Presupp and Classical: What’s the Difference?

In the recent debate between apologetic methodology, it is important to maintain the distinctions between the two most prominent methods: presuppositionalism and classicalism. The recent, and convoluted, debate between proponents of either side, has left some in the dark as far as it concerns pin-pointing differences. In this article, I want to outline some of those major differences. These differences are not inconsequential, they’re vitally important and will affect much more than a person’s apologetic method.

Presuppositions

In this article, I will be assuming the model of presuppositionalism as articulated by Cornelius Van Til, since it appears to be the more popularized version. The classical model I am assuming is the natural theology articulated by men like Thomas Aquinas. Ironically, we have to draw out some presuppositions from both sides before getting into other differences. I will lay this section out in two parts, agreeable presuppositions––those assumptions or precommitments both sides agree on––and disagreeable presuppositions––those precommitments which distinguish one view from the other.

Agreeable Pressupositions

#1: Assuming we all agree on the major points of Christian orthodoxy, we also agree on some of the more relevant doctrines to Christian philosophy and apologetic methodology. The first would be the fall of man in Genesis 3. Both sides agree that man is fallen and finds himself in a state of sin. We both agree that man will not, on his own accord, come to Jesus Christ for salvation, but must be changed by the in-working of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5; Jas. 1:18).

#2: We agree that the only truth revealed unto salvation comes through the Gospel of Jesus Christ as presented to us in Scripture. There is no other way of salvation, nor is there any other means by which God chiefly draws a person unto Himself, but by the Scriptures alone as applied by the Spirit. Knowledge of nature is not sufficient unto salvation (Rom. 10:17). No argument, if estranged from the preaching of the Word, is effectual unto a person’s justification before a just and holy God. The gift of faith in the believer is the only instrument by which one is justified (Rom. 4:3).

#3: We agree that the triune God is the ultimate foundation for all created reality; that He is the First Cause, the Prime Mover, and the sovereign LORD who governs creation by His gracious providence. We agree that without recognizing this God as the only true God of the universe, it is impossible to make sense of the human experience. We also agree that without God, nothing could exist, and thus, this blog article would not exist. Therefore, for anything to exist is a testimony to this God’s existence––hence, every sinner is left without excuse (Rom. 1).

Disagreeable Presuppositions

#1: Though we agree on the fall of man, we do not agree that the fall affected humanity in the same way. We do not agree that the fall necessarily had a qualitative effect upon the human reason. Rather, we believe the effect upon the reason was ethical in nature. This seems to best account for the fact that people are guilty before God because of what they know, yet continue to reject (Rom. 1:18-20). Moreover, we disagree that the human person begins life with a propositional knowledge of God. Rather, they are born with the faculty for knowing this God through creation (Ps. 97:6 with Rom. 1:18-20). Furthermore, they are born with the law etched upon their hearts and, in this way also, are left without excuse since every moral law requires a moral law-Giver (Rom. 2:14).

#2: We disagree that the method of apologetics ought to govern the presentation of the gospel. In other words, the classical apologetic method does not, and should not, forbid the presentation of the Gospel revealed unto salvation. We acknowledge that this disproportionality can occur, yet we contend that the danger exists on both sides. For presuppositionalism can be just as estranged from the Gospel as the classical method.

#3: Though we agree that God is the ultimate foundation of all created reality, we contend that this is an ontological and dogmatic assertion. The question of how one comes to know this God is a separate, yet related, epistemological question. Thus, we disagree that the dogmatic truth––“God accounts for all created reality”––entails the epistemic presupposition of this God as the primary object of our thought (this is called a priori knowledge),[1] prior to any other object (i.e. the laws of logic, creation, etc). We contend that this violates the law of noncontradiction. For a person must first presuppose the law of noncontradiction in order to make the expression God intelligible. Therefore, to claim the necessity of presupposing God a priori, following from the dogmatic (ontological) truth that God is the foundation of all created reality is a non sequitur and is nonsensical.

