Friday, February 17, 2006

Tearing Down Strongholds:

A Succinct Critique of R.C. Sproul Jrs. Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics Found Therein, Or, a Polyadic Instantiation of The Universal Relationship: "Like Father Like Son."

There, now that I've paid homage to Puritan-esk titles, let me pay homage, by way of defense, to Presuppositional Apologetics. This entry will consistute a critique of Sproul Jrs. critique of presuppositionalism found in his apologetics book, TEARING DOWN STRONGHOLDS and Defending the Truth. To my knowledge no one has critiqued Sproul Jrs. critique of presuppositionalism found in this book. That may be because the critiques are so awful - constituting major misrepresentations and extreme ignorance of presuppositional apologetics - that no one has bothered to write one. Or, it may be because the book begins (in Sproul Jrs. defense, he says he was writing it to laymen. But as a teacher he still should not misrepresent in the name of simplification!) so philosophically weak and sophomoric (consisting of such basics as: "you have to be skeptical of skepticism;" "are you relativistic about your relativism?;" "can you see the truth that you can only know what you see?" e.g.,) that no one has made it to the latter portions of the book where presuppositional apologetics is critiqued. Maybe it is because people already feel that Sproul-ish ways were defeated by Bahnsen, Frame, et. al., back when Clasical Apologetics came out with its critique of presuppositionalism that they figured there was nothing new under the sun? I don't know the answer for sure. But so that Sproul Jr. does not feel left out I'll give his book its due.

Many people are familiar with the reviews of Classical Apologetics by Frame and Bahnsen, as well as the debate that took place between Bahnsen and Sproul Sr., well; the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. The most succinct explanation of Sproul Jrs. critique against presuppositionalism is: Like father like son. The only difference is that Jr.'s critiques are worse.

Now, in the preface (ix), Sproul writes that he's writing for laypeople to come to an understanding of how to refute unbelieving epistemologies. Fine. But, Sproul also tells us that he realizes he's going outside the reformed dogma of presuppositonal apologetics and that he hopes that when the "avid Reformed apologist" reads his book there might be "rapprochement in the war within our walls." Sproul "would love to see presuppositional and classical apologists getting along like the brothers they are" (p. x). He then contrasts the "avid Reformed apologist" with "you, the reader" (p. x). So, there is a distinction between the "laymen" and the "avid Reformed apologist" who is not a "layman." The critiques in this book, therefore, are leveled at the scholarly wing of presuppositionalism. But, as we will shortly see, Sproul does not interact with "scholarly" presuppositionalists. Indeed, he interacts with nothing I have ever heard a scholarly presuppositionalist apologist say or write. Thus Sproul's attempt to bring rapprochement between the two camps actually could serve as fuel for more contention and hostility (as long as we're using Sproul's wartime language) between the two camps. His peace talks are more like if and Arminian tried to bring unity between Calvinism and Arminianism by "lovingly" critiquing the Calvinist, where the Calvinist is dressed up as affirming Open Theism!

This entry will, as I said above, focus on Sproul's critique of presuppositionalism. His "critiques" are found (mostly) towards the end of the book (he takes small shots at presuppositionalism in pages 137-188, interspersed with his positive case arguments). As I said above, much of Sproul's book would not be of interest to any who want a meaty defense of the faith or a critique of unbelieving epistemologies. But since I don't want to be too fainéant in my dismissal of Sproul's other contributions I should at least make one other remark to compliment the above. In the introduction (pp. 1-11) Sproul distinguishes between negative and positive apologetics. In his explanation of his (the) purpose of positive apologetics he claims that he wants to demonstrate that the Christian faith is true. His "goal is not only to tear down the strongholds of the devil, and not only to repel the assaults of the very gates of hell, but to show that the foundation upon which our faith stands is firm" (p. 11). He does this for the "truth" and "truth's name: Jesus" (p. 11). Amen. The problem, though, is that he nowhere argues for Christianity! Indeed, in the positive apologetics section of the book, Sproul tells us that he "cannot demonstrate" and "has not" demonstrated that the "god" he argued for is the God of the Bible (p.185). He gives a "layman’s" cosmological argument for his positive apologetic, which could prove a number of gods besides the Christian God. He nowhere argues for the resurrection, the inspiration of the Bible, the truth of Christianity. Thus Sproul never accomplishes what he said was one of his purposes for writing the book.

