In my previous post, I outlined four reasons we might accept the following proposition:

If Christianity is true, then Christianity is the only worldview that can successfully account for the preconditions of intelligibility.

In that post, my second (of the four) reasons for believing the proposition was that we could deduce it from Scriptural doctrines. I alluded to a theological argument from Van Til which I attempted to briefly outline elsewhere, though I admit the attempt was sloppy and off-the-cuff.

Westminster Seminary grad James Douglas Baird has written an excellent essay attempting to clarify Van Til’s doctrine of analogy. Fortunately for my purposes in this post, Baird spends the majority of the article outlining Van Til’s trinitarian theology and its subsequent ramifications for the doctrine of creation. While it wasn’t his main purpose, I think Baird provides an excellent overview of the sort of theological argument I had in mind.

Consider:

“If the Persons of the Trinity are representationally exhaustive of one another, human thought is cast on representational lines too. There would in that case be no other than a completely personalistic atmosphere in which human personality could function. Accordingly, when man faced any fact whatsoever, he would ipso facto be face to face with God. It is metaphysically as well as religiously true that man must live and cannot but live coram deo always.” ~ Van Til “Epistemology” 97, as cited in Baird (2015).

Baird offers us another, even clearer example from Van Til, where we get an analogy of the relationship between God’s nature and creation:

“God says that you live, as it were, on His estate. And His estate has large ownership signs placed everywhere, so that he who goes by even at seventy miles an hour cannot but read them. Every fact in this world, the God of the Bible claims, has His stamp indelibly engraved upon it. How then could you be neutral with respect to such a God?” ~ Van Til “Why I believe in God” cited by Baird (2015).

In short: Because God is who He is, He had to have created everything in a particular way. God “interprets” all created facts for us and if we do not strive to “think His thoughts after Him”, we will be unable to adequately perceive creation. Or, in more polemical terms: If Christianity were true, it would be the only worldview that could successfully account for the preconditions of intelligibility…our “transcendental premise.”

If anyone is interested in an article-length exposition of the theology required for this sort of argument, I humbly (though emphatically) direct you to Baird’s work (linked to above).

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

If, however, you are not the type for long articles and complex theological implications, I have something else for you! There is another theological argument we might use to prove the transcendental premise.

In another excellent article, this one written by Robin Barrett (2017), we find the following re-affirmation of our transcendental premise:

“The very essence of Van Til’s entire school of thought can be summed up in a single
sentence in his own words: “It is the firm conviction of every epistemologically self-conscious Christian that no human being can utter a single syllable, whether in negation or in affirmation, unless it were for God’s existence.” ~ in text citation from Van Til’s “Survey of Christian Epistemology” pg. 11

Barrett goes on to offer the following:

“In fact, if the Bible is correct that unbelievers are “without excuse” (Romans 1:20), then Van Til and Bahnsen must be correct in their position, because any person that holds to a perfectly reasonable and internally consistent worldview is not without excuse, for one cannot be justly faulted for adhering to truly rational thinking and truly rational conclusions. It would be an internal contradiction in the Christian worldview to say that a perfectly benevolent God gives humans the ability to reason and then punishes them for properly using that ability.”

Here we have another theological argument for our transcendental premise.

In short:

  • Unbelievers with a “perfectly reasonable” and “internally consistent” worldview, would have an “excuse” not to believe in God.
  • Romans 1:20 tells us that unbelievers are “without excuse”.

Ergo: Unbelievers have no appeal to a perfectly reasonable and internally consistent worldview.

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Consider the following proposition:

If Christianity is true, then Christianity is the only worldview that can successfully account for the preconditions of intelligibility.

Conditional statements like this pop up enough in formulations of transcendental arguments that they’re sometimes referred to as the “transcendental premise”, or, that premise of the transcendental argument which does the heavy-lifting. (1)

The above proposition, in some form or other, looms large over the presuppositionalist apologetic project, even if it is rarely stated out-right. Given the colloquial “on-the-street” nature of most presuppositionalist debates, formal logic is seldom produced. Nevertheless, when the presuppositionalist operates, the above premise bears on his method. Often, when this is realized by the non-Christian opponent, some account for why the presuppositionalist believes it is called for.

