Archive for the ‘On the Classical Arguments’ Category

Paul Kjoss Helseth has written an excellent essay clarifying B.B. Warfield’s understanding, not only of the innate knowledge of God in all men, but also how Warfield applied this to apologetics.  From the essay:

man’s power of attaining truth depends . . . first of all upon the fact that God has made man like Himself, Whose intellect is the home of the intelligible world, the contents of which may, therefore, be reflected in the human soul; and then, secondly, that God, having so made man, has not left him, deistically, to himself, but continually reflects into his soul the contents of His own eternal and immutable mind – which are precisely those eternal and immutable truths which constitute the intelligible world. The soul is therefore in unbroken communion with God, and in the body of intelligible truths reflected into it from God, sees God. The nerve of this view, it will be observed, is the theistic conception of the constant dependence of the creature on God. ~ B.B. Warfield “Calvin and Augustine”, pg. 145.

Charles Hodge also taught that knowledge of God was innate.  His book “Theology Proper” is posted online.  From the book:

Those who are unwilling to admit that the idea of God is innate as given in the very constitution of man, generally hold that it is a necessary, or, at least, a natural deduction of reason. Sometimes it is represented as the last and highest generalization of science. As the law of gravitation is assumed to account for a large class of the phenomena of the universe, and as it not only does account for them, but must be assumed in order to understand them;so the existence of an intelligent first cause is assumed to account for the existence of the universe itself, and for all its phenomena. But as such generalizations are possible only for cultivated minds, this theory of the origin of the idea of God, cannot account for belief in his existence in the minds of all men, even the least educated. ~ chapter 1 sub-section: “The Knowledge of God is not due to a Process of Reasoning”. 

A Catholic has launched a typical criticism of Presuppositional apologetic methodology.1

See the article here: “Presuppositionalism: Fideism built on skepticism”.

The author of the essay claims to be a convert from Presbyterianism, not to mention, one with a PhD in philosophy from Saint Lewis University.  With that sort of background, I’m immediately curious why he didn’t interact with the primary presuppositionalist literature (Bahnsen, Frame, Oliphint, Anderson, or even Van Til himself), choosing instead to survey a handful of discussions he’s had with presuppositionalists of unknown pedigree.

While I don’t expect outsiders to know enough about the presuppositionalist community to get a feel for the circle of accepted orthodoxy on the subject, I do expect someone with the author’s background to (at least) interact with some of the relevant material.  To the author’s credit, he doesn’t flaunt his having been a Presbyterian as a proof of expertise on the subject (a good thing since he makes inaccurate claims).2

Instead of correcting all the little misunderstandings, I’d like to highlight three points the author raises, and briefly address them.

1.  Presuppositionalists are Cartesians. 

On a normal day, if someone accuses me of being a Cartesian, I simply shrug it off.  At least they’re not calling me a democrat, right?  There’s worse things I might be accused of.

But what does it mean to say we’re Cartesians?

1. Well, it might mean Van Tillians are disciples of Descartes.  Given all the criticism of Descartes presuppositionalists offer, however, that doesn’t seem likely.  Further, most people who consider the origins of Presuppositionalism trace it back to Kuyper, who was influenced by Kant (if by anyone).3

2. It might mean that, like Descartes, presuppositionalists sometimes use skeptical arguments.  If that’s what is meant, then – guilty as charged.  I’d only note that a large number of contemporary philosophers (e.g. Mackie, Putnam, DeRose, Warfield, Robert Stern, Alston, etc. etc.) would be surprised to find they’re “Cartesians”.  Calling a presuppositionalist “Cartesian” simply because he plays around with skeptical arguments, is needlessly pejorative and a novel way of slicing up the pie, especially since it would require most contemporary epistemologists to be classified as Cartesians.

3. It might mean that, like Descartes, Presuppositionalists appeal to a method of radical doubt as a way to discover some indubitable philosophical foundation from which to build a worldview.  In other words, we might be being accused of “Cartesianism” because we follow the same epistemological method as Descartes.  But anyone who knows about Presuppositionalism knows that we follow a completely different epistemological method – one that might be better called “transcendental” or “revelational”.

