Editors’ Note: The Bible calls Christians to always be prepared to give an answer to those who ask for the reason of the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15). And so, from the very beginning of church history, Christians have publicly and privately labored to show the reasonableness of our faith against the objections of skeptics.
In the last century, Christians debating the relationship between reason and faith have divided into sometimes warring camps of classical, evidential, and presuppositional apologetics. If you’re wondering how these views relate, then this week’s series of five articles is for you. The Gospel Coalition welcomes apologists and pastors who will define, critique, and defend particular methods commonly used among Christians. But we don’t want to stop at method, as if apologetics were just meant for the lab. We also hope to provide resources to not only firm up your grasp of the debates, but also to put apologetics into practice in preaching and evangelism.
Misconceptions of so-called presuppositional apologetics abound. One reason is surely the fault of presuppositionalists. As an apologetic “school,” emphases and tenets vary from person to person, according to one’s theological system. This is inevitable, but is also unfortunate because confusing, and is one reason why I think the moniker “covenantal” best applies to the apologetic approach argued by Cornelius Van Til. Whatever he might have in common with other apologists, Van Til’s approach is uniquely Reformed in a way the others are not.
I have been asked to respond briefly to Paul Copan’s concerns about presuppositionalism as an apologetic methodology. I cannot respond for other “types” of presuppositionalism—Copan mentions Carl Henry as an example. What I hope to do is respond from a Reformed, Van Tilian, covenantal perspective. Though the responses will be brief, any interested in further discussions of the concerns below would do well to read Van Til himself. He both anticipated all of the concerns mentioned, and more, and, in various places, responded to them. For now, though, the following may suffice. I’ll list Copan’s concerns about a presuppositional apologetic methodology, then provide some covenantal food for thought.
Concern #1: Presuppositionalism engages in question-begging—assuming what one wants to prove.
Copan’s concern is that anyone utilizing a covenantal methodology will “get you an ‘F’ in any logic class worthy of the name.” It is a bit naïve to think that Van Til, with a PhD in philosophy, would have missed something so basic. And, of course, he didn’t. He explains his notion of circular reasoning in various places. The way I explain Van Til’s use of circular reasoning can be found in Defense of the Faith, 4th edition, p. 123, n.8:
Van Til is not advocating fallacious reasoning here. Though much more needs to be said, a couple of points should be remembered when Van Til wants to affirm circular reasoning:
(1) Circular reasoning is not the same as a circular argument. A circular argument is one in which the conclusion of the argument is also assumed in one or more of the premises. Van Til’s notion of circularity is broader, and more inclusive, than a strict argument form. For example, in William Alston, The Reliability of Sense Perception (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), Alston argues that it is impossible to establish that one has knowledge in a certain area without at the same time presupposing some knowledge in that area. His example is an argument for the reliability of sense perception. Any argument for such reliability presupposes that reliability. And it does so because of the epistemic situation in which human beings exist. Alston is right here, it seems. Not only so, but, to go deeper, the epistemic and metaphysical situation in which human beings exist is one in which the source of and rationale for all that we are and think is, ultimately, in the Triune God of Scripture. Circularity in this sense is inevitable. We will never be outside the context of image of God as we think and live—not in this life or the next.
(2) Van Til’s affirmation of circular reasoning should be seen in the context of the point he makes in various places about “indirect” arguments. Any petitio principii is, by definition, a direct argument—containing premises and a conclusion. Van Til’s indirect method moves one out of the context of a strict proof or direct argument, and into the context of the rationale for any fact or law assumed to be, or to be true. Thus, circularity is inextricably linked to the transcendental approach, and is not meant to be in reference, strictly speaking, to direct argumentation.
Maybe we can put it more simply. Is it possible to posit any truth at all without that truth having its genesis and its impetus from God’s creating and sustaining activity? If not, then every truth presupposes that God is, that he is the Creator of all that is, and that he sustains it.
Concern #2: Christians share common ground with unbelievers, who are likewise made in God’s image, which is not erased by the fall.
Here’s how I think Van Til would respond to Copan’s second concern:
I have never denied that there is a common ground of knowledge between the believer and the unbeliever. I have always affirmed the kind of common ground that is spoken of in Scripture, notably in Romans 1 and 2, and in Calvin’s Institutes. As creatures made in God’s image man cannot help but know God. It is of this revelation to man through “nature” and through his own constitution that Paul speaks of in Romans.