We just read that Sproul said that his argument "cannot demonstrate that the God who is described in the Bible is this Supreme being." But on the very next page Sproul says that his presuppositionalist friends would be disappointed by this. He says that they should not be because his argument is "the same basic argument" Paul makes in Romans 1. Now, I do not think that Paul is making a discursive cosmological argument. (I think the knowledge men have is immediate.) Paul says all men know this God and Sproul says that "all men" know so by "the same basic argument" that Sproul made on pages 177-185. I highly doubt that Sophie the washwomen thinks in terms of "sufficient causes" and that the "power of being" must be in the cause, and that "self-consciousness must come from self-consciousness," and to be able to communicate means that the cause "can communicate" (pp. 184-85) etc. My point, though, is not to critique this aspect of Sproul's argument but to critique what he said next. Sproul tells us that Paul's argument (which was "basically the same argument as Sproul's), demonstrates not that "some other being" (p. 186) can be, or is, God; but that it demonstrates the "God who is" (p. 186). But the "God who is" is the biblical God. Therefore if Paul's argument, which is basically the same as Sproul's argument, demonstrates that the "Supreme being" is the God of the Bible (because it does not show that "some other god" can be this God) then why does Sproul say that "we" "cannot and have not" demonstrated that "the 'God who is' described in the Bible is "the God who is?" If the argument does not allow for some other god to be demonstrated, but it demonstrates a "god" then the "god" (or, "Supreme being) it demonstrates must be the God of the Bible! Thus we can see but an example of the confused argumentation offered by Sproul Jr.

At this point I now turn to Sproul's critique(s) against presuppositionalism. The first thing that must be pointed out is that Sproul no where interacts with any published presuppositionalist. No footnotes, no names, no quoting their work, nothing. He irresponsibly critiques "our friends in the presuppositionalist camp (p. 150)," and mentions "some" who "suggest that our given, our starting point, must be God himself" (p. 137). Sproul confidently argues against "those who argue that God is... the beginning of knowledge" (p. 138). Sproul seeks to show his keen insights by putting his "opponent[s]" in a "dilemma" (p. 138). We are never told who these friends, opponents, and abstract "thoses" are. Is this how one achieves rapprochement? Well, "my friends" in the presuppositionalist camp don't think so, and "some say" Sproul has misrepresented them and their camp!

I find no excuse for this. The problem is that Sproul tells us that part of this book is for non-lay presuppositionalists. So does he expect scholars to take this kind of scholarship seriously? Also, Sproul is teaching people in this book, therefore he is already held to a higher standard. Even if Sproul contends that he wanted to simplify his book for his intended audience by not giving footnotes and supplying names of the people who supposedly have been trampled by Sproul, he still egregiously misrepresents "those" people and those "opponents" (who ever they are!). It is to his critique(s) that we now turn.

Sproul's main and number one critique is on the very idea of "start with" or "begin with" God. First, Sproul is not very clear here, though. For example, on pages 137, 138, 150, and 186 he mentions those who "start with God" but on p. 174 he refers to the same group as those who "start with the Bible." Surely this is a major difference in starting points. It makes all the difference in the world if you just start with "God" instead of if you start with an entire worldview (i.e., start with the Bible).

Second, Sproul takes "start with" in a temporal sense. He makes this clear in many places. Take, for example, what he says on p. 138. He says that although it "is attractive" to say we "start with God" we cannot because the "difficulty with this view" is that we "cannot begin with God." Why?

"The reason why brings us back to Descartes. We all begin our knowing with ourselves, because it is we who are doing the knowing. To those who say, 'I begin with God' or 'I presuppose God,' we ask, 'Who begins with God?' One might try to get around this problem with the semantic trick, and affirm instead, 'God is.' While it is certainly true that God is, and that his being is in no way dependent upon our acknowledgment of it, we nevertheless ask, 'Says who?' We do not start with God but with ourselves."

So we can see that Sproul takes "start with" in a temporal sense because the "I" comes before the God in the sentence "I start with God." But Sproul pays no attention to history and so thus repeats past mistakes. This is the same critique given by Gerstner et al in Classical Apologetics (p. 185, 212). Now this very critique was discussed by John Frame in Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic Westminster Theological Journal [47, 2 (Fall 1985), 279-99]. This was discussed 17 years before Sproul's book! Sproul shows absolutely no familiarity with the debate. He just hashes out already answered criticisms. Maybe Sproul missed that article. Well in 1987 Frame's Doctrine of The Knowledge of God addressed this topic as well. Maybe Sproul didn't read pgs. 125-26? If so, then we have Frame's 1994 book, Apologetics to The Glory of God (p.13) in which he discusses this critique. Since that was a footnote Sproul might have missed it. If so, then we have Bahnsen's tome, Van Til's Apologetic: Readings and Analysis, where he defines "start with" in non-tempral terms (p.2). What is the basic gist of the above answer to the critique? Frame writes,

"They stress the pre in presupposition and thus take it that a presupposition is something someone believes before (temporally) one believes anything else. This is wrong. The pre should be understood mainly as an indicator of eminence (e.g., preeminence), not temporal priority" (AGG. p.12, emphasis original).

Therefore, Sproul's number one critique (indeed, the one he uses in all his critiques!) is based off a major misunderstanding of the idea of "start with." This would not have been so bad if this was 1985, but this has been answered time and time again! Who are these "friends" and "opponents" and "thoses" that R.C. Sproul Jr. has been talking to? They seem like presuppositionalists who have never read any presuppositionalist literature!

