I recently presented a simplified overview of what I consider to be the best apologetic approach when we advance the Christian faith. See my three part series if you wish to get caught up to speed.
Now I turn my attention toward answering a few key criticisms from classical apologists against my preferred methodology, presuppositionalism.
First, A Little Background
For this article, I am revisiting a brief interaction I had back in 2009 with a pastor who described himself as a classical apologist Calvinist. That’s a mouth full, I know; but roll with it.
We exchanged words on the subject of apologetic methodology in the combox under a post entitled, The Problem with The Evidentialist Approach to Apologetics. Regrettably, the blog hosting that article is no longer active. Sad. Trom. Bone.
My classical challenger had a strong dislike for presuppositionalism in general, and Van Til specifically. He considered him to be a hack or something. He even put up an article at his personal blog called something like, “Van Til is an Idiot and Doesn’t Know What He’s Talking About.” I tried looking for that article, too, but the original link is dead, or the post is entirely removed.
Anyhow, in the combox exchange, the pastor left a number of bullet points attempting to challenge my view of apologetic methodology. I’ll reproduce the basics of his objections and my responses. They were actually helpful, because they represent the common objections I have received from classical apologists over the years.
1. “Autonomous” is nothing but a pejorative buzzword.
How exactly is autonomous a buzzword? I was unclear what he meant by that claim. I took it to mean he believed autonomous was a non-biblical word only originating with presuppositionalists, and a fairly recent addition to the Reformed vocabulary.
When presuppositionalists speak of autonomous, they have in mind the idea of sinners who are not submitted to the authority of God. In other words, seeking to live life apart from God. That is pretty much every sinner on earth, to be honest.
Autonomous has in mind what Paul describes as those “lofty and high things that exalts itself against the knowledge of God.” Those thoughts that “are not captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Individuals Paul also describes as being “futile in their thoughts” (Romans 1:21) and who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (vs. 18). Their reasoning originates from their sinful heart. Autonomous is men attempting to rationalize rebellion against their Creator.
If my detractor means that autonomous isn’t a biblical word, well, that is a rather problematic assertion. It’s like saying the word Trinity is non-biblical because it is nowhere found in the pages of Scripture.
2. “Autonomous” reasoning is all God gave us to receive and evaluate information. There ain’t anything else.
Autonomous does not mean the ability to receive and evaluate information in a neutral fashion. We are speaking about a person living life apart from the “fear of the LORD” as Proverbs describes it. He will receive and evaluate information in a manner that feeds his rebellion against God.
3. If God is above logic, as Van Til claimed, then we can’t know anything about God. This principle is the pathway to neo-orthodoxy and spiritual skepticism.
Van Til believed the foundation of logic was the nature of God. John Frame discusses that point in his book on Van Til’s theology. In other words, logic doesn’t operate independently of God. In that sense, one could say God is “above” logic, because the reason the world is logical has to do with God.
4. If you have to understand everything (the eternal context) in order to understand any one thing (brute facts), then none of us know anything. Which is a foolish claim.
I think what he is rejecting is how presuppositionalists insist that true knowledge begins with a fear of the LORD. That of course is the eternal context. That, however, isn’t a “foolish claim,” but rather a biblical one. How exactly does he understand Proverbs 1:7; 9:10? What about the garden variety classical apologist, for that matter? Scripture has to inform our apologetic methodology, correct?
5. If Christians and non-Christians share nothing in common epistemologically, then we are incapable of reasoning with each other, and are forced to just yell louder and more assertively at people. And add pejorative adjectives like the word “brute” in front of innocent words like “facts.”
I personally can think of no one who would argue that Christians and non-Christians share nothing in common epistemologically. The issue is not that sinners fail to see the world logically, for example. It is that they live inconsistently to what they claim to believe by suppressing those truths when it comes to ultimate issues. Say for instance, the meaning of life, where man came from, where he is going.
6. The argument that presupposing the Christian worldview makes everything else intelligible an argument based on evidence. It’s called “the argument from coherence.” Like C.S. Lewis’ “I believe in the sun because by the sun I see everything else.”
As I understand the argument from coherence (I assume you can do your own search), it is merely saying that one’s worldview should be cohesive and consistent as a whole. Meaning, a person’s thinking isn’t detached and irrational from what he may advocate.
The cohesiveness of our worldview is certainly based on evidence, no one is denying such a thing. However, we must keep in mind that any evidence will be interpreted. One’s interpretation of the evidence is filtered through the presuppositions that govern one’s worldview. As I noted above, fallen men seek those interpretations that justify their rebellion against their creator. The reason that the argument “presupposing the Christian worldview makes everything else intelligible” is so effective, is because it reveals how unbelievers lack any basic coherence in their worldview. That’s the point.
7. The Bible nowhere claims to be self-attesting. Van Til made that up.
That’s a rather ignorant assertion. The idea of the Bible being “self-attesting, or, “having self-authenticating qualities,” is an historic, Protestant Reformed doctrine. For example, the WCF states in chapter 1:iv,
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
Also, consider the concluding sentence of the next point, 1:v, which says,
…our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
You’ll note with 1:iv, the writers state that the authority of Holy Scripture is not dependent upon the “testimony of any man or church.” You can read there also, “established by extra-biblical evidence,” as well. Classical apologists often invest governing authority into such evidence placing it above Scripture. Scripture is the Word of God because it is wholly from God as it claims. Other theologians have historically affirmed that position, including Calvin, Bavinck, and Warfield, all who predate Van Til.
