A Brief And Not Very Well Written Explanation of My View of Apologetics

I despise labels. Mostly because I rarely delve into the depths of the labels enough to truly know whether one is adequately matches my own views, and my views are very rarely as well formed as others who would claim certain labels. Yet, I do tend to have strong views on certain things. Apologetics is one of them. As with most of my articles, this is not very thoroughly researched or scripted. It does not represent any exhaustive treatment on the subject. Rather it is merely my two cents, so to speak.

Most Christians, particularly the ones in or near the Reformed camp, are Presuppositionalists, including my new friend and kindred spirit CJay Engel from The Reformed Libertarian. Presuppositionalism essentially states that without presupposing the Christian God, there is no way of knowing anything. The Presuppositionalist aims to demonstrate that all other systems of thought, be they atheism or another religion, are self-contradictory. This is known as the Transcendental argument for the existence of God, and was famously put to use by Greg Bahnsen in his debate against Gordon Stein.
The argument essentially goes like this.

  1. If there is no God, knowledge is not possible.
  2. Knowledge is possible
  3. Therefore a god exists.

Many will recognize this as being the philosophy of Cornelius Van Til, a paragon of Christian Apologetics. Unfortunately, it leaves me scratching my head. For I wonder why nobody else can seem to recognize this for what it is: a massive begging of the question. The first premise is never proven. It is merely stated with nothing compelling its acceptance. It somewhat troubles me.

What I mean is this. The Transcendental Argument begins by pointing out that the laws of logic and nature have a source. This much is indeed true. It also demonstrates that the common explanations given for them are unsatisfactory. However, it then makes an enormous leap of logic from the proof that there must be “something” out there to a proof that this something must be of some specific form or nature. It submits its own explanation for the problem without giving any proof or reason why it is better than any other imagined scenario. To the opponent in our hypothetical debate (and to the audience of the culture at large), we seem merely to be grasping at straws. The fact that we derive this belief from a book means nothing to them, particularly when they believe they have discredited such book.

Attempting to reason with scientists this way fails to understand the scientific mind. You see scientists have no requirement to know why their sense work or why the laws of logic work. They need only to know that they do. And since we cannot and do not deny that they do, we have no grounds to argue against this point. So then the scientist falls back on his very reasonable rule of thumb to never believe anything that cannot be supported with evidence. Reasonable people operate this way on everything, but when it comes to matters of faith, we seem to expect them to step out of it, which is why we are seen as believing a fairy tale.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Presuppositionalism has a place. It is very useful, as I’ve said, for pointing out that there is a transcendent foundation for truth. Where it becomes strained, however, is where we begin to think that by doing so, we have proven our specific conception of what that foundation is. This is similar to the Intelligent Design issue. ID is not Creationism, though it is a step in that direction. ID is agnostic about who the designer is, and so proving ID is not a proof for Genesis 1. Famously, a group once proposed the Flying Spaghetti monster as the designer. If the Flying Spaghetti Monster can be the Intelligent Designer, then maybe it can be the source of the rules of logic and the foundation for truth? Why must it be the Christian God?

Presuppositionalists will fall on a “taking all challengers” mode where they will attempt to reason any other world view into a circle. This has two problems. First, it, again, fails to understand the scientific mind in that just because we don’t have the answer yet, doesn’t mean that one imagined possibility must therefore be the answer. In other words, just because all of the options we can come up with can be reasoned into a circle doesn’t mean that we just haven’t figured out the right one yet. Second, if you really think about it, the Presuppositional argument (or Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God) is also an argument in a circle. For it is, as I said, a begging of the question. So this approach gets us nowhere.

So I suppose I share more in common with the Evidentialists, which I believe to be far more Scriptural, anyway. I see two key passages in Scripture that deal with Evidence. Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God…” and Romans 1:19-20 says, “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” I think this clearly teaches us that the evidence is there! What of presuppositions, then? We don’t need them to believe in God. We merely need to look to the heavens and behold his Glory!

What role do presuppositions play in apologetics, then? Romans 1:18ff says, “For the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth […] For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” In his fallen state, sinful man has presupposed that God doesn’t exist. This is both a result and a furtherance of his depravity. “The fool,” according to Psalm 14:1, “says in his heart, ‘There is no God'”

So again, presuppositional apologetics can be good for helping the unbeliever recognize the ways in which his own presuppositions have determined his interpretation of the evidence. If he is willing to part with his presuppositions, he will see clearly to see the truth. Ultimately it should not require a presupposition of God to conclude him from the evidence of God’s creation. Therefore, the goal of apologetics should first and foremost be to allow the evidence to speak for itself.

There are three challenges which must be overcome in this task. Only one of these challenges is within our ability to influence. It is the one I already mentioned: The unbeliever holds presuppositions which steer him to incorrect conclusions. We can help him to recognize these and attempt to persuade him to set them aside. The other two challenges, however, are not within our ability to control.

The second challenge is that the enemy is working against us. 2 Corinthians 4:4 says, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” The solution for this is the illumination of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 4:6)

The third challenge is that even if we can prove the existence of God, that is not the same thing as regeneration. Saving faith comes not from logical proof or apologetic discourse. It comes from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.

