Tuesday, January 20, 2009

How Then Should We Do Apologetics?

(1) You can believe in God without any evidence. (2) Without God, you can’t know anything at all. These are perhaps the most controversial Christian claims of the 20th century. Both were made by Christian apologists. The first is the claim of Reformed Epistemology and its most prominent advocate, Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame. The second is the claim of Presuppositionalism, pioneered by Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary. These two approaches to apologetics have many similarities, both in theory and practice. In this paper, my aim is three-fold. First, I will compare and contrast these two apologetic schools and offer suggestions as to how they might work together to strengthen one another. Second, I will offer a critique of Presuppositionalism from the perspective of Reformed Epistemology, which I have playfully dubbed the “Transcendental Argument against Presuppositionalism.” The final section of the paper will be devoted to a brief interaction between a synthesized Presuppositional-Reformed Epistemology method and the remaining heavy hitters in the Apologetic world; Classical Apologetics and Evidentialism. My hope is to show that there is actually a great deal of consensus between the modern representatives of these other two schools and my proposed “middle way”, and that once the epistemological insights of both Presuppositionalism and Reformed Epistemology are used as our apologetic grounding, we will find ourselves free to adapt our apologetic method to particular situations. We move, then, to the first task of compare and contrast.

Presuppostional Apologetics
First, I should make clear an assumption of this paper. For the primary exposition of what the Presuppositional method is, I will be relying almost exclusively on one of Van Til’s most prominent disciples, Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen. My un-argued-for assumption will be that Bahnsen represents the best and most persuasive version of Presuppositionalism that remains the most true to Van Til. So then, what is Presuppositionalism?

The two pillars of Presuppostional thought are “the myth of neutrality” and the necessity of presupposing God as the precondition for intelligibility. Says Bahnsen:

The unbeliever will challenge you to build your case for God on neutral ground,
without building on your foundation in God. Be warned! If you don’t
start with God as your basic assumption, you can’t prove anything. The
assumption of God’s existence is essential to all reasoning.1
Everyone has presuppositions, and everyone reasons from them to conclusions. So there can really be no such thing as a neutral, unbiased perspective, the “view from nowhere.” Bahnsen’s warning is meant to show that when an unbeliever says that we all ought to be “neutral” and without any presuppositions in our reasoning, what he is actually doing is being biased towards his own hidden presuppositions and against the presuppositions of the believer, namely, the existence of God. In other words, one way of understanding the Presuppostional method is that it starts by asking the preliminary question, “Why should we favor the presupposition that there is no God over the presupposition that there is?” Of course, that’s only the beginning. Presuppositionalism makes the much stronger claim that, in fact, no other presupposition but the Christian one allows for the possibility of reason, period. But before we get ahead of ourselves, we had better ask the question, “What is a presupposition?”

Bahnsen, interpreting Van Til on this very question, says:

A Presupposition is, therefore, an “elementary” (i.e., basic, foundational,
starting point) assumption about reality as a whole. An elementary
presupposition serves as an essential condition necessary to one’s outlook on
the world and life. It is a necessary precondition for human thought and
experience, without which logical reasoning would be impossible and human
experience unintelligible.2

Presuppositions are not just implicit beliefs that you hold. They actually govern the way you think, “all the way down to how you select and employ specific facts from the countless number of facts ceaselessly flowing through your senses and into your mind each and every moment of the day.”3 You cannot even think about the most basic facts of your daily life without presuppositions, let alone argue about concepts such as the existence of God or universal moral laws. But this is only the first part of understanding presuppositions. Presuppositions do not operate in isolation from one another, but rather work together within a worldview. Bahnsen defines a worldview as follows:

A worldview is a network of presuppositions (which are not verified by the
procedures of natural science) regarding reality (metaphysics), knowing
(epistemology), and conduct (ethics) in terms of which every element of human
experience is related and interpreted.4
Everyone must have a framework by
which they understand the world and their own relation to it. Without such
a framework there could be no coherence to our thought life. Thus, it
makes no sense to speak of neutral epistemic ground, if by that we mean a ground
without any presuppositions. The presuppositions are the ground!5

What is the practical significance of all this for the Presuppositional apologetic method? First, you cannot be neutral. You cannot assume the unbeliever’s worldview (which purports to be neutral) when attempting to prove it false, for despite the claim to neutrality, we have seen that no worldview can function without presuppositions. And the unbeliever’s presuppositions are antithetical to those of the Christian (which is seen most clearly in the unbeliever’s presupposition that there is no God). To accept the unbeliever’s worldview, then, would be to accept those presuppositions, which the Christian necessarily cannot do. Bahnsen goes one step further by claiming that it is not merely unreasonable to attempt neutrality, but sinful. When Christians attempt to reason in an “unbiased” way in the hope of establishing neutral ground, “they are not only contradicting reality (since no one can be neutral), but are denying the creator of all reality (by not bowing before His absolute Lordship). Such an attempt is both vain and immoral, both illogical and unfaithful.”6

The second practical application to apologetics comes from the much stronger Presuppositional claim that God is the necessary precondition for the intelligibility of reality. Put simply, unless a person S presupposes the existence of the Christian God, S has no rational justification for any of his beliefs. This is because all of S’s beliefs are either reasonable or unreasonable. If they are unreasonable, then obviously they are not justified. But if they are reasonable, it must be because they meet all the necessary criteria that make something reasonable. All of this seems perfectly mundane and obvious. But, says the Presuppositionalist, one of those criteria must be that reason itself is intelligible. And this requires presupposing the Christian God. Bahnsen elaborates:

…the non-Christian must establish his theory of knowledge on the same foundation
upon which he established reality: nebulous, chaotic, irrational chance.
If followed out consistently the non-Christian theory of knowledge would utterly
destroy the very possibility of knowledge, causing it to drown in the turbulent
ocean of irrationalism. There is no way to account for reason in the
non-Christian system.7

The point of emphasizing “consistently” in the above quotation is to highlight the fact that non-Christians do in fact use reason and do have true beliefs. This is possible because they do in fact presuppose God, which is inconsistent with their professed worldview. This also involves the touchy matter of self-deception, which we will address later.

