Presuppositional Apologetics

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There's a debate within those who believe in some sort of rational defense of Christianity about how it should be done. The main lines of the debate are between what I call the classical apologetics view and the presuppositional view. I've never understood the presuppositionalist position, and all the arguments I've ever seen in favor of it seem so bad to me that I have to think there's something to the view beyond what people seem to me to be saying, but I've still seen no evidence that anyone has a better statement of the view and its claims than the bad ones I've so far seen. I've finally gotten around to putting together my thoughts on why I think presuppositionalism is fundamentally mistaken.

I probably haven't done justice to explaining the view, so here are a few links to the top Google searches for presuppositional apologetics, all right from the horses' mouths.

Presuppositionalists claim that classical apologetics has four flaws. First, it diminishes God's glory by conceding that God might not exist. Second, it doesn't prove enough by not proving every claim Christianity makes. Third, traditional apologetics denies God's sovereignty in salvation by thinking arguments can save people. Fourth, evangelism must be done in community, with the whole gospel in mind, with all of biblical revelation as a backdrop. Using arguments from classical apologetics in a vacuum is a failure to engage people with the gospel.

It's easy to see without too much thought why these are all silly criticisms. On conceding that God might not exist, I'm not sure why presuppositionalists think this. If I offer a cosmological argument for God's existence based on premises I think a naturalist will believe, am I conceding that God might not exist? I believe fully that God exists. My offering this argument to someone who doesn't concedes nothing. In fact, it seeks to prove that God does exist or at least that a being unlike any a naturalist believes in exists, a being who does fit the characteristics of the God Christianity says revealed himself through the Bible and through Jesus of Nazareth. How can offering an argument for the existence of God count as conceding that God doesn't exist?

The best I've seen at answering this question is that starting from premises that don't assume God's existence somehow counts as conceding that God doesn't exist. I'm not sure why. It just means the argument isn't circular. It doesn't mean the person offering the argument ceases to believe in God. It means the person offering the argument thinks premises held by someone who doesn't believe in God will commit them to the existence of God. Hey! Isn't that the main method of the presuppositionalist? The presuppositionalist strategy, insofar as any arguments at all are offered, is to offer transcendental arguments for God's existence. This means establishing that something we all believe in (e.g. reason, mathematics, the existence of the universe, morality, etc.) already assumes God. The problem with presuppositionalists' doing this is that it turns out to be a deductively valid argument in disguise once you fill in the missing premise (i.e. presupposition):

1. Belief X assumes God exists.
2. Belief X is true.
3. Therefore, God exists.

This is the same form of argument that philosophers have dubbed the cosmological argument:

1. Belief in contingent beings assumes God exists.
2. There are contingent beings. (So it's true that belief in them is true.)
3. Therefore, God exists.

Then you just have to argue for premise 1 by saying that an infinite series of contingent beings, each explained by a prior one, still has no explanation for why any contingent beings exist at all. So we must have a being that's self-existent to explain why any contingent beings exist. God is the best candidate for such a being. Presuppositionalists think all that extra stuff won't be granted by the naturalist. Well, some of it won't, but neither will all the steps given by the presuppositionalist to support premise 1 of the first argument for the claim that morality, logic, or knowledge requires God's existence. How are the arguments any different? Yet the presuppositionalist continues to criticize the classical apologist for doing the very thing the presuppositionalist does and considers a good argument.

The second problem is one noted by almost every classical apologist. Even if I establish that there's a self-existent being through the cosmological argument, a being greater than any other conceivable being via the ontological argument, a creator and designer of the universe through the teleolological argument, and a good being responsible for grounding morality in its own being through the moral argument, I have still not established all the divine attributes revealed about God in scripture. If I add to that historical evidences for the resurrection of Jesus, the reliability of the Bible, and the success of the church as a witness to the work of the Holy Spirit in history, it still falls short of proving every truth Christianity offers. So? If I could show all that, wouldn't it be enough to convince most philosophers who want evidence for God? The fact is that these arguments aren't intended to prove the existence of God and everything Christians believe about God. What they're supposed to do is show that there can be some rational support for some of the claims of Christianity, particularly ones questioned by naturalistic philosophers, historians, biblical scholars, etc. Pursuit of truth is a good thing, and why not see what we can discover through the ability of reason given to us by God, fallible and finite as it is?

The presuppositionalist will still insist that many arguments given by the classical approach involve a conclusion that God's existence is only likely and thus possibly false. It's true that if the conclusion is that God's existence is merely likely, then that will imply that it's possible God's doesn't exist. However, no argument I've seen shows that God's existence is merely likely. There are arguments intended to show that God might existence. There aren't any to show that it's merely probable that God exists. To show that you'd need to show two things, first that it's probable that God exists, and second that it's no more than probable that God exists. I'm not sure how the classical arguments are supposed to show the second thing. They're just supposed to show the first thing. Evidence that something is likely does not count as evidence that the thing might not exist. Something's being likely is consistent with it being absolutely necessary, which might be shown by another argument. The real confusion here, I think, is between reality and our knowledge of it, a common mistake by people discussing philosophical issues who aren't trained to spot such errors.

