Category Archives: Presuppositional apologetics
As I near the end of this series a few last pointers are necessary. First, I would like to present the ultimate goal of apologetics, and then note a few cautions that the apologist must be made aware of.
Our Goal. As we dialogue with unbelievers in apologetic encounters, we must remember our goal. While we cannot change the heart of the lost soul, we desire to be a tool of the Holy Spirit in granting repentance and faith in Christ. The purpose of apologetics is not simply to add additional facts to an unbeliever’s noetic structure. Indeed, many who study and “do” apologetics know this, yet often in practice this is exactly what occurs. We shouldn’t forget that repentance, both moral and intellectual, is our goal. The non-Christian has, whether consciously or not, developed a shelter, a “roof” above them in order to protect them from the objective reality of God’s lordship. Our aim is to demonstrate the epistemological futility of unbelieving thought. Another goal in pressing God’s demands upon His creatures is to close their mouths and further render them without a defense (Rom. 3:19, 1:20).
Francis A. Schaeffer spoke of “taking the roof off,” this is what happens when the Christian confronts the unbeliever with TAG. The unbeliever, now having been stripped of the argumentative weapons, is left to feel the weight of their lostness. Schaeffer keenly notes,
The more logical a man holding a non-Christian position is to his own presuppositions, the further he is from the real world; and the nearer he is to the real world, the more illogical he is to his presuppositions. (The God who is There. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1998. Pg 152. Emphasis in original)
Also, in presenting our case for the absolute truth of the Christian worldview we must avoid what Cornelius Van Til called the “block-house method.” This is a method in which we argue for general theism, then for the possibility of miracles, then for the general reliability of the gospels, then to the historicity of the resurrection, etc. Block by block, building up to a fully biblical worldview. Of course, this does not mean that each aspect of Christianity can be covered all at once. But, we must present our case in such a fashion that at each aspect of our argument every “part” of the Christian worldview presupposes other parts of the worldview. Greg L. Bahnsen states this point beautifully:
The Christian faith should not be defended one isolated belief after another isolated belief-as though a block house were being built up, one block at a time. Instead, the whole system should be presented and defended as a unit. Its epistemology should be defined in terms of its metaphysics and ethics (including anthropology and soteriology), and it’s metaphysics and ethics (including anthropology and soteriology) should be defended in terms of its epistemology. (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis)
The living God, as revealed in Scripture, is the only foundation for interpreting human experience must cause His children to maintain a humble attitude. After all, all that we have we have received as a gift. Yet, it should also be a great source of boldness in apologetics. Thus, the Christian apologist must be one characterized by humble boldness. Had not the Lord in His sovereign mercy opened our hearts and minds to His truth we would remain trapped in epistemic futility.
Caution. And now a word of caution. This boldness should never make us arrogant. If we’re consistent in our approach, we’ll confess and treat the unbeliever as one created in the image of God. The moment we come off sounding intellectually arrogant, we have compromised our position. Not only should our method of argument be explicitly Christian, but the manner in which we present it must display our piety as well.
Being that Man is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) what they do and who they are is of great significance. They are of great significance even in their rebellion against God. In the eternal punishment of the wicked, God demonstrates the true worth of his creature’s moral actions, both in deeds and in thought. If the presentation of our transcendental argument must be marked by piety, then our approach to the unbeliever must be marked by love.
The unbeliever is double minded, unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). Within the noetic structure of the non-Christian a dynamic tension exists. In one sense, they do know God, but in a very important sense, they do not. They do not know God, in the intimate, saving fashion commended in Scripture. In this series, I have focused on the unbeliever’s suppressed knowledge of God. While they profess that the biblical God does not, indeed cannot, exist, their unguarded everyday actions betray their profession. How can they get on with their everyday lives, without living in a dream world?
God has written His Law on the heart of the unbeliever. They have an immediate, non-derivative, knowledge of God’s existence and lordship. As Paul speaks of in Romans chapter 1, God has made Himself known to His creation so that they are without excuse. Unbelieving scientists argue against Christianity because supposedly Christianity, with its miracles, violates the laws of science. But, how could “laws” of science exist apart from the infinite-personal God of Scripture? They desire to refute Christianity by decrying that Christianity violates the laws of logic (The deductive problem of evil, the Trinity, etc.). Yet, logic presupposes the mind of God impressing itself upon His creation. Ultimately, we argue for the truth of the Christian worldview from the impossibility of the contrary. Thus, all non-Christian worldviews fail in their attempt to muffle God’s voice. God will not be shut out from His creation.
The Christian apologist must press God’s claims upon the unregenerate, thus demonstrating that person’s rebellion to the God who is there. Our ultimate desire is to show the unbeliever that they have no recourse but to turn to God in Jesus Christ for salvation, both intellectually and eternally. Piety, and humble boldness must mark the apologist’s approach. But, most importantly our presentation is to be characterized by the loving manner in which we speak to those who oppose the truth.
We ought not to be deterred by the rejection of our apologetic by the unbeliever. Only God is the One who can soften the heart of the would-be autonomous sinner.
May it please the Lord to glorify Himself in the faithful presentation of His truth claims.
