Thursday, August 18, 2016

"Ten Problems with Presuppositionalism"

I'm going to comment on this:

According to his profile, John Partain is a philosophy prof. According to the Frame/Poythress website, he used to teach at Covenant College. 

I won't directly respond to all ten points. That's because his 10-point critique is very redundant. He repeats the same objections, based on his systematic misrepresentation of presuppositional apologetics. 

1. I don't know how much he's read about presuppositionalism. In his post he only mentions two sources: a 32-page booklet, and a single book by Van Til: A Survey of Christian Epistemology. There's no evidence that he's read John Frame's Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief, or books and articles by Vern Poythress and James Anderson, in which they engage in presuppositional apologetics. He seems to be unacquainted with the most astute exponents of the position he presumes to critique. It's a dereliction of his professional duties for a philosophy teacher to be so uninformed about the position under review. 

2. One insight of presuppositionalism is that apologetics can argue from Christian theology as well as for Christian theology. That's because some Christian presuppositions have independent explanatory power. You don't need to be a Christian to appreciate that fact. That's not an appeal to authority. Rather, you need to be shown the explanatory power of certain Christian presuppositions. That's not a circular argument, for the exercise is to demonstrate how certain Christian presuppositions can account for facts in a way that atheism is deficient or counterproductive. That's what astute presuppositionalists like Vern Poythress and James Anderson do in some of their writings.

3. Another insight of presuppositionalism is that when engaging unbelievers, we need to point out how much they take for granted. They have many residual beliefs that are inconsistent with their overall worldview. Although they still entertain many true beliefs, their worldview is unable to warrant their true beliefs. 

4. Even if we confine ourselves to Van Til, the noetic effects of sin are to some degree offset by common grace. Unbelievers are capable of understanding truth in general, including theological propositions in particular. The problem isn't a lack of understanding, but a lack of sympathy. Unbelievers are resistant to unwelcome truths. 

In fact, it's because they can understand theological truths that they reject them. They are hostile to the message.

5. We need to avoid overgeneralizing about unbelievers. They range along a continuum. Many unbelievers don't reject Christianity. They don't know enough about Christianity to reject it. What they think they know about Christianity is piecemeal. Based on hostile, secondhand sources. What they think they reject isn't Christianity, but a malicious and ignorant caricature of Christianity.

Some unbelievers are receptive to the gospel. They are just waiting to be evangelized. At the other end of the spectrum are intellectual atheists who've developed elaborate rationalistic objections to Christianity. In that case, it's necessary for a Christian apologist to remove intellectual obstacles to Christian faith. 

Common ground is person-variable. How much common grounds is there between John Partain and John Dominic Crossan?

6. Presuppositionalism doesn't deny that unbelievers can and do know truth in general. It doesn't deny that they can grasp theological propositions. 

Rather, the distinction is between what unbelievers can know and what unbelievers can justify. Given their worldview, unbelievers know many truths for which they are unable to provide an epistemic justification. 

7. It's bizarre for Partain to suggest that Scripture is sufficient for apologetics. That's an appeal to authority, an authority which unbelievers deny. Unbelievers often raise scientific, philosophical, and historical objections to the veracity of Scripture. Therefore, you can't just quote the Bible. 

For instance, unbelievers typically reject miracles. They raise scientific objections to miracles. They appeal to the explanatory power of secular science. The success of naturalistic explanations. They say that "by definition," a supernatural explanation is the least likely explanation. Hence, any naturalistic explanation, however improbable, is more probable than a supernatural explanation. 

Therefore, a Christian apologist must make a case for the credibility of miracles. That's a presuppositional issue. A philosophical issue. 

By the same token, many unbelievers raise moralistic objections to the Bible. So it's necessary for a Christian apologist to discuss metaethics. Can atheism justify moral realism?

Likewise, some unbelievers say you can't establish the general historical reliability of the Gospels because a true historian must operate with methodological atheism, which automatically discounts the supernatural incidents in the Gospels. Any historical residual will eliminate miracles. 

Therefore, a Christian apologist must challenge methodological atheism. That's a presuppositional issue. A philosophical issue. 

Moreover, evidentialist apologists don't just quote the Bible. Rather, they attempt to make a case for the general historical reliability of the Gospels. For instance, they appeal to archeological confirmation. Likewise, "classical apologetics" doesn't just quote the Bible. Indeed, classical apologetics tends to focus on natural theology. 

