thoughts-1.15508#/b1.
  3. Ibid.

Quote of the Week: C. S. Lewis

A man can’t always be defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.

—C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, (London, UK: Collins, 1975), 7.

How Can Christians Ease Suffering? Part 3: Hope and Meaning

Providence in certain ways is central to the conduct of the Christian life. It means that we are able to live in the assurance that God is present and active in our lives. We are in his care and can therefore face the future confidently, knowing that things are not happening merely by chance. We can pray, knowing that God hears and acts upon our prayers. We can face danger, knowing that he is not unaware and uninvolved.

— Millard Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine, 128–29

Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote extensively about the human need for meaning in life.1 In describing his own experiences in Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp, he said that when an inmate living on the precipice of starvation gave up hope he would commonly fall over dead. Frankl’s thesis is that despair is suffering without meaning. Allow me to make that into an existential equation:

Existential Equation: D = S – M

Despair equals Suffering without Meaning.

Along the same lines, distinguished evangelical theologian and counselor Vernon Grounds listed meaning, courage, and love as essential for preventing mental illness and promoting mental health.2 Grounds insisted that one’s worldview beliefs therefore have direct implications on mental health.

So both of these mental health specialists, one Jewish and one Christian, asserted that a deep confidence in life’s meaning is critical to facing anxieties and struggles. Without meaning suffering can result in deep despair and that despair can lead to the breakdown of one’s mental health. Thus the big questions of life (in this case whether life has meaning) can directly and dramatically impact the quality of life.

Three Assurances for Christians concerning Suffering

The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Christian world-and-life view provide powerful assurances concerning suffering. In helping our brothers and sisters deal with suffering we can remind them of promises and assure them of three things.

1. Believers never suffer alone.

God is with us during our suffering and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ personally suffered with us and for us. The God-man, our mediator, can therefore empathize with our sorrows (Hebrews 4:14–16).

2. Believers can have confidence in God’s goodness and sovereignty.

God loves his children with a sacrificial love (agape) and in his providence he guarantees that all things in their lives are being worked out for their good (Romans 8:28, 35, 37).

3. Suffering is a human problem that God will overcome in the new creation.

When Jesus Christ returns and the consummation of all things comes forth God will forever do away with evil, pain, and suffering. And God’s people will enjoy his intimate presence forever (Revelation 21:1–4).

These precious promises can serve to help our fellow believers who are facing great trials in this life and can also encourage nonbelievers to put their life in the hands of their loving Creator. We should therefore be bold in encouraging the afflicted with these biblical assurances.

For more on the historic Christian response to the problem of suffering, see chapters 13 and 14 of my book 7 Truths That Changed the World.

Endnotes

  1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning (New York: Pocket Books, 1984).
  2. Vernon C. Grounds, Emotional Problems and the Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976).
Quote

Quote of the Week: John Jefferson Davis

In the New Testament, the Second Coming is not a topic for speculation, but an incentive for obedient and holy living.

—John Jefferson Davis, Handbook of Basic Bible Texts (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 141.

How Can Christians Ease Suffering? Part 2: The Need for Well Wishes

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.

— C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 15.

My historic Christian faith and worldview teach me that God has good reasons for allowing evil, pain, and suffering in the good world that he created. The principal apologetics argument is that God has greater goods that necessarily accompany malevolence and sorrow. Yet I don’t want to be a mere armchair philosopher when it comes to confronting suffering. I want to understand how to effectively ease people’s suffering and then be an agent of God’s peace and comfort to the afflicted. Often the best apologetics argument in favor of the truth of Christianity is believers who seek to love others unconditionally (agape).

Discerning God’s Good Purposes in Suffering

Having suffered through a life-threatening illness myself I want to learn from such an intense experience. I believe God teaches us significant things, especially through the difficult times of our lives. As C. S. Lewis put it, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”1

Only upon reflection can I explain how I felt during my own time of crisis. My suffering seemed to take the form of a combination of physical pain, mental fogginess, emotional uncertainty and worry, fear, and a sense of aloneness. I’m deeply thankful that there were many people who reached out to me during my time of intense trial. And in light of that experience I want to share some advice about how to help people who are going through similar intense suffering.