So ultimately I break from both the Presuppositionalists and the Evidentialists because I believe they both have the wrong goal in mind. Both attempt to prove the existence of God, and so to somehow prove that the opponent should be Christian. However, I don’t find this calling in Scripture. Instead I see the call to proclaim the Gospel faithfully and allow the Holy Spirit to do his work. Discussing presuppositions and evidence can be useful tools in this box, but the most powerful is the Word of God itself, which is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword,” and will not “return […] void.”. As Spurgeon said, “let the lion out of the cage!”

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8 thoughts on “A Brief And Not Very Well Written Explanation of My View of Apologetics

  1. Ahh I knew that post would come back to bite me. I wrote that before I really understood my position well at all. By this time, it really must be taken down and I need to rewrite it because, to be frank, I don’t like it. I’m going to re-do it, especially given the fact that I have become more confident in my presuppositionalism in recent months.

    So thanks for the reminder!

    1. Well… to be fair, it really wasn’t your post that steered me this way. I’ve been thinking along these lines for a while. My thoughts on these things are often a big jumble though, as you can tell by how rambly my posts are. 😛

      1. Well I figured as much. But I think we can make a Presuppositionalist out of you yet. We should dialogue about this… among other things. I am looking to make some major changes to my site because I seriously want to bring in more Reformed folk into the libertarian arena.

  2. That last thing C.Jay needs is my help in this arena, but please allow me to chime in. The Transcendental Argument for God’s existence is not the same things as Presuppositional Apologetics, but merely a tool that the presuppositionalist uses. So ‘TAG’ is not another name for Presuppositionalism. In addition, your definition of what Presuppositionalism is, is slightly off, leading to an incorrect description. Presuppositionalism is the belief that all thinkers already presuppose God’s existence in that they use His tools-His logic, the uniformity of nature, but fail to glorify God with those tools. This is Van Til’s, ‘child on her dad’s lap’ illustration.

    A couple of important notes of distinction with presuppositionalism:
    1. It assumes a Calvinistic soteriology that the depravity of man is so pervasive that even the reasoning skills of the unregenerate have been ruined (to any God-glorifying degree). This distinguishes us from the evidentialist in that we assume all of the evidence in the world will not aid you in coming to a saving relationship with Christ.
    2. We have no interest in separating facts from significance. As an example, we will not engage in the ‘Swoon Theory’ discussions because I have no interest in defending the historicity of our Lord’s resurrection APART from the significance of His resurrection.
    3. You are correct that our reasoning is circular. But it must be this way because we reason on the highest authority. How can you reason about God without tools given to you by God? Where you are incorrect is that you believe this is a problem. Circular reasoning is a logical fallacy when applied to anything other than the highest authority. But as your sources ascend (per se), you will ultimately come to a highest source which must be argued from itself (in this case, Himself).
    4. We, like you, are not interested in separating evangelism from apologetics-so we agree there. So when you say that you break from both of us, because we have the wrong goal in mind-you are mistaken. The closing of the mouth for the purpose of hearing the gospel is our sole purpose. As it seems to be yours. Van Til and Bahnsen both stated that there are 2 Kingdoms: The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man. And there is only a single ‘point-of-contact’ between these kingdoms-namely the Gospel of Christ. Evidentialism attempts to bridge these kingdoms with other means, which we categorically reject.

    It sounds like you are a Calvinist, which means you are well on your way to presuppositionalism. If you apply your Calvinism to your apologetics you inevitably become one of us. If you choose to leave your Calvinism out of your apologetics, you can be an evidentialist.

    For the record, your 3 step breakdown of TAG is incorrect, but that is for another day.

    I hope that helps and look forward to future discussions.

    1. RA,

      Thanks. That is actually quite helpful!

      your definition of what Presuppositionalism is, is slightly off, leading to an incorrect description

      I somewhat suspected this may be the case. I still have a high regard for evidence as a God given means to know and am somewhat uncomfortable with circular reasoning in any form. However, what you have described is a lot more reasonable than what I’ve seen done before. Indeed evidence, reason and log are only possible because God undergirds them. My only gripe is that when I put myself into the shoes of an opponent, I find this to be unconvincing. Nevertheless, I do see the power of presuppositionalism to “close the mouth,” and appreciate that this is the goal.

      Perhaps what I have encountered has merely been a poorly executed Presuppositionalism? (The Creation Museum being an example). I’ve encountered too many Presuppositionalists who seem to want to talk presuppositions all day without ever dealing with evidence. I started reading the debate between Bahnsen and Stein and only got 16 pages into it. By that point, I was rather underwhelmed with Bahnsen, but I suppose I should finish reading and see how it plays out.

      Thanks!

      PS. I am indeed a Calvinist

      1. I encourage you to listen to the Bahsen/Stein debate on youtube before reading it. In addition, there are a number of podcasts available of Bahnsen describing presuppositionalism and I have found them to be very helpful.

        Van Til and Bahnsen both liked evidence, but only to strengthen the faith of the regenerate. Since evidence, by its very nature, separates fact from significance, I am convinced that it is not helpful for the unregenerate.

        It is a real pleasure to dialogue with you, a joy to count you as a brother.

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