More on Naïve Presuppositionalism

Apparently I ruffled some feathers with my post on Naïve Presuppositionalism. People wondered whom I was writing about. The answer? No one in particular. But if the shoe fits, then wear it.

When I looked around on the Internet at conversation regarding my post, I found that some people thought I was directing my comments at Sye TenBruggencate, a rising star of sorts in the apologetic world. However, naïve presuppositionalism was around long before TB. At the same time, some evidence (!) of naïve presuppositionalism can be found in TB’s material. For example:

In the video, TB assumes a dichotomy between evidences and presuppositions when he speaks of “evidences versus presuppositions.” This false dichotomy is inherent to naïve presuppositionalism. Not only is the dichotomy philosophically problematic, but it cuts against the testimony of Scripture.

Philosophically, evidences are useless without presuppositions, and presuppositions are useless without evidences. Both evidences and presuppositions are necessary to a robust philosophy, and thus also to a robust apologetic. The characteristic mark of traditional Van Tilian apologetics is not the observation that everyone holds presuppositions in virtue of which evidence is evaluated, as important as that realization may be.

Biblically, evidences are the very basis upon which people hold their presuppositions about God, and their presuppositions about God inform their understanding of those evidences. For example, in Psalm 19, the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork. And in Romans 1, God is known because He is perceived in the things have have been made. Of course, such overwhelming evidence does not lead the ungodly to honor God as God, but if the sky and creation are not evidence, then I do not know what is.

TB’s courtroom analogy is not as helpful as it initially seems to be. I understand that analogies are not perfect, but the inference TB attempts to illustrate through his analogy does not follow. While someone does provide evidence to the judge and jury in a court case, the evidence is also being presented to the person who is on trial. If we are to hold a fair trial, it only makes sense that the person who is being judged should be present to hear the charges, evidence, and judgment brought against him. The person on trial has the evidence presented to him the same as the judge and jury have the evidence presented to them.

It does not follow from what has been said above that the one presenting the evidence is saying that the person on trial is really the judge. Likewise, it does not follow from the fact that an apologist presents evidence to an unbeliever that the apologist is saying the unbeliever is God. After all, God presents irrefutable evidence to the unbeliever. Is God saying the unbeliever is God? Of course not!

God knows the unbeliever is a judge, though the unbeliever is not the Judge.

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.

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?

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.