4.  What I suspect the author of the article had in mind is that Presuppositionalists are Cartesians, because, like Descartes, we posit God “right away” in our epistemology.  If this is all that’s required to make one a Cartesian, then everyone from Augustine and Anselm to Calvin and the Apostle Paul (*Edit* – and even God Himself, as my friend Cliff Peterson points out. See Genesis 1) are “Cartesians”…so we’re in good company.4

This leads to the second point though:

2.  Presuppers mix up the “order of being” and the “order of knowing”.

From the article:

The error is located in the very first premise, i.e. in the notion that theological assumptions or presuppositions lie behind every claim or position or theory or philosophy. Why do they think that?

Well, no one can offer us a single proposition (or belief, or whatever object they consider as a truth-bearer) that is true acontextually.  Acontextuality is required for “brute” factuality.  For example, consider the following proposition:

“I exist”.

Can this be known without reference to other propositions (ie: outside of a contextual relationship with other propositions)?  Well, we’d have to first know what an “I” is.  We’d have to know something about what it means to “exist”.  And let’s not forget, we have to know something about the relationship between subjects and their predicates.  So, “I exist” is not a proposition that is true in a void, without reference to other true propositions.  It is not a “brute” fact.

The author of the article implies that empirical sense data is free of theological or philosophical presuppositions.  In other words, it is data known “acontextually”.  But let’s consider a sense datum:

“I am being appeared to redly”.

Here, as in the case of “I exist”, we can already see the proposition necessarily includes many other propositions about the nature of an “I”, as well as the relationship between subjects and their predicates.

Even if all we had is an experience of red here, an experience of roundness there, a sensation of temporal sameness over there, as well as the taste of sweetness – it would take a handful of “presuppositions” (I dare say: theological assumptions) to get to the proposition:

“I am now eating an apple.”

John Calvin (in book 1 of the Institutes) was right.  Before we know anything, we must first know God.  If Descartes agrees, then so much the better for him.

3.  Presuppositions then the Bible?  Or the Bible, then Presuppositions?

Their confusion about empriicism leads these Classicists to a common question (raised by Dr. Howe in his discussion with Oliphint, also raised by Adam Tucker in the essay already cited, etc.):

If presuppositionalists can’t know anything at all without their presuppositions, and if they claim to get their presuppositions from Scripture, then how can they know Scripture?  Don’t they first have to rely on their sense perceptions in order to mine their presuppositions out of Scripture to begin with?

In response (and building on the great Dr. Bahnsen), we presuppers offer the following illustration:

We can breathe, long before knowing how lungs work, right?

It would be a mistake for someone to suggest we must have proper anatomical theory before being able to breathe.

In more philosophical jargon – Presuppers are “externalists” in our theory of justification.  The world simply is how we Calvinists believe it to be; it has to be in order for us to even argue for it in the first place.  We trust our sense perceptions, even before reading the Bible and discovering why we’re justified in trusting them.

Many people are justified in trusting their sense perceptions, without realizing they’re justified.  Some people try to make up sinful philosophical narratives to try justifying them (without success).

That’s why we need to be presuppositionalists instead of classicists; the former challenges the fallen presumptions of tooth-gnashing intellects, the latter coddles their fallen presumptions.  If anyone is a “Fideist” it’s those who have blind faith in the reliability of their sense perceptions!


1. I say “typical” because his line of reasoning is not new by any means. First, Van Tillians (since the dawn of Van Tillianism) have been wrongfully accused of fideism. In response, we typically highlight that fideism is loosely understood as belief without argument, and since we provide transcendental arguments, it’s simply incorrect to call us fideists. That this charge keeps circulating (without, as in this Roman Catholic’s case, even considering the wealth of responses to the charge) is deplorable. Consider Dr. Bahnsen’s contrasting of Van Til with actual fideists:

“Consequently it is not at all surprising that Van Til has been unfailing in his opposition to fideism, apologetic mysticism, and the notion that belief cannot argue with unbelief. He is highly critical of those who saw no way of harmonizing the facts of the Christian religion with the “constitution and course of nature. They gave up the idea of a philosophical apologetics entirely, This FIDIESTIC attitude comes to expression frequently in the statement of the experiential proof of the truth of Christianity. People will say that they know that they are saved and that Christianity is true no matter what the philosophical or scientific evidence for or against it may be… But in thus seeking to withdraw from all intellectual argument, such fideists have virtually admitted the validity of the argument against Christianity. They will have to believe in their hearts what they have virtually allowed to be intellectually indefensible.” Source.


