Tuesday, March 02, 2010

"Hardline presuppositionalism"

Paul Helm has posted an assessment of presuppositionalism. I’m going to focus on his description and evaluation of “hardline presuppositionalism.”

i) One initial difficulty is that Helm is shadowboxing with invisible opponents. He names no names. He quotes no one. So I don’t know who or what, exactly, he intends to target.

For example, much of what he says would be germane to Clarkian presuppositionalism. But it seems far less relevant to Van Tilian presuppositionalism.

And, of course, there are varieties of Van Tilian presuppositionalism. Is he targeting Van Til’s version? Frame’s? Bahnsen’s? David Byron’s? James Anderson’s? Who and what?

ii) Another problem is that he seems to interpret a presuppositional method in chronological terms. That to reason presuppositionally is to observe a certain sequence in which you treat the Bible as your chronological point of departure.

You begin with Scripture. For unless you first know the Bible, you can’t know anything else.

But if this is what he means, then I think that badly mischaracterizes the position. In Van Tilian apologetics, the Bible is not a chronological starting point, as if it enjoys temporal priority in the “order of knowledge.”

The point, rather, as I understand it, is that biblical revelation is a necessary presupposition in the justification of knowledge.

iii) In addition, I don’t think Van Tilian apologetics primarily concerned with using the Bible itself as a textbook for epistemology.

The point, rather, as I understand it, is that unless the God of the Bible exists, then what we believe and perceive systematically unwarranted. In that event, there is no reason to trust our sensory relays, or cognitive mechanisms, or moral intuitions.

Only God can underwrite knowledge. Unless the Creator and sustainer of the world exists, as identified in Scripture, then we’re condemned to scepticism.

iv) I’m puzzled by the way in which Helm opposes Van Tilian apologetics to “Reformed epistemology.” James Anderson, for one, has argued that we can and should incorporate elements of Plantinga’s epistemology into Van Tilian apologetics.

v) I’d also like to remark on the ambiguities of reliability. For instance, when we say the senses are reliable, what do we mean?

a) Reliability is a relative notion, and on more than one level. Reliable for what?

The eyesight of an eagle is reliable for daytime hunting whereas the eyesight of an owl is reliable for nighttime hunting.

So is the eyesight of an eagle reliable or unreliable? There’s no uniform answer. An eagle’s eyesight is reliable in relation to its internal design and corresponding environment. Reliable during the daytime, but less reliable (or unreliable) at night.

b) Likewise, reliability is also bound up with the principle of design. Is it functioning according to its design specifications? Doing what it was meant to do or made to do?

That’s a teleological concept, and since methodological naturalism banishes teleological explanation from scientific discourse, then an atheistic position like naturalistic evolution can’t evaluate a sensory input in terms of its general (alethic) reliability.

And that, in turn, is a case in which presuppositionalism comes to the fore. Unless God designed our senses, unless God designed our sensory environment, unless God designed each to function in a state of mutual adaptation, then our senses are untrustworthy.

c) Reliability is ambiguous in another respect. Something may be “reliable” in the pragmatic or subjective sense that I rely on it. I have no alternative.

Take a man who’s color-blind. Even though his vision is defective in that respect, he must still rely on his defective vision.

Yet his vision remains defective, and, to that degree, unreliable. There are also situations in which his vision lets him down. Situations in which he needs the benefit of color discrimination. Even though he has to make do with what he’s got, that, of itself, doesn’t vouch for the reliability of his eyesight.

d) Suppose a man is born blind. Suppose, due to technological advances, he is given a pair of artificial eyes. Are these implants reliable?

Well, that depends on whether or not the artificial eyes suffer from a design flaw. If the company which manufactures the artificial eyes has a reputation for shoddy workmanship, then he has reason to suspect the reliability of his artificial vision.

And since he was born blind, he can’t very well compare his artificial vision with his memory of normal vision. So he’s in no position to detect faulty vision.

Yet, in another respect, he is still dependent on his artificial vision. He must rely on his unreliable vision. He has no choice. No fallback.

