Presuppositionalism and Circularity…Again?

In March of 2012 Dr. Paul Copan of Palm Beach Atlantic University was asked to contribute a short piece on his objections to presuppositionism as an apologetic methodology on the website of The Gospel Coalition. Dr. Copan is surely a leading light in an evidential approach to defending the faith, and when he writes I stand up and take notice. He helpfully summarizes his objections under 4 headings, as follows:

  • First, it engages in question-begging—assuming what one wants to prove.
  • Second, Christians share common ground with unbelievers, who are likewise made in God’s image, which is not erased by the fall.
  • Third, some (not all) presuppostionalists seem inconsistent about natural theology.
  • Fourth, it is important to distinguish between the confident ground of our knowledge of God and the highly probable public case for the Christian faith.

I’ve taken the time to respond to these objections because, as a Van Tillian presuppositionalist, I recognize that they have taken a sort of “canonical” status among non-presuppositional apologists. In fact, they are so common that many such responses already exist. I just want to provide a help, and relatively short correction to what I think Dr. Copan is missing in his concerns. I’m not going to respond to Copan’s fourth claim, as I understand his claim and largely agree with him. Their is a difference between “knowing” and “showing.” The objective evidence for Christianity is to my mind, as it was for Van Til, absolutely certain, and yet our reformulations and representations of that evidence into specific arguments is always limited to the fallibility and/or oversight of the apologist.

“First, it engages in question-begging—assuming what one wants to prove.” Regarding the first objection (circularity and question-begging), a bit of time is needed to clear the air, though ironically this is the primary objection to presuppositionalism. I’ve written a (non-published) article on this objection (along with its corollary, the charge that presuppositionalism is inherently fideistic) that replies to this at several levels (both philosophical and theological), so I’ll repeat a bit of what I’ve previously written:

Now, why is circular reasoning fallacious? Begging the question is marked by two traits. First, a viciously circular argument assumes its stance rather than providing support for it. In doing this it avoids the burden of proof. According to Douglas N. Walton, author of the only full length monograph entirely devoted to this topic[1], “The requirement here is one of evidential priority. Arguing in a circle becomes a fallacy by basing it on prior acceptance of the conclusion to be proved. So the fallacy of begging the question is a systematic tactic to evade fulfillment of a legitimate burden of proof.”[2] Second, viciously circular arguments merely restate the conclusion in one of the premises. According to S. Morris Engel, “…if the supporting premises merely repeat or rephrase what is stated in the conclusion, as in all cases of begging the question, the argument contains no premises and is therefore fallacious.”[3]

Van Til and his followers rejected fallacious question-begging and never approved of arguments such as “God exists, therefore God exists.” Even when John Frame speaks of the previous statement approvingly does so only to point out that it’s a true statement, not that it’s a good or persuasive argument. In fact, in a number of places Frame speaks of the “God exists, therefore God exists” argument as a poor one that presuppositionalists should stay away from. Richard Pratt has rejected fallacious question-begging as follows:

Van Til never suggested that anyone should commit the logical fallacy of begging the question (e.g. “A is true because A is true.”). That would be strange indeed. In reality, he frequently called attention to the failure of such arguments. It is true that Van Til spoke positively of “circular reasoning,” but he had something other than begging the question in mind. He was not talking so much about argumentation, setting down a convincing case that leads to a conclusion. In argumentation, reasoning should be linear. Instead, Van Til spoke of circularity in terms of the inescapable process by which finite minds attain knowledge to be used in arguments…This is the kind of circularity or spiraling that Van Til pointed out in all human reasoning. It has nothing to do with begging the question.[4]

Likewise, the late Greg Bahnsen, a leading voice in the presuppositional school of thought clarifies:
The “circularity” of a transcendental argument is not at all the same as the fallacious “circularity” of an argument in which the conclusion is a restatement (in one form or another) of one of the premises. Rather, it is the circularity involved in a coherent theory (where all the parts are consistent with or assume each other) and which is required when one reasons about a precondition for reasoning.[5]
I could multiply quotes from both Van Til himself and his disciples (many of which are provided by Pratt in the link below) that demonstrate that Van Tillian presuppositionalists eschew fallacious and vicious circularity just as strong as do non-presuppositionalists.

“Second, Christians share common ground with unbelievers, who are likewise made in God’s image, which is not erased by the fall.”

This is perhaps the most frustrating of Copan’s objections. Why? Because whether he intends to or not (and I think not) he has grossly misrepresented the presuppositional approach and the underlying Reformed theology out of which it grows. Van Til not only never claimed that the fall erased the imago Dei (functionally or otherwise), but he was one-hundred percent clear that the imago was the point of contact with unbelievers. One need only read his chapter on the Point of Contact in his introductory Christian Apologetics. Van Til, in his usual pedagogical style of clarifying his position by contrasting it with others, distanced himself from the Lutheran position that limited the image of God to original righteousness. Again, Van Til clarifies what he rejects:

It is commonness ‘without qualification,’ that is, the idea of neutral territory of interpretation between believers and non-believers that I reject. [6]

Third, according to Copan, “some (not all) presuppositionalists seem inconsistent about natural theology.

Perhaps some presuppositionalist have been too negative on natural theology. But this is not the standard or even “official” position. In the words of Van Til himself:

Accordingly I do not reject ‘the theistic proofs’ but merely insist on formulating them in such a way as not to compromise the doctrines of Scripture. That is to say, if the theistic proof is constructed as it ought to be constructed, it is objectively valid, whatever the attitude of those to whom it comes may be.” (Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed. 197)

Regarding “natural theology” and its arguments, presuppositionalists are mostly concerned with formulating these arguments in a way that doesn’t compromise their (Reformed) doctrine of God, or imply epistemological neutrality.

Unfortunately, as I noted earlier, Copan’s objections are all-to-common, and have be responded to and refuted on many occasions. In the spirit of Christian charity and academic integrity, the charge of circularity should be dropped. Further responses have been provided by K. Scott Oliphint and James Anderson. Anderson has complied an uber-helpful document addressing most of these misconceptions and a few others that can be found here.

[1] Douglas N. Walton, Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning as a Tactic of Argumentation (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991)

[2] Douglas N. Walton, “Informal Fallacies,” Blackwell Compansion to Epistemology, (Cambridge, MA:Blackwell Reference, 1992), Jonathan Dancy and Ernest Sosa, eds.Emphasis added.

[3] With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies, 5th edition (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 147. Emphasis added. J. P. Moreland provides an example of what it means to merely repeat or rephrase what is stated in the conclusion, “Capital punishment is wrong because it is an example of something we have no business doing, namely, taking a person’s life.” Love Your God with All Your Mind (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1997), 123-124. “Wrong” and “something we have no business doing” are synonymous, a mere repetition of the same thought in different words.

[4] Richard L. Pratt, Common Misunderstandings of Van Til’s Apologetics, Part 2. Emphasis added. Accessed 9/19/09.

[5] Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis, 518, n. 122. Emphasis added

[6] Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 152, emphasis original)

Posted on March 15, 2012, in Apologetic Method, Presuppositional apologetics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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