Apologetic Venues

Posted: May 9, 2018 in General Presup Issues

The internet age has expanded the venue options for practicing apologetics. After having dabbled in all of them, I’ve come to believe it’s important for an apologist to have some experience in each. Of course, individual temperament, style, and skill level will largely determine which the apologist will be more comfortable with, but it seems valuable to have experience with all of them. In what follows, I’ll provide a brief survey and offer a few thoughts on the pros and cons:

Academic Forums: 

Out of all the venues, academic forums provide the best opportunity for the apologist to really get into the weeds of the arguments. One forum post could constitute multiple “pages” worth of argumentation. It’s public, so anyone could reply with a lengthy response, which would, in turn, require a lengthy rebuttal. This allows for the fullest, clearest, expression of competing positions.

Traditionally, one philosopher may publish a paper in a popular journal and, in a few months, may read a response in another journal. The academic forum dramatically speeds up this tete-a-tete, while also allowing for immediate peer-review feedback.

A draw-back, however, is the amount of academic rigor required. After all, not everyone uses their privilege of copious words for clarity, and often the apologist will find he must spend his time sifting through lots of verbiage to get to the heart of a criticism. He also must have sources readily available as off-hand allusions are unacceptable. This may require research before publishing.

Non-Academic Forums:

These are also forums but the participants usually exchange smaller posts, of a few paragraphs in length. These posts are usually much quicker and often constitute conversational type discussions. Sometimes, the forum moderators even limit the post so responses are forced to be short.

These venues are helpful since they force participants to focus their responses.

Blurb-Forums:

I’m thinking here of venues like Facebook or Twitter, where responses are very short and exchanges take place far more rapidly than they do, even in non-academic forums. Here, the apologist must focus on clever writing, talking-points, and sloganeering. This is a good thing for apologists, who are sometimes overly-verbose and need to learn to polish their material. However, it can be a bad thing if the apologist doesn’t have a clear idea of his own argument. He ought to practice in the academic and non-academic forums first, to really get the argument hammered out in his own mind, before moving to this more casual setting.

Chatrooms: 

Blurb-posting on steroids! This fast-paced exchange is incredibly fun and requires a great amount of skill. The apologist is in the position of having to boil down complex philosophical arguments into short one-liners. Very helpful overall, since it forces the apologist to think differently and focus on pragmatic presentations of his arguments. Unfortunately, this inevitably lowers the academic bar. Nevertheless, it’s important for an apologist to be able to perform well in this environment.

Real-Time-Media:

Here, I’m thinking of venues that do not utilize writing, but are primarily voice oriented (either over a mic or camera). Practicing in oral formats is vitally important for the apologist as they force him to work on his speaking ability and polish his presentation manner. As apologists, and as Christians more generally, we always might be called on to give speeches or address church audiences. Having oratory practice is vital for this. Learning your position so well you can rattle it off in front of an audience or during an over-the-mic debate is crucial to being a good apologist. Important, here, is learning how to deal with interruptions in a Christ-like way; not everyone who interrupts does so out of malice. It’s a human failing and we need to deal with it graciously. However, sometimes, a debate opponent may resort to “shouting down” the apologist, in which case, the apologist must be well-practiced in responding with grace.

On the Street:

At some point, the apologist steps out from behind the computer and confronts unbelievers in real life. In doing this, he’ll draw on all his skills developed in the previous venues. An apologist never knows what he’ll encounter when speaking to random people in real life, so he must have a good handle on all of his arguments, and he must have good oratory skills and be comfortable asserting ideas. Be it in a college dorm, pub, or on the sidewalk, these encounters are the traditional venue for Christian apologetics.

Formal Academic Debate:

At last, we arrive to the granddaddy of all venues, the ever mythic “debate”. The apologist finds himself behind a podium facing an unbeliever across a debate stage. He must offer the best and most direct versions of his arguments, and he must offer them in his most polished oratory. All practice in all other venues has lead to this moment.