The Presuppositional method, then, has several distinct features from traditional or evidential methods. Christianity is not presented as the best possible worldview, but as the only rational worldview to hold. Presuppositionalism attempts to prove this by showing “the impossibility of the contrary.” This is a very important phrase that makes up the core of the Presuppositional method. The unbeliever is required to consider which worldview, as a whole, makes all of human experience intelligible. As such, “It is not a direct argument dealing with individual facts, but an indirect one dealing with the nature of facts.”8 Presuppositionalism seeks to establish the truth of Christianity by demonstrating that no other worldview can make intelligible any aspect of human experience, and are therefore ultimately self-contradictory and impossible. To quote Van Til’s most famous (or perhaps infamous) line in describing this method of doing apologetics: “The only ‘proof’ of the Christian position is that unless its truth is presupposed there is no possibility of ‘proving’ anything at all.”9

The corollary of the impossibility of the contrary is that of total epistemic certainty. In this regard Presuppositionalism stands alone. Both Classical and Evidential apologetics deal with probability. Based on the available evidence and the use of best reason, we can come to the conclusion that Christianity is the most plausible worldview, but we must always admit that there is some finite chance that we are wrong. Our certainty may reach 99.9 percent, but it can never reach 100. Presuppositionalism, on the other hand, claims to give us absolute certainty in the truth of Christianity, because all contrary options are impossible.
Reformed Epistemology

Put simply, Reformed Epistemology tells us that it is possible to believe in the existence of God without any evidence. This is because belief in God can be classified within that group of beliefs known as properly basic. A basic belief would include things like sensory beliefs (beliefs about the external world) and memory beliefs. Examples of these might be:

I see a tree,
I had breakfast this morning.

There is no evidence for these beliefs other than the fact of the sensory or memory experience itself, and yet we would normally want to say that such beliefs are perfectly rational. And yet it would also be wrong to say that such beliefs are groundless. In these cases, though the beliefs are not based upon other beliefs, they are indeed grounded.

Upon having an experience of a certain sort, I believe that I am perceiving a tree. In the typical case I do not hold this belief on the basis of other beliefs; it is nonetheless not groundless. My having that characteristic sort of experience—to use Professor’s Chisholm’s language, my being appeared treely to—plays a crucial role in the formation and justification of that belief. We might say this experience, together, perhaps, with other circumstances, is what justifies me in holding it; this is the ground of my justification, and, by extension, the ground of the belief itself.11
Belief in God can be like this. Plantinga cites John Calvin’s concept of the Sensus Divinitatus. This “sense of the divine” was given to us by God in order to predispose us to forming beliefs such as:

God is speaking to me,
God has created [the world],
God disapproves of what I have done,
God forgives me,
God is to be thanked and praised.12

Beliefs such as (1), (3), and (4) might arise when one reads the Bible, spontaneously and in the same way that a belief such as “I see a tree” arises when one has the experience of seeing a tree. Beliefs (2) and (5) might arise when someone observes the beauty and order of the natural world, or when life is “sweet and satisfying.” At this point, Plantinga notes that none of these beliefs is the belief “God exists.” But each of the beliefs above self-evidently entails the existence of such a person as God. So, strictly speaking, belief in God qua belief in God is not properly basic, but rather beliefs such as (1) – (5), beliefs about his attributes and activities, are properly basic.

Another important feature of Reformed Epistemology is the concept of warrant. Warrant, according to Plantinga, is that feature that tips the scales and turns a true belief into knowledge. It would be impossible to treat this concept adequately in a paper of this size. For our purposes we need only give the briefest sketch. A belief has warrant if (1) it is produced by properly functioning cognitive faculties, (2) in an appropriate epistemic environment, (3) according to a design plan aimed at truth. Plantinga argues at length in his book Warranted Christian Belief that belief in God without evidence does indeed meet these criteria.

The apologetic application of Reformed Epistemology is two-fold. First, it provides justification (or warrant) for belief in God, even in the face of objections. Without attempting to defend him here, Plantinga argues that a strongly held basic belief can be an intrinsic defeater-defeater, meaning that it may possess a certain inherent ability to defeat objections (defeaters) raised against belief in God, such as the problem of evil. Reformed Epistemology maintains that it is not irrational to continue believing in God even if a Christian has no other response to an objection (like the Problem of evil) than the basic belief itself. Second, the concept of proper function and all that it entails allows for several versions of a transcendental argument for theism. These transcendental arguments are similar to the transcendental arguments of Presuppositionalism, only far more limited in their scope (they do not purport to show that all other worldviews are false or irrational, only naturalism. And they do not argue in favor of Christianity specifically, only theism in general).