In line with other recent response to agnosticism, unicorns, and atheism, I’d like to raise some questions about the approach to knowledge known as empiricism. Empiricism is a tradition which teaches that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience. That is, if something is not, at least in principle, able to be tasted, touched, seen, heard, or smelled, then it does not count as a potential object of knowledge. This view of knowledge, the seeing-is-believing- approach, is fairly standard in a secularizing culture and so Christians should know a thing or two about how to respond to this claim.
So first we’ll discuss the claims and difficulties of empiricism. Then, I’ll argue, contrary to the intentions of the empiricist, empiricism can be a vital ally in apologetics, because, when consistently applied, it takes the empiricist to places they do not want to go.
Help from David Hume
The best way to understand empiricism is to learn a little about one who adhered to it with near-perfect consistency. The philosopher David Hume had a two-pronged approach to sifting through knowledge claims. Picking up what a tool of analysis from Leibniz, Hume’s “fork” (at the late Ronald Nash called it) for sifting truth claims is the “analytic/synthetic” distinction.. Analytic statements are relations of ideas, and to deny them necessarily leads to a contradiction (laws of logic, definitions such as “all bachelors are unmarried men”). These are usually what we think of as a priori truths (truths that known apart from sense experience). Hume’s (hereafter H) attack on analytic statements was that they are tautological, i.e. they add nothing new to knowledge. H believed that his rationalist philosophical counterparts (ex. continental rationalists such as Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz) were building philosophical systems in mid-air, with nothing empirical to ground their flights of fancy.
Synthetic statements are those which can be empirically explored and verified. An example of such a statement would be “Molly’s dress is green.” How can we truly “know” that this statement is true? By checking it out, it must be subject to an empirical inquiry.
In light of H’s empiricist epistemology, he uses this fork to sort out all philosophical issues. Only synthetic statements lead to true knowledge. So, H asked of the traditional questions of philosophy, are the answers given merely in the realm of relations of ideas, i.e. analytical ? If so, then they are tautological and offer us no help. But since H only accepted as worthy of study and consideration beliefs based on verifiable experience by at least one of the five sense, he lapsed into his notorious skepticism.
Here is a list of things Hume doubted because they cannot be verified by appeals to the five senses:
- The existence of God. God is a spirit, so this should be obvious.
- A continuing self through time. When was the last time you experienced your “self”? Looking into a mirror won’t help, because all you see is a body, not the “self.”
- Causation. We never actually “see” a cause. We see one event followed by another, but we cannot experience in any way the necessity of the procession of events. In philosophical terms, we “see” a succession of events-ball A moves after ball B strikes it- not causation. Remember, H is being a consistent empiricist.
- The uniformity of nature. There is no empirical –and non question begging!- reason to believe that the future will be like the past. We have had no experience of the future, and hence cannot really be sure. An anti-toxin that cures today may poison tomorrow. Of course apart from the uniformity of nature science cannot proceed.
Of course the truth is that David Hume never said that the above mentioned things do not exist, or even that he himself didn’t believe in them. His point was to demonstrate that autonomous reason has no logical reason for believing these things. Again, his point was that empiricists cannot sufficiently ground the belief in anything in the above list given their commitment to an empiricist epistemology.
According to Hume, beliefs in the uniformity of nature and the necessary relationship between cause and effect are rather grounded in our psychological make-up, a “habit of the mind.” Thus, being that Hume rejected the rationality of belief in God, causality, a sustained “self”, etc, he attributed the belief in such things to the irrational aspect of humanity. Without, for instance, a Christian conception that God creates both the world around us and our minds to understand it (being created in His image), Hume had no assurance that the objects of our knowledge and our perceptions of them cohere.
Turning the Tables: The Apologetic Benefit of Radical Empiricism
In David Hume, many philosophers believed they were witnessing the end of philosophy. Immanuel Kant stated the it was Hume that arose him from his “dogmatic slumbers” and driving him to develop his own creative epistemology. Notwithstanding Kant’s evaluation, Hume’s radical empiricism is a great help to Christian apologetics. Hume pushes empiricism to its logical[ly absurd, yet consistent] limits.
Though Hume thoroughly discredited epistemological empiricism hundreds of years ago, most outspoken forms of atheism (ala Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) are “religiously” empiricist. Likewise the average “man on the street” unbeliever functions on the basis of a “seeing is believing” epistemology. When we encounter unbelievers with this framework we should always ask the same questions and hold them to the same level of consistency.
First is the issue of consistency. Ask the empiricist unbeliever to be absolutely consistent with their theory of knowledge. Politely question them on whether they believe in true and objective moral standards, justice, laws of rationality and mathematics, human dignity, beauty, and real cause-and-effect relations. Now, surely most will. Even those who see where you’re going and attempt to deny these things (by saying, for example, that they are merely social constructs) should be reminded that their everyday actions betray that they really do believe them.
