A Brotherly Response to the Greatest Living Christian Apologist

I have been noting a groundswell of anti-Reformed discussion recently, and in particular, anti-presuppositional posts. As has been the case for decades now (longer than most of the proponents of these posts have been breathing air), straw men abound. You basically have a young generation of recent philosophy grads beating the war drums. Nothing new about that, of course. Young philosophers tend to be that way. But if you read this young man’s words you really get the feeling that a true imbalance exists. Seriously, you truly have to have a pretty rabid strain going to think “presuppositionalism is a greater and wider threat, long-term” than *cultural Marxism*! And blaming presuppositionalism as if it is relevant to churches being “atheist factories” shows a truly dangerous perspective. The primary producer of atheism in the hollowed out church of evangelicalism is the shallow, man-centered entertainment-focused “seeker sensitive” movement and the resulting churches where sound theology and truth itself are sacrificed on the altar of pleasing men.

The fact is, an apologetic methodology that begins with man will always end with man as well—it will never ascend to divine truth. Covenant apologetics, or presuppositionalism, or whatever else you wish to call it, is nothing more than a recognition that engaging in apologetics by granting the rebellious presuppositions of the rebel sinner will never lead you to consistent Christian truth. You can attempt to obscure that reality with a long list of fancy philosophical conundrums, but one thing you will *not* be able to do is exegete your way out of the proverbial paper bag when it comes to the foundational realities of the sovereignty of God and the deadness of man in sin in Scripture. And as long as those divine truths remain enshrined in holy Writ, all man-centered philosophies, even those loved and adored by professing Christians, will remain empty of the power of the Spirit.

Definite future DL topic, to be certain.


The above text is a Facebook post from Dr. James White. There are things I both agree and disagree with here, but before I get into all that, I want my readers to know that I do truly believe Dr. White to be the greatest living Christian apologist. The only man who, in my opinion, may have surpassed him entered glory recently, Dr. R.C. Sproul. That said, I do not want this post to be viewed as back-biting, snarky, or haughty. Like brother White, I am a pilgrim with eyes set on a more heavenly country, and in this journey him and I are lock-step, marching toward the Celestial City.

Context

The backdrop of this post is an ongoing discussion having to do with apologetic methodology. The debate between classical and presuppositional apologists has once again been ignited, hopefully for the better this time. A few of my peers have come out voicing opposition to presuppositionalism and, I must admit, have made some unhelpful and inflammatory remarks against those who have adopted the presuppositional model. This is usually the case in social media discussions since many of us, myself certainly included, do not give ourselves time to think our posts through, or stop to consider the image bearer on the other side of the screen.

Dr. White has, I believe, responded in kind, and I don’t blame him. However, it is my intention in this post to plant the derailed train firmly back upon the tracks of productivity. I hope this to be a sober and irenic post and look forward to the responses it may generate.

Agreements

I agree that the winds of doctrinal change blow particularly hard on social media, which is unfortunate. This usually results from un-churched theology enthusiasts injecting their positions, or what they just read last night, into the marketplace of ideas. When certain individuals rapidly introduce a new cause or a sudden concern that previously didn’t appear to be within their purview, they can easily come off as loose cannons. And no one takes loose cannons seriously.

I also agree that the embellished language White refers to in the above quotation is rather embarrassing. To the lay-person and expert alike, the equation of presuppositionalism with Marxism is prima facie ridiculous. Perhaps these men can produce a case for why they believe this to be the case, but the reader of posts claiming such will write them off as trivial or the product of some know-it-all who just watched their first philosophy lecture on YouTube. I know this is not the true case, but as they always said in the Marines, perception often constitutes as reality. We ought to consider that in our posts.

If qualified, I also agree with White, that an apologetic beginning with man will end with man. Part of the reason atheists are atheists is because they’ve destroyed (in their own minds) any possibility of meaningful metaphysical discussions. They themselves are their own gods and so they’ve made their intellect the sole determining authority in interpreting God’s general, and in some cases special (cf. Bart Ehrman), revelation. But, as I mentioned, this is qualifiedly the metaphysical or ontological part of the discussion. Presuppositionalism wants to say the same for the epistemological part as well, and here is where the differences between presuppositionalists and myself will emerge.