Combining Strengths
At first it may be difficult to see where these two schools meet and where they diverge. This is in part because Reformed Epistemology (hereafter, RE) is hard to nail down. On the one hand it fits very nicely into the Classical/Evidential schools, providing justification for belief in God without considering presuppositions. And yet the primary fruit of Plantinga’s labors has been a transcendental argument which, like Presuppositionalism, aims to show that the naturalistic worldview does not meet the preconditions for the intelligibility of human experience. For now I will restrict my comments to one area where I believe these two schools can greatly benefit one another: The problem of the self-deceiving unbeliever.

One objection raised against Presuppositionalism has been that it is forced to the absurd conclusion that unbelievers can’t know anything. Some have taken this conclusion to follow naturally from the fact that Presuppositionalists require belief in God to justify any belief. If the unbeliever does not believe in God, it would seem to follow that he has no justification for any of his beliefs, and therefore has no knowledge. But isn’t it absurd to say that an unbeliever doesn’t really know that 2 + 2 = 4 because he doesn’t believe in God? Bahnsen has a response to this objection, taking his cue from Romans 1:18 – 21. There, Paul says:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and
unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For
what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have
been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that
have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did
not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their
thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

According to Paul, all men do know God. Not just any vague sense of a deity, but God; His attributes, power, and even His very nature. But according to Paul the unbeliever suppresses this truth “by their unrighteousness.” This is obviously a form of self-deception, but how exactly does it work? If we call belief in God “G”, are we forced to conclude that the unbeliever believes G and not G at the same time? Bahnsen’s solution is simple, yet brilliant. Let “S” stand for any non-Christian person:

S believes G
S believes the proposition “S does not believe G”

Here S’s false belief is not about G itself, but about S. The non-Christian has a false belief about himself, about his believing in God, rather than a false belief about God. The non-Christian, then, is no longer forced into believing a blatant contradiction, and can use (2) to suppress (1).

It seems to me that both sides can benefit from each other at this point. By making use of RE’s arguments for belief in God being properly basic, Presuppositionalism gets a neat epistemological system to fit its claims that all men know God.13 It even fits perfectly into Paul’s argument in Romans 1. Those things which are “clearly perceived” are God’s “attributes” and this is prompted by nature. This fits with the argument that beliefs such as “God created me”, “God is worthy of thanks and praise”, “God is good”, etc, are properly basic, and that from these basic beliefs we know necessarily that God exists.

The benefit to RE is, I think, even greater. One objection to the Sensus Divinitatus model is that not everyone believes in God, basically or in any other way. Plantinga’s response has been that due to the noetic effects of sin, not everyone forms the basic belief in God. But this seems inadequate, for two reasons. First, it fails to give full weight to Paul’s teaching in Romans 1. All men do know God, and there seems to be no good reason not to understand Paul as saying something like what RE is saying, namely that all men have basic beliefs about the attributes, creative power, and nature of God. Second, Plantinga wants us to conceive of the Sensus Divinitatus as being like any other cognitive faculty we possess. But if sin does not prevent us from forming properly basic beliefs with our other cognitive faculties, why should it do so with respect to the Sensus Divinitatus? Adopting Bahnsen’s model of self-deception seems a much wiser course. This would strengthen RE’s case for a Sensus Divinitatus by showing how it could be the case that everyone does in fact believe in God in the basic way. So much for mutual strengthening. Now we move to the second section, the critique of Presuppositionalism.
The Transcendental Argument against Presuppositionalism

Central to Presuppositionalism is the claim that belief in God is required to justify any otherwise rational belief, and even to justify rationality itself. No worldview can even get off the ground unless it presupposes the existence of God. This claim is literally what makes Presuppositionalism what it is. I believe it is false.

Now for the qualifications! William Lane Craig makes a very helpful distinction between God being the ontological grounding for all of reality, and being the epistemic grounding for all of reality.14 For a Christian, God obviously must be the former, and if the former then the latter as well. But for the unbeliever, God need not be the latter (the epistemic grounding) for his beliefs to be rational (at least, not that the unbeliever needs to be aware of). Hopefully this point will become clearer after I have presented my argument, so I will turn to that now.

In Presuppositionalism we are required to presuppose the existence of God. But if we presuppose God, specifically the Christian God, then it would seem to follow that He has created human beings with properly functioning, truth-producing cognitive faculties (as RE suggests). But if this is indeed the case, then any beliefs which are produced by said properly functioning, truth-producing faculties will necessarily be justified, and therefore rational. But if that is the case, then it follows that a person need not believe in God as the direct epistemic justification for the beliefs produced by his properly functioning, truth-producing faculties. They are justified on the basis of the faculties themselves, without reference to the designer of those faculties. Therefore, on Presuppositionalism’s most basic presupposition, it is shown to be self-contradicting.15

One possible response to this argument could be to deny that God has created human beings with reliable, truth-producing faculties, but this seems like an unlikely response for a Christian. A second objection could be to say, along with Plantinga, that the noetic effects of sin are of such a quality and severity that our faculties are neither reliable nor truth-producing after the Fall. But this also seems inadequate, for several reasons. First, this would make the Presuppositionalist claim out to be that only fallen man needs to presuppose God in order to make human experience intelligible, but this not, I don’t believe, the claim that Presuppositionalists are making. Second, Presuppositionalism is committed to the claim that fallen man knows God, which would seem to indicate that man’s cognitive faculties are functioning properly. It is only after this that the unbeliever suppresses his belief in God, which is a moral failing and not a cognitive one. In other words, it is not man’s faculties themselves that are corrupted by sin, but how he uses them.