…speak the truth, in love, and trust to your experience and to the Holy Spirit.

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When Reformed Epistemology is pitted against presuppositional apologietcs, I often think we’re asking a bear and a shark to fight each other. True, bears sometimes go to the water to interact with fish, and sometimes sharks interact with land mammals, but the two are, largely, in different domains of nature. Similarly, I believe the Reformed Epistemology popularized by Alvin Plantinga and presuppositional apologetics (popularized by Bahnsen et al) operate in different domains of discourse.

Most presuppositionalists see no conflict between the two, while most Alvinists don’t care enough about presuppositionalism to have relevant opinions.(1) The one prowls the forest while the other prowls the seas. Nevertheless, a recent Youtube video pits representatives of the two camps against each other in a debate fraught with almost as many conceptual problems as there were audio problems.

My heart goes out to the presuppositionalist in the video. He was an obvious beginner, yet had an excellent grasp of the heart of the method. Why the host thought he’d pair well with the Alvinists, who were obviously much more advanced in their respective areas of interest, is so glaring a question as to smack of dishonesty. But not only that, he allowed a 2-on-1 debate scenario. Do the “philosophically rigorous” Alvinists really need those sorts of stacked odds? None of the gentlemen displayed overtly disingenuous attitudes however, so I’ll bench these criticisms and only note that, while a beginner, I believe David’s simple grasp of the method and his performance in this debate exemplify, not only the truth of presuppositional methodology, but its power and usefulness for every-day apologetic encounters.

For my analysis of the debate, instead of going time-stamp by time-stamp, I’d like to boil down and evaluate the major arguments offered against presuppositionalism. Seems to me there were three main contentions:

Argument 1: 

The Alvinists suggest Presuppositionalism is not Biblical.(2) To support this, they offer a handful of irrelevant citations from scholars, none of which directly contest presuppositional exegesis. The mere fact that a Bible scholar is quoted doesn’t do the hard work of disproving presuppositionalism’s Biblical support unless the quote directly analyzes a presuppositional scholar’s interpretation of a verse. In that case, we’d have to determine which scholar had the better argument. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Ancient Hebrews may have understood certain passages differently than moderns would…ok. So what? It’s just left hanging out there as if it were a refutation, when it’s an irrelevant assertion.

Additionally, as Reformed Christians, we believe the propositions taught in Scripture are true, even if those reading the Scripture for the first time (or even those writing it) have improper or piecemeal understanding of what they’re reading.(3)

Argument 2:

The Alvinists argue that Presuppositionalism is somehow ineffective or unconvincing to unbelievers, especially those involved in degenerate sexual practices (for whatever reason).(4)

No statistical data was offered for this, so it seems the assertion rests on anecdote. My experience leads me to an opposite conclusion. The more force an argument for God’s existence has, the less willing an unbeliever is to entertain it.

At any rate, pragmatic concerns are of little value to the Christian who desires to stay faithful to Scripture and do apologetics in a Biblical way. We only need determine what the Bible teaches on the matter, then do it. We don’t need to evaluate if God’s desires are “pragmatic” or not

Argument 3:

The Alvinists seemed most excited about their claim that presuppositional methodology was “circular” and, therefore, somehow fallacious. Conversely, they offer an almost unintelligible account of different “levels” of circularity: “object” level and “meta” level. (5). This was intended to rescue Reformed Epistemology from charges of being “circular” while leaving presuppositionalists open to dismissal.

I don’t want to be too harsh here, but the characterizations of presuppositionalism offered by these Alvinists were nails-on-the-chalk-board cringy. I’m sorry, John Frame, nor any presuppositionalist, says: “the Bible is true because the Bible is true.” Or, “God exists therefore God exists”, or some other trite, obviously fallacious, equivalent. Seriously offering these characterizations is gross negligence of Christian duty to properly represent debate opponents.(6)

Say what you’d like about the strength of transcendental arguments, they’re not fallaciously “circular” as so many pop-level critics surmise. Imagine someone saying “You’re engaging in fallacious question begging, Kant!” If he could be so easily dismissed, I doubt any of us would recognize his name today. But just in case the critic of presuppositionalism is not convinced by academic authority, we offer the following modus tollens for consideration, and ask anyone to point out the fallacious circularity:

Prove A:The Christian God exists.