The Importance of Expressing Well Wishes

87506709Suffering has a way of leaving people feeling numb, detached, and isolated. As I mentioned when I was sick I battled feelings of extreme aloneness, if not loneliness. When you are going through a health crisis, it is easy to feel that no one understands how you feel. It is something that is happening to you and you alone, or so it seems.

During that time I received dozens of phone calls and messages from people wishing me well. I also received a lot of cards and letters where people wrote me notes and expressed their concern for me. These calls and letters made me feel that I wasn’t alone and encouraged me to persevere at a time when I felt I had few resources left. Therefore don’t ever think your expressions of concern are small things. When people are hurting they need all the help they can get.

While medication can often help with the physical pain, I learned that a person also needs help dealing with the fear and loneliness that so often accompany illness. Visiting people, praying with them, and sending encouraging messages of love are never insignificant to a person who is suffering greatly.

The book of Psalms often addresses the situation of sufferers and their deep need for God:

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).

May God’s Spirit prepare our hearts to be filled with sympathy and empathy for the afflicted.

For more about my illness and the life lessons that I learned through it in the context of the historic Christian worldview see my book A World of Difference.

Endnotes

1. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 91.

Quote of the Week: Kenneth Samples

 I like my eschatology the way I like my fireworks—safe and sane.

— Kenneth Samples, “Lecture on End Times”

How Can Christians Ease Suffering? Part 1: Reestablishing Security

One of the most important roles of a spiritual community is to give hope for the hurting.

— Dr. Ken Jung, “Giving Hope for the Hurting1

Why would a good and all-powerful God allow evil and suffering to exist in the world? This tough question has troubled people throughout every era of history, but I believe the historic Christian worldview provides good answers. The central apologetics answer is that God brings about greater moral and spiritual goods through allowing incidents of evil, pain, and suffering. Yet I also think Christians have the power and ability to help ease people’s suffering and thus be the vehicles of God’s love and concern to the hurting. I’ve addressed the academic answers to the problem of evil. But this series is intended as a practical, pastoral response to the challenging problem of evil, pain, and suffering.

Lessons Learned from My Own Suffering

Senior Couple Embracing In HospitalWhen I went through a life-threatening illness some 10 years ago I felt like I had been swept away in a powerful ocean current. Since my illness affected my brain (multiple abscessed brain lesions caused by a rare bacterial infection) my mental state and thinking were scattered and my basic equilibrium was off. Physically, emotionally, and intellectually I felt pulled and yanked in various directions. The experience turned my life and the life of my family upside down. I was left feeling at first numb and then overwhelmed.

I learned firsthand that people who are going through a severe crisis need to know that someone is protecting them and looking out for them. Let me touch upon four ways that helped ease my sense of vulnerability and risk during my illness.

  1. Family Care: My wife is my soul mate and my covenant partner in life. Her love and care helped me to hold on during those very challenging days. Extended family and friends helped care for our children in order to allow my wife to spend more time with me. I was reassured that the people I care for most were safe.
  2. Spiritual Care: My pastor, church elders, colleagues, and friends in ministry visited me at the hospital and prayed with and for me. This ministry helped me to return to a place of confidence that I was not alone in bearing this life-threatening illness. I was reminded that I am a member of a community of believers (the body of Christ)—I couldn’t count the number of people who prayed for my well-being.
  3. Medical Care: It helped a great deal when my doctor explained to me in detail where I stood health wise and what I was up against. Explaining his diagnosis and his plan of treatment helped me to feel that some order had once again returned to my life. Good medicine after all is a gift of God’s providence.
  4. Financial Care: Being hospitalized for almost a month I was greatly relieved to know that I had good health insurance. My employers were generous in letting me know that they stood behind me and didn’t want me to worry but instead that they wanted me to concentrate on getting well.