How might this argument play out in example? One prominent example that Bahnsen liked to use against the naturalist was the belief in the uniformity of nature. Given a chance and chaotic universe, how can the naturalist justify his belief that nature is ordered, and that the future will resemble the past? The option seems open to the naturalist to claim that his belief in the uniformity of nature is properly basic (indeed, the Christian can and should say the same). If God has indeed created him, like everyone else, with reliable, truth-producing cognitive faculties that have produced in him, under the proper circumstances, his belief that nature is uniform, then it is justified without direct reference to God, and the naturalist is therefore perfectly rational. But of course, the notion of reliable, truth-producing faculties cannot be accounted for on a naturalistic system (which is what Plantinga’s transcendental argument aims to show). In which case it might be objected that RE merely pushes everything back one step, and in a more indirect way still requires presupposing God, just as Presuppositionalism does. But the whole point is that basic beliefs are justified without reference to any other beliefs. So until the naturalist hears Plantinga’s argument for theism from properly functioning faculties, he is perfectly rational in believing in the uniformity of nature without believing in God.16

A New Method?

It would be too ambitious to claim that I am actually proposing an entirely original way of doing apologetics. What I have done instead is to take the strengths of Presuppositionalism and RE and allowed them to work together, I hope, for the betterment of both. And while I have offered an argument that effectively rejects Presuppositionalism as its own apologetic method, I should note two things here. First, I have not proposed to reject the marvelous insights of Presuppositionalism when it comes to the myth of neutrality. I whole-heartedly agree that there can be no neutral, unbiased, presuppositionless way of reasoning. I also agree that it is impossible to adopt the presuppositions of the unbeliever, since they are contrary to Christianity. But that does not mean that we cannot adopt the unbeliever’s worldview, for the sake of argument, in order to show them that their presuppositions lead to contradiction or absurdity from within.17 Second, it seems that Presuppositionalism is not really an apologetic method of its own, so much as it is a critique of false epistemologies. Craig suggests that, “The central insight of Presuppositionalism is that theological rationalism is a false doctrine. We are not dependent on argument and evidence in order to believe rationally in God, or even to know that he exists.”18 This should sound familiar. Craig’s claim seems to be that the central insight of Presuppositionalism is exactly the central insight of RE. This may not be the whole story, but it is certainly true that they share this feature in common. In addition, the same critique has been lodged at RE, namely that it does not represent a unique method for doing apologetics, but that, like Presuppositionalism, it offers some very good insights regarding epistemology and justification, which ought to inform our apologetics.

I am inclined to agree, and with that we arrive at the final section of the paper where I will offer some very brief comments about the relationship our two schools have to the “old schools.” Both Presuppositionalism and RE make room for (and even encourage) the use of evidences. Both schools would allow for historical arguments, such as the arguments for the resurrection of Jesus, as well as the so-called theistic proofs of Classical Apologetics. In that sense there is significant agreement. Where Presuppositionalism parts ways with the others is in its claim that such arguments cannot be made in their traditional forms, but must be subsumed under the transcendental argument showing the impossibility of the contrary. Here I would disagree again with Presuppositionalism, especially when it comes to the resurrection arguments.19 First, the assumption seems to be that such traditional arguments require one to adopt a “neutral” perspective. But as we have seen, this is not the case. Even Bahnsen admits that we have “common ground” with the unbeliever in that we all see the same facts of reality, and this is all the traditional arguments require.20 Second, Presuppositionalism rejects these traditional arguments because they only give us probability, not certainty. Two points need to be made here. One, Presuppositionalism can’t really give us 100 percent certainty either, because it cannot in the final analysis make good on its claim to prove the impossibility of the contrary. There is always the chance that finite (and fallen) human beings can make errors in our reasoning, and even the transcendental argument is not immune from this. Two, even if we cannot have complete epistemic certainty, we can have perfect existential certainty, which is granted to us by the Holy Spirit (it might be better to drop the language of “certainty” altogether and simply talk of the assurance of faith). Finally, Bahnsen claims that such traditional arguments cannot ultimately be effective because the unbelieving naturalist can simply say, “Ok, Jesus rose from the dead, but all that proves is that weird things can happen.” But the unbelieving naturalist could say essentially the same thing in response to Bahnsen’s transcendental argument from the uniformity of nature. “Ok,” he says, “there is no good naturalistic explanation for the uniformity of nature yet, but there could be one that is currently outside of our present understanding, and regardless, that doesn’t mean I have to accept the Christian explanation.” Now Bahnsen would simply dismiss this as “wishful thinking.” But then why can we not dismiss the naturalist who says “weird things happen” in the same way? Bahnsen is, I think, inconsistent on this point.

On the other side, neither Classical nor Evidential apologists (at any rate, not their modern representatives) would disagree with Bahnsen that presuppositions are a necessary part of our reasoning about the world, nor would they disagree that unbiased neutrality is a myth.21

In the end, then, I believe these distinctive schools are not really all that far apart. And thus I would advocate what might be called “Practical Apologetics”, “Common Sense Apologetics”, or even (if I may be so bold) simply “Christian Apologetics.” The labels may have become unnecessary at this point. This should be especially true for those of the Reformed persuasion. If we really believe that it is the Holy Spirit who changes peoples’ hearts and minds, according to God’s sovereign plan, and that we are not actually responsible for anyone’s conversion to Christianity, then we should be free to use any apologetic strategy or argument, depending on the circumstances.