Step 1 ~A: (Assume the opposite of what we are trying to prove): The Christian God does not exist.

Step 2 (~A–> B): If God does not exist, then there is no intelligible experience since God is the precondition of intelligibility

Step 3 (~B): There is intelligible experience (Contradiction!)

Step 4 (~ ~A): It is not the case that God does not exist (Modus Tollens on 2 and 3)

Step 5 (A): –> God does exist (Law of negation.) (7)

I hope it is very clear that this is not an example of: “God exists, therefore God exists.” And while most “street-level” presuppositionalists do not offer a formal argument like this, they are, nevertheless, engaging in this program type. Usually, we spend the bulk of our time with “step 2” which could potentially take a life-time of work before a particular unbeliever is ready to move on to the other steps (it’s up to the Holy Spirit’s timing).

Additionally, we might turn the tables on the Alvinist here by noting that, on Plantinga’s view, even if a belief is warranted, it can still be rationally-justified (or not). Plantinga’s “Warranted Christian Belief” is a book-length attempt to rationally justify his beliefs about the warrant-status of his of God-beliefs, for example. Plantinga (and Alvinists accordingly) routinely offer arguments for the existence of God in the attempt to rationally justify God-beliefs which are also warranted.

To use the jargon of the Alvinists in this debate, they would have to engage in “meta” circularity (as much as any presuppositionalist) if they want to rationally justify any belief (even those beliefs which are, also, warranted).

Anyway, I didn’t hear anything from these proponents that makes me want to give up presuppositionalism, nor did I hear any criticism that was uniquely Alvinist in scope. The arguments offered here could have been (and often are) offered by anyone, even unbelievers. There doesn’t seem to be anything inherent to Reformed Epistemology that precludes us, as Presuppositionalists, from using Plantinga’s insights for our own apologetic purposes.


 

(1): There are obvious outliers and exceptions to both cases, of course. The Alvinists in the above debate are somewhat interested in presuppositionalism even though they reject it, while some hard-line presuppositionalists reject Reformed Epistemology, usually on the basis of its lack of Scriptural support.

(2): Around the 32 min. mark.

(3): See Daniel chapter 12 for an example of this.

(4): Around the 45 min. mark.

(5): The word “levels” here is a crude metaphor for a noetic phenomenon that was never explicitly stated. The Alvinists may have done better to stick closer to Reformed Epistemology on this point and suggest something like: non-inferential basic beliefs are generated by belief-forming faculties, then note that such a relationship is not the sort of thing that can even be “fallaciously circular” since fallaciousness and “circularity” are properties of arguments, not of extra-mental states of affairs. But then again, if they had offered something like this, it would no longer be immediately clear how they avoid the sort of epistemic circularity presuppositionalists describe.

(6): See 1.20 min. in for an example of this gross mischaracterization. Examples are replete throughout the debate. “God exists, therefore God exists.”

(7): See my article here for background information on who formulated this argument and why.

(As some of you know, Michael Butler provided a famous response to the so-called “Fristianity” objection. Unfortunately, many contemporaries seem to gloss over his response, or fail to understand the value of it. I encountered this so-often I decided to “weaponize” his response, so to speak. What follows, then, is my attempt at presenting a “Butlerian” styled response to the Fristianity objection, and flesh out a resulting implication).

