Mad Hatters vs. the Sye Clones (A Turf War?)

Posted: September 1, 2014 in General Presup Issues
Tags: , , ,

I’ve been asked to comment on the recent spat between some of the authors of the Choosing Hats blog and some of Sye Ten Bruggencate’s friends.  The parties involved claim to be Presuppositionalists in the Van Tillian tradition so the debate (such that it is) falls within the subject matter of this blog and warrants a brief analysis.1

Personalities and pride (all too often) play an unproductive role in discussions of this sort, so it’s not my intention to speculate about motives, point fingers, or exasperate turmoil on either side.  Instead, I’d like to focus on some of the formal critiques of Sye Ten Bruggencate’s presentation.

Blogger RazorsKiss from Choosing Hats wrote an article critical of Sye’s method called “Dear Sye.” 

Below, I’ll summarize his most interesting critiques and briefly analyze them:

1. “You cannot reduce something complex to a rote, scripted affair.”

RK, here, seems to suggest Presuppositional Apologetic methodology cannot be presented as a series of propositions or talking-points.  Presumably, he means to implicate Sye’s notorious “script”; Sye will ask the same series of questions to a range of diverse people, getting the same answers repeatedly, always looking for the same “gotcha” moment.  Regardless of whom he’s speaking to, he follows this same (or roughly the same) series of questions.2

But from all appearances, it seems Sye Ten Bruggencate *has* managed (or has memorized the talking points of others who have effectively managed) to “reduce” a complex system of theology into a “rote, scripted affair”.  RK might not like *that* it has been done, but he doesn’t seem warranted in suggesting that it *can’t* be done.

Further – Dr. Bahnsen (an accepted authority among most Presuppositionalists) sets the precedent for this sort of “reduction”, not just in his lecture work (which is often directed at colloquial audiences with the aim of instructing them how to reproduce a complex transcendental method in their daily walk), but in his explicit statements:

…it sounds like this [apologetic] approach can only be done by philosophy majors.  Maybe some of them even struggle with it.  I want to tell you from my heart that if that criticism were true, it would be devastating.  But I also don’t believe it’s true….is what we’re teaching our children flawed because it doesn’t have all the complexity, sophistication, and depth of a seminar on the Trinity?  Get my point?  The same truth is subject to communication at different levels of sophistication and intellectual maturity.  But it’s the same truth.  And it’s the same method.  ~ 1:12:00 into Lecture 16 of the Transcendental Arguments seminar.

In opposition to this, RK offers anecdotal opinions and fiat declaration.  Apparently, so-reducing the method is not “remotely useful”, is a “barrier to conversations”, and important issues are “lost among the scuffle”.

While it certainly is the case that one’s presentation (from attitude, to personal hygiene) can affect the outcome of an apologetic exchange, it’s not at all clear that we can make categorical declarations about these things.  God can (and has) used bad arguments and bad apologists to do great things, after all.  Unless RazorsKiss wants to give us Scriptural data to support his ethical propositions or otherwise justify his categorical claims here, it seems we can reject them as uninteresting.

2.  Sye presents an incomplete apologetic.

I’m not really sure how Sye is offering an incomplete apologetic.

The only clue we get from RK is in the form of an ambiguous analogy about a stained glass window.  Sye “shatters” the beautiful Van Tillian window into “shards” then “uses a particularly pointy one to stab his opponents with”.  In an effort to keep the method simple, Sye has anthropocentrized it, “forcing those who follow it to contort every discussion into one about epistemology”.

The “anthropocentric” accusation seems needlessly pejorative and isn’t explained very well, so I’ll set that aside as uninteresting.  I’m more interested in the claim that Sye, by always raising epistemological objections, is somehow offering an incomplete apologetic.

By way of critique: the accusation seems simply false.  Both times I’ve met Sye, he’s spoken about a wide range of issues.  The same is true when he teaches (a quick browsing of his website will provide the necessary examples).  Mimicking the great Dr. Bahnsen, Sye repeatedly focuses on the “worldview” nature of apologetics, and the importance of global theological propositions.  So RK’s critique here seems empirically false both about Sye’s personal conversations and his public ministry.

