Autonomous Human Reason and Epistemic Starting Points

Classical apologists get their name from an entire system usually referred to as classical Christian theism. This method originates in the Medieval and Reformed Scholastic understanding of the doctrine of God. This doctrine of God begins with divine incomprehensibility, moves to simplicity, and then to a discussion on the attributes of God, each of which enjoy full identification with the divine essence, being merely those concepts we use to discuss the self-existent God of Scripture (a la. analogically). From the great truth of the doctrine of God comes our method of argumentation. Yet, our doctrine of God itself is first apprehended through natural revelation by way of the intellectual work historically referred to as natural theology (the labor of deducing the conclusion “God exists” through what has been made, Rom. 1:18-21). John Calvin writes:

No man, however, though he be ignorant of these, is incapacitated for discerning such proofs of creative wisdom as may well cause him to break forth in admiration of the Creator. To investigate the motions of the heavenly bodies, to determine their positions, measure their distances, and ascertain their properties, demands skill, and a more careful examination; and where these are so employed, as the Providence of God is thereby more fully unfolded, so it is reasonable to suppose that the mind takes a loftier flight, and obtains brighter views of his glory. Still, none who have the use of their eyes can be ignorant of the divine skill manifested so conspicuously in the endless variety, yet distinct and well ordered array, of the heavenly host; and, therefore, it is plain that the Lord has furnished every man with abundant proofs of his wisdom. The same is true in regard to the structure of the human frame. To determine the connection of its parts, its symmetry and beauty, with the skill of a Galen, (Lib. De Usu Partium,) requires singular acuteness; and yet all men acknowledge that the human body bears on its face such proofs of ingenious contrivance as are sufficient to proclaim the admirable wisdom of its Maker (Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.V.II).

Thus, even the heathen see the works of God in creation and are left without excuse. You will notice here that, according to Calvin, man is not free from this natural revelation. He is confronted with it no matter where he goes and no matter what he does. In fact, even his reasoning processes make use of the tools God has given us (i.e. laws of logic, reason, etc.). Man simply cannot get away from God’s natural revelation and in that sense is certainly not autonomous.

Considering Existence and Human Knowledge

We come now to an interesting aspect of theology and philosophy, the distinction between metaphysics (ontology or the order of being) and epistemology (the order of knowing). Metaphysics deals with existence while epistemology deals with human knowledge (i.e. how we know things). Our epistemology (knowing) ultimately depends on ontology (the order of being). That is to say, if nothing existed, if we did not exist, we cannot know. As Christians, we profess that God is the ultimate ontological foundation for all our knowing. We can know this for several reasons, mentioned above by Calvin and discussed at length by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Contra Gentiles and in Summa Theologiae. A list of those reasons or arguments is beyond the scope of this article.

When it is said that, “Classical apologists allow for autonomous human reasoning,” what do they mean? Greg Bahnsen puts it this way:

To make God’s word your presupposition, your standard, your instructor and guide, however, calls for renouncing intellectual self-sufficiency—the attitude that you are autonomous, able to attain unto genuine knowledge independent of God’s direction and standards (Bahnsen, Greg. Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, ch. 5).

Autonomous thinking, according to a primary source on the matter, is an attitude. It could also be called a deception, a twisting of the truth, etc. Autonomous human reasoning is not an actual state in which one’s thinking exists. It’s impossible for man to reason apart from God’s revelation; we are all bound to it, living in it, reliant upon it. Bahnsen and the classical apologist agrees here. The question then becomes, Where do the two really disagree? Bahnsen goes on, “All knowledge begins with God, and thus we who wish to have knowledge must presuppose God’s word and renounce intellectual autonomy.” This, I submit to you, is where the two disagree.

First, in conflating being with knowing, he has virtually identified the two. Knowledge begins when we presuppose God. But this cannot be done logically prior to our existence, or to our self-awareness (lit. self-knowledge). Without these two things, we cannot know anything at all. Thus, even if it be granted man is born with imbedded knowledge of God, he must first exist and know himself in order to realize that knowledge. It is impossible to begin the epistemological situation with God. To do that, we would have to be God Himself. Only God can begin with God epistemologically.

Second, if Bahnsen merely means to say that our knowing depends on God and we need to believe in Him in order to reason consistently, then fine. The classical guy and Bahnsen agree. But the claim that our knowing depends on God is an ontological claim because it deals with accounting for the existence of something (i.e. our knowledge). Ontological claims need be demonstrated in order to be epistemically sound. The fact our knowledge depends on God is not in dispute. In dispute is the next claim which is: since our knowledge depends on God, we must begin our knowing process with God. This is impossible. R.C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley write this:

  1. It is psychologically impossible for us to start with God (as it is impossible for God to start with us).
  2. It is logically impossible for us to start with God for we cannot affirm God without assuming logic and our ability to predicate…
    According to the law of noncontradiction, one cannot assert anything without assuming that its opposite is excluded. If we say, “That is a dog,” the statement must imply that the dog cannot be a not-dog. “A” must exclude “not-A” or “A” itself is meaningless. “God” must exclude “not-God” or “God” is not a meaningful expression. So we could not meaningfully refer to God if it were not for the law of noncontradiction. Manifestly, if we cannot conceive of God without logical laws we cannot presuppose Him in order to arrive at logical laws (Sproul, Gerstner, Lindsley. Classical Apologetics, 223-224).

The point here is that we must presuppose, (1) our own existence/ability, and (2) the laws of logic in order to even make sense pf who God is. A third argument Sproul and the others give, against the notion of presupposing God as an epistemic starting point, is this:

3. It is logically impossible to show the rational necessity of presupposing God except by rational argument…

So, the presuppositionalist… if he would show the necessity of presupposing God before we can use the laws of reason, must use the laws of reason to do it and this is a contradiction. Van Til would be saying, “Reason dictates that we must presuppose God in order to use reason (Ibid., 224).”

It is apparent, then, that this line of presuppositional thought is devoid of logic itself. Thus, there is no good reason to adopt it as a method. It involves the affirmation of a contradiction, and to affirm a contradiction as something that is true is an intellectual sin as Bahnsen himself admits. Describing “key intellectual sins,” he writes, “If people are allowed to believe just anything they wish to believe out of convenience, tradition or prejudice, they have abandoned the course of rationality, which calls for having a good reason for the things we believe and do (Always Ready, ch. 28. Emphasis added).”


Therefore, the presuppositionalist and the classical apologist agree that there really is no such thing as autonomous human reasoning. There is a delusional idea of autonomous human reasoning had by the unbeliever, but it is just that, an attitude or idea. They cannot reason apart from God’s revelation. It may be said it’s autonomous in the sense of being rebellious, and that is fine, but even then, it is being used by God for His glory and is not ultimately autonomous. When unbelievers reason inconsistently with God’s revelation they show themselves to be incorrect, every time. in fact, this is the whole point of the theistic proofs. It follows natural revelation consistently to its end in God. If man uses right reason, they can end up nowhere besides the conclusion, “God exists.” Of course, from that point, the Spirit must apply the Gospel (special revelation) if they are to be reconciled to the just and holy God they discover––in part––through His creation (general revelation).

Where we disagree is the notion that man can begin epistemologically with God. This concept has led to a confusion between ontology and epistemology. Of course, this leads to absurdity as has been shown above.

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