Misguided Tribalism in Apologetic Methodology

Much has been made of the categorization of apologetic methodologies. But perhaps apologetic methodologies need not be so sharply separated from one another. Perhaps such separation between apologetic methodologies is actually more confusing than constructive and more harmful than helpful. More importantly, perhaps there is not enough difference between apologetic methodologies to be able to maintain the distinctions between the supposed schools of apologetic methodology.

The aforementioned thought came to fuller expression in the words of Paul Helm. During a class break, Helm was answering questions some of his students had regarding his own take on apologetic methodology in terms of schools. Helm was taken aback by the fact that such a discussion should even exist, much less that he should be questioned about it.

Questions about apologetic methodology readily lend themselves to a misguided tribalism. By pointing out this observation I do not intend to dismiss questions of apologetic methodology completely. Unfortunately, pagan philosophers with pseudo-Christian methodologies will always plague the realm of Christian apologetics. But disputes between apologetic schools are of a different sort than disputes with obviously unbelieving approaches to apologetics.

Suffice it to say that I have a difficult time discerning the radical differences between various ‘schools’ of apologetic methodology. For example, the easiest illustration of a supposed difference in apologetic methodology is between ‘presuppositionalism’ and ‘evidentialism.’ So you get a guy like Sye TenBruggencate, a self-proclaimed presuppositionalist, who clearly believes that presenting evidence to unbelievers is not just a waste of time, but actually sinful. But doesn’t he present evidence when he makes arguments to the unbeliever regarding logic and certainty and the like? Isn’t he working off of agreed upon premises just like the evidentialist? Isn’t he setting forth his arguments to the unbeliever only to have the unbeliever stand as judge over whether or not the conclusions to those arguments should be accepted?

Or take Greg Bahnsen as another example. Bahnsen is considered a presuppositionalist par excellence. And yet, Bahnsen differs from TenBruggencate in that he clearly does present evidence to the unbeliever. And why not? After all, Bahnsen also offers arguments regarding logic, using shared premises, and expecting the unbeliever to stand as judge over the conclusions to those arguments. Bahnsen was also clear that natural theological arguments need not be rejected, if they are formulated as to be consistent with Christian theology. What Thomist wouldn’t agree?

Much more can be said, but I will save it for another time.

Three Unthinking Presuppositionalist Responses

Recently I was reminded of at least three unthinking and sometimes even cult-like responses generally offered by so-called presuppositional apologists when their perceived method becomes the subject of criticism.

1. Hagiography – Defending the likes of Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, and others to the death while dismissing any potentially valid critiques against their method(s) from Scripture or philosophy.

2. Enlightenment – Presuming an opponent or critic of their method(s) is ignorant of said method(s) because he or she ‘has not read Van Til or Bahnsen’ instead of dealing with the challenge brought against the method(s).

3. Semantics – Taking advantage of the often vague and ambiguous language of Van Til and Bahnsen in order to posture and prolong a discussion that is not going favorably for the presuppositionalist.

Mathis is Mistaken

David Mathis is a bit off in his criticism of those criticizing the firing of Phil Robertson from the Duck Dynasty show. Mathis believes A&E is profiting from the controversy. They are getting free advertising. So we should not talk about it.

Even if his suspicions were true, what difference do they make to the ethics of addressing this controversy?

None.

So much for that argument.

Referring to Duck Dynasty, Mathis mentions that “this show is scripted.” He piously opines, “this is not the reality worth fighting for.” Okay? What does the show being scripted have to do with sticking up for the biblical and historical view of Christian ethics pertaining to homosexuality? I will answer that question for him. Nothing. It has nothing to do with the issue.

Mathis goes on to write, “The network never owed us this show, never owed us how many times they haven’t censored the name of Jesus from Phil’s end-of-episode prayers, and never deserved that we get this upset and in the meantime litter the Internet with their name and boost their profile.” And who is saying that the network ever owed us any of these things? Mathis is like way off in left field here. He is also obsessed with how much A&E might be making off this controversy, which, as I noted above, is irrelevant to the opinion of Mathis that Christians should just shut up and take it when a high profile celebrity gets fired for simply stating the biblical and historical view of Christian ethics pertaining to homosexuality.

Mathis wisely writes, “Wisdom isn’t picking a fight whenever we can, but picking the right fight.” He unwisely fails to follow his own advice, picking a fight with those whom he thinks are picking a fight when really the fight was brought to us. Where’s the wisdom in that? Mathis is simply begging the question in favor of his view that defending the biblical and historical view of Christian ethics pertaining to homosexuality is unwise by piously quoting passages of Scripture that fail to establish his point.