[NOTE: Espistemically, “God is the foundation of all created reality,” is our conclusion rather than our starting point. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Ontologically, “God is the foundation of all created reality,” prioritizes God as that which accounts for everything. Yet, the latter must be arrived at by a discursive process of reason.]

Metaphysics

Van Til’s Metaphysic

Now that we’ve laid out some of the most relevant assumptions on both sides, and have pointed out the differences, we can now discuss more nuanced differences and implications resulting from what we’ve just covered above. Metaphysics is the study of existence, or being. Epistemology is the study of how we come to know what exists. Though relevant to one another, these two areas of study ought never be conflated. For example, if we were to identify epistemology with metaphysics, we’d have to conclude that existence depends on our knowing. All of existence would be totally mind-dependent. Neither presuppositionalism or classicalism believes this, but we need to be careful not to adopt positions which may logically lead to such dangerous conclusions.

Van Til’s metaphysic, interestingly, sounds somewhat like Kantian metaphysics. Van Til proposes an upper universe and a lower universe in accordance with contemporary philosophical language. He writes:

The subordination of one fact and law under higher created facts and laws appears particularly in the notion of miracle. When Moses comanded the sea to stand aside so that Israel might go through dry-shod, the laws of the physical universe were set aside at the behest of the will of man. But the subordination of the laws of nature to the will of man was in order to the subordination of the will of man to God.

Using the current terminology of philosophy we may express what we have said about the subordination of one aspect of the created universe to other aspects of the created universe by saying that the lower universes of discourse anticipate the higher, and the higher uses of discourse look back to the lower universes of discourse. The mechanical universe of discourse is subject to and anticipates the organic, while the organic looks back to the mechanical. In turn the organic universe of discourse anticipates the intellectual and moral universes of discourse, while these look back to the organic (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 51).

This point will be vitally important when we come to epistemology. For now, let’s make note of this two-layer metaphysic. Immanuel Kant writes:

Space and time are its pure forms, sensation in general its matter. We can cognize only the former a priori, i.e., prior to all actual perception, and they are therefore called pure intuition; the latter, however, is that in our cognition that is responsible for its being called a posteriori cognition, i.e., empirical intuition. The former adheres to our sensibility absolutely necessarily, whatever sort of sensations we may have; the latter can be very different.[2]

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) says this:

He soon denied that our understanding is capable of insight into an intelligible world, which cleared the path toward his mature position in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), according to which the understanding (like sensibility) supplies forms that structure our experience of the sensible world, to which human knowledge is limited, while the intelligible (or noumenal) world is strictly unknowable to us.[3]

Van Til retains at least a remnant of the two-object interpretation of Kantian metaphysics in his language, as seen above. More candidly, Van Til sets forth his metaphysic in terms of the eternal one and many and the temporal one and many. The eternal one and many refers to the triune God, and the temporal one and many refers to created universals as they relate to particulars.[4]

This distinction between eternal and temporal, between “upper universes” and “lower universes” of discourse, will be highly relevant in our epistemological discussion below. But, at this point, Van Til’s metaphysic, which governs much of the modern presuppositional method, must be seen in contradistinction to classical metaphysics.

Classical Metaphysics

Classical metaphysics is a very common sense approach. The world around us is real, and we can know it. There is no hidden substance behind objects we can’t detect or apprehend. There are things and there are essences of those things. We could think of essences as the what-ness of a thing. Let’s use the example of whiteness.[5] Whiteness is manifest in things that are, well, white. If there are five white cars, insofar as those cars are white they partake in the essence of whiteness. We could also use the essence of roundness and the existence of a circle. A circle participates in the essence of roundness insofar as it succeeds at being round.

It’s also helpful to note how roundness, for instance, does not depend on any one particular circle’s existence in order to be a real essence. And so, essence and existence are distinct.

