Archive for the ‘Reformed Epistemology’ Category


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.


From Dr. Bahnsen:

Alvin Plantinga is a brilliant philosopher.  He may not always do it the way I would do it, but no one can doubt he’s got a mind God’s given him, ok?  He’s a smart man.  Well read.

When I first met Alvin Plantinga I was still an undergraduate student of philosophy and he had come to my college to present some lectures and I had an opportunity for a few minutes, during a break, to talk to him.  I brought up the name “Van Til” to get some kind of idea … “where are you coming from about this? What value do you see in it?”  And Plantinga … (he didn’t wave his hand – he was very polite and everything) but he basically said that since Van Til’s apologetic requires me to think that unbelievers can’t know about the digestive tract of a lion, then I just don’t see that this is realistic or practical at all.

I said – well, what makes you think that about Van TIl?  He says, well, Van Til says the unbeliever can’t know anything.  And we know that unbelievers know things. 

Well, that’s sad isn’t it?

Now I’m not giving you a chump illustration here; I’m giving you a pretty smart guy.  Well he hasn’t read Van Til or bothered to understand it.  Van Til doesn’t say unbelievers don’t know things; he says they *couldn’t* know things if their worldview were true.  ~ 20 min. in to lecture 16 of the seminar on Transcendental Arguments

One of the pressing questions in contemporary Presuppositionalist conversations is how Van Tillians are to take the work of Alvin Plantinga and Reformed Epistemology.  And as one of Presuppositionalisms greatest proponents, Dr. Bahnsen’s views on the matter are interesting, if a bit enigmatic.

It would be great if we had a lecture series from Bahnsen formally dedicated to expounding on Plantinga in light of Van Til.  Instead, we are left trying to either piece together his view from off-hand statements in many of his lectures, or from what his friends (like Michael Butler and John Frame) have said about Plantinga.[1]

Dr. Bahnsen makes many off-hand statements concerning Plantinga throughout his lectures and I can’t re-post them all here.  But one in particular is interesting (and a bit humorous) because it hints at how Bahnsen may have seen Plantinga’s work in the context of a Presuppositional apologetic.  What follows is from lecture 6 of “Michael Martin Under the Microscope”, starting at about 9:40.  I’ll provide footnotes for contextual clarity (when needed):

So yeah, he [Michael Martin – AD] does consider Plantinga.[2]  Though Plantinga’s not a transcendentalist, those elements of presuppositional function that you see in Plantinga or you see in Wittgenstenian fideism he [Martin – AD] never puts into a transcendental position.  In fact, you’ll notice:  he dismisses both Wittgenstein and Plantinga ultimately on the same grounds, that they reduce to relativism.

Here’s my comeback:

I’m not a fideist as he’s interpreted it and I’m not a full-fledged Wittgensteinian and I’m not a full follower of Plantinga, but you know, they *could* defend themselves.  They could say “Ok, our approach to religious epistemology or language reduces to relativism.  And your worldview affirms relativism, so no problem!”[3]

You see, it’s at that point he’s going to say “I’m no relativist!”  And that’s when Dr. Van Til steps forward and says, “…now listen.  Plantinga, sit down!  At this point we need to get beyond what you’re doing and now talk about transcendentals.

I realize Martin will claim he’s not a relativist, but my challenge is, you can’t make sense of your objectivism.  Given your worldview you should be a relativist, and if you are or should be a relativist, then you shouldn’t complain when Plantinga or Wittgenstein turn out to be relativists![4]

You see – it’s always a matter of taking what the unbeliever gives you and choking him with his own theory.



1.  See Michael Butler’s lecture series on Epistemology available from Covenant Media; he directly interacts with Reformed Epistemology from a Van Tillian perspective.  Also, see John Frame’s appendix on Reformed Epistemology in “Doctrine of the Knowledge of God”.  Also – consider James Anderson’s use of Plantinga’s “warrant” model in “Paradox and Christian Theology”.  Anderson’s work is probably the best place for a presuppositionalist to begin when trying to understand how to appropriate Plantinga’s work into a Van Tillian framework.

2.  In his critique of Michael Martin, Bahnsen notes that the most important argument for Christianity (TAG) is never addressed.  Thus, Bahnsen goes through Martin’s material and finds arguments against Christian positions that come closest to a Van Tillian presentation, even if they’re not quite transcendental.  In this case, he’s noting that Martin has some criticisms of Plantinga and will demonstrate that Plantinga can simply presuppose Martin’s position to escape the charge of relativism.

3. One of the critiques of Plantinga’s epistemology is that it reduces to relativism and fideism.  This charge is contested by followers of Plantinga.  Dr. Bahnsen is no-doubt aware of this discussion and should not be understood here as endorsing one side of the debate or the other.  All he’s saying is that Plantinga COULD, for the sake of argument, accept being called a relativist because on Martin’s view, there’s nothing wrong with relativism – or at least, Martin accepts relativism sometimes but other times wants to deny it.

Still – it is popular to characterize Plantinga (and externalist theories of justification) in such a way that the application to Van Tillianism has a surface-level plausibility when applied in the way Dr. Bahnsen does above.

4. In earlier lectures, Michael Martin’s implicit advocacy for a sort of “relativistic” epistemology was highlighted.  I’d like to make a plug here, that the entire “Michael Martin Under the Microscope” series is well worth the time and money.