Frankly, I am not even sure that Mathis understands what has actually taken place. He insists, over and over again, that this is not the time to speak up in defense of the biblical and historical view of Christian ethics pertaining to homosexuality. But he continues to frame the discussion in terms of the silliness of a show and the profit of a television network. He makes a comment about how the Great Commission is not about television programs. Thanks. Totally helpful. But not really. And it has nothing to do with defending the biblical and historical view of Christian ethics pertaining to homosexuality.

Note, by the way, his arrogance in stating that the show is marginalizing Christians as “backwater.” Perhaps Mathis has been with Desiring God for too long. Perhaps he has lost touch with reality. I happen to know at least one local congregation who would have his head for implying something so offensive about believers in the South. It’s not that I am defending Phil Robertson as a Christian. Rather, I am pointing out just how unloving the comment Mathis has made might come across to those who are undeniably Christians and happen to live in the South.

Mathis misses the point entirely. He should have taken his own advice and not spoken to the controversy. We really did not need him breaking his silence to tell other Christians to shut up.

TAG is the Pits!

One popular objection to the so-called ‘Transcendental Argument for God,’ or ‘TAG,’ is that it does not amount to anything more than a generic theistic proof (if it amounts to anything at all). A number of ‘naïve presuppositionalists’ have stumbled over this apparent difficulty. Their extra-biblical rationalistic bent does not help. But they are far from being alone in failing to mount a satisfying response to the objection in question.

One helpful attempt at responding to the objection is an unashamed affirmation of revelational epistemology. ‘God said it, I believe it, and that settles it’ works quite well with this brand of apologetics. It works quite well, that is, until one presses a bit more on the specifics of the program. Imagine the thoroughgoing biblical apologist in an apologetic exchange insisting that the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits. The unbeliever is confused by the seemingly random statement, to say the least. The confusion is not a result of having been soundly refuted. Rather, the confusion results from having just heard a Christian apologist tell him, several times, that the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits.

Why is it so important that the apologist point out that the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits? Because the fact that the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits is a precondition of intelligibility. You see, the apologist and the unbeliever were talking about logic, science and morality right before we joined them. The unbeliever asked the apologist how Christian theism provides the preconditions for intelligibility and the apologist responded that the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits.

We rarely, if ever, have seen Christian apologists assert that the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits in response to a question about how Christian theism provides the preconditions of intelligibility. We might see the Christian apologist quote Exodus 3.14 with respect to logic, or Genesis 8.22 with respect to science, or Mark 10.18 with respect to morality. But Genesis 14.10 is strangely absent from typical apologetic presentations and responses. Why is that?

Because the particular details of Scripture are set aside in most presentations of TAG. Apparently they are unimportant and irrelevant to the preconditions of intelligibility. The apologist is not functioning in accord with a revelational epistemology at all. Rather, the apologist is functioning in accord with a derivative set of supposed preconditions of intelligibility. The implication is that the preconditions of intelligibility – the preconditions for logic, science, and morality – are found within the Christian worldview. That is, within the Christian worldview we find a subset of preconditions of intelligibility. These preconditions are expressed in something like the three verses cited in the paragraph above. Now, it seems the apologist is merely appealing to a Christianized framework of sorts to account for logic, science and morality. But establishing a Christianized framework is far from establishing the Christian worldview as a whole. A mere subset of Christian beliefs is not the same as the entirety of the Christian worldview. Not only do most non-Christian theistic worldviews share the Christianized framework the apologist sets forth, but even non-theistic positions might attempt to ape the set of preconditions in question. So, we are back to the same problem stated in the introduction of this post. How does the Christian apologist prove Christian theism in particular through TAG?

Tell me, what is the necessary connection between logic and the Valley of Siddim that was full of bitumen pits? And if the connection is so important, then why are Christian apologists so frequently forgetting to mention that fact in their presentation of TAG, along with so many other seemingly irrelevant, though crucially important particulars of the biblical text?

Mighty Ducks and Bigoted Bailiffs

Examples of moral idiocy abound in recent news.

State government has insisted that business owners bake ‘gay wedding’ cakes or face a penalty. And now polygamy – yes, polygamy – has made its way into the news as well. Men much brighter than I predicted long ago the necessary inclusion of polygamy in perverted proposals for the sexualization of our society. It turns out that they were right. We are talking about serious moral confusion here. Not surprisingly, moral confusion leads to legal confusion. So, we have a man marrying a man and a woman. Here again, the ‘I told you so’ of the ranting right rings loud and true. The arguments of the right proven right. This stuff is crazy. It’s like watching a particularly juicy Jerry Springer. But it’s nowhere near as entertaining. And the actors are real.

