Posts Tagged ‘presuppositionalism’

(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.

Advertisements

Some youtube atheist has made a video called “Five Stupid Things about Presuppositional Apologetics”. (Thanks to my friend Taylor Watkins for bringing this to my attention).

I’ll briefly reply to each:

Reason 1: The truth of its first premise cannot be demonstrated.

He’s wrong to say we don’t argue that God is the *only* possible precondition of intelligibility. We argue this in three ways. 1) It’s taught in Scripture. 2) It’s a necessary deduction from theological truths which are also taught in Scripture. And 3) We demonstrate this by challenging unbelievers to prove it wrong – and none of them can. The best atheist philosophers admit that they cannot account for human intelligibility, even though they might hem and haw about it.  (For example, check out Ernest Sosa’s article on “Epistemic Circularity”.  See also Barry Stroud’s article “Skepticism, Externalism, and the Goal of Epistemology”, where he notes that, even on an externalist model of warrant, he would still have intuitive doubts about his knowledge claims.  Many more examples could be provided).

Reason 2: Its proponents remove themselves from the problem of perception.

We (as presuppers) do NOT “excuse ourselves” from the problem of perception. We point out that the unbeliever cannot solve problems with the philosophy of perception, then we show them how our worldview *can* solve the problems. The author of the vid is ignorant of how Christians justify empirical methods. Additionally, does he seriously raise the “God could be lying” argument? If God *was* willing to lie to us, then the author would be right in suggesting that Christians would be in the same epistemological boat as an unbeliever…but then again, he wouldn’t be critiquing Christianity. He’d be critiquing some non-Christian belief-system that teaches that God is able and willing to lie.  For a definitive “savaging” of the “God might be lying” argument, see my article here.

Reason 3: Its proponents claim to know what everyone else knows.

We *do* know what all humans believe about God because God (a valid and relevant authority) has told us. Additionally – given an atheistic view of philosophy, they have to surmount the philosophical problem of “personal identity”. In other words, they’re not even able to consistently claim that they know their own first-person subjective feelings or mental states. (This lead atheist philosophers like David Hume to posit a “bundle theory” of mind, where a series of unrelated, disjointed experiences seem to be “bundled” together in one mind, and that’s what we call “I” or “me”…but we have no reason to think these experiences are at all related.)  How can they say, with any authority, what they do or don’t know?  None of us has any good reason to believe them when they comment on their own mental states.

Reason 4: It shifts the burden of proof.

We shift the burden of proof?

While the author might be right to suggest that some presuppers (who don’t know the method very well yet) have tried to fallaciously “shift” the burden, in reality, we’re not shifting the burden. We’re suggesting that atheists who make positive claims need to shoulder the burden of proof and explain to us why we ought to accept their claim.

If an atheist says: “Jesus never existed” for example, he’s got the burden of proof, not only to show that Jesus never existed, but to show that he can know anything about history whatsoever. Additionally, how can an atheist even account for a “burden of proof” in the first place?! Did a God tell them about this magical burden? No…the sad fact is, they never meet their own “burden of proof” when making assertions about the burden of proof.  And even if we grant them some arbitrary “hypothetical” model of the burden, they can’t even meet *that* (they’ll never be able to demonstrate, for example, that they have rational justification for talking about history, and thus, their claim that “Jesus never existed” can never fulfill the burden of proof).

Reason 5:  Presuppositionalists prefer confusion and trap-laying over honest argumentation.

It’s true that not all presuppositionalists are equally adept or clear or articulate in their presentation of the method, but this guy can’t even critique the most basic presentations…we can all guess how well he’d do against more sophisticated versions.

(**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: http://philosophyandtheism.wordpress.com/2012/11/16/christianity-and-evidentialism-van-til-and-locke-on-facts-and-evidence/  

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

“My hope still, is that there would be somebody out there who *is* a philosopher, maybe even training in philosophy right now, who has a strong Reformed theological base and who could begin to develop a truly Reformed Christian philosophy, because I think there’s a crying need for that. That would fill a massive gap. Whoever did that would virtually stand alone for awhile. It’s time for that sort of thing to be developed. We need somebody who has the philosophical skills but also, more importantly I think, the theological foundation so that they’re not going to move from that foundation in the development of a strong Reformed Christian philosophy.” ~ Dr. Scott Oliphint

(Starting at 13:08 in the “Christian Essentialism” episode of “Christ the Center”)