Second, we need to ask revealing questions. Empiricism as a theory of knowledge and truth largely depends on materialism and naturalism (the belief that only the physical realm exists, only matter in motion coming together in strange ways). So, here are some questions to ask the empiricist:
- Have you tasted, touched, heard, smelled, or seen a law of logic? (hereafter i’ll substitute “tasted, touched, heard, smelled, or seen” with “sensed”)
- Have you ever sensed a law of mathematics such as A2 +B2= C2?
- Have you ever sensed a number? (and here I don’t mean a numeric inscription such as 1 or I, 2 or II, but the number itself)
- Have you ever sensed “human dignity”?
- Have you ever sensed caused and effect? (I don’t mean succession-I covered in the first post-I mean causation)
- Have you ever sensed the chief empiricist principle, “all knowledge comes from sense experience”?
By asking such kinds of questions, you’re simply asking the empiricist to be consistent with their principle that all knowledge comes from the five senses. After all, the answer to all the questions above is a resounding No. The naturalist worldview denies a basis for affirming these things and hence cheats when it tried to “borrows” these concepts for it’s anti-God project. And if the empiricist approach doesn’t even provide a sound basis for it’s chief principle (the last question above), then it disqualifies itself as a serious theory of knowledge and challenge to Christianity.
Now, naturally the Christian rejects the principle of empiricism, though we do not deny the need in many cases to be empirical regarding study, research, science, etc. (cf. 1 John 1:1).
A few months ago Reformed pastor and theologian Jeffrey Johnson released his latest work, The Absurdity of Unbelief: A Worldview Apologetic of the Christian Faith. Jeff was kind enough to send me an early edition for an honest review. What I found was a wonderful introduction to worldview apologetics in general and presuppositional thinking more specifically. As I wrote in my published endorsement for the book:
A major strength of Jeffrey Johnson’s Absurdity of Unbelief is its step-by-step systematic approach. He explains what faith is (and is not), what factors drive us to adopt our beliefs, how to test them, fatal difficulties on all systems of thought not built on the foundation of Christ, grounds for holding to Christian theism, and a passionate call to faith in Jesus. Along the way he examines Christian and non-Christian thinkers and movements both ancient and contemporary, demonstrating that the principles underlying a biblical apologetic equally apply to all forms of unbelief. I plan on coming back to this book again and again.
For those interested in its content, I’ve also included the table of contents below.
For a limited time you can purchase the digital edition of The Absurdity of Unbelief for a mere $0.99! Don’t miss out on this work.
As I’ve noted on past occasions, the Reformed apologist and theologian Cornelius Van Til is often represented as a fideist, one that rejects rational and historical evidences for the truth of Christianity. This error has turned away a fair number of apologetics students from taking his work seriously. It’s made him a boogey man of sorts. While it’s true that historical apologetics was neither a strong suite nor a topic of emphasis in Van Til’s work, his statements on the subject are anything but obscure.
Historical apologetics is absolutely necessary and indispensable to point out that Christ arose from the grave, etc. But as long as historical apologetics works on a supposedly neutral basis, it defeats its own purpose. For in that case it virtually grants the validity of the meta- physical assumptions of the unbeliever. So in this case a pragmatist may accept the resurrection of Christ as a fact without accepting the conclusion that Christ is the Son of God. And on his assumptions he is not illogical in doing so. On the contrary, if his basic metaphysical assumption to the effect that all reality is subject to chance is right, he is only consistent if he refuses to conclude from the fact of Christ’s resurrection that he is divine in the orthodox sense of the term. Now, though he is wrong in his metaphysical assumption, and though, rightly interpreted, the resurrection of Christ assuredly proves the divinity of Christ, we must attack the unbeliever in his philosophy of fact, as well as on the question of the actuality of the facts themselves. For on his own metaphysical assumptions, the resurrection of Christ would not prove his divinity at all.
In addition to showing that Christ actually arose from the grave and that the facts recorded in the Scripture are as they are recorded as being, insofar as this can be ascertained by historical research, we must show that the philosophy of fact as held to by Christian the- ism is the only philosophy that can account for the facts. And these two things must be done in conjunction with one another. Historical apologetics becomes genuinely fruitful only if it is conjoined with philosophical apologetics. And the two together will have to begin with Scripture, and argue that unless what Scripture says about itself and all things else of which it speaks is true, nothing is true. Unless God as an absolutely self-conscious person exists, no facts have any meaning. This holds not only for the resurrection of Christ, but for any other fact as well.
-Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 242-243
As always, Van Til is concerned that evidence not be presented as if it were neutral. But this concern doesn’t lead him to reject historical apologetics altogether. Where there are attacks on particular historical claims of the Bible the apologist is charged to take up that cause and defend the faith. We are to demonstrate that objections against Christianity fail. Van Til affirms this strongly. But we shouldn’t stop there. We need to show not only that the objection fails, but also that the worldview assumptions underlying the objection destroy the very possibility of knowledge.
