Clarification for––and a Response To––Taylor DeSoto, a Dear Brother in Christ

Taylor DeSoto recently wrote a response to an article I wrote a few days ago.

DeSoto is a dear brother in Christ who used to pain stakingly edit my poor grammar on The Reformed Collective blog. I appreciate his work very much and value his friendship, even if it is confined to digital media.

That said, I appreciated DeSoto’s response because I believe he really does want to see this conversation move forward in a positive direction––and that desire is mutual. Without any further adieu, let’s jump into Taylor’s article.

His Introduction

I want to briefly clear up a political matter. DeSoto writes, “There has been a recent trend in online “reformed” community that has been aggressively attacking the presuppositional apologetic method as framed by Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen.  This is not a new discussion but it has resurfaced in an ugly, militant way that has caused much division (Not necessarily by Josh, but other classical onlyists).” I want to second Taylor’s allusion to my not being involved in this “ugly” segment of the discussion. I have tried to distance myself from that side of the conversation by way of charity and a desire to converse with rather than steam-roll over my opponents.

He says, “Sommer does not attempt to accurately handle the presuppositional method, and I will hopefully show that he has constructed a straw man. We’ll go through the article section by section and address the misconceptions and misrepresentations.” But, I do attempt to accurately represent the presuppositional method. He may not think I’ve succeeded, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t made an attempt. He also says, in light of the apparent obscurity of my article, “I can only speculate, since the article is intentionally unclear here.” This is not true, since I really did not intend to be unclear. My desire is to be as perspicuous as possible.

If DeSoto’s goal is to begin a fruitful dialogue, I do not believe that attributing dishonesty without support for such an allegation is the best way to begin a response article.

Evaluation of ‘Agreeable Presuppositions’

In my article, I begin with points of agreement between myself and the presuppositionalist. Taylor agrees with my first two points of agreement, but takes issue with my third. Here’s why, “Point 3 details that God created all things and that through God all meaning is derived.  This is where the article makes a slight deviation from the presentation of Romans 1 – rather than pointing to what the text clearly says, Sommer constructs a logical proposition that all men know God exists.”

The problem with this comment is that I wasn’t intending to give a presentation or exposition of Romans 1. I was simply mentioning the fact that both the classical apologist and the presuppositionalist agree on the fact that God is the first Cause, or if they do not like that language, we can use Van Til’s language which means the same thing––the concrete universal which accounts for all reality.[1] He then writes:

Sommer here claims that because things exist, there must be a first cause of those things. While this is true, and it follows logically, this is not the case Paul is building in Romans 1. The premises and conclusion have been constructed non-exegetically by Sommer. Though the reader can derive from the text as a good and necessary inference, it is not in itself what the text is saying.

I will allow my article in question to speak for itself:

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).

I wasn’t even coming close to making the first Cause argument. I just used the language of first Cause to point out our agreement on the necessity of God as that which ultimately accounts for all reality. DeSoto then goes on to give a quasi-exposition of Romans 1:18-23, but I will not respond to that in depth since I never claimed to give an exposition of that passage in the first place. I will just point out, however, that DeSoto, in his outline, conveniently fails to summarize v. 20. He writes:

  1. In verse 19, we see a fatal critique of the logic presented above, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.”
  2. Paul says that men “already know God” (v.21)
  3. Pauls says that these men, who already know God, suppress the truth in unrighteousness (v.18)

But v. 20 would be where I’d point out the discursive apprehension of God through nature since Paul uses language of a posteriori (contra a priori) knowledge of God through that which has been made. If I was giving an exposition of the passage, I would point out how v. 20 is an explanation of Paul’s claim in v. 19, that God has made that which is known about God evident to all people. How is this evidence given? Through that which has been made, says v. 20. And the word for “being understood through” (Gk. νοέω) literally means to perceive, consider, or think. The knower perceives the creation around them and indeed their own existence, the natural law written on their hearts, etc., and by virtue of those things, knows God. But this knowing is apprehended through something, it is not an immediate knowledge or a priori knowledge. It’s received through various created features, Paul says. This is not characteristic of an a priori presupposition, but rather of a conclusion in light of inescapable demonstration.