Outside the realm of legal insanity a battle rages as Phil Robertson of ‘Duck Dynasty’ has the audacity to share what Christians have believed about homosexuality since they began believing anything at all. On the opposite end of the pseudo-argument an enlightened, elitist GLAAD representative attempts to project his guilt onto Christians by implying that “true Christians” don’t oppose homosexuality, that only ignorant people say things against homosexuality, and that factual comments about the practice of homosexuality are “vile and extreme stereotypes.” How lovely. We should be thankful for those who have continued to embrace some semblance of sanity by sticking up for Robertson and his ilk in this instance. Of course, sticking up for Robertson is hardly sticking up for him at all, since standing behind his words merely means affirming and defending what historical, orthodox Christianity has always stated with respect to the sin of homosexuality. Yes, homosexuality is sin.

People are out of their minds. We have a disclaimer at the beginning of a report on the aforementioned affair. With all the garbage we see on television, the media warns their viewers before showing a piece expressing the biblical view of homosexuality? Yes, some of Robertson’s comments were crude. That’s because he was describing an absolutely crude practice. Overall, the television network that suspended Robertson for answering questions in accord with his beliefs when asked directly about them may have really, really messed up. But that’s not going to stop the ball from rolling. If homosexuality is normalized through rhetoric and bullying then so be it. If not, then back off and try smaller steps. A previous mistake serves as a guide to the extent of a future success. That’s one small facet of the beauty of incrementalism. Let’s be honest. Today we are arguing about a star on a television show. It really does not matter that much. But when we substitute a secular state for a television channel, and a police officer for a GLAAD representative, the situation suddenly seems much more serious.

If we can trust Romans 1 – and we can – then the United States of America, and many other countries besides, appear to be under the judgment of God. Christians have nothing to lose except for our fleeting comforts. Those look to be disappearing rather quickly.

Pray without ceasing. Push harder in your fight against sin. And prepare to be uncomfortable.

Naïve Presuppositionalism

Naïve presuppositionalism is that brand of apologetic methodology which emphasizes – as the characteristic mark of traditional Van Tilian apologetics – the observation that everyone holds presuppositions in virtue of which evidence is evaluated. Through implicit abstract philosophical disregard for revelational epistemology, naïve presuppositionalists reject the use of evidence in apologetic practice, and often in apologetic principle, summarizing their argumentative approach in terms of the so-called ‘Transcendental Argument for God,’ or ‘TAG.’ Consistent with the aforementioned view, TAG is thought of as an a priori argument providing absolute epistemological certainty. This notion of epistemological certainty parallels that of rationalistic philosophy of the Enlightenment Era. The naïve presuppositionalist elevates ‘certainty,’ in the aforementioned sense, to the forefront of apologetic interaction.

The elevation of certainty to the forefront of apologetic exchanges can take many forms. However, naïve presuppositionalists generally assume epistemological certainty a prerequisite or necessary condition of knowledge, and posit actual certainty given a Christian worldview. Thus, the Christian is actually certain, and hence possesses knowledge, whereas the unbeliever is uncertain. The attempt to demonstrate such claims often degenerates into the naïve presuppositionalist leveling a series of skeptical questions at his or her opponent ad nauseam.

In actual practice, naïve presuppositionalism can be difficult to distinguish from other types of presuppositionalism. A particularly troubling aspect of this method is the rhetorical affirmation of biblical fidelity, the rhetorical rejection of worldly philosophy, and the repeated dogmatic assertions that something has actually been demonstrated or accomplished through the use of this method. Unfortunately, such rhetoric runs counter to the unstated theoretical elements of naïve presuppositionalism, which implicitly dismiss the need to prove anything like epistemological certainty through biblical exegesis, implicitly embrace worldly theories of certainty, and tend to anger the apologetic adversary, rather than closing the mouth or answering any questions or challenges.

In recent years, presuppositional apologetics have grown in popularity. Unfortunately, the growing popularity of any theological theory means the growing popularity of imposters. While some may view this article as nothing more than an honorable attempt to split ignorable hairs, perhaps defining and differentiating between naïve presuppositionalism and its more biblically and philosophically informed counterparts may serve as the beginning of a helpful corrective for newcomers to the presuppositional apologetic world.