In summary, I believe that our apologetics must be informed by the epistemological insights of Presuppositionalism, recognizing that no one can be neutral or reason without guiding presuppositions, and of Reformed Epistemology, understanding the nature of basic beliefs, warrant and proper function. But with that epistemic grounding established, I believe we are free to adapt our actual apologetic method to particular situations, employing different tactics and arguments based upon the questions, needs and concerns of our audience.


Bahnsen, Greg L. Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Method of Greg L. Bahnsen. Powder Springs: American Vision, 2007.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Craig, William Lane, ed. Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Cowan, Steven B., ed. Five Views On Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Anderson, J. “If Knowledge Then God: The Epistemological Theistic Arguments of Alvin Plantinga and Cornelius Van Til.” Calvin Theological Journal. 40 (2005): 49-75.

Bahnsen, Greg L. “The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in Presuppositional Apologetics.” Westminster Theological Journal. 57 no. 1 (1995):1-31.

Swinburne, Richard. “Plantinga on warrant.” Religious Studies. 37 no. 2 (2001):203-214.

Plantinga, Alvin. “Rationality and public evidence: a reply to Richard Swinburne.” Religious Studies. 37 no. 2 (2001):215-222.

Frame, John M. “Van Til on Antithesis.” Westminster Theological Journal. 57 no. 1 (1995):81-102.


  1. Thank you for this post.

    I do think, however, that Van Til made an epistemological distinction similar to the one you suggest above between an "ultimate perspective" and a "relative perspective," where in the former there is complete distinction between the believer and unbeliever, but in the latter there is a common ground between the two, "after a fashion." Van Til seems to open up the possibility for the unbeliever's ability to reason effectively without the presupposition of God, but then he so qualifies it with warnings of the noetic effects of sin that progressively worsen over time that in the end there is no real ability of the unbeliever to reason. This is an extremely complicated aspect of Van Til's writings. I've written some initial thoughts on this here:


    I don't follow Van Til myself, and I do appreciate much of what Plantiga, et al., are saying, but I think the true "common sense" apologetic was already established in the Old School Presbyterians of Princeton (i.e., Warfield, Machen, et. al.). I think Reformed theologians today need to take another look at the Common Sense Philosophy of Realism that was working to put an end to the Idealism of Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and Hegel, which is at the heart of modern philosophy, of which Van Til's presuppositionalism is certainly a part.

  2. Hi Robert. Thanks for the comment.

    I agree with you completely. I'm a big fan of Thomas Reid, G. E. Moore, etc. That's why I like Plantinga so much, he's very much in the Reidian "common sense realism" tradition (as is Externalism).

    This paper represents some of my thoughts still in process, so I'm curious, did it sound as though I was advocating a position other than (or opposed to) Reidian Common Sense Realism? Or would you simply say that I didn't really address it in a direct way?

  3. I agree with all the weaknesses that you point out in regards to presuppositionalism, but I don't agree that it can assist or correct Plantinga's concept of the Sensus Divinitatus. I think Plantinga is fine here.

    Where Presuppositionalism is "helpful" is in exposing the epistemological failures of non-Christian worldviews. I put "helpful" in quotation marks because where Presuppositionalism has serious problems is in fact in their epistemology and metaphysics.

    I don't think your paper deals directly with the problem between Reid's Realism and the modern-day infatuation with Idealism. However, I think this is the heart of the problem (the big elephant in the room) that no one is seriously addressing. It is because our metaphysics is in error that our epistemology is flawed.

    Reid argued that we can actually perceive external objects, through our senses, as they truly exist. In other words, we discover TRUTH when our perception of reality corresponds with the external object outside of us.

    But Kant argued that we cannot know anything truly outside our minds. We are forever imprisoned by the inner filter of categorical thinking of our minds and cannot know reality as it actually exists.

    Van Til has bought into this modern philosophy but argues instead of Kant that we cannot truly know anything apart from the mind of the Triune, Christian God. In other words, our knowledge of reality is locked in the mind of God and only as we learn it from Him can we truly know reality. That is why the unbeliever cannot truly know the world apart from his godless presuppositions. He is forever locked in his own fallen mind and cannot truly perceive the world without those presuppositions.

    It is the entire discussion on "presuppositional thinking" that is the problem here. That is why there is no common ground between the believer and the unbliever. Only, until they accept our presuppositional grid can they reason correctly. That's nonsense. The unbeliever can perceive rightly and truthfully the external world because he is made in the image of God and God made his senses capable of knowing what exists outside of his or her mind.

    I think this age-old metaphysical problem is at the heart of the tension between the common sense philosophy (Realism) of Warfield, Machen, et al of Old School Presbyterianism and the Berkelean, Kantian Idealsim adopted by Van Til and his followers. Until this is addressed then the epistemological debate will move no further.

    Thanks for the discussion. This is very helpful. Blessings.

  4. Robert,

    Plantinga denies that everyone necessarily has a basic belief in God (because of the noetic effects of sin). As I pointed out in my paper, this doesn't seem to account for Romans 1, and this is where I believe Bahnsen (not necessarily Van Til or Presuppositionalism in general) can help Plantinga's theory. By utilizing Bahnsen's argument for self-deception Plantinga can avoid the problem of having people believing an explicit contradiction and still maintain that everyone does indeed have a basic belief in God.

    As to your critique of Presup, I agree, and that's generally what my "Transcendental argument against Presup" was aiming at.

  5. Hello David,
    Great paper! Very well written and clearly articulated. I have a couple of questions with respect to what you wrote.