But further – it’s impossible to offer a Van Tillian transcendental challenge *without* having the entire theological corpus implicitly in mind.  To stick with RK’s analogy, it’s impossible to build up to a whole stained-glass masterpiece, shard-by-shard.  If you want to stab someone with it, you have to pick up the entire masterpiece, and, I don’t know, maybe slice at them?  (The illustration is hard to imagine at that point).

Unless RK wants to argue that Sye has rejected the Van Tillian enterprise all together, then he must admit that Sye is (at least implicitly) relying on the entirety of the Christian worldview when he argues.

3. Sye is a loose canon.

On this criticism, I agree with RazorsKiss 100%; only, I’d add that he is too.

He claims the guys who write for Choosing Hats hold him intellectually accountable but that doesn’t seem to be enough to help RK grow, nor is it helpful to all the presuppositionalists who don’t write for Choosing Hats.

To fix this, we need a fair-minded, non-dogmatic web forum, where Presuppers can get together, rub elbows, and fight each other to the intellectual death over issues (something like the old Van Til reading list perhaps).  But it has to be run by those who understand the need for free flow of ideas, assertive debate, and who are of a mind to allow thoughts to work themselves out naturally.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a venue run by Evangelicals where the heavy-hand of censorship doesn’t threaten to stifle intellectual growth.  If our ideas are true and worthy, then we ought to be able to defend them in a forum of our peers without resorting to censorship.

If this “scuffle” has taught us anything, it’s that we Van Tillians desperately need some form of peer-review process.  Let Sye and RazorsKiss wade into the milieu; see if they survive and earn respect through rigorous argument.


1.  God willing, I will not be throwing fuel on any fires here. Frankly – I feel the entire scuffle is beneath the caliber of the men involved. Nevertheless, I’m braving commentary in the hopes my main points will be helpful to the Presuppositionalist community at large. I pray I’ll do more good than harm.

2. For a good example of Sye’s script, see American Vision’s preview for the “How to Answer the Fool” documentary.  Sye has the same set of go-to questions, ie: how do you know? What is truth?  What is your ultimate standard?  See here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MM1AWO92Crc

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Comments
  1. Tony Jiang says:

    commenting presupposes Christianity? did you just presuppose that?, anyways so a you a big fan of Sye?

    Like

    • Aaron Dale says:

      Tony,

      I’ve been trying to figure out how to answer your first question.

      I think you’re asking if I’ve arbitrarily assumed linguistic acts (like communication in comment-sections) are only possible within a Christian metaphysical framework. If that is what you’re asking then no, I haven’t arbitrarily assumed this position.

      I’m not sure how familiar you are with Van Tillian apologetic methodology, but it proceeds via a global-in-scope transcendental argument rather than by arbitrary assumptions. I invite you to read the articles posted on this blog to get a better feel for the method.

      As for my opinion of Sye, I’m not sure if you’re asking me about his personality, his apologetic presentation, his ministry, or what. Regardless – I don’t see how my personal opinion would advance the topic of this particular post and so I withhold comment. I hope you understand. Instead, I’d like to stay focused on the arguments in question (in this case – the formal critiques of Sye’s method).

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      • Tony Jiang says:

        “I think you’re asking if I’ve arbitrarily assumed linguistic acts (like communication in comment-sections) are only possible within a Christian metaphysical framework. If that is what you’re asking then no, I haven’t arbitrarily assumed this position. ”
        dont worry i know that there is no way you can have such a simplistic and infantile system to defend your religon, it was more of a joke then anything else

        what i am asking about Sye is about his apologetic presentation and his ministry,what do you think of it? there is a reason why in athiest circles he is commonly known as $$$ye

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  2. Tony Jiang says:

    by that i mean what do you think of critisims of Sye and his methiods?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aaron Dale says:

      Well, this blog is a response to one of the criticisms of Sye’s method.

      Sye, as far as I can tell, is squarely within the Van Tillian tradition and I’ve never seen him deviate from it.

      I suppose I’d have to take criticisms as they come, one by one, to see what merit they have.