Differences

Contra Dr. White, I tend to view the apologetic method from the opposite end of the spectrum. It has been the presuppositionalists constant alarm that if one begins with man they will inevitably end up at man, not the God of the Bible. However, this is precisely what the presuppositional method forces one to do––start with themselves and end with themselves. For example, it is the contention of K. Scott Oliphint that man must epistemologically begin with the God of Scripture.[1] Cornelius Van Til implies the same when, in his Reformed Epistemology, he writes:

Powers of logic, though greatly weakened, are still his. He can speculate upon the object-subject and the subject-subject relation as implying a personal supernatural. And since his will also shares in these “scintillae,” he has a desire to make these speculations and places his trust in them. But the whole structure that he erects is not a Biblical but a general theism. Between these there is a great difference. The former makes God the starting point; the latter makes man his starting point in thinking of God, the world and himself.[2]

Unfortunately, the norm within Van Tillian presuppositionalism (and Clarkian, in a differing way) has been to begin with the conclusion of the very thing argued for, the triune God of Scripture. This is the very common petitio principii fallacy, or simply put, question begging. Though pious, the notion of starting with God epistemologically is impossible and wreaks of self-affirmation. This unfortunate distinctive is necessary for a “covenantal” apologetic. If the presuppositionalists were to admit they begin epistemologically with anything else (e.g. the laws of logic), then they would have to admit they do not truly begin with God, but with their own deductive reasoning. This would be to presuppose something else logically prior to presupposing God. Ergo, the presuppositionalist must affirm the impossibility of beginning with God in their epistemology.

As R.C. Sproul, et. al. note in the second part of Classical Apologetics, presupposing God epistemically, prior to anything else, is impossible. For to make the idea of God intelligible, one must first assume the laws of logic (i.e. God cannot be God and not God at the same time and in the same relationship). Otherwise, they would not be able to make sense of any expression whatsoever, including God.

The notion of starting with God epistemically leads to a confusion of the order of being and the order of knowing. In the order of being (ontology), God is the foundation, the first cause of all created reality. He can even be said to account for our knowledge, both the act and the content. Moving from that to saying, one must begin with God in their knowing, is to confuse metaphysics (being) with epistemology (human knowing). This is a simple category error with massive implications. In short, we would have to be God in order to begin with God in our thinking. God begins (and ends, so to speak) with Himself in His knowing. Likewise, we begin with ourselves. We know ourselves before we know anything else; we assume laws of logic before we assume anything else, etc.

Another disagreement I have is the writing off of all philosophy which is not in line with the presuppositional paradigm. I am of the opinion that presuppositionalism has a great deal of man-made ingredients itself (e.g. Van Til’s innovative epistemology discussed above). Moreover, as Romans 1 tells us, God is known through that which has been made. The work of apprehending divine truths through nature is often referred to as natural theology. It is impossible that the work of apprehending God through nature is a secular affair. The canonical truth is that we humans were made to do such work! Further, Romans 1 assumes all men are capable of doing this. Otherwise, they would have an excuse before God, namely, that they were unable to apprehend divine truths through nature. In all this, we heathen classicalists hold that the only sufficient revelation unto salvation comes through the gospel of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit (Rom. 1:16, 17).

I’d also like to point out that Dr. White himself often appears to assume the unbeliever’s ability to reason and, consequently, finds common ground with them. One example of this can be seen in his debates with Muslims. He assumes their ability to understand language; he presumes they will reason soundly, at least to a point, and not all act like Steve Tassi (I jest); and he shares with them the common presupposition of the laws of logic. By doing this, he’s practically granting an epistemology that does not begin with God per se, but with our reason and the tools of logic. He moves from those to the conclusion that Scripture is the Word of God (for example). This is not a presuppositional approach, but a classical one.

