Friday, July 19, 2013

How to Answer the Fool

Sye Ten Bruggencate asked me to review his film: How to Answer the Fool: a Presuppositional Defense of the Faith. I'm going to comment on some representative statements in the study guide, which supplements the film.

Why is it then that when someone says: "I don't believe in God," we believe him, we give him evidence, and we don't think that he's a fool, when Scripture calls him a fool?

That's a non sequitur. How does giving someone evidence for God's existence imply that you don't think he's a fool? 

When someone denies the existence of God, what do we do? We think they are of sound mind. We believe them enough to accept their arguments as valid. Then we give them evidence that we contend they have the right and ability to accept or reject as if they are gods!
We have seen that when we present evidence to the unbeliever, we elevate them to the position of judge, and now we see that evidence is not even the issue, the issue is the authority with which we interpret evidence. Either we submit to God as our authority, and interpret evidence according to His standards, or we deny God as the authority, and interpret the evidence according to our own standards. 

This jumbles several things together that need to be distinguished:

i) To say unbelievers may have the "ability" to assess the evidence is not to say they assess the evidence by their own standards. Likewise, that is not to say they have the "right" to judge for themselves. 

Unbelievers have no choice but to use their God-given minds. To that extent, they can't avoid divine standards. They have to use God's logic. They can't escape their creatureliness.  They have no alternative. Try as they might, they can't be truly autonomous. To some degree they must fall back on divine standards. 

ii) Unbelievers vary in the degree to which their standards are consciously and consistently opposed to Christian theism. Due to common grace, many unbelievers retain a lot of common sense. They operate with the residual standards of a Christian worldview, even if they are unaware of that fact. 

It's remarkable that many leading apologists are teaching Christians how to defend their faith in a probability. A probable "god," however, is not God at all.
Why do you think that Christians use arguments representing a probability rather than the certain God of Scripture? 

i) Not all "traditional" Christian apologists have the same epistemology. Some Christian apologists think it's rational to believe in God and rational to disbelieve in God. They think both belief and unbelief can be justified or warranted. You can be a sincere unbeliever. The evidence for God is ambiguous. Clearly that's contrary to the outlook of Scripture, which views belief as culpable–the result of rebellion rather than ignorance. 

ii) However, you don't have to take that position to acknowledge the limitations of human argumentation. It's important to distinguish between what we can know and what we can prove. 

By claiming that "a god" might exist, and there is evidence that might lead an unbeliever to consider the existence of a god, is not the approach of the Bible. The first verse of the Bible states: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." There is no attempt to prove that God exists. It's the fact of His existence that makes sense of the world that He created for us.

That's misleading:

i) To begin with, Genesis was addressed to the covenant community. So it natural takes God's existence for granted. Consider the target audience.

ii) In addition, if we accept the ostensible life-setting of the Pentateuch, Genesis was initially addressed to the Exodus-generation. These are people who personally observed God's miraculous deliverance from Egypt and miraculous provision in the wilderness. Sye is overlooking the background of the audience. The historical context of the text. 

iii) Although there were probably some atheists in the ANE, the predominant viewpoint wasn't belief in no gods, but belief in many gods. Not atheism, but polytheism. Gen 1 is singling out the God of the patriarchs and the God of the Exodus as the one true God. He is the actual Creator, in contrast to the pagan pantheon. 

Read Isa 40:12-31. Does the image of God portrayed in Isaiah 40 reflect the way Christians defend their faith?

In Isaiah 40-48, the Jewish prophet doesn't simply take God's existence for granted. Rather, he argues for God's existence based on God's foreknowledge. The classic argument from prophecy. He sets that in contrast to pagan idolatry. 
Who needs evidence that God exists?…Scripture tells us that they are "without excuse," precisely because God has made Himself evident to them (Rom 1:18-22; Ps 19). 
No one needs additional evidence for God. According to Scripture, everyone has sufficient knowledge of God to be condemned for their sin against Him.  Even the most brilliant people in the world are condemned by God as fools if they claim there is no God. 
Read Ps 14:1; 1 Cor 1:18-20; Eph 4:17-19. What is the common theme presented regarding those who deny God?