      Like

  3. RazorsKiss says:

    Just out of curiosity, is there a reason you responded to the intro post, instead of the multiple followups? The initial post, of course, has a context. I have, of course, also responded to the gist of your critiques in the followups, as they seem to be the same issues that every other critique raised. Just a thought to consider. I had a long exchange with Mike Robinson toward the end of the controversy, which I particularly recommend as to the particulars of my disagreement.

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    • Aaron Dale says:

      If you have new, or more biting criticisms of Sye’s methodology elsewhere that you’d like me to critique, feel free to link me and I’ll take a look.

      Additionally – if you think I’ve misrepresented you in anyway, please don’t hesitate to correct me.

      Like

      • RazorsKiss says:

        I wouldn’t say they were new, or more biting – but they were posted within days of the initial post. The followup was posted the day after the post you looked at, entitled “The Shattered Stained Glass Window”, where I explain the very thing you mentioned – and I once again point you to the post “A Necessary Distinction”, wherein I replied to Mike’s Robinson’s critique of the initial post, which had many of the same misunderstandings you list above, and was posted on May 31st. The podcast, covering largely the same issues, was posted on June 9th. Further, it must be pointed out that the post in question was, of course, posted on Choosing Hats – where I have a great deal of material which should be considered contextual for the post you seem to lament as vague. Including several discussions, most via podcast, of exactly the same sorts of errors I find in Sye’s methodology. If I was (and I was) referring to points which I have repeatedly made, over years, I don’t think it is fair to consider what I posted apart from that context. If you look at just about anything you read apart from the body of that author’s other work, you might consider that work “vague.” What I’m trying to point out is that it isn’t worthwhile to do so – especially when that context is mere clicks away. Of course, if you believe that every post should be considered separately, I can only seek to dissuade you from such an idea. I will be especially blatant here, though, and inform you that the post you examined was, intentionally, introductory for the following post. It was also intended to draw out acontextual criticism, in order that the criticisms might be addressed – as I am addressing yours now – by reminding those critical of the post apart from the context of it that I am not speaking from a vacuum, but from a very particular context, emphasis, and series of discussions related to the very issues I brought up in my series.
        Thanks,
        JW

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        • Aaron Dale says:

          Thanks for the reply.

          I’m less interested in your opinion about contexts and more interested in your arguments against Sye’s methodology, which (by my estimation) is squarely within the Van Tillian tradition and unproblematic.

          In any of your articles do you lay out a clear, formal case against some aspect of Sye’s method where you think he’s erred or is otherwise intellectually not up to snuff? And is that argument different from the one/s you made in your initial post?

          If not, then I don’t see the need for further comment.

          ———————

          That said, I’d note (by way a personal observation) that I think you have the right “attitude” in this fiasco, at least as it pertains to the need for oversight. Of course, oversight isn’t as important for lay apologists, but when someone of Sye’s caliber makes a very public business of apologetics, there needs to be more accountability (not just for the sake of correcting Sye, but for the sake of supporting him logistically as well).

          What do you make of my overall point (which I see as the most important of my entire post), that the Presuppositional apologetics community needs an open forum (light on censorship), for the public hashing out of our ideals, with a mind towards forwarding and growing our collective understanding?

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          • RazorsKiss says:

            The initial post, of course, was not intended to make arguments. It was addressed to Sye, specifically. As I have said repeatedly to him, and to others, I was referring to a number of issues that both I and other contributors to the site had called to his attention previously. Those who are familiar with his work and ours should, at least, be aware of significant differences in our respective approaches. The post you are critiquing, if you possess the context of those previous discussions, is quite obviously referring to particular incidents. Those, of course, are known by and to Sye. I am referring to the follow-up posts repeatedly because they are quite explicit in making the specific arguments concerning his methodology. The initial post, if Sye reacted poorly to the call to repentance, was not intended to be standalone, nor is it wise to consider it as such.

            The following post lays out what I consider faulty with his methodology, where it departs from Van Til, and why I have, and will continue to raise, objections to it. The third post I mentioned is a direct response to a much, much longer critique of the same post. It explains what is being referred to, in many respects, although it is not exhaustive. Unlike Sye, or his friend Marcus, I am not concerned with airing the specifics of interpersonal dirty laundry. My issue is his method, and I laid the issue out fairly comprehensively in two posts, which I have already referred you to. It isn’t a matter of my “opinion” on context – it is a matter of the author telling you his own intent, and the meaning of his own words. I am saying that your post almost exclusively misinterprets what I intend, because you don’t know what I am referring to. That is unavoidable in certain places, because only a few people do know. Since I have no intention of airing dirty laundry, either, you probably won’t.