Lastly, in response to the very first portion of his post concerning anti-Reformed writers, etc., I want to remind readers, and indeed Dr. White himself (if I may humbly do so), that classical apologists are merely remaining in line with their Reformed predecessors. Despite their efforts, presuppositional academics simply cannot claim the Reformers and certainly not the Puritans for themselves from a historical vantage point. Dr. John Owen, in his Biblical Theology, wrote:

Note well that I do not say that men are born with some innate knowledge of God––they have none––but I do say that they are born with the faculty of knowing God and, further, that this potential, although a part of our constitution, is yet not a logical necessity of our nature, but is rather an implanted sense, universal in our species, by which each individual retains an indwelling urge to know God, and which spontaneously stimulates him to attempt some offering to God, some worship of God, and, further, that in adults of sound mind this principle is as natural as the exercise of reason itself (Biblical Theology, 30, 31).

Calvin, moreover, did not envision the sensus divinitatus like Oliphint and Van Til have conceived of it in their work. This is why Calvin refers to it as a sense rather than actual innate content. 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 (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.V.II).

Richard Muller, consistent with Owen’s understanding, in his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, defines the sensus divinitatus this way: “a basic, intuitive perception of the divine existence; it is generated in all persons through their encounter with the providential ordering of the world…”[3]

Questions

In light of what we have just covered, I have a few questions for Dr. White which will hopefully help move the discussion forward:

  1. What are unbelieving presuppositions? I too agree that we ought not adopt unbelieving views of god or gods, or unbelieving philosophies which skew the reality of God’s created order. But unbelievers, being creatures in His world, do share some presuppositions, such as the laws of logic (it’s this juncture whereat Van Til famously affirmed the unbeliever had knowledge that was not true knowledge. They knew, but they didn’t know, God; an unfortunate logical blunder).
  2. Do you believe natural revelation will yield truth about the one true God of creation? If so, why can’t we begin by using natural revelation to expose the absurdity of an unbelieving worldview?
  3. In light of the above, in what sense do you believe we begin with God? As an ontological foundation, God is primal. This is without question. However, epistemically, that is, in the creature’s knowing, God must be the conclusion, as mentioned above. Don’t you agree?
  4. Do you equate the transcendental argument with presuppositionalism as many “presuppositionalists” do? Classical apologists also utilize the TAG, and I myself think it’s an explosive argument. I do not think it and presuppositionalism, as a method, should be identified with one another.

I look forward to any charitable interaction that may result from this post.

Soli Deo Gloria!


[1] See Covenantal Apologetics, pp. 37, 103.
[2] Van Til, Cornelius. Reformed Epistemology (Kindle Locations 1136-1140). Unknown. Kindle Edition (Emphasis added).
[3] Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, p. 331. (Emphasis added).

6 thoughts on “A Brotherly Response to the Greatest Living Christian Apologist

  1. I am not very familiar with the background of this particular social media discussion, and I only came across this post by happenstance. However, there are a couple of things in this post that beg to be answered in a good-natured fashion. (1) Arguing against presuppositional epistemology by pointing out that it is inherently circular or “begging the question” is a dead end. All worldviews are inherently circular, as a simple consequence of the fact that man is a created finite being who was designed to live within the context of special revelation. This post seems to endorse the rationalist idea that laws of logic are the foundation of all knowledge, but this is itself begging the question. The classic Descartes argument of “I doubt, therefore I think; I think, therefore I am” presupposes its own conclusion within the first two words. It is impossible for any man to prove even his own existence to himself, let alone the existence of the universe; those who think it is possible have simply not yet entered the depths of the darkness in their journeys. Only an infinite being may inherently possess absolute knowledge; all finite beings are utterly dependent upon something greater than themselves to communicate absolute truth to them. Trusting this greater power is called “faith.” All men must ultimately either deny that knowledge is obtainable, or else exercise presuppositional faith in a deity, or in the material world, or in some philosophical principle that they hold to be “self-evident.” (2) Romans 1 does not prove that knowledge of God is obtainable from nature by fallen men. Arguing that man’s ability is prerequisite for his being “without excuse” is the classic argument many theologians use *against* Reformed soteriology! The same theological giant who wrote Romans 1 also wrote of the noetic effect of the fall upon man’s natural intellect in 1 Corinthians 2, and preached from a presuppositional stance to the greatest minds of his age in the Areopagus of Acts 17. Now the study of natural revelation and evidential apologetics is indeed a worthy investment; it rejoices the believing mind by demonstrating the consistency of natural truth with revealed truth, and provides a defense against any who would question the faith on evidential grounds; but it can never provide the ultimate bedrock. May the God of peace be with you.