In all of our discussions about proofs for the existence of God and the truth of Scripture, let’s never forget this all-inportant point:
The best proof of the Bible is what happens when you read it. For when you read Scripture, with trust and faith, something wonderful happens. God himself draws near. Imagine! He condescends to speak to us within the covers of a book. Quite amazing, really. And it’s not as if he gives us the book and then goes away. No: when you read this book in faith, you enter into a very personal relationship with God. In 1 Thess. 1:5, Paul says that the gospel came to the Thessalonians “not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” The Gospel is words, but it is never just words. When you hear this message in faith, something very wonderful, very supernatural is taking place. When the words go into your mind, the Holy Spirit speaks them to the heart. When the risen Christ opened the Scriptures to the disciples after his Resurrection, they marvelled how their hearts burned within them as Jesus taught them the Scriptures. The Bible is not only the place where God has spoken; it is the place where he still speaks– with power and assurance, causing our hearts to burn with in us because of how wonderful it is.
-John M. Frame, “How to Believe in God in the 2000s“
Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the greatest apologist of them all!
We’ve looked at the transcendental necessity of God to ground the truths of logic so now let’s turn to laws of morality.
I believe in a Real Right and a Real Wrong. Now we turn to the issue of objective morality or ethics (I’m using them interchangeably here). Have you ever wondered whether our outrage at the evil in this world is an expression of personal distaste? Whether the recent Virginia Tech shootings were objectively evil? I ask this because I’m of the view that without the God of the Christian faith (i.e. the God revealed in the Old and New Testaments) the underpinnings of ethics are destroyed, and the moral motions that we feel every day of our lives are rendered non-sensical.
Now here’s an important note to take into consideration. I’m not saying that only Christians are moral people. On the flip side, neither am I saying that all non-Christians are horrible, evil people. What I’m talking about here is what are the fundamental foundations our assumption about reality that underlie our beliefs about morality, right and wrong. Richard Dawkins may very well be a nicer, kinder, and more law abidding citizen than I am. That’s not in question. The question is whether, on a worldview that rejects the existence of God, are those basic pillars that support our common everyday assumptions about ethics there? I don’t think that they are. Without the infinite-personal God of the Bible, how do we define good and evil, right and wrong? I’m convinced that we can boil down the matter to only left two alternatives: either 1) an individual subjectivist response, and 2) a collective subjectivist response. For the sake of handling the various possible replies, I have distinguished the alternatives. However, as we will soon see, both alternatives reduce to subjectivism and skepticism.
Individual subjectivist responses. This is the view that a given acts our behavior is good or bad because I have chosen it. If I commit myself to a given path, it is good. If I am made to do something I chose not to do, it’s bad. If the non-Christian claims moral justification (that which makes a good acts good, and a bad act bad) is found in what one chooses to do, we are left with no standard whatsoever by which we can condemn the worst types of behavior. Pedophilia, rape, incest, bestiality, and murder, are all morally acceptable. Why? Because for those that commit such acts, they were the products of active volition. This view can be quickly be placed to one side.
Collective subjectivist responses. The term “collective subjectivist” may strike some as paradoxical at best and oxymoronic at worst, yet such a title is fitting for “society says” moral relativism. According to this position, morality is, in a weak sense, objective in that the individual is not free to create moral norms from scratch. They are to live within the ethical structure of societal consensus. Such an ethical standard is collective. Yet, on the other hand, it nevertheless remains a subjectivist position on meta-ethics (i.e. on how we philosophically justify or provide warrant for the system we’re espousing). What makes the collective approach ultimately subjectivist and indeed relativist is that each society determines it’s own moral norms, and accordingly, one culture (or sub-culture) cannot condemn the actions of another. The problems for this approach are equally evident. If indeed no supra-cultural definition of evil (or good) exists, how can two or more cultures or sub-cultures with different standards of ethics be compared? Consistently applied, the collectivist subjectivist model prohibits us form labeling the crimes committed at Auschwitz evil. In fact, it becomes even more problematic because not all German citizens would have approved of the war crimes and genocide of the Nazis. So, what we are left with is at least two moral sub-cultures in WWII Germany, those that would call the Nazi actions evil, and those who participated in those actions and condoned them. But any system that strips us of the ability to make moral distinctions is highly counter-intuitive. A paradigm that seeks to explain our “moral motions” must respect the moral outrage we feel at events such as the holocaust. Moreover, we do instinctively know right and wrong in most cases. We can proclaim moral relativism from the rooftops all day, that is, until someone steals our belongings, or hurts our family members. Suddenly we feel that it’s not something that we simply dislike, but rather that it is something that’s truly wrong! Then we become moral absolutists.
Lastly, if we reduce we moral claims to preference claims then we would have to radically change the way we commonly speak. Instead of saying “The terrorists who flew two airplanes into the World Trade Center buildings were wrong, and it was an evil act!”, we would have to replace it with, “I personally do not think that the Terrorists attack on Sept.11th was expedient, and it did not accord with my subjective tastes, but I could be wrong. I don’t want to “impose” my morality on anyone!” I feel my point has been made.