            That aside, perhaps my attempt to be politic on your site is caused a lack of clarity previously. You are responding to a post which was intentionally somewhat vague, because it was a direct address to a certain individual involving some issues to which I could not directly refer, but which are known to him. That particular post has been criticised multiple times, and I have no doubt people will continue to do so. However, I have had not a single response to the post intended to offer substantive, specific critique of his method, nor has the post responding to criticism had any response – save a very positive agreement from _the person to whom the rebuttal wax addressed_. The facts I have outlined above have all been stated publicly, by me, and would have been accessible, had you done a bit more research into the controversy. In fact, I am the only party who has made public statements on the issue – and I have done so at length. I am not asking for further comments from you. I am suggesting further reading on your part. It seems rather strange to comment on a single post, months later, and fail to recognize that a great deal of further comment was made, and that the particular piece you are addressing has had a great deal of exploration in the succeeding days and weeks. If you are unwilling to read these things, that is your own prerogative, of course. It might explain a great many things that I can assure you that you are mistaken about, when you deal with this post. I hope you excuse this comment’s length, but you seemed to have misunderstood my earlier comments, as well. I have a reputation for being pugnacious, I know, but I am not interested in still more controversy. I am trying to point out, as you requested, where your article is mistaken. It is mistaken in that you are dealing with the wrong article – and I have said as much to several previous critics. If you want the specific critique, see the following post, the next day, and then see the response to Mike Robinson, which expands it even further.

            I hope you will excuse one last suggestion, on my part. If, as you say, you enjoy our work, consider extending the benefit of a careful examination of the issue you are addressing. It often is more harmful than helpful to opine on something one takes in isolation. One thing I strive for is consistency in my study, and in my teaching. If you think I say something not in accordance with what I say elsewhere, couldn’t that be a sign that there may be an issue with your understanding of what I said? It was for this precise reason that we waited for a rather long while to confront Sye. The format of his contributions makes research and understanding of his position difficult. I would be more than happy to explain the issues I have via Skype or somesuch – but as I have tried to say, the easiest way to do so is to read two posts.
            Thanks,
            JW

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  4. Aaron Dale says:

    What I’m interested in getting from you are a few premises and a conclusion, preferably ones which are somehow relevant to Presuppositional methodology as Sye uses it.

    If you’re unwilling to state your case (for whatever reason), and if you’re unwilling to tell me how I’ve misrepresented your position, then there’s not much I can do by way of analysis (and you certainly want all the analysis you can get, right?)

    Also – I asked you a direct question in my last response. Please consider answering it.

    Like

    • RazorsKiss says:

      Or, you can just read it, like I suggested. Or not. If you insist on me repeating something you could have read for yourself before even writing this post, and insist that I do so in your comment section, I respectfully decline, as I have already spent a great deal of time on the matter, and explaining what you requested I explain. I don’t understand your insistence, and I don’t care to spend any more time pointing you to the answer to the question you asked. If you won’t read, I don’t see any advantage to an analysis from such a source. Thanks for your time.

      Like

      • Aaron Dale says:

        So, somewhere on the web, buried in multiple articles, comment-section posts, and perhaps even a Facebook exchange, lies your argument against Sye’s methodology….which is so long, it cannot be simply and quickly re-hashed here.

        I think you should re-hash it here. That will give you the chance to work on clarity and succinctness. As a Christian apologist, I’ve had to repeat the same argument multiple times, across many different venues; and, while I know it can be frustrating, we should thank God for the chance to spread our insights in multiple ways, to multiple people.

        Also, I’m to understand that I have misrepresented you somehow. Well, that’s good. To be honest, I wouldn’t want the arguments (that I’ve responded to in the post) attached to my name either. I’m glad you’re disassociating yourself from them.