    You said:"In the end, then, I believe these distinctive schools are not really all that far apart. And thus I would advocate what might be called “Practical Apologetics”, “Common Sense Apologetics”, or even (if I may be so bold) simply “Christian Apologetics.” The labels may have become unnecessary at this point. This should be especially true for those of the Reformed persuasion. If we really believe that it is the Holy Spirit who changes peoples’ hearts and minds, according to God’s sovereign plan, and that we are not actually responsible for anyone’s conversion to Christianity, then we should be free to use any apologetic strategy or argument, depending on the circumstances."

    One worry I see with something like "Practical apologetics," is that someone may refute the Kalam argument or any other of the Classical Proofs (clearly Plantiga thinks they don't work, with the exception of the Ontological argument) and think they are refuting Christianity. Thus it might fail to be helpful after all. Do you have a clear line of demarcation that separates Biblical and evidential apologetics (resurrection, prophecy, textual criticism) from Classical apologetics?

    Secondly, I'm not sure that I'm clear on what happens within the reformed epistemic system at salvation--it seems that one might say the A= Belief in God is properly basic, B=the unregenerate man suppresses the truth in unrighteousness that is clearly evident (this can take the form of any false religion) saying he believes the proposition "I do not hold A" , and that C=salvation presents a defeater for B. S holds A without the self deception of B IFF, C defeats B and confirms A. How's that sound according to what your preposing.

  6. Hey Peter, thanks!

    I would say that if someone actually refuted the theistic proofs (meaning that they show that there is or can be no "3-O" being), then from their perspective they have refuted Christianity. However, if all they manage to do is undercut the argument without offering any reason to believe that a 3-O being does NOT exist, then I would simply point out to them that they have not defeated Christianity per se, only one (or a few) possible arguments in favor of it. Someone sophisticated enough to understand the theistic proofs AND provide convincing refutations of them would surely be able to see that.

    But the view I'm suggesting is simply that apologetics ought to varied and adapted to the receipient (in other words, more like discipleship). It won't do much good (although it COULD) to give the arguments for the Resurrection to someone who thinks it is utterly irrational to believe in a 3-O being like the Christian God to begin with. In such a case, it would be equally rational for that person to beleive in the evil twin theory (Christ had a malicious twin brother that even he didn't know about who wanted to play a trick on everyone) as it would be to beleive that God did it. So I wouldn't have much choice in such a situation but to try to show taht person that beleif in God is not actually irrational.

    What exactly are you looking for when you say a demarcation between the two forms of apologetics?

    As for the last part, that actually sounds somewhat similar to what Bahnsen is saying, insofar as B is a belief S has about himself. I'm not exactly sure how C works in your schema above, but I would say that regeneration causes a person to stop actively suppressing his belief in God, and thus he comes to see that his beleif "I do not believe in God" is simply false. That may be what you're saying.

  7. David,
    You said: “As for the last part, that actually sounds somewhat similar to what Bahnsen is saying, insofar as B is a belief S has about himself. I'm not exactly sure how C works in your schema above, but I would say that regeneration causes a person to stop actively suppressing his belief in God, and thus he comes to see that his belief "I do not believe in God" is simply false. That may be what you're saying."

    Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying, which I think is what your paper implies. I think it's helpful to see your answer spelled out formally, specifically in how it applies to the regenerate believer and warranted Christian belief.

    As for the "demarcation" thing, it's obvious that Classical apologetics involves NT (Natural Theology), which is essentially extra-biblical arguments based on reasoning from GR (General Revelation). Here’s a couple of common definitions of NT:
    1. Princeton’s definition: a theology that holds that knowledge of God can be acquired by human reason without the aid of divine revelation
    2. Natural theology is that part of the philosophy of religion dealing with attempts to prove the existence of God and other divine attributes purely philosophically, that is, without recourse to any special or supernatural revelation.
    3. New world dictionary: is a branch of theology, which attempts to establish truths by reason without recourse to revelation.
    I think that NT is clearly less certain than evidential arguments that are from the Bible or deduced from the Bible. Thus, we should make a distinction between the kind of certainty we get from Scripture and the sort we get from unaided reason—arguing from nature. To be clear, GR does not need to argue, it is God’s proclamation in nature (He is doing the speaking). Furthermore, historical arguments (for Jesus resurrection and historicity) take the data of Scripture into account as well. NT is the only type of apologetics that sets aside Scripture and argues from nature to generic theism, but the Christian God is more than merely a 3-O being, he is Triune, and NT (if one maintains it's sound) needs to be supplemented by arguments from Scripture (and history) to get to Christian theism. So, I think there are clear distinctions that need to be drawn when discussing or combining apologetic methods.

    Here are some questions that should be considered also:
    What are the limitations of natural reasoning unaided by Scripture? Why do NT if God saves people through the proclamation of the Gospel? Perhaps you might reason that it gets you a hearing with people who do not believe in a 3-O being. But, what kind of apologetics do we see being used in Scripture? I'm all for arguing for a creator who is 3-O being (and more) from the presuppositions of my Christian worldview, because as you point out, there is no such thing as neutral ground.

  8. Thanks again, Peter. I'm finding this very helpful (especially as a way of refining my thoughts so I can edit the paper sometime in the future).

    Here's one interesting thing to think about. When you do historical/evidential apologetics, are you really appealing to Scripture? Usually the way I see it done is that you appeal to the New Testament as merely a mostly-reliable historical document from which we can deduce certain likely truths about the past. Obviously this is because the atheist interlocutor isn't going to accept that the Bible is actually the Word of God. So in a sense, even the arguments for the resurrection would fit the first two definitions of NT you gave above, in that you are not actually claiming to appeal to divine revelation when making the arguments. What do you think?