So, from this (perhaps sloppy) example, we can at least see how essence and existence differ from one another in our world. The classical apologist would, by and large, take this distinction for granted and by virtue of it, point to Something whose essence and existence must be one in the same. That is, if this world is made up of things which have their existence truly distinct from their essences, then this world is contingent (or dependent). We know it’s contingent because it is composed of things and at the most basic level of this composition is both essence and existence. Composition may also be seen in how created things are a mixture of both potentiality and actuality. For example, a rubber ball is actual in its existence. It’s actually round, but has the potential, by virtue of what it is (rubber), to be melted down and shaped into something other than a ball. But if this world is composed or made up of parts (e.g. essence and existence/potentiality and actuality), it can’t be necessary (or non-dependent). It is contingent, since it depends on its parts to be what it is.

But, what do its parts depend on? How do the parts come together in order to compose something (e.g. the world at large, planet earth, your car, your dog, etc)? If we say, “The parts just hold together by virtue of themselves,” that would be like saying, “The parts hold together because the parts hold together,” which is to commit the petitio principii fallacy, also known as question begging. As Edward Feser writes:

How do the parts of a composite come together to form a whole? It can’t be the composite itself that causes this to happen. This is obvious enough when we’re thinking in temporal terms. Chairs, for example, don’t assemble themselves. Someone has to take the parts and put them together.[6]

So, something behind this universe must be responsible for holding it together, so to speak. That something, upon final analysis, must be God.

It’s quite obvious, at this point, that I do not have the time or space to give a full survey of Van Tillian or Classical metaphysics. I hope what has been said above will serve as relevant content as we move on to epistemology.

Epistemology

Van Til’s Epistemology

In discussing “man’s ultimate environment,” Van Til writes:

Even if in our psychological experience we know ourselves and the universe about us before we speak self-consciously of God, we have all the while known God if we have truly known anything else (Defense of the Faith, 41-42).

One would be hard pressed to make any meaningful distinction between what Van Til calls our psychological experience and our knowledge of God. Psychologically, Van Til appears to be saying we do begin with ourselves and the universe around us. Perhaps this could be likened to our perception of the phenomena. However, on some other level, we know God as we know these other things (noumena). For Van Til, contra Kant, man’s knowledge is two-fold. Nothing can be known without God also being known along side it. So, we are driven to ask, “What do we know, exactly?” If I know (a), do I know (a) or do I know God? If I know both (a) and God in virtue of knowing (a), then we know God “through what has been made,” and God is thus not presupposed before everything else. Yet, it is God, according to Van Til, who all men know. Presuppositionalism demands an epistemic presupposition of God before anything else. Hear Greg Bahnsen:

Paul’s appeal to them to repent was grounded not in autonomous argumentation but the presupposed authority of God’s Son (v. 31), an authority for which there was none more ultimate in Paul’s reasoning. Paul’s hearers were told that they must repent, for God had appointed a day of final judgment; if the philosophers did not undergo a radical shift in their mindset and confess their sinfulness before God, they would have to face the wrath of God on the day of final accounting.[7]

Man must presuppose God first, it is thought, in order to make sense of anything else. Van Til writes:

Suppose then that after the entrance of sin man could still intellectually but not morally or spiritually know God, it would not help him. He cannot even intellectually know God as He truly is. He has lost true knowledge. Validity in any rich meaning of the term is gone. When the non-regenerate man speculates about God and speaks of the supernatural, does he then see “glimmerings” of the true God or is it a mirage of his own fabrication? If we say the former we shall be placed before the dilemma of how a little knowledge of the true God can still fail of a full knowledge.[8]

The natural, or unregenerate man cannot have true knowledge of God. For Van Til, any conversations or thoughts about God the natural man has are false conversations and thoughts. They do not correspond to the true God, but to man’s own fabrication. But, how can this be the case in light of Romans 1? Paul says all people know God through that which has been made. Indeed, even Van Til affirms this! He writes:

It is to this sense of deity, even this knowledge of God, which, Paul tells us (Rom. 1:19-20) every man has, but which, as Paul also tells us, every sinner seeks to suppress, that the Christian apologetic must appeal.[9]

If man, prior to regeneration, begins with a false knowledge of God, how can they be held accountable for that knowledge if there’s not even so much as a “glimmering” of the true God? Moreover, according to Van Til, the apologist ought to appeal to this knowledge every man has of God; but why should we appeal to a fabricated deity which, Van Til says, is the only kind of knowledge the natural man has about God? This, I contend, is a dilemma for Van Til and his followers. On the one hand, the apologist must appeal to man’s knowledge of God per Romans 1. On the other hand, if man can know this God through nature without being regenerate, then Van Til would be forced to admit the validity of the classical approach of deducing the existence of God through nature, a posteriori.

Classical Epistemology

Classical epistemology, like classical metaphysics, is very common sensical. Man can know things, pure and simple. Man can know God through that which has been made. In accord with Romans 1, classical theologians understand that God is one’s epistemic conclusion which is deduced from that which has been made. This is nothing new, Paul himself seemed to understand that man comes to knowledge of God by virtue of creation. On this basis, they are left without excuse. One should wonder how Van Til accounts for man being left without excuse if he doesn’t have true knowledge of God, but false “knowledge.”

Classical epistemology posits that man begins his process of thinking and reasoning with himself. Note, this is not an ethical statement, as Van Til seems to make it at times. This is a necessary component of being human. We have to begin with knowledge of ourselves, the presupposition of the laws of logic, etc., in order to begin an intelligible reasoning process. Now, the Van Tillian may challenge this and claim we are refusing to recognize God as the ultimate starting point. However, this is not the case. God is the ultimate foundation of all our reasoning, but this is an metaphysical statement. In epistemology, we’re dealing with the question of how one comes to knowledge that God is indeed the ultimate starting point.

More than this, consider the notion that we must begin with God epistemically before we begin with anything else. This simply is not the case. In order to begin with God, we must have an accurate idea of who God is. But an accurate idea of who God is can only be obtained if we first begin with the laws of logic. God, as an expression, cannot be made intelligible without first supposing the laws of logic.

Conclusion

What has been said above is very brief, yet hopefully helpful, survey of both classical and presuppositional systems of thought. It’s certainly not an exhaustive excursus, but should be helpful in causing my audience to think more deeply about these issues. Either side may seem, at times, to die the death of nuance. However, the small things bear massive implications. It is my opinion that presuppositionalism, if consistently understood and followed, would lead to explicit fideism. As it is, it appears to be fideism with the add-on of the transcendental argument. No one can question Scripture because it is God’s Word, and the transcendental argument is supposed to demonstrate this truth.

Yet, already there is an inconsistency since the transcendental argument does not presuppose God a priori. It reasons to God. Moreover, it reasons to God, not the Trinitarian God, as Van Til and his followers demand. For the classicalist, this is okay since the one true God is the Trinitarian God of Scripture, albeit not fully known through nature.


[1] An example of a priori knowledge might be the law of God written on our hearts. The moral law is known notwithstanding our experience of the outside world.
[2] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, (A42/B59–60). https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant/
[3] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant/
[4] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 47-51.
[5] Thomas Aquinas most helpfully uses colors as examples for this distinction of essence and existence. But, really, it works for anything. What is a dog? In other words, what is it about an animal that makes it to share in dog-ness? How can we tell dogs from whales, etc.? (dog-ness v. whale-ness)
[6] Edward Feser, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, 70.
[7]Bahnsen, Greg. Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Kindle Locations 4967-4971). Kindle Edition.
[8] Van Til, Cornelius. Reformed Epistemology (Kindle Locations 1074-1078). Unknown. Kindle Edition.
[9] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 109.

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