i) It's not that clear-cut. There's a shift in Rom 1 from what they "know" to what they "knew" (a shift in tense or verbal aspect from present tense to aorist). This is reinforced by Paul's statement that their understanding has been "darkened" (v21, cf. Eph 4:18), as well as their "suppression" of God's self-revelation (v18).  So are unbelievers still in the condition of knowing that God exists, or has their darkened understanding obscured that awareness? If the latter, then they may indeed need to be confronted with the additional evidence to remind them of what they blocked out or to correct their distortions. 

ii) Moreover, even if we grant that unbelievers already know God exists, this doesn't mean they know that Christianity is true. So don't they still require evidence for the specific claims of Christian theology? 

Read Lk 1:3-4, Jn 17:6-8, Acts 2:36, Heb 11:1, and 1 Jn 5:12-13. What do those passages say regarding whether or not people can know things of God with certainty?

Of course, that has reference to Christians, not unbelievers. 

i) Another problem with Sye's position is how his denial that unbelievers need additional evidence meshes with his chapter on proving God's existence. In chap 4 he sketches a transcendental argument for God's existence. He does the same thing in chap. 6 (e.g. objections #2, #7, #11).

But if additional evidence is superfluous, what is the value of TAG? What does that contribute? Isn't presenting a transcendental argument for God's existence giving the unbeliever additional evidence for God's existence? How is that essentially different from the moral, cosmological, or teleological argument?

Sye may say it's a different kind of argument, but it remains supplementary evidence for God's existence. Yet, according to Sye, isn't that redundant if unbelievers already know God exists? TAG is giving them an additional reason to believe in God.   

ii) Moreover, TAG doesn't single out Christianity. A theistic justification of truth, knowledge, or logic operates at a more generic level than Christian theism or Christian theology. That doesn't prove Bible history. 

iii) I'd also add that Sye's version of TAG is very crude and simplistic. It's scarcely an argument. More assertive than argumentative. 

Indeed, there are people in this world who claim that miracles are impossible. So what do Christians do? Rather than speak on the authority of God's Word, we try to prove the possibility of miracles! We give them evidence that they will judge for themselves independent of God!…We reduce miracles to the realm of the plausible in order to satisfy the demands of the skeptic, and then we are amazed when they don't see the truth. We remove God from the equation.

Sye cites a rationalistic explanation for the miracle of Jonah, as if his survival inside the fish can be explained in purely naturalistic terms. But proving the possibility of miracles doesn't require "removing God from the equation." 

What is incredible to believe is that the world came into existence on its own, that life spontaneously appeared out of a biotic soup and that that soup produced the information necessary to gradually evolve over billions of years into the life forms we see today, including living, breathing human beings with minds and a moral sense.

I agree. However, when Sye appeals to "information," he's getting that from intelligent design arguments. 

You see, we all get the same evidence, but we examine the evidence according to the beliefs we take to the evidence, our pre-beliefs if you will–our presuppositions.  With a presupposition that God does not exist and miracles are impossible, it doesn't matter what evidence we give the unbeliever, apart from the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, they cannot conclude that God exists and that miracles are possible. 

That depends on how tenaciously the unbeliever clings to his presuppositions. Unbelievers are not all alike. Some unbelievers are impervious to the evidence. But evidence can wear down other unbelievers. Keep in mind that many unbelievers are very ignorant, thoughtless, and superficial. 

When we challenge unbelievers with the fact that they must assume God to argue against Him, and ask them to justify truth, knowledge, and reasoning apart from Him, we will see, with their inability to do so,  that this Biblical apologetic is not merely a tool in the toolbox, but is the very floor on which the toolbox rests. 

That fosters false confidence. An apologetic method is no substitute for expertise. Some unbelievers are very savvy. They do have alternative models for grounding truth, knowledge, and reasoning apart from God. Yes, those are inadequate, but demonstrating their inadequacy isn't always a quick and easy task.  

