Monday, July 16, 2012

Wintery Knight on Van Til

Wintery Knight has done a post critical of Van Tilian apologetics:

I’ll just make a few observations. Wintry Knight has one of the best Christian blogs around–even if he is a hellbound Arminian evidentialist. Okay, just kidding.

i) Van Til was a pioneer. But you can’t just judge the fortunes of Van Tilian apologetics by the preliminary formulations of the pioneer. That’s a kind of trial run or rough draft. It’s better to judge the approach by later adherents who refine the formulations.

For instance, when I evaluate Arminianism, I don’t confine myself to Arminius or John Wesley. In fact, I don’t think that’s the best place to start. It makes more sense to begin with contemporary Arminians like I. Howard Marshall and Jerry Walls. Assess the most mature, most astute version of Arminian theology.

IMO, the best contemporary spokesman for Van Tilian apologetics is James Anderson. On occasion, Anderson also teams up with Greg Welty.

ii) Van Til considers the unbeliever from two different aspects. On the one hand there’s the “ideal” unbeliever. The consistent unbeliever. An unbeliever to carries his unbelief to its logical extreme. Mind you, the attempt to be a logically consistent unbeliever generates various inconsistencies, for he’s cutting against the grain of reality.

On the other hand, common grace generally makes the unbeliever more reasonable than he’d otherwise be.

In principle, believers and unbelievers don’t agree on anything, but in practice, there is common ground. At the ontological level, there’s total common ground, for the unbeliever is actually living in God’s world. That’s the reality.

At an epistemological level, there’s some common ground, although that varies from one unbeliever to the next.

iii) William Lane Craig is one of Wintery Knight’s heroes. Yet in his debate with Bart Ehrman, Craig doesn’t confine himself to presenting the evidence. Rather, he has to clear the ground before he can present the evidence.

That’s because Ehrman’s historiography is committed to methodological naturalism. You can’t throw historical evidence at Ehrman if, according to his methodological naturalism, your ostensible evidence doesn’t count as real evidence in the first place.

So before Craig can present his evidence, he has to challenge Ehrman’s presuppositions. He must justify his evidence. For instance:

But that’s not all. Dr. Ehrman just assumes that the probability of the resurrection on our background knowledge [Pr(R/B)] is very low. But here, I think, he’s confused. What, after all, is the resurrection hypothesis? It’s the hypothesis that Jesus rose supernaturally from the dead. It is not the hypothesis that Jesus rose naturally from the dead. That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.

In order to show that that hypothesis is improbable, you’d have to show that God’s existence is improbable. But Dr. Ehrman says that the historian cannot say anything about God. Therefore, he cannot say that God’s existence is improbable. But if he can’t say that, neither can he say that the resurrection of Jesus is improbable. So Dr. Ehrman’s position is literally self-refuting.

Even though Craig is a well-known critic of Van Tilian apologetics, he’s practicing presuppositional apologetics in response to Ehrman.

Likewise, in his monograph on The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Licona devotes extensive attention to the presuppositional issues. He takes a step back from evidentiary appeals to examine underlying methods and assumptions.

And any philosophically astute defense of the Resurrection will have to go beyond direct appeals to testimonial evidence to consider the antecedent credibility of miracles.

iv) Is Van Tilian methodology viciously circular? That fails to appreciate the nature of a transcendental argument. For instance:

As standardly conceived, transcendental arguments are taken to be distinctive in involving a certain sort of claim, namely that X is a necessary condition for the possibility of Y—where then, given that Y is the case, it logically follows that X must be the case too. Moreover, because these arguments are generally used to respond to skeptics who take our knowledge claims to be problematic, the Y in question is then normally taken to be some fact about us or our mental life which the skeptic can be expected to accept without question (e.g., that we have experiences, or make certain judgements, or perform certain actions, or have certain capacities, and so on), where X is then something the skeptic doubts or denies (e.g., the existence of the external world, or of the necessary causal relation between events, or of other minds, or the force of moral reasons). In this way, it is hoped, skepticism can be overturned using transcendental arguments that embody such transcendental claims.

Because of their anti-skeptical ambitions, transcendental arguments must begin from a starting point that the skeptic can be expected to accept, the necessary condition of which is then said to be something that the skeptic doubts or denies. This will then mean that such arguments are ineffective against very radical forms of skepticism, which doubt the laws of logic, and/or which refuse to accept any starting point as uncontentious; and it will also mean that they may be effective against a skeptic who is prepared to accept some starting point, but then ineffective against another skeptic who is not. But neither of these features of transcendental arguments need be felt to be disabling: for the skepticism of the radical skeptics is perhaps of dubious coherence, or at least of little interest because they seem so unwilling to engage with us, while the second limitation may mean merely that different transcendental arguments are required for different skeptical audiences.