    1. Hi William! Thank you for your well-thought-out comment. I will attempt to reply to the points you’ve brought up in the same order they are found in your comment:

      1) By “circular reasoning” I am referring to the informal fallacy, not the practice of assuming axioms. Here’s how the two differ. The fallacy of circular reasoning (petitio principii) occurs when someone makes use of the conclusion in order to argue for the conclusion. Now, my unargued assumption of the laws of logic, for example, would not violate this fallacy unless I were arguing for the laws of logic (something like: “the laws of logic are valid because they seem to be valid,” might be an example of this). So, not all systems commit the petitio principii fallacy. But, I contend that presuppositionalism does since the Christian God is the assumption as well as the conclusion argued for.

      2) I have given a brief exegesis of Romans 1:20 in my reply to Taylor DeSoto. Paul assumes a discursive style of reasoning which is apparent in the word he uses for “through.” More on that in the article. Given your use of 1 Corinthians 2, we need to make the distinction between the Gospel preached, which is the chief means by which God draws sinners to Himself and the use of apologetics, which is the art and science of defending the Christian religion. In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul assumes (rightly) that the preaching of Christ and Him crucified is sufficient (and all Reformed Scholastics would agree, from the Puritans onward). We need to distinguish, moreover, reason and articles of faith. The existence of God is not an article of faith, but a fact embedded in creation itself. One doesn’t need faith to come to the necessary conclusion that God exists through reason. We can’t help but come to this conclusion, logically. However, this is different from coming to believe in articles of faith which, quite obviously, require faith in order to be understood and believed. This faith is given by God by means of the preaching of the Word. This is presupposed throughout Scripture, and is not to be confused with our being able to give an answer in the effort to shut the mouths of unbelievers.

      You wrote, “Now the study of natural revelation and evidential apologetics is indeed a worthy investment; it rejoices the believing mind by demonstrating the consistency of natural truth with revealed truth, and provides a defense against any who would question the faith on evidential grounds; but it can never provide the ultimate bedrock. May the God of peace be with you.”

      I couldn’t agree more. The Gospel is the bedrock. Moreover, I’m not an evidentialist, so I doubly agree. 🙂

      1. These are good comments, but don’t quite address the issues I was raising.

        (1) You make a valid technical distinction between the fallacy of circular reasoning and the simple assumption of the veracity of premises in a syllogism, but this does not help with questions of epistemology. In epistemology, every syllogism contains circular reasoning embedded within the very core thought of its argumentation, whether or not it explicitly appears as petitio principii. Relativism and pluralism as popularly believed today really shine the spotlight on this issue. We can attempt to argue that objective reasoning (rationalism) or “concrete” observable facts (empiricism) must of necessity lead to recognizing the existence of God; but even to state that there is such a thing as objective “logic” or “fact” is to presuppose an ultimate standard of truth, which can only be God himself… and thus the circular argument. All logic is a consequence of God’s intrinsic character, and all facts are created facts. However, the average person or even professing Christian in Western culture today would either deny that there is an ultimate standard for truth, or would maintain that whatever truth exists cannot be known absolutely. The first of these is presuppositional; the latter is what happens when a person gives up on faith altogether (which is even *itself* a presupposition). Neither can be helped in any way by human reason or observable facts of nature because the postmodernists have already incorporated rationality and facts into their systems of thinking.

        (2) The core of the discussion here is the statement “one doesn’t need faith to come to the necessary conclusion that God exists through reason.” This is really the heart of my disagreement with your perspective, and is basically the same as the circular reasoning question. 99% of the greatest intellectuals of our day have come to the conclusion that God does not exist through reason, by starting with the simple presupposition that God is absent until proven present, and not finding enough reasons in either logic or the natural world to satisfy themselves that God is indeed present. Things like the classical “ontological argument” have no meaning to them because those arguments are inherently just as circular as their own, and they see no need to shift from one set of presuppositions to the other. This is why the new birth is so critical in order to renew man’s entire approach to thinking about the world. Logic itself has no power to prove anything. Valid constructions of syllogism mean nothing if no premises are fed into them; all premises are founded upon things that are observable; all observations form in the human mind; and the human mind is not absolute.