The Christian Response. Lastly, allow me to touch upon why I believe that the Christian God is the best bet for explaining the our ‘moral motions.’ When we find our selves taken with a belief that person X should not have committed Y act, what we’re saying is that person X is morally obligated to have done the right and good thing. In the case of murder, we’re saying that person X ought to have a respect for innocent human life, and ought it a word that implies obligation. But, we do not have obligations to mere material things. I have no obligations not to throw a stone across a beach. The stone demands no such loyalty. But both obligations and loyalty can be pledged to a person. Personal relationships imply certain obligations and can demand loyalty. But what about ultimate moral obligations? Moral obligations are, after all, hierarchical. My loyalty to my brother places certain obligations in my path, but my relationship to my mother demands an even higher level or loyalty. But my mother cannot simply ask me to rob a store. If she did, I would have to tell her that I couldn’t because it would break the law and would (in principal) cause civil unrest. But what if my government told me that I am obligated by my citizenship to randomly kill any person living in my immediate community that was not born in America? What should I do then? I would appeal to a higher standard of obligation. But what higher standard is there? Maybe one could say the ‘world community’, but that only pushes the question back one step.
Ultimately, who’s my greatest loyalty to? If i’m correct to say that obligations and loyalty only make sense in the context of personal relationships, then ultimate loyalty is due to an Ultimate Personal, or, as I’ve said above, a Personal Absolute. But Christianity is the only religion in which the greatest thing in existence (the ultimate metaphysical reality) is a Personal Absolute. In other philosophies, religions, and myths, you have absolutes that are not personal (like Plato’s form of The Good, Hegel’s Geist, Brahma is Hinduism, etc.), or you’ll find personal gods or principles that aren’t absolute (the Greek Pantheon, the god of Mormonism, thetans in Scientenology, etc.) Only in the Bible do you find a God, the final reality, that is both person and absolute/ultimate. This in my mind is strong evidence for the Christian conception of God as the best explanation for ultimate, objective, universally binding ethics.
Conclusion. Now this is my reason for rejecting an empiricism model of epistemology. It cannot account for the metaphysical assumptions that underlie the scientific method, and it cannot account for the existence of universal, immaterial absolutes, such as numbers, laws of logic, and universally binding principles of ethics. While on a Christian worldview all such things make perfect sense, and in fact can be explained (at least at the beginners level) to a child in Sunday School. One may not agree with the answers posited by Christianity, but they have to admit that Christians do have answers to these philosophical issues. Thanks so much for listening to this (rather extended) letter. Also, please forgive me for the great length of time it has taken to complete it. My prayer is that we can both understand the position of the other person fairly, and see where we’re coming from.
For more see:
I believe in the existence and power of logic. First, let me make it clear that (at this point at least) I’m not talking about our ability to use our reasoning capacities, as great as that is. I’m talking about the objective existence of the laws of logic. I believe that the validity and universality of the laws of logic defy a mere materialistic explanation. Let’s think of the “big 3.” These are the foundational and standard laws of logic found in most Intro to Philosophy books and all Logic textbooks.
1) First, we have the law of Identity. A is A
2) Second, we have the law of the excluded middle, A is either A or Non-A (it cannot be both.). Admittedly, philosophers have debated the validity of this one, but last I checked the debate isn’t over.
3) Lastly, we have the law of non-contradiction (otherwise known as, ironically, the law of contradiction). This law states that P cannot be both A and non-A at the same time and in the same respect.
These laws of logic are universally true and even in denying them we utilize them. For instance, if we say that “there are no universal laws of logic,” we’re taking for a given that that statement is not the same as “there are universal laws of logic,” thus using the law of non-contradiction to argue against the reality of the law of non-contradiction.
Now, I’ve always found this problematic for those who are materialists on the one hand, yet who champion logic, reason, and “free thinking” on the other. I think it’s safe to say that we all (Christian and non-Christian) that laws of logic immaterial. Can we taste, feel, smell, weigh, measure, or hear the law of identity? Can we see the law of the excluded middle? Well, no, of course not. Are they then “not real”? Are they simply social convention? If so, then they aren’t universally binding. But we know that something that’s A cannot be both A and non-A in the same time or in the same respect, whether it’s in our culture or any other. If we throw away the universal validity of the law of non-contradiction, for example, then logically there’s no difference between Atheism and Christianity. But, of course, there is.
So, where do these laws originate? Why do they fit so perfectly with the world? How can we account for their universality? Those are important questions. If they were only social conventions, they we’d be saying that they don’t really exist. But if they this is the case, why do they always accurately reflect the external world? Why can’t we think without assuming their truth?
Now, I can imagine what someone might be thinking here. “Ok, ok, you’ve made your point. But how does the Christian makes seem of logic?” I honestly can’t think of laws of rationality being material “things.” They’re immaterial. But laws of thought govern minds (not merely brains). So, ultimate laws of rationality reflect an ultimate Mind. Without getting terribly into details, Christianity teaches that God the creator is a rational, orderly, logical being. The laws of logic simply describe to us how God thinks. Since we’ve been created in God’s image (as finite reflections of God on earth to represent Him) we think like him, though on a finite scale.
For instance, to say that my car is blue all over and yet say that it is the case that it is not blue all over is to, essentially, to affirm a falsehood. God is a God of truth and since I am to reflect His character, I should not affirm falsehoods or lies (thus abiding by the law of non-contradiction). Similar examples could be given regarding the other 2 laws. So, from a Christian theistic worldview, the universality and accuracy of logical reasoning are affirmed and grounded in my belief in not just any God, but specifically in the God of the Old and New Testaments, Yahweh.