It’s not fallacious to argue for a truth from the same truth if the truth in question is “some fact about us or our mental life which the skeptic can be expected to accept without question.”

a) Given that fact, you can argue from that unquestionable fact to the necessary preconditions that make it possible.

b) Or, if the necessity or factuality of the fact is challenged, then you first argue for the necessity or factuality of that fact, then argue for the necessary conditions that make it possible.

If the unbeliever grants the fact, you can proceed directly to a theistic argument for the preconditions of the fact.

If the unbeliever denies the fact, you can argue that his denial is ultimately incoherent. 

v) Is presuppositionalism unscriptural? Take Paul’s leading question to Agrippa in Acts 26:8: “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?”

That’s presuppositional. That’s not a direct appeal to evidence for the Resurrection. Rather, that anticipates an objection to the evidence. That goes behind the evidence to consider prior probabilities. That places the evidence in a theistic framework–biblical theism.

And surely the existence of God is the fundamental presupposition of Scripture. Not just some generic deity, either, but the God who reveals himself in Biblical history.

vi) Is evidentialism scriptural?

a) The NT routinely deploys the argument from prophecy. By contrast, Craig doesn’t use the argument from prophecy in his minimal facts approach.

b) Craig appeals to scholarly consensus. The Bible does not.

c) Craig appeals to the hypothetical source underlying the gospel of Mark, rather than appealing directly to Mark’s Gospel in itself.

d) Evidentialists treat the Resurrection as a “hypothesis.” But the Bible doesn’t treat the Resurrection as the best hypothesis to account for the evidence.

BTW, I’m not necessarily criticizing Craig’s apologetic strategy. I’m just pointing out that it’s equivocal to infer that if evidentialists (e.g. Craig, Habermas, Licona) and NT speakers/writers both make the Resurrection central to their apologetic, then the evidentialists are modeling their apologetic on the example of Scripture. Typically, the leading evidentialists don’t argue for the Resurrection in the same way as Scripture does.


  1. Excellent! I'll link to this from my blog first, then read it. I'm willing to be corrected.

  2. I do think that it is important to address presuppositions like naturalism when discussing science and history, with naturalists like Peter Atkins and John Dominic Crossan. It's important to get them to admit they are evaluating the evidence with these presuppositions in place. I think it's good, but I think that it is also good having addressed that to go ahead and present the evidence which should cause them to question their presuppositions. So I guess I would say that my view is that evidence can cause people to overturn presuppositions, and that it is important to address presuppositions when presenting evidence. What I oppose is not presenting any evidence at all. I like presuppositional arguments in combination with evidence, but not presuppositionalism that excludes the use of evidence like miracles.

  3. There was an informal division of labor at Westminster, when he was teaching there. The "evidence" was generally presented by the OT prof (E. J. Young) and the NT prof (Stonehouse). When Kline was hired, he also presented some evidence.

    That goes to the specialization of knowledge. Van Til delegated the evidentiary side of things to his colleagues.

  4. In some sense, Van Til probably had a higher view of the evidence than many contemporary evidentialists do:

    "The objective evidence for the existence of God and of the comprehensive governance of the world by God is therefore so plain that he who runs may read. Men cannot get away from this evidence. They see it round about them. They see it within them. Their own constitution so clearly evinces the facts of God’s creation of them and control over them that there is no man who can possibly escape observing it. If he is self-conscious at all, he is also God-conscious. No matter how men may try they cannot hide from themselves the fact of their own createdness. Whether men engage in inductive study with respect to the facts of nature about them or engage in analysis of their own self-consciousness they are always face to face with God their maker. Calvin stresses these matters greatly on the basis of Paul’s teachings in Romans."

    A Christian Theory of Knowledge, 10.3.b.1


  5. "I would therefore engage in historical apologetics. (I do not personally do a great deal of this because my colleagues in the other departments of the Seminary in which I teach are doing it better than I could do it.) Every bit of historical bound to confirm the truth of the claims of the Christian position. But I would not talk endlessly about facts and more facts without ever challenging the non-believer's philosophy of fact."
    - Van Til, The Defense of the Faith p. 199

    "...the Christian faith is not a blind faith but is faith based on evidence."
    - Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge p. 250

    "...we present the message and evidence for the Christian position as clearly as possible, knowing that because man is what the Christian says he is, the non-Christian will be able to understand in an intellectual sense the issues involved."
    - Van Til, "My Credo"

    "I do not reject 'theistic proofs' but merely insist on formulating them in a such a way as not to compromise the doctrines of Scripture."
    Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 197; A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 292

    "It is impossible and useless to seek to vindicate Christianity as a historical religion by a discussion of facts only."
    - Van Til, Apologetics (Syllabus)

    "Men have not done justice by the facts, by the evidence of God's presence before their eyes, unless they burst out into praise of him who has made all things"
    -C. Van Til in A Christian Theory of Knowledge p. 234

    "Christianity meets every legitimate demand of reason" and "is not irrational" but "is capable of rational defense."
    - Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel p. 184

    "I do not artificially separate induction from deduction, or reasoning about the facts of nature from reasoning in a priori analytical fashion about the nature of human consciousness. On the contrary, I see induction and analytical reasoning as part of one process of interpretation."
    Thom Notaro quoting Van Til page 19 of "Van Til and the Use of Evidence" by Thom Notaro

    "The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything...either directly or by implication."
    - Van Til, Apologetics

    I recommend Thom Notaro's book "Van Til and the Use of Evidence" to anyone who would like to know in what sense Van Til believed in the use of evidences and how they should be used.