        In summary, I would maintain that the wording of Hebrews 11:3 is crucial. It does not state “we understand so that we might have faith”, but rather states “by faith we understand.” These are very old questions. I think we would be in agreement on the general Hebrews principle, though not in the bottom-level outworking of it in presuppositionalism.

  2. >>>In epistemology, every syllogism contains circular reasoning embedded within the very core thought of its argumentation, whether or not it explicitly appears as petitio principii.

    If by this you mean the premises assume things like logic, then you’re correct. But valid syllogisms are still linear, not circular.

    >>>This is really the heart of my disagreement with your perspective, and is basically the same as the circular reasoning question. 99% of the greatest intellectuals of our day have come to the conclusion that God does not exist through reason, by starting with the simple presupposition that God is absent until proven present, and not finding enough reasons in either logic or the natural world to satisfy themselves that God is indeed present.

    So, someone needs faith to come to the conclusion “God exists”? That’s counter to Romans 1:20. Moreover, those who conclude God does not exist conclude such things because they do not reason rightly. Reason is not the problem, the wrong use of it is. And of course unbelievers will not find “enough reasons” by use of logic because they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. The only remedy is the Gospel preached. That’s the chiefest means by which God draws sinners to Himself.

    1. Do you believe that a human being can obtain knowledge of God without any presuppositions whatsoever? I am a little unclear on your position from the things you’ve said. If you do believe this, do you have any biblical basis for this idea other than Romans 1? While I love philosophical theories and ideas as much as anyone, and do enjoy making arguments such as “all human thought involves presuppositions”, when it comes to real-world problems I ultimately have no interest whatsoever in the wisdom of man, but only in the wisdom of God.

      Paul’s main flow of thought through the first few chapters of Romans is not too difficult to follow. He sets up a contrast between pagan Gentiles (Chapter 1) and religious Jews (Chapter 2), showing that all are condemned (end of Chapter 2). Then he starts getting into the gospel (Chapter 3). The whole point of Chapter 1 is to show that the idolatrous pagans of his day have no excuse before God, because they worship things in their own image, ignoring the clear testimony of God’s attributes from (a) the image of God within themselves and (b) the light of the natural world. He is clearly talking about people who already have presuppositions, and (as I would argue) is not concerned with those who have no presuppositions because such people do not exist. From reading the rest of Paul’s argument, it’s clear that his primary interest by far is special revelation, which immediately takes priority over natural revelation the moment it enters the discourse. As he says in chapter 2, the Gentiles are condemned without law, their own conscience bearing witness to God’s law within themselves, but the Jews are condemned by the law, not by nature. Now, there are many ways to reconstruct Paul’s simple reasoning into something far from what he intended, but we really need look no further than Acts 17 to see Paul himself putting his own principles into practice. How does his sermon progress? He begins with the Athenian’s own religious proclivities (i.e. presuppositions), the light of nature (revealing that God’s character is different from that of their idols), and concludes by laying out the truths of the gospel from the authority of special revelation, before his sermon gets cut short by scoffers. Paul applies his own Romans 1 principle to the very people he was writing about in Romans 1. There is nothing here about the supremacy of reason over special revelation. It is clear from the way his sermon is constructed that his ultimate appeal was to special revelation. He was not interested in getting bogged down in questions of reason when he had a much more urgent message to communicate.

      You might think it’s a bit bizarre that I take such an interest in this question, but the reason is that I see a great danger in exalting man’s reason to the point of claiming presuppositions are unnecessary. Yes, man’s reason is used to hear and process revelation, but it is not itself the source or authority of that revelation. Many have made shipwreck throughout history by believing man’s reason to be something other than it is: a tool created by God to receive the things of God. This is an intensely experiential question for me, since there was an extended period of time years ago where I fought the dragons of agnosticism, and found all of man’s intellectual solutions to be worthless and pathetic. Philosophical ideals look good in the classroom, but cannot help on the battlefield of real life. Ultimately we are weak and worthless creatures who are utterly dependent upon our maker as the reference point for all reality and truth. God be with you!

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