Christian apologetics aims at a defense of Christianity against oncoming attacks on all fronts. So there’s the field of historical apologetics, scientific apologetics, counter-cult apologetics, philosophical apologetics, and so on. The brilliance of the apologetic approach known as presuppositionalism (also known as covenantal apologetics) is that it aims at the foundations of unbelief. Elsewhere I’ve discussed the flexibility of the term presupposition. So here I’ll used the term ‘transcendental.’ Cornelius Van Til and his apologetic disciples advocate a transcendental approach to defending Christianity. But what do Van Tillians mean by this often-confusing language?
Van Til defines a transcendental argument as one that “takes any fact of experience which it wishes to investigate, and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be, in order to make it what it is.” According to the The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Transcendental reasoning [focuses] on necessary enabling conditions either of coherent experience or the possession or employment of some kind of knowledge or cognitive ability, where the opponent is not in a position to question the fact of this experience [or] knowledge… and where the revealed preconditions include what the opponent questions.” (see the entry on “Transcendental arguments,”). According to presuppositionalism, the existence of God is the necessary “enabling condition” for coherent experience. The job of the presuppositionalist is to make the case that the “revealed preconditions” of discourse include what the anti-theist questions, namely the existence of God.
The basic argument. Contrary to the claims of some, Van Til’s approach to apologetics isn’t allergic to presenting positive evidence in favor of its theistic claim (i.e. the God of the Bible exists). I would argue that a transcendental argument is indeed a form of positive apologetics.
Here’s transcendental claim:
1. If God doesn’t exist, then there are no objective grounds for [epistemologically normative laws of logic, standards of ethical behavior, the scientific enterprise, human value and dignity, etc.]
2. There are objective grounds for [epistemologically normative laws of logic, standards of ethical behavior, the scientific enterprise, human value and dignity, etc]
3. Therefore, God exists.
This is a straightforward version of the argument. If the argument is both valid (constructed correctly) and sound (the premises are true) then the conclusion follows without fail. In fact, given the content of the claim (Logic presupposes the existence of God), if the conclusion is vindicated it turns out that it was possible because of the sustaining activity of God!
Van Til himself advocated a kind of two-step approach:
That means that the apologist is required to place himself on his opponent’s position, assuming its correctness for argument’s sake, in order to show him that on such a position “facts” and “laws” have no meaning. Conversely, the non-Christian will be asked to place himself upon the Christian position for argument’s sake in order to show that only upon the Christian basis are “facts” and “laws” intelligible. Van Til’s aim is to challenge the knowledge of God that the natural man has but suppresses. (quoted from Wesley A. Roberts, “Cornelius Van Til,” Reformed Theology in America, ed. David F. Wells, 183)
The point is that there are certain things the (average) non-Christian affirms. These things (epistemologically normative laws of logic, standards of ethical behavior, the scientific enterprise, human value and dignity, etc) are foundational to his thought and behavior. There’s no escaping them because they’re woven in the fabric of who we are as creatures of God living in his creation. The presuppositionalist is called to unmask the shocking truth that they cannot meaningful hold to these beliefs and also deny the existence of God. If you lose the foundation the building comes crashing down. An atheist no less than Nietzsche acknowledged this.
The attentive reader will note that in subsequent entries to this series this is what I’ll be doing, though not in a mechanic way. There is no establishing the truth of my position without also demonstrating the failure of its opposition.
For those interested, here’s my article, “Between Scylla and Charybdis: Presuppositionalism, Circular Reasoning, and the Charge of Fideism” (Originally presented at the 2009 annual conference of the Evangelical Theological Society).
Perhaps the single most common argument against a presuppositional apologetic methodology is the charge of fideism. One doesn’t have to look far in the relevant literature to find Van Tillian methodology dismissed or said to hold to a position that undermines the task of Christian apologetics. Though the term “fideism” is being rehabilitated in some circles, it is still widely understood as a dogmatic proclamation of one’s view irrespective of rational argumentation. Nothing, it is believed, seems to demonstrate the fideism of the presuppositional method as well as their rejection of linear argumentation. Van Tillians are said to embrace, as a fundamental rule of their approach, circular reasoning.
The aim of this essay is twofold. First, I will show that the charge of fideism against Van Tillian presuppositionalism is both imprecise and inaccurate. This will be done by showing that while some definitions of faith and reason are incompatible, others are not. Second, we will examine the charge of presuppositionalism’s alleged embrace of begging the question. This will be done by distinguishing between vicious and virtuous circularity, arguing that presuppositionalists embrace the latter, but eschew the former as strongly as their critics.
It’s also posted on the resources page. I’d love your comments and feedback.
The following series is intended to lay out some helpful argument to demonstrate the existence of God. Philosophically constructed arguments as such are not the basis of my belief in Yahweh, the God of the Old and New Testaments, for he’s revealed clearly both in creation and in human nature (cf. Romans 1). The whole world is evidence for his existence. Nevertheless, i’ve attempted to take that evidence and reformulate it into helpful arguments that can be used to bolster the faith of Christians and refute those who contradict.