That all men have all things in common metaphysically and psychologically, was definitely asserted, and further, that the natural man has epistemologically nothing in common with the Christian. And this latter assertion was qualified by saying that this is so only in principle. . . . As far as the principle of the natural man is concerned, it is absolutely or utterly, not partly, opposed to God. . . . So far then as men self-consciously work from this principle they have no notion in common with the believer. Their epistemology is informed by their ethical hostility to God.
Van Til is insisting that non-Christians who are true to their own principle of unbelief will never interpret one fact or one experience of the world properly, since every fact and experience has its rationale in God’s creating and sustaining activity. Again, the point to be emphasized is the actual truth of the matter as Scripture gives it to us. This is one reason why Van Til’s approach is a covenantal one. All men are either in Adam, as their covenant head, or in Christ. There is no third place to be. As such, we reason, think, live, and act according to the principles entailed in our covenant status.
Concern #3: Some (not all) presuppostionalists seem inconsistent about natural theology.
This is no doubt true, given that presuppositionalists differ theologically. Since theology grounds and founds apologetic methodology, there will be differences all along the way. Maybe the best succinct response to Copan’s third concern can be found in Richard Muller:
The question of the existence of God (existentia Dei) does not appear in all of the Reformed scholastic systems and, when it does appear, has an apologetic and polemical function rather than a substantive or formative one in the course of theological system. In neither the early nor the high orthodox eras do we find the proofs stated as a basis in rational philosophy or natural theology upon which the system of revealed doctrine can build: the use of the proofs and of natural theology as a prologue to a system of revealed doctrine occurs only in the 18th century under the impact of Wolffian rationalism (Muller, 3.170).
Van Til follows the Reformed scholastics here. Natural theology cannot be a prologue to revealed theology without giving way to a rationalistic theology. Van Til was clear that the problem with the theistic proofs was not the arguments per se, but rather the method used to present them, as that method presupposed that concepts such as “cause” or “necessity” were religiously neutral. The rationalistic method to which Muller eludes, requires that one reason from the finite to the infinite on the basis of neutral concepts and ideas. The transcendental method assumes that God has spoken and that what he says is true. That truth forms the basis and foundation for arguing against anything contrary to it. It is, thus, decidedly not an argument based on a supposedly neutral concept.
Concern #4: It is important to distinguish between the confident ground of our knowledge of God and the highly probable public case for the Christian faith.
With respect to a probability argument, the question to be asked here is, “On what such a probability might be based?” Probability itself has to be grounded in something. At this point, we need a rough and ready explanation of the kind of probability that is relevant to these kinds of discussions. Maybe we should call it epistemic probability. It just so happens that we have one:
Relative to K, p is epistemically more probable than q, where K is an epistemic situation and p and q are propositions, just in case any fully rational person in K would have a higher degree of belief in p than in q.
Given the difficulty of adequately defining epistemic probability, it is best simply to take this explanation as initially adequate, with one more clarification.
What does K include? What goes into an epistemic situation? . . . [L]et’s say initially that K, for a given person S, would include at least some of the other propositions S believes, as well as the experiences S is undergoing and perhaps has undergone; it would also include what S remembers, possibly a specification of S’s epistemic environment, and no doubt more besides.
This discussion can become quite technical. The point we can make here is that any notion of probability worth its epistemic salt will include a foundation of background knowledge (K, above) such that, whatever the probability calculus used in the equation, the numbers are “fixed” from the beginning, and they are fixed according to one’s presuppositions. So a probable argument itself has to presuppose something known, or assumed to be known.
Wouldn’t it be better to approach the discussion on the basis of the truth of the matter? What if we argued for Christianity based, not on probability, with its attendant problems, but on the certainty that Scripture provides? Or, to put it negatively, what if we didn’t? Wouldn’t we be forced to argue that God probably exists, that Jesus probably rose from the dead, and so our faith is probably not in vain? Is there any semblance of this kind of argument in Scripture, or in the minds of Jesus or Paul or Peter?
A covenantal (which is Van Til’s version of “presuppositional”) approach to apologetics is only as cogent and consistent as the theology on which it is built. Because Van Til sought self-consciously to make apologetic methodology conform more closely to the Reformed theology that he held, his method most explicitly aligns with that theology. The real question to be posed, then, in terms of anyone concerned with this methodology is this: “Is there anything in Van Til’s approach that negates or undermines Reformed theology?” Because he believed that theology to be the most consistent expression of the teaching of Scripture, he was convinced, as am I, that it is the approach that a Reformed person is bound to use.
Also in the apologetics series:
Fides Quaerens Intellectum: What Is Presuppositionalism? by William Edgar
- Questioning Presuppositionalism by Paul Copan