“Fristianity” as an objection to presuppositionalism, arose in the late 90’s, although similar objections were being tossed around as far back as the 80’s. Even earlier objections of the same type were addressed by Bahnsen and Van Til from the very outset. For a brief, authoritative, rundown of the development of the objection, see David Byron’s recollections here. For our purposes, the “Fristianity” objection will be thought of as the positing of a hypothetically possible worldview that provides a counter-example to the presuppositionalist’s claim that Christianity is exclusively able to account for the preconditions of intelligibility. Philosopher Sean Choi says this:

“Fristianity has come to mean what it does precisely because in the course of offering a possible defeater to TAG, Fristianity was defined as a possible worldview that includes a quadrinitarian God.  Voila!” ~ pg. 264 “Reasons for Faith: Making a Case for the Christian Faith” edited by Norman Geisler and Chad Meister. (Emphasis, mine).

In the above citation, Choi posits that Fristianity is possible by definition, but that’s the very thing presuppositionalists contest!

Consider the following:

1.  If Christianity is true, then it is exclusive (all non-Christian worldviews are false and fail to account for the preconditions of intelligibility).

2.  Christianity is false.

3.  From 2, then Christianity may not be exclusive.

Conclusion:  The Fristian worldview might account for the preconditions of intelligibility.

———————————

As we can see, the conclusion only follows if premise 2 is true.

Fristian arguments must include a negation premise to operate, and this is something no Christian would be willing to grant, unless doing so hypothetically.  But there’s no reason to do so in this situation. Once this is realized, the Fristian must shift his efforts and try to demonstrate that Christianity, even if true, is not exclusive. He must attack premise 1.

Suppose he looks to Scripture and is able to demonstrate (exegetically) that Christianity is not exclusive?  Well, if he can demonstrate that, then the “Fristian” illustration becomes superfluous.  Consider the following:

1.  If Christianity is true, then it is *not* exclusive.

2.  Since Christianity is not exclusive, then some other worldview might provide the preconditions of intelligible experience.

3.  Fristianity is another worldview.

Conclusion:  Fristianity might provide the preconditions of intelligible experience.

If 1 is proven, then hypothetically-possible non-Christian worldviews need no longer be posited as it’s been proven (in principle) that they’re possible. There’d no longer be any need for positing “Fristianity” as a defeater for presuppositionalism. The entire illustration would be superfluous.

Anyway, it’s highly doubtful the “Fristian” advocates will be able to build a strong exegetical case that Christianity is not exclusive.  While it’s beyond the scope of this article to prove (from the text) that Christianity *is* exclusive, a few well-known verses should suffice:

Isaiah 44 – “I am the first and I am the last.  Apart from me, there is no God!”

John 14 – “I am the way the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Acts 4 – “…there is none other name under Heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.”

Galatians 1 – “…if any man preach any other Gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.”

There are other relevant passages as well.  It seems the Fristian would have to perform exegetical gymnastics to overcome the traditional understanding that Christianity is exclusively true. On top of direct exegetical arguments, Van Til, building on the doctrine of God’s Aseity, offers a theological argument for the exclusivity of Christianity.

If the traditional understanding of the relevant Scriptural passages holds, and if Van Til’s theological argument for exclusivity holds, then it seems the presuppositionalist is rationally justified in rejecting Fristianity, even if we’re not immediately able to suggest how it fails. This is, after all, the situation we usually find ourselves in as presuppositional apologists. We may not be Islamic scholars, for example, but we know that if Christianity is true, Islam will fail to provide the preconditions of intelligible experience somehow or other. Fristianity is no better off.

Some Reformed apologists who describe themselves as followers of Gordon Clark, suggest a new formula for knowledge (I’m thinking of Jason Peterson, a self-identifying “Clarkian”). The traditional formula for knowledge is the following:

Knowledge = Justified, true, belief.

I’ve seen Peterson suggest (in numerous places although I can’t recall any specifics), that this formula ought to be re-worked so that, instead, we have:

Knowledge = true, belief.

In this post, I’m not concerned with Jason Peterson specifically, nor am I concerned with getting into what counts as true expressions of “Clarkian” philosophy. Instead, I’d like to look at the above formula, as posed, and note that if we accept it, we’ll be obligating ourselves to a weird anti-realist metaphysic that almost no Christian – certainly not Reformed orthodox – ought to hold.