But before we delve straight into the arguments themselves we should note two things: the centrality of worldviews and the impossibility of neutrality in holding and formulating worldviews.
The importance of worldviews. The notion of worldview is key here. Technically speaking, the term worldview is looser than a philosophy, but the overlap is great. Here’s my working definition:
A worldview is a spoken (or unspoken), consistent (or less consistent), often assumed, though rarely articulated, comprehensive vision of life. Here’s a more philosophical definition, A worldview is a network of guiding assumptions regarding the nature of reality (i.e. metaphysics), knowledge and truth (i.e epistemology), what we should value (i.e. value theory) and how we should live our lives (i.e. ethics).
Here, given the definitions above, we all have a worldview. And, more importantly, we should develop their worldview. Since everyone thinks “worldviewishly,” the least we can do is do it well. Likewise, we should strive to be more self-conscious about our worldview development. Too often- and I’m the first to admit this about myself- we passively soak up bits-and- pieces of the worldview of the surrounding culture.
The problem of neutrality. Since we all have views regarding the most important issues of life (What’s real? How and what do I know? How should I live? What is valuable? ), to deny this is naïve. Now, let me clarify for a second. I’m not saying that we have views on every single thing. Personally, I have no views on string theory, or the status of quarks. So, if someone tries to persuade me of them views on those matters it’s fairly easy. But talking about a worldview, the lens through which we integrate our entire lives, is something very different. No one is either neutral or objective. I also reject the modernist and enlightenment notion of objectivity. None of us has “God’s eye view” of reality. We’re always firmly planted in our historical contexts, with its biases (whether they’re helpful or harmful), and various ways of seeing things.
Now, one might be tempted to think that I’ve opened the door wide for relativism, but I don’t think that’s the case. When I reject the notion of objectivity, I’m not saying we can’t know truths that exist independently of our options. I do believe we can have such knowledge. What I reject as philosophically naïve is the notion that we can come to weighty matters without concern, without prejudice, and with the ‘cool detachment’ of Reason (notice the capital R).
For more see:
Look for part 2 on Wednesday.
- The goal of apologetics is to evoke or strengthen faith, not merely to bring intellectual persuasion. Directed toward unbelievers, it is an aspect of evangelism; toward believers, it is training in godliness. It is possible to be intellectually persuaded of a theistic world view, as were the Pharisees, without a real heart commitment to Jesus as Lord and Savior. Furthermore, everyone has the intellectual knowledge required for faith. The need of the unbeliever is not for more information, but for God’s grace motivating a heart change. It may of course be necessary for the apologist to bring factual information to the inquirer, in order to challenge him to rethink the data. But the apologist seeks above all to be a channel through whom God’s Spirit can bring repentance (including intellectual repentance) and faith.
- Apologists, therefore, must resist temptations to contentiousness or arrogance. They must avoid the feeling that they are entering into a contest to prove themselves to be righter or smarter than the inquirers they deal with. I believe that kind of pride is a besetting sin of many apologists, and we need to deal with it. 1 Peter 3:15-16 focuses, surprisingly, not on the brilliance, cogency, or eloquence of apologists, but on their character: they must answer unbelievers with “gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.” Peter here tells us that a consistent Christian life plays a major role in the work of apologetics. Christianity is not just an intellectual system, but an comprehensive way of life; and nothing is more persuasive than a concrete, consistent example of that way of life. And nothing is more detrimental to our witness than an apologist whose life betrays his message, who fails to show the gentleness and love of Jesus.
- Our apologetic should take special pains to present God as he really is: as the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, who alone saves his people from their sins. As the creator of all things and the one who directs the course of nature and history by his providence (Rm. 8:28, Eph. 1:11), God is the source of all meaning and rationality. Our argument should lead to such a God. So we should not mislead unbelievers into assuming that they can understand any fact adequately without confessing its relation to God. We should make plain that even our methods of knowledge, our standards of truth and falsity, our views of logic, our scientific methods, must be reconciled first of all with God’s revelation.
-John M. Frame, Five Views on Apologetics, 217-218. (Emphasis added)
Here are 2 articles by John Frame introducing the basics of Reformed apologetics:
Part 1 of 2: Introduction and Creation
- The Word of God vs. Mere Creaturely Wisdom
- God’s Word Our Presupposition
This last section on ‘problems’ is very helpful. It covers issues like the psychology of presupposing, the content of our presuppositions, circularity, and persuasion.
Part 2 of 2: Fall and Redemption; and Summary and Conclusion
- Sin, Grace, and Knowledge
- Apologetic Implications
This is an excellent place to get your bearings on fundamentals of presuppositional apologetics in general, and Frame’s approach in particular.
The whole notion of ‘giving reasons’ is completely destroyed by any ontology other than the Christian one.
