Posts Tagged ‘Bahnsen’

(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.

(**UPDATE**… Glenn Peoples has replied to this post in the comment section, insisting that I’ve misunderstood his statements somehow.  I’m not clear on how I’ve misunderstood him, so I haven’t changed my post.  Still – let the reader be aware that I may be critiquing a straw-man. — A.D.)

I like Glenn Peoples but I think he’s a little presumptuous sometimes.1

His podcast “Say Hello to my Little Friend” is enjoyable and helpful to me as a Christian apologist.  From time to time he even says positive things about Van Til.  Unfortunately, he has a few criticisms as well2; one being that Van Tillians are cliquish.

Well Glenn Peoples, I’m not cliquish, but I’m not willing to allow that you’re a “presuppositionalist” either…at least not in the popular sense.  Anyone, even secular philosophers, can look at their opponents’ assumptions and investigate whether they’re consistent with the proposition being contested.  That doesn’t mean they’re presuppositionalists.  It just means they’re good philosophers.  The Van Tillian wants to go a step further and say that *only* Christian assumptions will be consistent with *whatever* proposition is being contested (and also the only assumptions consistent with the proposing of it).

In podcast 011, “What is Presuppositional Apologetics?” Peoples suggests that Van Til *never* presents an argument for this.  Consider his words starting at 42 min:

“Van Til believed that he had a silver bullet.  He didn’t have to, so he thought, tackle non-Christian worldviews one at a time and show that they lack the necessary basis for intelligibility.  He thought that the argument just outlined did show that for all non-Christian worldviews.

How exactly did he argue that his transcendental argument achieved this?  Well here’s where things get frustrating.  He never really explained exactly how his argument showed this.  He uses the term “Christian theism” in his arguments like in the quote you just heard, he talked about the Christian theistic point of view, but he never justifies that limitation.  He never justifies saying that it is Christian theism alone that provides the necessary grounding here….no where in any of his writings or the writings of Greg Bahnsen for that matter, will you ever find an argument for the claim that *only* Christianity could ever supply these things.”

While I don’t blame Peoples for not being a Van Til scholar, I do blame him for making these sorts of categorical claims without scholarly support.  As a matter of fact, Van Til (and Dr. Bahnsen as well, but I’ll focus on Van Til in this post) *did* offer (or at least: alluded to) a theological argument for why it would be the case that Christian theism alone provides for the preconditions of intelligibility.

Of course, this argument is only successful if Christianity is, in fact, true.

Glenn Peoples isn’t alone in misunderstanding this tidbit of Presupper thought – people ask me questions about it all the time.  So I’ll try to briefly outline the argument below.

As a preface:  Van Til was seeped in the Reformed scholastic tradition and much of his work might be interpreted as an attempt to take that tradition seriously, re-package it, and assert it polemically.  Accordingly, Van Til relied on (what were considered: established) theological arguments.  He argues that the divine attributes imply each other.  Dr. Scott Oliphint, in following Van Til, offers an example of this sort of argument:

“If we affirm that God is essentially a perfect Being (one who lacks nothing), if we affirm his character is a se, then it cannot be that he is in any way essentially limited by anything outside of himself, since to be limited would by definition be a lack; it would be a constraint placed on God by something else, be it space or time or human choices.” ~ “God With Us” pg. 16

But now, consider a typical citation from Van Til which directly applies to the topic at hand:

“Then, too, man could not be otherwise created than in accordance with the image of God, since there were no idea or patterns above or distinct from the nature of God according to which God could create him.” – Intro to systematic Theology, pg. 119.

Here we have it Glenn Peoples.

You may not like it.  You may snub it with characteristic snobbery (so common among those who study analytic philosophy)…but this constitutes an argument for why, if Christianity is true, it must be exclusively so.3

 I’ll try to polish up the argument and state it formally (although I hope no one faults Van Til or presuppositional apologetics for my bad formulations):


P1:  God is A Se

P2: God’s being A Se implies there is no concept outside of Himself by which He might pattern any of His works. 

P3:  If God works, His work will be fashioned after concepts which are internal to (and identical with) His character.

Conclusion:  Therefore, all of Creation is, necessarily, “reflective” of God. 