8. Nothing in 2 Timothy 3:16 claims that the Scripture is self-attesting. 2 Timothy 3:16 claims that the Scripture is divinely inspired. Is that what you mean by self-attesting? So do all the other major religious texts in the world.
The very doctrine of inspiration implies self-authentication. I hope that we can all agree that inspiration is a work of God. The fact that God breathes out Scripture means its veracity and integrity is intricately woven to His character. Scripture’s authority derives from God’s authority. As the writer of Hebrews notes, For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, (Hebrews 6:13). In other words, self-authenticated His promise.
Additionally, major religious texts do not necessarily claim that kind of inspiration. They may claim an uniqueness to a particular guru, but nothing like the self-disclosed God revealed in Scripture. The closest competitors, like the Qu’ran, and I can maybe add the Book of Mormon, derive their authority from the Old and New Testaments, or previously disclosed revelation. If those books deviate from the consistency of the previous revelation of Scripture, however, which both the Qu’ran and the Book of Mormon do so rather radically, they are considered suspect, if not outright fraudulent.
9. The noetic effects of sin have no bearing on the fundamentals of presuppositionalism.
The noetic effects of the fall implies that the reasoning of all men is fallen. Classical apologists typically believe the fall only blinds men to the Gospel message. It did not, however, effect their reasoning abilities. Hence, an apologist can present proofs for the Christian faith and the unbeliever can reasonably consider the validity of those proofs.
Scriptures, on the other hand, clearly suggests otherwise. For instance, Ephesians 4:17, 18 speaks of the Gentiles having “futile minds” and “darkened understanding.” The fall impacts all of man’s reasoning abilities in much broader areas. Paul identifies it as “suppressing the truth.” If one’s means of knowledge is already presupposed to anti-supernatural materialism and scientism, any evidence or proof directly challenging those presuppositions is explained away. In many cases, it is denied outright.
That is why appeals to evidence alone are insufficient for convincing men hostile to God about the truthfulness of Christianity. Their personal, philosophical axioms interpret how they spin their conclusions regarding that evidence.
10. If evidentialism is so bad, why does God use it in Scripture?
God certainly uses evidence in Scripture. No presuppositionalist would deny it for a moment. For example, in Luke 2, after the angels announce the birth of the Messiah, the shepherds say to one another, “Let’s go see if this is true.” They wanted evidence, and the angel told them where they could find it.
I, as a presuppositionalist, am not opposed to using evidence. I just recognize that in all the examples of evidence used in Scripture, God is divinely telling us what the evidence means. The Roman government merely utilized the cross as an instrument of torture and death. God, however, puts a specific interpretation on that cross that now has an entirely new emphasis.
Classical apologist will insist any evidence for the Christian faith is adequately self-authenticating so as to compel a reasonable skeptic to correctly evaluate it’s significance. More Calvinist oriented individuals, like my detractor here, will say God’s Spirit will use that evidence in the heart of a sinner. But even if one claims the Spirit is the one using evidence, the fact that such evidence is presented apart from Scripture not only sets that evidence in a position of authority over Scripture, it devalues the meaning God places on the evidence.
11. Brute facts are the only facts available to anyone. Your knowledge of what I wrote, which controlled the occasion to which you replied, is 100% comprised of brute facts.
Van Til’s view of “brute facts” is that there are no “uninterpreted facts.” That being, all facts everywhere must be interpreted. One’s presuppositions then interpret those facts.
I am able to communicate with people because God is my creator. He created men to communicate not only with Him, but with each other. God is also not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33), which can be extended to mean God is logical in all that He does (see #3). Communication implies some logical cohesiveness in the means of communicating, things like vocabulary, syntax, and grammar that allow people to understand each other. Because God has created us to communicate, that is why I can understand what someone writes to me.
12. Jesus said, “Believe I’m the Son of God because I work miracles.” God didn’t give people philosophy lessons in Dutch Idealism before giving them proofs of His own identity.
The problem, however, is that here in the 21st century, no one has seen Jesus do miracles. We base our conviction that Jesus did miracles on the veracity of the testimony from eye-witnesses. That testimony is revealed and preserved in Scripture. Our starting point begins with our faith in God’s truthful character and His ability to keep His word that He will preserve in Scripture. That is why I believe the miracles of Christ even though I have never seen any.
13. The Bible does depend throughout on empirical verifications. If archaeologists ever find Jesus’ skeleton (hypothetically speaking), then Christianity and the Bible aren’t true. Correct?
My faith is in the veracity of God’s Word. The veracity of Scripture is tied directly to God’s revelation of Himself as a Truth telling God.
All critics of Daniel, for instance, said the book was false simply because chapter 5 mentioned Belshazzer as the king of Babylon. Anyone even remotely familiar with Babylonian history knew Nebonidus was the last king of Babylon. That discrepancy was not solved until the Nebonidus Chronicles were discovered around the late 1860s. Nebonidus appointed his son, Belshazzer, to be king in Babylon as a co-regent. So was Daniel true before that time, in other words, self-attesting?
Additionally, debunked sensationalist, Simcha Jacobovici, claimed to have found the Jesus family tomb including the very bone box of Jesus. Discovery Channel ran a documentary on it. Has he proven the Bible to be an untruthful revelation? I think my cranky classical apologist would say no.