I am well aware that many people do not have the kind of support that I had when facing one of my life’s greatest challenges. But I mention these four areas of care because in order to comfort those who are suffering effectively it is critical to help them to reestablish a genuine sense of security. When attempting to ease someone’s suffering it is wise and prudent to consider how you might contribute to this indispensable goal.

Ask yourself how you can help people in need—in big or small ways. These hurting people may be your direct family members, church friends, neighbors, or even strangers. Ask the Lord to use you in easing the suffering of others. Consider working with people at your church or volunteering at an organization that reaches out to the suffering.

Recently, when visiting a sick friend at a local Catholic hospital I was moved to see this verse on the lobby wall:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).

Upon reading that verse I asked God the Father in the name of Jesus Christ to use the Holy Spirit in helping me to be an agent of his peace and comfort.

For more about my illness and the life lessons that I learned through it in the context of the historic Christian worldview, see my book A World of Difference.

Endnotes

  1. I have drawn upon some of pastor and apologist Ken Jung’s excellent ideas for helping hurting people in his articles posted here: http://www.renewingeli.com/2013/09/hope-for-hurting-part-1.html.
Quote

Quote of the Week: Augustine

Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand.

— Augustine, Tract. Ev Jo 29.6, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, MS: 1995), 184.

What I Did on Summer Vacation

Our family has started a new tradition: end-of-the-school-year blowouts. A few weeks ago we left on the first day of summer vacation for the Grand Canyon.

photoNone of us had ever seen this natural wonder so we were all very excited to go. Sure, we’d seen it in pictures and on The Brady Bunch (which surprisingly was part of our inspiration for the trip in the first place). But seeing the Grand Canyon with our own eyes was a totally different level of ah-mazing. Here is a selfie of my first glimpse of the canyon. This arresting spectacle brought my dear husband to tears with awe.

photo 2One motivation for our trip was that our teenage daughter is a rock hound. I think she might have enough rocks lingering in her room to build a small monument. She also has her very own pickax to split them open (while wearing safety glasses, of course). She had a great time at the canyon rock and fossil hunting.

After working at RTB for 15 years, I’ve heard a lot about the Grand Canyon, but mostly as it relates to young-earth creationists giving tours down the Colorado River. The canyon is frequently put forth as alleged evidence for a recent, global flood. Candidly speaking, however, I didn’t even have a firm grasp of the conventional explanation for how the canyon was formed.

Thankfully, the National Park Service offers an abundance of opportunities to learn and explore. For much of the canyon’s history, it was underwater. During that time many of the layers of strata were formed. What we see now is the remaining erosion after the ancient waters receded.

photo 1This display in one of the museums caught my attention. It is a graphic depiction of the various layers that spread across the canyon.

When I saw this, I just had to stand back in awe for a moment to take in the sheer majesty of the message of this display. The complexity of the canyon’s history is told in its rocks, its strata, and fossils.

Going to the Grand Canyon was sheer bliss as my family drank in all it had to offer. As we walked through the museums and read the explanatory plaques, I noticed that my kids kept checking in with me and inquiring whether it was OK to accept what they were learning. Finally, I made a blanket statement: “This is God’s creation. Let’s just focus on being curious.”

This trip reinforced to me how important it is to promote curiosity about creation in our children. Sometimes, as Christians, our persistent resistance to biological evolution can really zap the fun out of learning science. Kids pick up on their parents’ hesitation, even if it’s unspoken. However, when we can embrace the spirit of discovery, and leave behind the OEC vs. YEC or creation vs. evolution debates, it translates into empowering the next generation to be curious about God’s creation.

See some more of our family’s pictures from the Grand Canyon.

****

By Krista Bontrager

Krista Bontrager is the dean of online learning at Reasons to Believe. She is a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching the Bible to all ages. She has an MA in theology and another in Bible exposition from Talbot School of Theology.