Finally, his insistence on common ground conflicts with his insistence on the sole sufficiency of Scripture. For unbelievers, Scripture is disputed ground, not common ground.

8. I don't see that presuppositionalism is committed to a coherence theory of truth to the exclusion of a correspondence theory of truth. Why treat coherence and correspondence theories of truth as mutually exclusive? Shouldn't theories of truth be suited to the nature of the truths in question? If, say, it's a belief about a state of affairs, then that's more suited to a correspondence theory. If, however, it's about the interrelationship between two or more beliefs, then that's more suited to a coherence theory. 

What's the relation in question? A relation between a belief about the world and the world? Or a logical relation between one belief and another? If two beliefs, or propositions, are mutually inconsistent, then they can't both be true. 

Moreover, the correspondence theory of truth is complicated. It's odd that a philosophy prof. like Partain relies on dictionary definitions and Nicole's "The Biblical concept of Truth." Compare that to philosophical models of the correspondence theory:

9. The apostles and prophets operate within a theological framework. Indeed, that's often set in explicit contrast to paganism. Theological presuppositions undergird the gospel. Presuppositions about the existence and nature of God. God's activity in the world. 

10. If Christian presuppositions are true, then the only "relativism" which presuppositionalism affirms is that truth is relative to truth. What's wrong with that? Presumably, Partain concedes that Christian presuppositions are true. 

11. Evidential apologetics can be just as technical or philosophical as presuppositional apologetics. Take the Bayesian evidentialism of Richard Swinburne, Timothy and Lydia McGrew. When you get into the weeds, that quickly becomes highly technical and philosophical. 

Or take The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Consider Pruss on the Leibnizian cosmological argument, Collins on the fine-tuning argument, Craig and Sinclair on the kalam cosmological argument. Once again, these get very technical. 

12. Although transcendental argumentation is a distinctive feature of presuppositional apologetics, it's not an exclusive alternative to traditional arguments. Presuppositionism is compatible with the cosmological argument, teleological argument, argument from prophecy, argument from miracles, argument from religious experience, &c. Van Til's contribution is, in part, to draw attention to what had been a neglected line of argument in Christian apologetics. But using transcendental arguments for God's existence doesn't preclude you from using other kinds of arguments. 

13. It's odd that Partain accuses presuppositionalists of being too philosophical at the expense of biblical authority when most critics of presuppositionalism accuse it of begging the question by putting too much emphasis on biblical norms. 

14. "When it comes to knowing reality, presuppositions are like glasses cemented to our faces. We cannot see God or other persons or anything else outside of us directly but only indirectly through the conceptual framework or presuppositional state of the mind."

That's simplistic. On the one hand, humans are born with natural glasses. God designed our minds. On the other hand, humans can rebel against God by making tinted glasses glasses that filter out God. Take village atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, or sophisticated atheists like Theodore Drange, Graham Oppy, Jordan Sobel, Richard Gale, William Rowe, and W. V. Quine, or nominal Christians like Rudolf Bultmann and Schleiermacher. Although unbelievers can see without their tinted glasses, they refuse to do so. It's possible for unbelievers to compare and contrast the view using their natural glasses with their tinted glasses, but some of them are unwilling to remove their tinted glasses. 

15. It's unclear what Partain's alternative is. In contrast to presuppositional apologetics, evidential apologetics and classical apologetics are subject to some of the same objections he raises to presuppositional apologetics. His position is unstable. When you argue from the Bible, viz. the argument from prophecy or the argument from miracles, it will be necessary to go beyond the Bible. For instance, the argument from prophecy requires you to establish that the oracle is prior to the fulfillment. That will get you into debates over the date of the sources containing the oracle. Likewise, to establish fulfillment may require appeal to archeological confirmation. 


  1. 7. It's bizarre for Partain to suggest that Scripture is sufficient for apologetics...

    Steve, is this is a typo that should say "INsufficient". Or, are you saying Partain mischaracterizes [Vantillian] presuppositional apologetics by assuming it limits itself to Scriptural arguments? I put in "Vantillian/Van Tillian" because Partain may not have Clarkian apologetics in mind here.

    1. Nevermind, I think it's clear you meant the latter.

    2. Quickly browsing Partain's article, it may be Partain himself who thinks Scripture is sufficient in such a way that excludes the need and/or usefulness of philosophically sophisticated argumentation. I'll just have to read his article to find out.