    Now, I personally believe (because Nate still hasn't convinced me otherwise, haha) that you can dispense with the NT theistic proofs and go straight to the resurrection in most cases, even with atheists. This is for two reasons: (1) I think all responses, other than the Christian one, end up being really ad hoc and unsatisfying, and I think the atheist knows it. No purely "normal" naturalistic theory works, so he'd have to start resorting to theories like "Jesus was a vampire who couldn't be killed and who could fly (explaining the ascension)." There's no way an atheist will truly be satisfied with this, so at least you've driven him to that point. (2) By attempting to argue for the resurrection you are giving all the necessary elements of the gospel, so even if they resort to vampire theories and start ignoring you, you can hope that the cognitive dissonance you've created will make fertile ground for the Holy Spirit, mentally speaking.

    "What are the limitations of natural reasoning unaided by Scripture?"

    I would say the limitation are severe. But at the same time, I tried to show in my paper that God has given us reliable cognitive faculties that really do bring us into contact with the world. I don't think the gospel can be inferred rationally from nature, but I think the Law can, as well as the existence of a powerful being that ultimately only the Christian God fits.

    "Why do NT if God saves people through the proclamation of the Gospel?"

    This question has always sounded to me like the question "why do evangelism if God will save his elect no matter what?" God can use any number of factors to move a person toward repentance, including NT. And I still haven't heard a case for the argument that the Bible rules out NT altogether. Are you suggesting that it does, and if so, why?

    "I'm all for arguing for a creator who is 3-O being (and more) from the presuppositions of my Christian worldview, because as you point out, there is no such thing as neutral ground."

    Exactly. This is something, though, that I still don't understand in Bahnsen (and presumably Van Til). He attacks NT and says we can't have any neutral ground with the unbeliever. But then he says we can basically use the NT arguments because we can grant the unbeliever's presuppositions "for the sake of argument." I still struggle seeing how that's any different than what he's attacked earlier, at least in practice. Of course Craig and Moreland don't actually give up their belief in God when they argue with an atheist. And even when Bahnsen uses his transcendental method, he's not explicitly appealing to his belief in God, he's saying "for the sake of argument, let's say that we don't know if God exists or not, and let's try to come up with the best possible explanation for the facts of the universe." This is why I agree with Craig and others that Presuppositionalism doesn't actually represent a unique apologetic method. It is a good critique of theological rationalism as human autonomy, but it's a critique that can and should inform both classical and evidential apologetic arguments.

  9. David,

    Thanks for recommending your paper to me. I found it a very beneficial read even though I disagree with some of your conclusions. You have articulated these different approaches to apologetics very well and I have definitely learned more about RE after reading this paper.

    One area of unclarity for me when reading this paper is what exactly you believe about the noetic effects of the fall.

    David said... "it is not man’s faculties themselves that are corrupted by sin, but how he uses them."

    Can you clarify and expand on this for me brother?

  10. In response to Peter's comments regarding classical apologetics, Craig's view is that we need both NT and scriptual/resurrection arguments. I think that is Classical apologetics. Moving from probabilistic arguments to scriptual/historical arguments.

    Peter said:

    "Why do NT if God saves people through the proclamation of the Gospel? Perhaps you might reason that it gets you a hearing with people who do not believe in a 3-O being. But, what kind of apologetics do we see being used in Scripture?"

    Why reason from scripture? Why reasons at all? What kind of apologetics do you think we see in scripture?

    "there is no such thing as neutral ground."

    Even Frame denies this, but I thought you were presenting a Framian view.

    Danny said:

    "One area of unclarity for me when reading this paper is what exactly you believe about the noetic effects of the fall.

    David said... "it is not man’s faculties themselves that are corrupted by sin, but how he uses them."

    Can you clarify and expand on this for me brother?"

    David might answer this differently, so feel free to ignore what I'm saying. Man's motivations are corrupted. So he suppresses the knowledge that he gains from looking at Nature. But his faculties still have to operate properly otherwise he does not "clearly know" as Paul puts it. He clearly knows and suppresses that truth because of his moral problem.

  11. Aaron,
    Thanks for your input, and I'm delighted to be your friend, but brother, I could not disagree with you more on the issue regarding Frame. It's clear to me that you need to re-read his writings and look specifically for his thinking on the issue of neutrality, because he has a lot to say about it.

    You said, "(this first line is my quote) "there is no such thing as neutral ground."

    Even Frame denies this, but I thought you were presenting a Framian view."

    I believe David and I would both be in keeping with Frame on this assertion:there is no such thing as neutral ground.

    In Apologetics to the Glory of God, Frame states the following:
    "In saying that traditional apologists espouse 'neutrality,' I am not arguing that they seek to put their Christian commitment aside in doing apologetics. Indeed, many of them believe that their type of apologetic is warranted by Scripture and is thus very much a 'setting apart Christ as Lord.' They do, however, tell the unbeliever to think neutrally during the apologetic encounter, and they do seek to develop a neutral argument, one that has no distinctively biblical presuppositions.
    I am far from wishing to declare this tradition worthless. But on the precise point at issue, the question of neutrality, I do believe that its position is unbiblical (pgs. 5-6)."