After watching debates by Christians who do not employ the Biblical method of apologetics, I often hear the comment: That Christian is so smart, I could never debate like him." The second biggest compliment I get after a person listens to one of my debates is: "Oh, I can do that!" Apologetics is easy, when you read your Bible and do what it says.

i) Once again, that fosters false confidence. To be blunt, an apologetic method is no substitute for brainpower. Brainpower is a great advantage in debate. Take the Gospels. Jesus bested his opponents, not merely because he was right, but because he was bright. He outsmarted them. When they set traps for him, he trapped them in their own traps. 

ii) In addition, unbelievers can also watch Sye's public debates. They can learn what to expect. I'm reminded of an episode from The Ultimate Fighter. One contestant had a great guillotine. He had that maneuver down pat. But that's all he had. He won two matches with his guillotine. But he lost the third match because, by that time, his competitors wised up.  If all you have is a method, it won't take long for some unbelievers to catch on. 

Rather than concede our position at the outset and argue according to the unbeliever's presuppositions, we must argue according to God's own presuppositions that are carefully set forth in the Bible. 
The more complex answer is an internal critique of each worldview to expose their inability to account for rationality without presupposing the God of the Bible. 

i) But an internal critique does involve arguing according to the unbeliever's presuppositions. You're evaluating his position by his own criteria. Therefore, Sye seems to be giving contradictory advice. Perhaps he merely means that when we internally critique a position, we adopt the unbeliever's standards or presuppositions for the sake of argument.

ii) An internal critique is not the same thing as TAG. Performing an internal critique on Scientology or Rastafarianism isn't equivalent to mounting a transcendental argument for God's existence. Disproving Scientology or Rastafarianism doesn't prove God, or vice versa.  Hence, there now seem to be three disparate elements to Sye's "presuppositional defense of the faith":

a) No one needs additional evidence for God. Everyone already has sufficient evidence for God, because God has made himself evident to everyone.

b) We should deploy the transcendental argument for God's existence.

c) We should internally critique opposing positions.

But if (a) is true, then doesn't that render (b) and/or (c) redundant? Isn't that overkill? Why resort to (b) and (c) unless (a) is inadequate? Either (a) moots (b) and (c) or (b) and (c) moot (a).

transcendental arguments do not argue from facts and evidences to a conclusion by induction or deduction like traditions arguments (which assumes that logic is more fundamental/ultimate/epistemologically necessary than God), but rather asks how facts, evidences, etc. can even exist, have meaning, and be intelligible to human beings in the first place. Thus, transcendental arguments "attempt to discover the preconditions of human experience."

Do traditional theistic proofs really assume that logic is more fundamental/ultimate/epistemologically necessary than God? Did Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, or Leibniz (to name a few) make that assumption?  

We are trying to get unbelievers to see the truth SO that they will repent, when Scripture tells us that they need to repent SO they can see the truth. We have it exactly upside-down. Without repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, NO amount of evidence will convince the unbeliever of the truth, and with repentance and faith, no amount of evidence is needed. 

Why would they repent unless they perceive the truth of their lost condition? What is the object of their faith if not perceived truths about the Gospel? Sye has them repenting in vacuum. Believing in a vacuum.  


  1. Anything wrong with being a pragmatist when it comes to apologetics-evangelism? Sometimes use evidentialism, sometimes use presuppositionsism.

  2. That was friendly Steve,

    As I mentioned to my friend Sye the other day (we went to the same church)... listen to recent Reformed Forum podcasts for even friendlier criticism of his 'strict apologetic' from Dr. Scott Oliphint.

    I have great love and respect for Sye. And his request for your review strengthens my respect immensely. Unfortunately he was not respecting my "friendly fire".

    BTW TUAD- See if you can get a hold of the book Classical Apologetics by Gerstner, Sproul and Lindsay (Sye has my copy). Frame likes much of their argument for supplementing pre-sup with evidentialism.

    I also use this supplemental approach in this post-

  3. Steve, Excellent review. The points you make are what keep me from embracing the Pre-suppositional approach - although, I imagine that's not all. I've always had issues when pres-sups give unbelievers a hard time about arguing from their own point of view because they're borrowing from the Christian world view. Such a claim seems to me to lead in circles because you have to prove to them they are borrowing from the Christian world view and they don't yet believe in Christ at all - so why would they suddenly see that? Seems one has to meet them on their grounds to talk them out of the forest so to speak.