  6. Regarding arguments for a Biblical apologetic methodology, we need to be careful of assuming that because the Bible doesn't present a particular apologetic strategy (such as, say, appeals to scholarly consensus) that it can be labeled 'unbiblical' and used as an argument against its use. In the same way that the proposition 'Steve Hays exists on July 16, 2012' is 'unbiblical' it does not mean that it isn't true so an apologetic strategy might not be used in Scripture and yet it might still be consistent with a Scriptural methodology. This distinction is often overlooked when adherents to a particular apologetic methodology critique rival methodologies to the detriment of all participants in the discussion and especially those unfamiliar with these kinds of debates.

    I'm not saying that you're guilty of this Steve (you're clearly not) but many - evidentialist and presup alike - are.

  7. There seems to be some conflating of evidenCES with evidentialISM. The presuppositionalist is not opposed to the former, and indeed makes use of the former, but he is more skeptical of the latter (yet, there may be versions of evidentialism that can fit with presuppositionalism, e.g., Wykstra's "A Sensible Evidentialism"). Evidences can play many roles in an apologetic context, and a sophisticated presuppositionalist realizes this. Consider the field of epistemology and the sub-category of 'defeaters.' So for one example, a presuppositionalist can and will use evidences as defeater-defeaters. Another use of evidences is to press the presuppositional debate. Present the evidences in a particularly strong way, and you'll see the non-Christian quickly resorting to a *presuppositional* response. The evidence, it will be said, "can't say that," and the reason why will be a more fundamental philosophical presupposition that determines how evidences can be used and what they can tell us. People also ignore the *intra*faith role of apologetics. Fellow believers share a common worldview. But they can also face doubts and criticisms. Evidences can be used in these cases to strengthen the faith of the believer. Show that the world comports to his confession. When Van Til and Bahnsen objected to evidences, they largely did so because of the different worldviews, belief policies, or philosophies of fact between the believer and unbeliever. Or because some pretended neutrality. But when the issue is believer-to-believer, that isn't (typically) going on. There's a shared worldview, a shared set of presuppositions. Evidences can be appealed to boldly and straight-forwardly, without apologies, and without taking the debate into the (often) esoteric and confusing clouds of common presuppositional argumentation—which, sadly, as employed by many ostensible "presuppositionalists" simply causes the interlocutors eyes to glaze over and head to start searching for the nearest church exit.

  8. Prophetic evidence is helpful today. In the Bible, immediately fulfilled prophesy was used as evidence to validate a prophet. But most of the evidence is the Bible was supernatural signs ans wonders. God marked the Exodus with extraordinary acts that were referred to many times in scripture to encourage his people to follow him. Peter referred to the signs and wonders that Jesus worked as evidence that he was the messiah.

    But Jesus himself, although he worked signs and wonders, when reasoning with people who wouldn't accept such things always gave presuppositional arguments. It's not that he ended up changing them either, but his followers who heard him answer this way were more firmly established in their following him. John 1:1ff is a presuppositional argument. Paul in Athens started off with a presuppositional reference if nothing else.

    So there's certainly Biblical uses for both, but referring to evidence always assumes a common presupposition of the stability of reason.

  9. I consider myself a presuppositionalist. I use whatever the situation calls for, but I keep in mind that my ultimate commitment is to God's word. If I am talking to someone who is a Naturalist who understands the worldview, then I attack the presuppostions of naturalism. It rarely gets to this point, because normally the unbelievers I talk to are not that anti-common sense.

  10. I had a little chat with WK on this topic yesterday, who had in his most recent post attacked presuppositionalism as "anti-intellectual." I asked him on what he based such an opinion. He gave no reply other than to say it was his opinion and to refer to his prior posts, which conspicuously lack anything justifying such dismissiveness. (He also was nice enough to edit his post, downgrading the insult from "anti-intellectual" to "ineffective.")

    Anyone who is predisposed to launch against Van Til and his better students as "anti-intellectual" has obviously already lost the argument. It appears that WK's complaints against Van Til and presuppositionalism are based on ignorance and blind prejudice. Until reading the introduction to this post, I hadn't heard that WK was Arminian, but it figures. Like many Calvinists, I too was formerly Arminian, until I was forced to see and admit how the Bible directly addresses and absolutely, overwhelmingly defeats Arminian arguments.

    I say all this while still regarding WK as a fine, intelligent brother in Christ, whose articles I often enjoy reading, because they are generally very fine work. Even the finest men have their weaknesses ... and should be expected, and even politely asked, to confess them.