We’ll take the following belief as a test case:

“There is a book on my coffee table.”

Many who claim to be Clarkians do not want to grant that the above sort of belief also counts as knowledge. Since if it is known, it is known empirically, and since most Clarkians believe knowledge cannot be obtained empirically, the belief must not be knowledge.

Nevertheless, the belief is either true or false. When asked, the Clarkian might respond that we don’t have enough data to determine the truth value of the belief. Namely: we wont be able to figure out if the belief is true or false unless God directly tells us. Lacking this authoritative data, we simply can’t determine the truth value.

Even granting that, however, it seems the belief still has a truth value. It is either true or it is false. Let’s explore what might happen in either case:

If the Clarkian suggests the belief is true, then, given the formula “Knowledge = true belief”, he’ll have to say I know there is a book on my table. But he doesn’t want to say that. It would undermine the strong position he’s taken against empirical methods of acquiring knowledge.

If the Clarkian suggests the belief is false, then he’s saying there actually is *no* book on my coffee table. This is to make a very large metaphysical claim. It’s to say that the world is very different than how it appears to us.

He might try to avoid this dilemma.

He might want to keep the idea that the world is, for the most part, how it seems to be. But, he’ll add, we simply can’t know that it is one way or the other. In this case, he might suggest there is a book on my coffee table, I just can’t know if it is there or not. But that, unfortunately, is a violation of the proposed knowledge formula: “Knowledge = true belief”. If the formula holds, then if it’s true there is a book on the coffee table, and I believe it’s there, then I know it’s there. All that’s required for a belief, proposition, etc., to count as “knowledge” is that it simply be true. Consequently, all cases of accidentally true beliefs (eg: I believe there are two million craters on the moon, and surprise, surprise, scientists discover there actually are two million…), would have to automatically count as knowledge.

Another way the Clarkian might try to rescue a sane metaphysical view is by claiming that while I might know there is a book on the table, I don’t know that I know it until God reveals the true nature of reality to us.

While we Van Tillians have made it very clear people have the psychological ability to know a proposition without knowing they know it (Dr. Bahnsen’s thesis on self-deceit), what’s being suggested by our hypothetical Clarkian isn’t a mere psychological feat. What’s being suggested is that a person can know a proposition and not know the same proposition at the same time and in the same way; and, that doesn’t seem to work.

Best, by far, in my opinion, that if the Clarkian is going to insist on being a Clarkian, he not accept the simplified “Knowledge = true, belief” formula unless he’s also willing to defend radical metaphysical views.

Arguments from Authority

Posted: January 15, 2015 in General Presup Issues
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As presuppositionalists, we’re often accused of being … wait for it…

…wait for it some more because it’s an exhausting and played out argument…

“Circular” in our reasoning!

But of course we’re not.

Our theology is self-authenticating!  That doesn’t mean we commit logical fallacies nor are we irrational. As Christians, we make an ultimate appeal to authority, and that’s simply not “circular”.

Consider this excellent illustration:

Suppose we’re in a court room and the defendant swears he’s dead.

The prosecutor brings in an expert witness – a Doctor.

“Doctor, am I dead?” he asks.

“No, of course not. You’re alive!” says the Doctor.

“How about you, doc? Are YOU dead?”

“Of course not! I’m alive!” says the doctor.

Now imagine the defense attorney objecting.

“I OBJECT! The doctor’s authority does not logically extend to self-referential statements! He might have the authority to say if other people are dead, but he can’t say so about himself!”

Such an objection would be overruled. If the doctor really is an authority on who is alive and who is dead, then his statements about himself are as equally valid as his statements about others.  It’s the same way with God.  If God really is an authority on all things, then He’s also an authority on His own status as an authority!

Unbelievers may not like that we have a God who is powerful enough to authorize Himself, but that’s simply the nature of the Christian system.  I wouldn’t like it much either if I were trying to suppress truth with lies.