    1. It's important to judge presuppositionalism by its best representatives, e.g. James Anderson.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Sorry Steve, I had replied to Jeff and accidentally placed it here. Thanks for the tip on James Anderson. I'll def take some time to read up.

  4. Auggybendoggy writes "Seems one has to meet them on their grounds to talk them out of the forest so to speak."

    What does this mean?

    1. Sorry Jeff, I'm being ambiguous. I meant that it seems to me (not that it is) that in order to convince someone of a proposition they must first accept the premises. Since atheists don't accept Christian premises like the existence of Christ or God, then charging that they're borrowing from a "christian worldview" is meaningless to them and does nothing to help them to come to agreement. If you're arguing with an atheist, I would assume it's important to convince them of your premises that lead to your conclusion? So if the proposition is set that there is only a Christian world view and no other exists, then they would have to agree. But they don't agree because they believe there are many ways of viewing the world. Am I wrong about that?

  5. Since I can't prove Sye's existence with a TAS, but I can to a probability < 1, say, .8., does that mean I believe in a probability*?

    No, I believe in Sye. Is it "a probable Sye"? Sye's phrasings are enough to show he doesn't know what he's talking about.

    He also says the Bible has "a" (singular) approach. This apparently follows, granting Sye his (questionable) exegesis, from the fact that Gen. 1 doesn't attempt to prove God's existence. So it's hasty. But give Sye the premise that the Bible *never* attempts to prove God's existence. Does it follow from this that it is improper or somehow impious to attempt to do so? Of course not. This is similar to how some baptists argue: We don't have an example of infant baptism, therefore infants should not be baptized. Or, in contemporary terms, "We don't have an example of a woman president; therefore, women should not be presidents." Even if one believes the conclusion, it should be for the reasons cited.

    Unfortunately, Christians will repeat the same error and follow someone just because he's "bold" and "pious." But in reality it's more of the same, Christians looking naive and ignorant of basic issues.

    1. Mr.,

      I sympathize with your frustration but Sye is neither "naive" nor "ignorant". And I greatly admire his boldness and his piety.
      Also, following someone because they are "bold and pious" is not a bad thing- sure narrows down the mentors, huh?

      But what Sye is piggybacking on here is Van Til (via Bahnsen). Where Van Til insists that "probability means something very different to a non-believer". That "non-believers like Hume will not allow for any probability". And that even "possibility [a much larger category] means something very different to a non-believer as well". That non-believers really don't know what they are talking about. That their categories are much too small.

      Now, Van Til was somewhat of a minimalist but did "not reject the theistic proofs" and endorsed the "historical and archaeological proofs" which his colleagues were better at.
      Yet I think that Sye has successfully shown in that even Van Til's minimalist argument for the existence of God is entirely sufficient to convict man of contempt- and he is to be applauded for that.

      As Van Til would say 'a trinity of cheers for Sye...'

  6. "transcendental arguments do not argue from facts and evidences to a conclusion by induction or deduction like traditions arguments (which assumes that logic is more fundamental/ultimate/epistemologically necessary than God), but rather asks how facts, evidences, etc. can even exist, have meaning, and be intelligible to human beings in the first place."

    This really is "nuclear strength" apologetics. Apparently the famed "transcendental argument" for God's existence isn't an *argument* at all but, rather, a *question*!

    1. Mr.,

      This isn't Sye's definition- this is Stanford's definition (buy the book).
      The definition then concludes with, "Thus, transcendental arguments attempt to discover the preconditions of human experience".

      Seems to me (and Stephen Hawking) that "preconditions" are a more important consideration- don't you think?

  7. I know that definition. I also have the book. In any case, as the SEP article makes clear, TAs are indeed deductive arguments.

  8. You may also want to see this to see that TAs aren't "questions" but arguments, and deductive ones:

  9. Good review. Hope Turretinfan listens.

    God be with you,