Greg Bahnsen unpacks Van Til’s claim:
According to Van Til, the Christian claim (that non-Christians already know God from natural revelation and also recognize the voice of God in Scripture) is justified because the knowledge of God is the context and prerequisite for knowing anything else whatsoever. Without presupposing God, it is impossible to make theoretical sense out of any rational method for “justifying” beliefs of any kind on any subject. As the apostle Paul indicated, by suppressing the truth about God that they clearly and directly know, unbelievers have their reasoning reduced to foolishness (Rom. 1:21-22). If they do not acknowledge knowing God, they cannot make intellectual sense out of God’s world or out of themselves as God’s image-bearers. Likewise, Paul taught that those who reject the word of the cross (which is needed to repair man’s stubborn refusal to submit to the light of God) are reduced to foolishness in their thinking and living (1 Cor. 1:20). Their attempts to warrant what they believe and do–indeed, to know anything–are futile deceptions apart from that philosophy which is “according to Christ,” in whom “all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge are deposited” (Col. 2:3, 8). The Christian message, whether it be the truth about the Creator communicated in natural revelation or the saving truth of the gospel declared in Scripture, was defended by Van Til as the necessary precondition for rationally justifying any claim to knowledge about anything else. Van Til: “In fact it then appears that the argument for the Scriptures as the infallible revelation of God is, to all intents and purposes, the same as the argument for the existence of God.”
– Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis, 262-263 (emphasis added)
In the following quotation Van Til makes clear that all knowledge of God is covenantal. Either we know God “in Adam”, according to the rebellion of our hearts, or we know God “in Christ,” according to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit:
God has never left himself without a witness to men. He witnessed to them through every fact of the universe from the beginning of time. No rational creature can escape this witness. It is the witness of the triune God whose face is before men everywhere and all the time. Even the lost in the hereafter cannot escape the revelation of God. God made man a rational-moral creature. He will always be that. As such he is confronted with God. He is addressed by God. He exists in the relationship of covenant interaction. He is a covenant being. To not know God man would have to destroy himself. He cannot do this. There is no non-being into which man can slip in order to escape God’s face and voice. The mountains will not cover him; Hades will not hide him. Nothing can prevent his being confronted “with him with whom we have to do.” Whenever he sees himself, he sees himself confronted with God.
Whatever may happen, whatever sin may bring about, whatever havoc it may occasion, it cannot destroy man’s knowledge of God and his sense of responsibility to God. Sin would not be sin except for this ineradicable knowledge of God. Even sin as a process of ever-increasing alienation from God presupposes for its background this knowledge of God.
This knowledge is that which all men have in common. For the race of men is made of one blood. It stood as a unity before God in Adam. This confrontation of all men with God in Adam by supernatural revelation presupposes and is correlative to the confrontation of mankind with God by virtue of creation. If then the believer presents to the unbeliever the Bible and its system of truth as God speaking to men, he may rest assured that there is a response in the heart of every man to whom he thus speaks. This response may be, and often is, unfavorable. Men will reject the claims of God but, none the less, they will own them as legitimate. That is, they will in their hearts, when they cannot suppress them, own these claims. There are no atheists, least of all in the hereafter. Metaphysically speaking then, both parties, believers and unbelievers, have all things in common; they have God in common, they have every fact in the universe in common. And they know they have them in common. All men know God, the true God, the only God. They have not merely a capacity for knowing him but actually do know him.
Thus there is not and can never be an absolute separation between God and man. Man is always accessible to God.– Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 176-177. Emphasis added.
Translating Cornelius Van Til’s teaching that all unbelieving thought teeter-totters back and forth from rationalism to irrationalism to the language of atheism and idolatry, John Frame gives the following instructions:
Against atheistic relativism. When you find a nonbeliever who stresses the atheistic relativist side of unbelief, be persistent in asking these questions: (1) how can you be sure that relativism is right, when it itself rules out all Cherence? (2) How can you live as a relativist? Having no assurance of anything must be a terrible strain, rationally, emotionally, and volitionally, what basis do you have for making decisions? What basis do you have for criticizing the treatment you receive from others? How can you say anything is wrong, unfair, or unjust? What basis do you have for trusting logic – or, for that matter, your own mind?
Against idolatrous rationalism. When you meet someone who tends to stress the powers, rather than the limits, of what autonomous thought and action, you will likely be dealing with someone in the grip of an idol. Find out what his idol is and take aim by asking these questions: (1) What basis is there for thinking that this idol is absolute? (2) Does your god really do the job of a God? Did it create the world? Is it the ground of logic, mathematics, ethical value, and the universal judgments of science? Is it adequate as a final standard of meaning, truth, and right?
We know that an impersonal god can do none of these things. So the unbeliever will be tempted either to lapse into relativism or to grant that his god has some elements of personality. Once he does the latter, he’s granting part of our case, and we can pursue him further, especially by asking him, “How do you know this person?”
Against atheistic idolatry. Press the fundamental contradiction in this rationalistic – irrationalistic combination. A proof that there are no proofs, an absolute statement that there are no absolute statements. Then attack the original rationalistic and irrationalistic elements, as above. It will not be easy. The unbeliever will slide from one position to another, from rationalism to irrationalism and back again. Argument itself will not be enough; God must intervene. Thus, prayer is the ultimate apologetic weapon.
-John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 201-202.