Next, Sproul uses his shaky foundation to stand on and launch another criticism. Sproul discusses logic and the presuppositionalist on page 150. He talks about "our friends" in the presuppositionalist camp who "start with God" and the "problem" that they have. What is this problem? Well, to say "I do not start with logic; I start with God" invites this sharp critique by Sproul: "I'm delighted to hear that you do not start with God but with logic." That is to say, since the presuppositionalist dummy is set up as "starting" with God temporally, he can not have logic yet. He must get there next as in, 1 and then 2. So, since he does not have logic yet then he cannot ward of a contradiction and, hence, if he "starts with God" then he "does not start with God." There's no logic yet to stop Sproul's attack. There are many problems here.

First, Sproul says in a parenthesis that God "is, of course, logic." Is Sproul saying that presuppositionalists don't believe this? (Well, it is vague and Sproul would need to tell us what he means by saying "God is logic.") But on page 148 Sproul tells us that presuppositonalist Gordon Clark translates John 1:1 as God being logic. So, maybe Sproul just means that Van Tilian presuppositionalists don't believe that God is logic? If he does not mean this then when the presuppositionalist says "I start with God" he is, by definition, also "starting with logic," since "God is, of course, logic." Sproul seems to not even get this problem.

Second, Van Tilian presuppositionalists "start with" an entire worldview (cf. Bahnsen, Van Til: R & A, pp. 461-67), one which already has logic (and its metaphysical and epistemological justifications) included. Therefore, Sproul is again caught having a severely diminished understanding of Van Tilian apologetics. He seems rather ignorant on the whole thing.

Third, and most devastating, Sproul says that we need to start "with the rules of logic" (p. 151). Well to this I simply respond, "Who starts with the rules of logic?" If Sproul replies, "Logic is" then I simply ask, "Says who?" You see, unless Sproul is equivocating on "start with" then he has the same problem he leveled against the presuppositionalist! Indeed, when Sproul says that he "starts with himself" I can simply say, "I'm delighted to hear that you do not start with yourself." Since Sproul does not have logic yet then I can contradict him! Thus the sword Sproul yields to cut the presuppositionalist actually ends up cutting himself!

Now, maybe Sproul thinks that he can start with an entire worldview (though he doesn't) but the problem is where did he get this worldview? Does he accept it as a package or does he build it up block by block? How can he "start with" himself, logic, and the senses? Should we start here? Or does he also "start with" morality? Whose morality? What is this worldview called? Is it a Christian worldview? If so, then he "starts with" the Christian worldview to prove the Christian worldview. If not, then does he "start with" a non-Christian worldview? The point is not to have Sproul answer all these questions (though that would be nice), the point is to point out that if this is what he is doing then he doing exactly what the presuppositionalist has been doing long before him or his Dad started doing apologetics. Therefore his critiques agaisnt us fail. Not only that, but Sproul's own arguments end up refuting his entire case for theism. His foundation (himself) is not his foundation (because there's no logic yet). The nail in the coffin for Sproul is that on page 153. There Sproul indicates that he does not "start with" logic but he "starts with [himself], ... and then move[s] on to logic..." (emphasis mine). Therefore if Sproul "starts with himself" then he does not "start with himself" because he does not yet "have logic" he has yet to "move on" to it. If Sproul wants to start with them all then the further we get into this would get us involved in Sproul's rather weak form of foundationalism (for critiques against that see Plantinga's Warrant Trilogy) and move us beyond the scope of this entry.

The last thing I wish to comment on is another egregious misunderstanding on the part of Sproul. After his cosmological argument he mentions what "his friends call the transcendental argument for the existence of God." He tells us that he would rather call it "the epistemological argument for the existence of God" but does not tell us why. Certainly there are transcendental and non-transcendental epistemological arguments for the existence of God. Be that as it may, he conflates "transcendental" with "transcendent" (pp. 187-88). He also says that the argument is to show "how those things [i.e.,logic, our senses] came to be." The must have "a source, a source that is transcendent." God's existence, ontologically, "precedes the existence" of logic (p. 187). So, there is a point in time that logic does not exist (I take the "pre" in "precede" as temporal). But on page 150 Sproul tells us that God is logic. If so, does He "precede" Himself!? Therefore, Sproul's idea of what we call the "transcendental argument" is really just another cosmological argument (one that is self-contradictory for Sproul because I can say, "Oh, God's existence precedes logic? Well then it does not precede logic!"). This is not what we call "the transcendental argument." And so we begin where we left off: misrepresentations and misunderstandings on top of misrepresentations and misunderstandings.

In conclusion we can now see that, like father like son, R. C. Sproul Jr. egregiously misreprsents the presuppositionalist camp and thus we are further from rapprochement than when he had written his book. Little kids whish for their two front teeth for Christmas, presuppositionalists whish for someone to represent them properly.


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