Why, exactly, do we (as presuppositionalists) believe the above proposition?

I’d like to offer four reasons, although I wont be able to fully argue for any of them. I hope this post acts more as a “program guide” for presuppositionalists who are called on to give an account for their belief.

1. We have the transcendental premise on direct authority from God. 

Here, I mean that we believe Christianity is the only worldview that can successfully account for the preconditions of intelligibility (however “successful accounting” may be plausibly construed), because it is directly revealed to be the case in Scripture.

In light of increasing debate about the Scriptural reliability of the presuppositionalist method (see my article “Bears vs. Sharks” for an example), we might expect this to be a controversial argument for our premise. Nevertheless, our position seems prima facie plausible given popular tradition in Christendom – Christ directly says no one gets to the Father except through Him, after all.

Additionally, presuppositionalists have our own Bible scholars and ever since Van Til admitted that he wished he had done more exegetical work to support his method, the gauntlet has been thrown and generations of his disciples have been laboring to fill the void.

2. We can deduce the transcendental premise from other propositions which have been directly revealed.

Here, I’m referring to Van Til’s theological argument for the exclusivity of Christianity (where by “exclusivity” I mean: an argument for Christianitys being the only worldview able to successfully account for the preconditions of intelligibility).

I offered an off-the-cuff formulation of the argument here, but the idea is that God can only act according to His nature. He cannot lie, cheat, or be unfaithful. In the same way, and on that same principle, He cannot create a world that is not a “reflection” (in some sense) of His nature. From there, it follows that only a Christian worldview, then, can successfully account for the preconditions of intelligibility.

The Van Til citations I used in that other post were slip-shod and I need to do the work of going back through his corpus and getting better citations. I think I can also provide a better logical formulation than what I offered.

…I hope if I drag my feet long enough, some other presuppositionalist may do that work for me. 🙂

3. We demonstrate the truth of the transcendental premise through repeated deconstruction of non-Christian worldviews.

The atheist howls about how intellectually deficient this is, but please note: we do *not* prove the truth of the Christian worldview by defeating Islam. We do not prove Christianity is true by defeating Hinduism. In the same way, we are unable to “prove” the truth of the transcendental premise by merely deconstructing non-Christian worldviews (that would be a text-book case of the affirming the consequent fallacy).

Nevertheless, “demonstrations” provide evidence for the truth of propositions. Flipping on my light switch and seeing my light come on, demonstrates the truth of my theory that there are wires leading from my switch to the light, but it doesn’t prove it. (My dad the prankster, could be hiding in the closet, flipping the light on and off by remote, while I am flipping a dummy light switch).

That non-Christians are unconvinced by this evidence and insist on skipping from one defeated non-Christian worldview to another, says more about their psychological state than it does the quality of the evidence we offer.

4. The transcendental premise is intuitive and “self-evident.” 

This is a cheeky move and requires us to accept some form of externalist epistemology. On that view, we could argue that if our mental faculties are properly functioning, we would automatically develop true beliefs about the necessity of God’s existence (and by extension: the truth of Christianity) for the successful accounting of intelligibility.

We have a history of doing this in America anyway (…we hold these truths to be self-evident…)

If “all men being equal” can be uncontroversially self-evident, then there’s no reason (theological or otherwise) that I can tell, why Gods having to exist for the successful accounting of intelligibility, can’t also be self evident, especially given a theological model that allows for such beliefs to be properly basic. (2)

 


 

(1): Consider A.W. Moore’s characterization of a typical transcendental argument in his essay “Conative Transcendental Arguments and the Question Whether There Can Be External Reasons”:

I.      P
II.    It would not be possible that p, if we did not think that q.
III.  We must think that q.
C:    It is true that q.

II in this argument is a type of “transcendental premise”.

 

(2): See James Anderson’s “Paradox and Christian Theology” for an attempt to relate justification of Christian doctrines to warranted true beliefs on an externalist model. Also, for a discussion of the transmission of warrant (from warranted true beliefs to deductions *about* warranted true beliefs and whether such inferential beliefs retain a warranted status), see Jessica Brown’s “The Reductio Argument and Transmission of Warrant.” in “New Essays on Semantic Externalism and Self-Knowledge” pg. 117.

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.

bvs

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.