The third problem presented for presuppositionalism is a problem for any apologist. People aren't going to be convinced even by sound arguments if there's a way for them to deny a premise. Sometimes this point is confused with the previous one. That arguments don't always lead to every truth about God and that some people resist what the arguments do say are different points. My main resistance to this argument is that no classical apologist thinks arguments save people. That's a straw man view of the classical position. Arguments play a role in some people's coming to faith in the same way that people's looking out on creation and seeing the wonders of the universe play a role. It's the same way hearing testimonies of what God has done can play a role. It's a role that's insufficient without the work of the Holy Spirit in someone's heart. It's a role that's not necessary to experience before being transformed by God's grace, but sometimes it is a step in that process. Someone who has serious intellectual objections to believing in God who then sees classical apologists' responses to the problem of evil and the no-evidence argument may be more intellectually open to Christianity. This may be one step in God's bringing this person to understanding and appreciating the gospel message.

The fourth argument also misunderstands what classical apologetics is about. The classical apologist sees herself as playing part of a role that should be in the context of the greater evangelistic mission of the church. Ideally the apologist is also engaged in presenting and explaining the gospel in addition to living out the Christian life in the view of those who will be hearing the apologetical arguments. In fact, that whole context is part of classical apologetics. The arguments are just a piece of it. So again we've found presuppositionalism using a straw man position as a whipping boy.

So those are the four main presuppositionalist arguments, and they all seem bad. I have one additional problem with presuppositionalism based on the strategies presuppositionalists can allow. The main presuppositionalist strategy, as far as I can discern, is to insist that we start with God's existence and the truth of Christianity. We have to assume that from the start and somehow show the unbeliever the falsity of believing otherwise. How do we do that? One strategy is the transcendental argument I already gave, which is basically a classical approach in disguise, so that won't do. The only thing left is to do what they often give as the very basis of presuppositionalism. The proper kind of argument, according to presuppositionalism, is not to set aside God's existence and Christianity for the sake of argument. Instead, bring all of it to the table. In short, we need to present an argument of this form:

1. Christianity is true -- all of it.
2. Therefore Christianity is true -- all of it.

That's about as viciously circular as an argument can get. It's so ridiculous that it's not even worth spending time on. Yet this is what presuppositionalists seem to think can count as a good argument for Christianity. I have myself given an argument for Christianity based on the larger perspective of what Christianity says about itself, one I don't think is viciously circular, but I know that's not what these people have in mind. They want to say my argument is as bad as any classical argument.

This is why I still haven't been able to figure out what presuppositionalists think their strategy amounts to. As far as I know, it differs little from the postmodernist who thinks we can present our perspective to get it recognized by those who have a different perspective and then sit around talking about how we all have different presuppositions and reveling in the fact that we haven't gotten anywhere in our discussion. I just don't see how any of this is supposed to count as apologetics. So presuppositionalism is one of two things -- classical apologetics in disguise or nothing at all. Different people who hold to the title may be different ones, and one person may occupy both spots at different times. Either way, there's no real view here to begin with.

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9 Comments

I lean toward the presuppositional position. One of the problems with the evidential position is that neither person is objective and unbiased.

As a Christian, I'm biased toward God while the unbeliever is biased against God. Inherent in the evidential position is an assumption of objectivity or neutrality. There's no way two people can start out at the same starting point in such a discussion. I believe it's much stronger to argue presuppositionally. I believe that the Christian faith is rational, so the argument of its irrationality can be refuted. Once you knock that down and concede that's it rational, then you can go on from there.

Evidentialism is the other extreme. It accepts the premise of many anti-Christian arguments, the claim that you need to offer positive arguments for Christianity to be rational in accepting Christianity. I think that view is wrong. (See my short outline of why or my more detailed evaluation.) The classical apologetical approach doesn't need to assume that. All it says is that something might be established by such arguments, and it's not immoral or otherwise wrong to offer such arguments. That doesn't mean we need to do so to be rational.

I agree that no one is neutral. I'm not sure how that makes the classical approach illegitimate. People's biases will affect how they evaluate arguments. They may have more motivation to question a premise because they don't like the conclusion. That doesn't mean it's not worth discussing what we can discover through such reasoning.

What I'm not clear on is how to argue presuppositionally without doing exactly what the classical apologist does. It seems that any such argument will easily be converted into premise-and-conclusion form. Until I get a sense of how the different strategy is supposed to work (and why it might work better), I can't see how there's even a strategy at all.

Well, if you were taking votes on which post you ought to enter in the Christian Carnival this week, this one would get my vote. It's very thought provoking.