He concludes this section with saying, “In the second article of this series, Sommer makes this claim regarding apologetics, “The whole point in apologetics is to demonstrate the existence of this God!”  If the whole point of apologetics is to demonstrate the existence of God, but God has already shown this to them, what then remains to be accomplished?” Again, I’ll just let my previous words speak for themselves:

So, for the classical apologist, our arguments serve a two-fold purpose. We point out the foolishness of the unbeliever by pointing out how God’s world says something about God. On this point, the presuppositionalist would agree. They too engage in argumentation to expose the folly of the unbelieving thought process. But our arguments serve another purpose, to preach the book of nature to the unbeliever in hopes that God will show him or her their fault in rejecting the obvious.

I think, at least in this section, DeSoto really didn’t interact with my article at all. It almost appears that he’s trying to find places to disagree. But, even he’s partially admitted, the first section he critiques has everything to do with where we agree. He criticizes my understanding of Romans 1, but I never gave an exposition of Romans 1, so there was really no understanding to critique, other than the fact I used Romans 1 as proof text, in an effort to show we agree, at least in part, with what Romans 1 says.

Evaluation of ‘Disagreeable Presuppositions’

Let’s begin with quoting myself, the part of this section of my article he begins criticizing:

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).

To this he writes:

This is the most startling claim in the article, one that Charles Finney and most Molinists would be pleased to read, that the fall of mankind has not caused any interruption of human reason, and uses the philosophical term, “Propositional Reason”, to describe his perspective of how the presuppositionalist understands, “suppress the truth” in Romans 1. Propositional reasoning is when a person takes a proposition they know to be true, and yet fail to accept that proposition. Yet, the presuppositionalist does not claim that the text says that man has failed to accept the truth of P1: that God exists, but they actively suppress P1.  This is a subtle, but critical misunderstanding of the claims made by the presuppositionalist.

I’m not sure where he was going with his comparison with Finney and Molinism because he never explains it. But then he goes on to critique my use of “propositional reason.” First, I never used the term “propositional reason.” Second, I used the term “propositional knowledge,” which is just another way to refer to the objects of our knowing, content, if you will. We think in terms of propositions. The laws of logic are stated propositionally. “I love my wife,” is a proposition, “all bachelors are unmarried men,” is a proposition. That’s all I was referring to. It is my contention that babies do not have that kind of knowledge of God. This is why John Calvin, in Book I of The Institutes is keen to refer to our awareness of the divine as a sense rather than actual content (cf. my article on John Owen’s natural theology for more on this).

He then builds his further critique of this section of my article on a misunderstand. This misunderstanding is demonstrated when he writes, “Propositional reasoning is when a person takes a proposition they know to be true, and yet fail to accept that proposition.” That’s not at all what I was referring to, unfortunately. I fear, then, he spent a considerable amount of time critiquing something that wasn’t in my article after all.

He goes on:

Yet, through Sommer’s approach to the classical method, he claims that Paul is saying that only a person’s moral government has been impacted, and thus their reasoning remains intact.  The critical distinction that must be made here is that the presuppositionalist would say that the natural man’s reasoning is not entirely intact, yet it is intact enough to understand a wide array of things. The unbeliever can utilize logic, and yet suppress the framework that allows them to do so.

I agree that the reason is affected by the ethical rebellion of man against God. Man’s will is bound, this is the Reformed position, per both Luther and Calvin. However, it’s bound by man’s own sin, which is an ethical category rather than an epistemic one. Yet, because man is in ethical rebellion against God, he intentionally misuses his reasoning faculties to suppress rather than glory in the truth of God. In this way, every faculty in man, and parts of soul and body, are defiled. But it’s not as if man’s reason is involuntarily tainted and broken, therefore leaving him excuse. His reasoning is disabled precisely because he is in moral rebellion against God, in the first Adam.[2] But the framers of our Confession, for example, in claiming defilement of the whole man, does not mean to say there’s anything qualitatively wrong with our fingers or with our toes. Likewise, they do not mean to say man is unable to reason properly, but that all things things are enslaved to our sin nature. As DeSoto says, man can reason, but his reason is adversely affected by his ethical rebellion. We, perhaps, have more in common here than either of us may realize. Taylor goes on:

Now, one could potentially go into a transcendental, Prime mover or first cause argument here, but the atheist does not have to accept the aposteriori that God is the necessary conclusion.  They can chalk it up to some sort of singularity event, or another cause that is not necessarily a first cause. This is the absurdity of the natural man who suppresses the truth in unrighteousness, and the fatal weakness of the classical method in postmodern times.