        If you ever do decide to succinctly and clearly state a formal case against Sye’s methods (which, in my view, are squarely within the Van Tillian tradition, even if they could use polishing in some areas), I may take the time to respond to them.

        Until then…

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  5. RazorsKiss says:

    As to your last point, I don’t see that as a positive development, nor do I believe such informal convocations have a good track record. Until we are a lot more serious about defining this methodology confessionally, I don’t see any practical, let alone spiritual gain to be had from the typical experience to be found in such a loose conglomerate of ideas. The only thing I can think of in that vein is the Van Til list. Finding gold in that archive is a strenuous and discouraging process, at best. Perhaps I am just cynical in my old age, but I view with trepidation any group of the sort for the sheer chaos involved. Just my two cents.

    Like

    • Aaron Dale says:

      I think there’s a relevant analogy to economics here.

      When you have 20 oligarchs trying to control the economy, they inevitably fail.

      In a free market, on the other hand, you have diversification and specialization – and what happens is, the entire society lends a hand. It’s a far better model in terms of quality and productivity. The same is true for the development of Van Tillian theology, in my view.

      Like

      • RazorsKiss says:

        We seem to have different ideas as to the practice of theology. I really don’t have any desire to participate in such a project, especially given your comparison. Thanks again for your time, and with no ill-wishes, despite our apparent disagreement.

        Like

        • Aaron Dale says:

          No problem, and I look forward to sifting through all your writing to find an argument against Sye’s methodology (which, in my view, is squarely within the Van Tillian tradition, and unproblematic).

          Like

          • RazorsKiss says:

            I find it strange that you insist that you have to “sift through all my writing” for the argument I have told you, multiple times, is in the post The Shattered Stained Glass Window. I will be addressing this in a post. I have also said that it is expanded upon in the post A Necessary Distinction. Why you continue to insist on me reproducing such things in your comment section when I have referenced them multiple times – and why insist on both mischaracterizing my comments here, as well as those of the initial post, especially when corrected on the issue, is quite beyond me. As you don’t seem to find it necessary to treat my statements carefully or accurately in your comment section, I will deal with yours on the site. The post may or may not be up tonight. My free time is quite circumscribed, given the hours I work, and I will probably run this post past the other contributors as well – but I will try to have it up speedily, as I quite dislike misrepresentations, even those of ignorance, from those I consider to be my Christian brother. I sincerely hope that you are truly unaware of how poorly you are reading my comments, and I hope it may serve to correct the misapprehensions you seem to be laboring under. I thought, until your last comments, that you were merely lazy, and didn’t want to do the reading yourself. I now believe you truly are not understanding what I am saying in the slightest. I can’t attribute your last two replies to any other cause. As such, I will try to explain further. As you may know, I detest comment sections. They contribute, in my opinion, to overly hurried perusals of the statements of others. They too closely mimic a conversation, while lacking any of the advantages a conversation brings. So, here’s hoping the post clarifies matters.

            Like

  6. Aaron Dale says:

    Consider the following proposition:

    “Aaron is not an ideal person”.

    How does this amount to an argument that Sye’s methodology is faulty or not intellectually up to snuff?

    Like

  7. RazorsKiss says:

    Before I get too invested in this – I have a question for you. Do I know you under another name? This can stay unmoderated – this is just a personal question from me, and I don’t have another contact for you. Scott Terry, perhaps?

    Like

    • Aaron Dale says:

      I can’t see how that could possibly help you articulate your argument against Sye’s methodology.

      Please state your argument, or tell me how I’ve misrepresented you.

      Preferably do both.

      Like

  8. RazorsKiss says:

    It doesn’t. It does explain why you’ve been so systematically obtuse, however. It also explains why this appeared on September 1st. We both know why you’re making this an issue now, too, don’t we?

    Like

    • Aaron Dale says:

      I hate to do this, but I’m going to have to insist that you focus. I’ll give you one more chance to say something relevant to the topic, preferably, you tell me your argument (or arguments – as the case may be), or maybe do me the courtesy of telling me how I’ve supposedly misrepresented you.

      If you don’t, then I’m going to proceed as if you have no relevant methodological or formal criticisms, and that the entire “turf war” must be dealt with pastorally.

      Like

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