Secondly, the charge that Van Tillians get our philosophical order mixed up is an argument that often crops up among Classical apologists. Adam Tucker (of Ratio Christi) argues similarly in his critique of Presuppositionalism. In a further exchange with me on Facebook, he reiterated his accusation that we get the knowing mixed up with the being. Much of what I say in this article will also apply to his criticisms. 

2. For example, he says:

“Presuppositionalists are typically highly suspicious of philosophy. See, for example, here. But true philosophy does not undermine the gospel, because truth cannot contradict truth.”

He links to an article by James Jordan – a presuppositionalist, sure, but certainly not a leader or innovator of presuppositional methodology. Further – Jordan isn’t suspicious of philosophy (as philosophy), rather, he follows Van Til, Bahnsen, and the others, in suggesting that it’s non-CHRISTIAN philosophy which needs to be critiqued. Dr. Bahnsen has preached entire sermons on this topic alone.  I’ve never heard a presuppositionalist suggest a different attitude towards philosophy. As a matter of fact, if anything, we’re usually accused of being TOO philosophical! (See Chris Bolt’s characterization of the presuppositionalist community). It’s simply false to say we are “typically” highly suspicious of philosophy.

3. See Muether’s excellent biography of Van Til. He spends the first few chapters laying out the historical pedigree of Van Til’s thought, explaining, in part, the theological milieu out of which Kuyper developed his “worldview” thinking.

4. It’s not my intent to get into a historical debate about how to interpret the work of these men.  Scripture’s teaching is all that matters at the end of the day. Still, for a defense of the Apostle Paul’s presuppositionalism, see this article for the relevant footnotes.

Something’s been on my mind lately:

As a Calvinist, and more specifically, as a Calvinist in the Van Tillian tradition, I can no longer endorse the “Intelligent Design” argument, most notably, Dr. William Dembski’s “Intelligent Design as a paradigm of information theory”.

To understand this, consider the following illustration:

An archaeologist finds mounds of dirt in the woods and wants to determine if they are the result of natural processes or human involvement (intelligent design). What is the standard by which he will judge the difference?

This is where intelligent design folks (like Dr. Dembski) step in. Calling themselves “design theorists” they want to study the differences between phenomenon that have been created randomly (either by chance, or by natural law), and phenomenon that have been created by intelligent design.

They compare the two, and decide that intelligently designed phenomenon have, what they’re calling “specified complexity” (meaning: the phenomenon has been created according to some improbable, specific, pattern).

All well and good up to this point, right? Even the rabid materialist, who cannot (for the life of him) allow a God to sneak into his explanatory theories, must admit that the Archaeologist, to do his job at all, must be able to distinguish between natural mounds, and man-made burial mounds (or between arrow heads and rocks that simply look like arrow heads). This sort of determination is found in many different fields of study, from archaeology to forensic investigations.

The problem is when the intelligent design advocate looks around him to the universe, and nature at large, to find this “specified complexity” (and thus: proof that nature, itself, was intelligently designed).

At first blush, this sounds exciting for the Christian. But after some initial thought on the matter, I have to reject it.

As a Calvinist, I believe (along with the Westminster Confession of Faith), that God foreordains “whatsoever comes to pass” – including, for instance, the path a particular river will take, or the motion of a leaf as it falls to the ground from a tree.

And no intelligent design advocate that I know of, has found “specified complexity” in the path of a river.

On my view, *EVERYTHING* is intelligently designed, even those phenomena that do not exhibit Dr. Demski’s (somewhat arbitrarily-chosen) characteristics of specified complexity.

So while I respect “intelligent design” as an information theory to inform us about second-order creation events (ie: the building of burial mounds or the making of arrow heads), I don’t think it can be coherently applied to nature at large.