Consider John Frame’s reassertion of this point in typical Van Tillian jargon:

“God’s covenental presence is with all His works, and therefore it is inescapable… all things are under God’s control, and all knowledge… is a recognition of divine norms for truth. Therefore, in knowing anything, we know God” (18). Frame elaborates: “[B]ecause God is the supremely present one, He is inescapable. God is not shut out by the world… all reality reveals God” (20).”  These citations are taken from “Doctrine of the Knowledge of God”.  H/T to J.W. Wartick.

An implication of all this is that no non-Christian conceptual scheme will ever be able to successfully account for a Creation that is reflective of the Christian God.

In addition to this theological argument we have exegetical arguments which would demonstrate from authority that *only* the Christian worldview will, in final analysis, be successful at “mapping” our experience. I’ll not delve into the relevant Scripture passages in this post, however (in a future post I may do an outline of relevant verses and if I do, I’ll link to it here).

Christian theology is, on this view, exclusive.  Islam can’t cut it, Atheism can’t cut it, Hinduism can’t cut it, and so on ad infinitum. Even if we can’t say (off the tops of our heads) how each of these non-Christian systems fail, Van Til’s argument shows that *if* Christianity is true, then all non-Christian views will fail some how or other.  It’s the task of the individual presupper to skillfully confront whichever he’s approached with when the time comes.

Hope that helps clarify the situation for those interested in this aspect of Presuppositionalism (even Glen Peoples).

1. He “dissed” me once:  I was about to have a debate with a moral anti-realist and I posted a question about it on Peoples’ blog.  He emailed me a quick paragraph telling me that he didn’t allow pseudonyms and asked if I could please re-submit my question under my real name.  Of course I did – then he ignored it. He could have spent that paragraph directing me to good literature or offering a few much-needed tips, but no. For God’s sake, if you’re going to devote your life to esoteric disciplines like the philosophy of religion, at least throw a bone to young bucks from time to time who might need your help! How often do philosophers get to do something meaningful for others? Not often.

2. For an interesting criticism that I hope to address in a future post, see People’s article “One of the Ways in Which Van Til Was Wrong”.

3. While this particular citation refers to the creation of mankind, Van Til commonly applied the same sort of thought to all Creation. For a rigorous discussion of his doctrine of creation and why it necessitates the exclusivity of Christian theology, see Nathan Shannon’s article comparing Van Til to John Locke:  

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.

“All things being equal, I would not encourage anyone to attend seminary right now. Most seminaries are either very poor academically or theologically unhelpful. It would be a dreadful waste of three years and a lot of money – not to be taught the Reformed faith in an adequate way. In the smaller schools, there are problems with deficiencies in scholarship or theological prejudices, and that has not been characteristic of our Reformed fathers or Reformed education. Having said that, I realize and acknowledge that there are better and worse schools.”

I hate to admit it, but I’m afraid things haven’t improved since Dr. Bahnsen admitted this during a Contra Mundum interview.


Understanding Dr. Van Til’s doctrine of analogy is vital to mastering his apologetic method.  Consider Dr. Oliphint:

Van Til’s notion of “analogy” or “analogical,” as it applies to knowledge and to predication, is central to his theology and apologetic.  Though the term itself is confusing in that it carries with it a host of assumptions in Thomism, it should not be confused or in any way identified with Thomas’s understanding of analogy.  Though for Thomas there was an analogy of being, for Van Til, the notion of analogy was meant to communicate the ontolological and epistemological difference between God and man.  This difference has been expressed historically in terms of an archetypal / ectypal relationship.1

This distinction is especially difficult for critics of Van Til to grasp, most notably, atheists and disciples of Gordon Clark.2 

But before offering an illustration that I’ve found helpful in explaining it, it must be noted that, like so much of Van Til’s jargon, the word “analogy” or its equivalent “analogous”, have proven less-than-helpful, as even Dr. Olphint (in the citation above) admits.  But also consider Dr. Bahnsen:

From a pedagogical perspective, I would not have preferred to use this kind of summary tag-word for what Van Til was trying to teach.  Although it is certainly possible to understand what he meant by the expression, this way of speaking probably occasioned more avoidable misunderstanding and misrepresentation from a small circle of critics than anything else he wrote.  The historical context was a controversy over the incomprehensibility of God that took place in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church during the 1940’s, with Gordon H. Clark and Van Til being the primary spokesmen for the two antagonistic parties.  Personalities and politics added fuel to the antagonism, which only tended to muddy the theological debate that was already muddled by unclear polemics on both sides.  ~ “Van Til’s Apologetic” pg. 225, footnote 147.