If, on the other hand, the company is reliable, then he has reason to believe the product is reliable. A reliable source or process produces a reliable product.

And this is, of course, analogous to the evolutionary psychology. Unless God, a God with the attributes accorded him in Scripture, exists, can we trust our minds and senses?

Yes, we still have to take them for granted–even to pose that question–but, then, a man who’s is high on LSD must also take his mind for granted. Delusive or not, that’s the only mind he’s got. Yet, in that diminished condition, his perception of reality amounts to a radical misperception of reality.

That’s the dilemma for naturalism. You have to place unquestioning faith in reason to question reason. But what if your resultant philosophy casts doubt on the reliability of reason?

At that point, should you question your sanity–or question your philosophy?

Presuppositionalism has a confirmatory role. Given the existence of the Biblical God, then we have good reason to trust our minds and senses–within the limits of their design parameters.


  1. In Van Tilian apologetics, the Bible is not a chronological starting point, as if it enjoys temporal priority in the “order of knowledge.”

    The point, rather, as I understand it, is that biblical revelation is a necessary presupposition in the justification of knowledge.

    "According to the principle of Protestantism, man’s consciousness of self and of objects presuppose for their intelligibility the consciousness of God. In asserting this we are not thinking of psychological and temporal priority. We are thinking only of the question as to what is the final reference point in interpretation. The Protestant principle finds this in the self-contained ontological Trinity."

    Van Til. Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. 97.

  2. Very, very good post, Steve.

    Your rebuttal points to Paul Helm are quite striking and effective.

    I rather wonder what Dusman thinks of presuppositionalism. He's on the frontlines as an open-air preacher and I wonder how he utilizes the presupp approach in his evangelism.

  3. Truth - I rather wonder what Dusman thinks of presuppositionalism. He's on the frontlines as an open-air preacher and I wonder how he utilizes the presupp approach in his evangelism.

    Vytautas - He uses the standard TAG argument as seen in his discussion with the atheist who balked at the doctrine of creation. He tends to make the argument personal such as asking pointedly if it would be okay if I raped your daughter to awaken their lethargic minds. It is one thing to agree to relitive ethics but another to carry it out consistantly.

  4. What are the differences between Van Til's, Bahnsen's, Frame's, etc presuppositionalism?

  5. Hi Folks,

    Dusman here. I have not used the strong modal form of the TAG in years because I no longer think that it actually proves what it sets out to prove; namely, the existence of the Trinitarian God. I think that at best any philosophical "proof" can only get at a uniplural god, and that only with probability. My own view is that I don't need to prove the existence of the Creator when the Creator Himself tells me that He has hardwired that information into all people as a self-evident truth (Rom. 1:19-21). Because that self-evident Truth is sufficient to damn but not to save, and all men suppress that Truth, I proclaim to them the special revelation of who the Creator is and what he's done in Christ Jesus. In open air preaching, I simply answer people's questions with Scripture and stay away from philosophical argumentation. I do this because their problem is not a lack of evidence; but a need for repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ. If I get an objection like, "Prove to me the Bible is the word of God!" I say, "I can't, God Himself has to prove it to you!" and then I appeal to 2 Cor. 4:4-6 and explain to them that they reject the knowledge that God has placed within them as well as the knowledge being preached to them in the gospel because they need God to "shine in their hearts"; i.e., they need regeneration. I stay far away from philosophical argumentation in open air preaching because it almost always becomes a distraction away from the gospel. I focus on proclaiming the gospel and answering questions systematic theology.

    I do sometimes argue transcendentally though (as is evident in my blog articles and interactions with atheists), which is a whole different thing altogether than using the strong modal TAG as it was framed by Bahnsen and Butler. I also point to articles and general evidences sometimes. I do this because it can be useful in showing that the unbeliever simply doesn't know what he's talking about. After that, I simply preach the gospel to them over and over again until they either leave or get converted. I'm not interested in debating back and forth since that usually turns into a fleshly spitting match that wastes a load of time. I'm interested in seeing men come to Christ. If they want to fight, I let them take their fight elsewhere since I'm looking for those who will listen versus those who want to prove their intellectual mettle.

