Tuesday, November 15, 2005


So, according to this little plan, I'm supposed to talk about presuppositional apologetics (hereafter known as PA). It's actually a pretty huge topic. To adequately address all it, I'd need to talk about both the history and the theology of Calvinists, especially the Reformed branch.

However, it isn't my purpose to engage with the whole range of PA issues. I will argue two things in this post, and two things only. First, I will argue that when discussing knowledge, our necassary starting point is man. We need to discuss how man gathers and organizes information - this is logically primary. It must even come before a discussion of how we discern true information from false information. Second, I will argue that PA is in fact born of a desire to explain a particular behaviour pattern - that is, people disagreeing with traditional apologetics. I will then argue that PA is hopelessly inadequate to explain that - or pretty much anything else.

First, though, a presentation of PA is in order. Everyone who isn't Titus might as well know what the heck I'm talking about. I should point out that I am not seeking to attack the primary statements of PA, but rather some of its secondary statements about the human thought process. My engagement with the primary arguments of PA will therefore be minimal.

PA is philosophically rooted in a particular stream of Christianity - Orthodox Presbyterians and Reformed Calvinists. Philosophically speaking, it is an attempt to apply the distinctive Calvinist TULIP doctrines to the task of apologetics. Total depravity is, for PA, the most important point. Humans are utterly incapable of choosing for God. Acts of sin are inescapable.

Contra much of Christianity, TULIPers believe man's intellect is also fallen. While we are perfectly capable of using logic and rationality to make particular types of true statements, our minds are incapable of accepting Christ as Lord; it is even impossible to show an unregenerate person the truth of Christianity, because their intellect is so fallen. People only ever come to God through an act of irresistable grace - and then the intellect is renewed, and they are able to understand and accept Christian truth statements.

So how does that apply to apologetics? Cornelius Van Til (here's a stash of essays by him and others) developed PA. I don't mean to suggest he is solely responsible; he was influenced by previous Calvinists and he worked concurrently with men like Gordon Clark. However, as I understand it, it is Van Til's style of PA that has had the most influence in contemporary apologetics. So when I say PA, it is Van Til's work that I am largely refering to.

It matters that I am refering to Van Til, because there is a dispute among Calvinists that is important here. Calvinists are big on the idea that unbelievers surpress the truth about God - but exactly what surpression mechanism do they use? Some Calvinist PAers believe that convincing proof is fully available to mankind, but our fallen minds are unable or unwilling to accept this proof. Unbelievers are, in a sense, ignorant. Other Calvinists - such as Van Til - believe that every human is infact already "aware" of God's truth, but surpress this information deep into our minds. We cover over our knowledge of the truth with other systems of thought and deny our covenant with God.

PA is the wellspring of that wonderful term some apologists (professional and lay) are so obsessed with this these days: "worldview." The idea is roughly thus: we all have a worldview, and this governs which statements we catagorize as true and false, and it establishes the bounds of possibility. It also provides our framework for interpreting isolated facts. Persons X and Y witness person A punch person B. X believes A is a gentle person, and so B must have provoked the assault. Y believes A is full of bottled up rage, and so B was probably just unlucky.

Our worldview is a web of presuppositions. As best as I can understand, a PA presupposition is a propositional statement, ie "the Bible is God's word" or "miracles do not happen." According to PAers, presuppositions act as our axioms for thought and we are incapable of questioning them. No one can be convinced their presuppositions are false, because it is those presuppositions that guide all their discernment.

It is the concept of the presupposition that I am primarily going to engage with, so I want to discussion the concept as clearly as possible. This is a quote from this essay:

"Everyone holds to presuppositions. No one does - or can operate from a vacuum. We simply do not think or behave "out of the blue." It is impossible to think and live as if we were aliens having just arrived in this world from a radically different universe, totally devoid of all knowledge of this world, absolutely objective and utterly un-predisposed to ideas about truth: People behave in terms of their basic world-and-life view which best implements their conceptions regarding truth.

Whether we are defending our moral behavior or rationally explaining something, we are working within the context of a particular, concrete way of looking at the world. This is our system of thought and behavior. This is our world-and life view. Our world-and-life view then is an important tool which organizes our way of looking at the world in terms of our specific presuppositions."

Here is the theological bent: our presuppositions reflect our spiritual state. If one is regenerate, then one's presuppositions will reflect God's truth.

As I understand it, the presuppositions of an unbeliever fall into a slightly different catagory. An unbeliever is - on some level - aware of the Christian presuppositions, and in fact makes use of these presuppositions on a constant basis through the very act of rational thought. However, either through rebellion or out of a desire to rebel, these truths are surpressed and other presuppositions are substituted.

(I'm sick of writing presupposition, so from now on, I'll just say "P.")

The consequence for apologetics: because facts are interpreted through our Ps, no amount of historical or scientific evidence will ever convince an unbeliever that the Bible is true. Any facts presented by the apologist will inevitably be interpreted in a different way, or outright dismissed. So, evidence must take a backseat to a discussion of worldviews.

The PAer must critique his opponents' presuppositions. This is perhaps the primary method: asking for an account of rationality and logic. The PAer will typically ask his debate opponent to explain how they account for the existance and nature of logic. How can we make any truthful statements at all? The PAer expects and often receives bafflement, and then offers their own explanation: Logic reflects the thinking of a transcendent God. There are a handful of other similar ideas in the PAer arsenal, but they are not relevant to my purposes here.

The PAer will argue that all human knowledge is necassarily rooted in Christian presuppositions. It is an interesting take on the scripture "the fear of the Lord is the begining of wisdom." This is a theological statement that is taken to have philosophical consequences; PAers take it to mean that all coherant thought, rationality and logic derives only from a transcendant God. The universe is only understandable because it is ordered, and it is only ordered because a transcendant God created it. In order to reason, you must assume the truth of Christian Ps - hence you must already be aware of them on some level.

So, the human through process must begin with God. Our P's must submit to God, because our P's are the foundation of our entire thought process. Only regenerate P's can adequately account for the efficacy of rationality and logic, because they acknowledge the source of rationality and logic.

So knowledge begins with God.

And that's enough for one post. I'll critique the idea of the presupposition in the next post.

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