So, yes – the jargon is confusing, but no, that shouldn’t stop an intellectually honest researcher from parsing out what Van Til meant.

What did he mean?

Well, consider another citation from Dr. Bahnsen.  He notes that Van Til uses the phrase “thinking God’s thoughts after Him” to mean the same thing as “thinking analogically”.  As an example:

The two relevant expressions here were used interchangeably by Van Til.  For instance: “We must think His thoughts after Him.  We must think analogically, rather than univocally.” (Common Grace,28). ~ Van Til’s Apologetic, pg. 225, footnote 146.

So if we understand what “thinking God’s thoughts after Him” means, then we will also (according to Dr. Bahnsen), understand what is meant by “reasoning analogously.”  And while I’ve offered posts which I hope are helpful in understanding “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”, in this post I’d like to offer an illustration to help my readers visualize it.3


Imagine there’s a 2 hour long movie but you only catch 10 minutes of it.  Being the nerd that you are, you go home trying to piece together what the entire movie might be like.  In the end, there are some blanks in your idea of what the movie is like, and a lot of intelligent speculation.

You hem and haw so much about it, a friend (who has seen the entire thing) decides to set your mind at ease by giving you a summary.  Now, at last, most of your questions are answered even though you only know a summary of the movie, not the actual thing.

Our situation with God is similar.  To know God is to know an infinite set of true propositions and, as finite creatures, we’ll never know all of Him.  Thus, we’re left having to speculate about a mere summary of who He is.  True, this summary has been given to us by God Himself and is designed to inform us about the important doctrines, but we’re always going to run into fuzzy areas in our theology that simply can’t be rationalized.  Our systematic theology will always encounter paradox because we’re finite creatures trying to systematize the revelation of an infinite God.

This leads to the next illustration:

Consider a master artist who paints a picture of a beautiful mountain.  He gives the picture to a man who has been in a jail cell all his life with no windows or magazines or any knowledge of the outside world.  The only information he has about the mountain is from what the artist has provided him (we’re assuming here the artist is highly skilled and completely honest).

It would be wrong of us to say this unfortunate prisoner has no knowledge of the mountain, but at the same time, we cannot say his knowledge of the painting is “numerically identical” to the painter’s knowledge of the actual mountain.  He, at best, only knows a representation of the actual mountain.  Van Til would say, he knows the mountain “analogously”.

I hope these two illustrations (the movie and the mountain) help my readers better understand Van Til’s doctrine of analogy, even if the illustrations don’t succeed in being fully explanatory.

1. This citation is from the fourth edition of “Defense of the Faith”, edited by K. Scott Oliphint, pg 62, footnote 25. Additionally, Oliphint mentions Willem J. van Asselt’s article “The Fundamental Meaning of Theology: Archetypal and Ectypal Theology in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought,” from Westminster Theological Journal 64, no.2. Asselt’s essay is helpful in tracing the pedigree of this important distinction in Reformed theology and shows that Van Til was not being creative or novel in his theology. I’m working on obtaining a copy to read, cite, and summarize for my readers. Look forward to that in future posts.

2. While plenty of examples are available in the critical literature, a humorous anecdotal account should suffice: In a Facebook group dedicated to bridging the ideological gap between followers of Clark and Van Til, I noted, somewhat jokingly, that if the two men went out to lunch, Clark would have to go through an exhaustive exegetical study of all Scriptural passages relevant to mathematics and finances before being able to pay, leaving the check to Van Til. In response, one of the Clarkians suggested Clark would have to pay because Van Til would only ever know an “analogy” of the check; never the real thing. While the exchange was friendly, it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Van Til’s doctrine of analogy that is seemingly ubiquitous among Clarkians.

3. See my article: “Conceptual Scheme or Worldview”, which touches on what it means for us to conceptualize what God has already conceptualized. Also, see my article “Oh Facts ye Silly Brutes” which also clarifies the relationship between our thinking and God’s.