Supposedly, a weakness in the classical method comes from how the unbeliever responds. But, I do not want to give the unbeliever that much credit. If I did, the same criticism can be given to the presuppositionalist side of things. I have heard atheists explain away the transcendental argument by admitting to full solipsism (their brain is in a vat, all of reality is illusory). We cannot evaluate the quality of our method based on the responses of rebels against God. For then the Gospel would have a poor reputation since it makes unbelievers mad and, more often than not, hardens rather than softens their hearts. It’s slightly concerning that DeSoto thinks our methods should change with the culture, but perhaps he means our approach should change, and that’s something classical apologetics is certainly capable of. The point of any argument against unbelieving thought is that it leaves them without a rational response. When the unbeliever denies the conclusion of the theistic proofs, they are lead to deny logic. Likewise, when they admit solipsism in the face of the transcendental argument, they have just given up all meaning and admit they even live inconsistently; as if meaning truly exists when, according to solipsism, it’s mere illusory. DeSoto writes:

Point 3 is most definitely the hardest to read coming from a Christian. Sommer states that while he recognizes God as the ultimate foundation, he rejects it as a metaphysical reality for all men, that it must be first shown as “an ontological and dogmatic assertion”.  The most heartbreaking claim in the whole article follows shortly thereafter:

“ 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”

Here, again, I will let my article do the talking:

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.

I’m by no means claiming that God is not a metaphysical reality for all men. Quite the contrary. God is the objective metaphysical reality for all men. But, I wanted to make a distinction between this ontological claim on the one hand, and the epistemic question of how one knows that, on the other hand. There is a careful distinction between ontology and epistemology that, as demonstrated in DeSoto’s own words, the presuppositionalists often fail to make. He says, “In other words, you do not need to know that God created everything to come to the conclusion that God created everything.” I’m not sure what this is supposed to means. To clarify, I mean that regardless of whether or not one knows God (all men do), in our argumentation we cannot assume the metaphysical statement, “God exists,” in order to demonstrate our conclusion, “God exists.” That is the petitio principii fallacy, or begging the question. He goes on:

This is consistent with his position throughout, that the natural man can indeed come to a knowledge of the true God utilizing his own reasoning, without first accepting the premise that God exists.

In our argumentation, we do not state that man knows God, since he will inevitably deny that knowledge. I believe all men know God, but for the sake of argumentation, I take his own claim, both that he does not know God and that he agrees that logic and sense perception are valid, and demonstrate to him how he cannot rationally get away from the fact, “God exists.” In argument, we do not affirm the consequent, or the conclusion, in our premises. That’s fallacious and leaves the unbeliever with an excuse to deny our line of reasoning. We do not want to leave the unbeliever any excuses by the end of our conversation.

Unfortunately, Taylor really only addresses about half the article and does not go into my discussion on Van Til’s metaphysic and epistemology in contradistinction to the classical views of either. Thus, for a full-bodied view, I’d recommend reading my original articles and those that follow it.

Conclusion

In conclusion, DeSoto writes:

A primary motivation for the presuppositionalist is to honor Christ the Lord as holy – we consider it antithetical to this position to reject the clear teaching of Romans 1, that God has made it clear to man that He exists.  Not only that, but they know He exists. The goal of apologetics is to defend the faith, and defend the only sensical worldview that God has shown us to be true in His Word. We can see in Sommer’s initial 3 agreeable presuppositions that he believes this to be true, and yet produces an apologetic that disagrees with his own presuppositions!  This is why many Presuppers view classical only apologetics a rejection of the reality offered by the scriptures – this is the way the world is, and God has shown us that to be true in His Word. That being said, the way that Sommer utilizes the transcendental argument is very presuppositional in nature.

One of the points I was making in my second article was that classical and presuppositional apologists do some of the same things. That is, we present proofs to the unbeliever. On that basis, it is illogical to argue against the classical method since all it does, essentially, is give proof for the existence of God which serves to point out the folly of the unbelieving position in hopes that God will use that as a means to draw sinners unto Himself.

But the chief means, Taylor and I both agree, is the Gospel––the power of God revealed for salvation, first to the Jew then to the Greek.


[1] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 17; f.n. 73.
[2] Cf. Chapter 6 in the Second London baptist Confession.

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