    That's generally how I do it. I hope that clarifies things!

  6. Dusman: "I stay far away from philosophical argumentation in open air preaching because it almost always becomes a distraction away from the gospel."

    I intuitively suspected as much. Thanks for clarifying and/or confirming my inklings about your experiences in open-air evangelism/preaching.

    BTW, if you're still tracking this thread, could you render your thoughts on Dr. Paul Copan's blog post and the ensuing thread titled "Do We Need to Tell People the Bad News Before the Good News?

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  8. Deep thanks Dusman for the thoughtful reply!!

    I have to concur with your assessment, except that the article was written by Dr. Paul Copan, not C. Michael Patton!

    I'm not too crazy about Boyd either since he's an open theist, but I know folks continually tout his book that contains letters to his dad.

    I enjoyed certain parts of Miller's "Blue Like Jazz" to the point where it outweighed the parts that I thoroughly detested.

    But yeah, I agree with your general point... why not reference more biblically orthodox pastor-writers than those two.

  9. Hi Truth,

    Thanks a bunch for the correction re: the author. I have corrected below so that Dr. Patton is not mistakenly imputed with my friendly objections.
    My uber brief thoughts in response to Copan's article is as follows:

    1. This article reminded me of A general observation I've made many times: Many folks who don't like certain evangelistic methods that start with the bad news often don't do evangelism themselves. Thus, I like my way of doing it better than their way of not doing it. Of course, I'm not saying Patton doesn't do evangelism, nor am I saying that all evangelistic methods are worthy of consideration simply because people employ them. I'm just saying that it is much easier to write about it and critique others' efforts at it than to actually do it ourselves. I may wonder about the presentation of a guy yelling at the top of his lungs at the flea market standing on a soapbox, but as long as he's preaching the truth with a concern for souls, then I'm happy with it. The Apostle Paul himself said that some men preach Christ with envy, some with contention, but he said he'd rejoice either way since Christ was preached even when it was obvious that less than ideal attitudes, motives, and methods were utilized.

    2. I'm scratching my head wondering why Copan referenced men like Donald Miller and Greg Boyd to make his points when other Biblically orthodox men can answer to the problems of equivocation in religious conversation in our pluralistic culture (i.e., D.A. Carson)? This implies that Boyd and Miller are orthodox evangelicals.

    Greg Boyd is an open-theist, which I take to be a damnable heresy and Donald Miller denies that truth is objective and knowable. See my article on Miller here: http://graceinthetriad.blogspot.com/2010/03/green-like-puke-donald-millers.html.

    Also, I have noticed that some who quote Emergents like Boyd and Miller favorably do so because they don't like the emphasis of other professing Christians on pointing out the unbeliever's sin. My brief response is "If it's good enough for the Apostles then it's good enough for me.

    3. I agree with Copan that different people come to Christ in different ways and so, we shouldn't be stuck so much on one particular "method". The main thing I focus on in my own evangelism is exalting Christ as the solution to our sin problem. Then when the objections come, I answer them with Scripture.

    4. Copan is concerned about "scolding unbelievers". I am too. However, unbelievers will not like what you have to say regardless of how you say it and the context in which you say it. Should we present the truth in love? Absolutely. However, the gospel is offensive no matter how much we "love" on sinners.

    5. My view is that an appeal to a Christian sociologist to determine the effectiveness of certain evangelistic methods is less than helpful. Here's why: Before the advent of the 60s, the modern missionary movement has done just fine with the gospel without any appeal to sociologists. Heartcry Missionary Society has been funding indigenous missionaries to countries around the entire globe yet the message is the same, turn from your sins to Christ or perish. This ministry has been quite effective in spreading the gospel and making disciples by simply training indigenous missionaries to preach the gospel without the help of any sociologists, Christian or otherwise. The bottom line is this: God is sovereign in the salvation of sinners. We are to be obedient in evangelism and God will do the rest.

    Those are my 20 cents!