    As you can see Aaron, it is clear that Frame denies the myth of neutral arguing. I thought you told me that you were more in line with Frame, but its clear on these Blogs that you see yourself more in line with Craig’s view.

  12. Aaron,
    You said, “Why reason from scripture? Why reasons at all? What kind of apologetics do you think we see in scripture?

    Aaron, I hope these were not flippant questions, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt. First, I’m not saying that reasoning is a bad thing or anything like that. Clearly, people reasoned in Scripture and it’s a part of human nature as unique blessing from God. However, our reasoning is fallen, and our noetic faculties have been damaged in a Spiritual sense (Rom 1; 1 Cor. 2). So, it’s not just our “motivations,” it’s our minds that have been corrupted as well. That’s part of what the reformed doctrine of total depravity entails. The Sacred cow of autonomous Reason is not to be trusted when it comes to spiritual matters. Second, we reason from Scripture because God has revealed that as part and parcel of what Paul and the Apostles did when evangelizing and defending the faith. When you read through the book of Acts, you tend to see Christians reasoning from the Scriptures on a daily basis. That was Paul’s method and habit. So, why reason from the Scriptures? Because, God says we should, and it is His word that will not come back void. Our natural arguments will fail, because the natural man is dead in sin (but I do affirm that God uses arguments deduced from Scripture and supporting Scriptural ideas). Sure, the Spirit illuminates His word and regenerates the heart. If the Spirit does not reveal, then man has nothing he can accept and not suppress about God in creation or Scripture; the Word is God-breathed, and it is the Spirit who inspires it. You need the Special revelation of God and the Holy Spirit to ground theistic belief and rightly see GR. That’s what Calvin taught in the institutes, namely, that you need the “spectacles of Scripture” to rightly understand GR. To deny this is really an exercise in Calvinistic revisionism. What kind of apologetics do I see in Scripture? Read the book of Acts, for starters. Also, 1 Peter 3:15- “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”

    Apologetics should be done with this mindset, set apart or honor Christ as Lord in your heart, when doing apologetics. That means we ought to presuppose our Christian worldview when doing apologetics (not argue from neutrality or expect the unbeliever to, which is exactly what Medieval Natural Theology does). If you think that sin has not corrupted the mental faculties of mankind, with a view to suppressing the truth, then it is easy to see why you would find this line of argument persuasive to unbelievers. On another blog you mentioned that you and Craig maintain that God has granted all people noetic regeneration, is that what this statement means:

    Aaron said: “Craig thinks that the spirit’s illumination is what makes salvation possible and effectual so at the very least noetic regeneration has taken place before you can choose to accept or reject, and at that point “regeneration” and justification are so closely tied that it is hard to distinguish between them. (from my Blog: http://calvinsinstitutes.wordpress.com/2009/01/31/determinism-or-synergism/#comment-139”

    Aquinas viewed human reason as virtually untouched by the Fall, is the your position? Aquinas saw Aristotle’s reasoning as neither pro nor anit-Christian, but neutral. Is that what you think about his view? The reformers saw Aristotle and Plato as distinctly anti-Christian in what they had to say about God, man, and morality.

  13. Peter,

    "If you think that sin has not corrupted the mental faculties of mankind, with a view to suppressing the truth, then it is easy to see why you would find this line of argument persuasive to unbelievers."

    It is my slowly developing thesis, and thus a thought that I would like to consider you you and everyone else involved in this multi-blog discussion, that we do not do apologetics for unbelievers. Because we believe that the no one can come to know the truth unless they are first regenerated by the Holy Spirit, it would seem that apologetics (even of the "presuppositional" or "biblicist" variety) are necessarily only effective on "believers."

    That being the case, I think that changes a significant amount of the rhetoric involved in the argumnets of this debate. Of course I do not (and I don't think Aaron does either) think that purely rational arguments from nature can overcome the unbeliever's moral corruption by which he suppresses the truth. But neither can any transcendental arguments that presuppose the truth of Christianity!

    So the bottom line would seem to be that either it's true that nature shows us God or it's false. I think we agree that it's true. That being the case, any person who is being worked upon by the power of the Holy Spirit will be able to have his eyes opened to see the truth, whether that truth comes from a transcendental argument or a classical theistic proof.

    "Aquinas saw Aristotle’s reasoning as neither pro nor anit-Christian, but neutral. Is that what you think about his view? The reformers saw Aristotle and Plato as distinctly anti-Christian in what they had to say about God, man, and morality."

    Well, that all depends on what exactly Aquinas meant. He may have only meant that you don't need special revelation from the Bible or the church to tell you that something can't be A and not A at the same time. He probably would have had no problem agreeing that all truth is God's truth.

    As for the Reformers, Calvin explicitly criticizes anyone who would reject ALL non-biblical teaching out of hand. Calvin argued that God enlightened men of all ages in many things that did not pertain exclusively to salvation. He also read through the works of Cicero every year.

    In any case, I trust you see my point. The noetic effects of sin do not somehow bar man from seeing God in nature (Paul's whole point in Romans 1 is that they DO see Him "clearly"). The Fall is a moral fall, not an ontological one. The equipment is still functioning, but in our moral rebellion we supress the truth it is relaying to us.

  14. David,
    I would never say that truth is only found in the Bible. My critique is that the reformers viewed the Philosophers with a critical eye, and they did not venerate their thinking as highly as the scholastics. To be sure, they were very well read in Greek and Roman thought, but they never built their theological systems on Aristotle or Plato. Nor did they do apologetics within that philosophical paradigm.