Here is one form of Presuppositionalism often called the Transcendental Argument. This is Van Til�s approach as cleaned up by the late Greg Bahnsen (see also John Frame�s book on Van Til)

I am not a trained philosopher � but this is my attempt to summarize this view:

1. All arguments (including this one!) are possible and useful if and only if there are consistent and coherent (non arbitrary) �Rules of Argument� (i.e. linguistic rules, laws of logic, etc.) which govern them

2. Consistent and coherent (non arbitrary) �Rules of Argument� exist if and only if God exists (otherwise they are arbitrary)

Therefore,

If God doesn�t exist, then all arguments are neither possible nor useful (including any possible argument against the existence of God)

Ah, but it's the second premise that almost no one is going to give you. Almost all philosophers think the laws of logic are necessary, not depending on anything else for their truth. I don't see what this argument is supposed to do. You wouldn't believe premise 2 unless you already believe in God, so it's not going to convince the nonbeliever, and it's circular reasoning for the believer. What's the point, then?

This is standard Bahnsen. Offer an argument with a premise your opponent thinks is false and then claim that you've proved God's existence without using traditional apologetical methods. The reality is that he's failed at both tasks. He hasn't proved anything, and he has used a standard classical apologetics method. Presuppositionalists do this sort of thing all the time.

"not depending on anything else for their truth"

But how do they know that the laws of logic are true and/or reliable, or that they work in every case?

There are two answers to this question, depending on what epistemological framework you're coming from (that's theory of knowledge in case you haven't heard the term before).

Those who think knowledge is absolute certainty (Descartes seems to have started this awful trend) have a hard time saying we that we do know that the laws of logic are true and/or reliable. Hume derived from Descartes' view of knowledge that we can't know scientific laws, but it seems as if you could extend it to laws of logic too, as Wittgenstein appears to have done on some readings. But the point here is that the theist is in the same position with regard to skepticism as anyone else, since you don't know with absolute certainty that God exists. (By absolute certainty, Descartes means that it's impossible to have any doubts whatsoever.)

The standard view of knowledge today is that you know something when you do in fact have a reliable method to reach your beliefs and you use that method to acquire them. Thus you can know things without being able to prove to yourself or others that you do know it. You can therefore know scientific laws through doing science if you use reliable methods to figure out the correct laws. You can know that God exists if there is a God and God reliably gives you awareness of himself through whatever means he might do that (and this requires no arguments or evidence).

Finally, and most relevant to your question, you can know the laws of logic if you have a reliable method of having arrived at them. What might this reliable method be? I presmue that you would say the only possible such method is that God created us to know the laws, and God's doing so is a reliable way to know them. But other methods suggest themselves to the naturalist, the most common being that we evolved to know them, since those who didn't have such knowledge wouldn't be able to function as well. This seems to me to answer the question within the framework of naturalism and doesn't require God.

Nice outline of the issue.

Personally, I really don't see much difference between a presuppositional and a classical apologist. Neither one changes their mind when presented with logic or evidence, because both have faith, i.e., they believe without logic or evidence, or in spite of logic and evidence to the contrary. The only difference I see between them is that the classic apologist thinks I don't agree with him because of a lack of knowledge and logic; the presuppositional apologist thinks I'm wrong because my worldview demands that I deny the obvious truth of his position. What neither one sees is that I hold the high ground in both knowledge, evidence and logic, so both of them see a strawman opponent instead of the actual one.

When debating a classical apologist, I stick to evidence, knowledge, and logic. With presupposition apologists, I accept their worldview first as operative and true, then combine the Socratic method and knowledge of Scripture with evidence, knowledge, and logic. Both end up saying the same thing: "That's an interesting point of view you have brought up. I'll have to look into it." Which is the apologist's euphemism for, "You win."

I've changed my mind several times on more than one argument for God's existence, so I'm a pretty clear counterexample to your claim that classical apologists never change their minds. I'm sure there are presuppositionalists who change their minds too on what specific arguments show.

I'm not sure what you mean by faith, but it doesn't sound like the faith I see in scripture, which is a gift of God that isn't some lesser state short of full knowledge. It's a gift of knowledge. I could never prove that there is such a thing, but if there is then there's nothing irrational about faith without evidence, and I've never seen a halfway decent argument against such a possibility. That's enough to dispose of the no-evidence argument pretty handily.

I don't think you hold the high ground in terms of the best arguments, but I don't see how that means I'm treating you as if you hold straw man arguments. You don't have to misrepresent an argument to disagree with it, even if someone else thinks it's a convincing argument. Most arguments in philosophy fall far short of what we might think of proof, and that's certainly true of absolutely all of the theistic and atheistic arguments. There are loads of places for someone to question a premise even if the argument in question is logically valid and thus not refutable by finding a structural problem in the argument itself. That doesn't mean it's equally rational to do so with every argument, but philosophy is hardly the sort of subject where just seeing an argument should make you accept it. It's in fact the reverse. So there's no need to accuse all your opponents of straw manning when they may just not agree with the arguments you give.

For the record, you don't have to have a lack of knowledge and logic to disagree with classical arguments, and I don't know of very many classical apologists who think that. There's this evidentialist strain among some contemporary apologists, where you do find the sense that anyone who denies the evidence for Jesus' resurrection or for the existence of God is denying the absolutely clear demonstration of God and Christianity that no rational person can really do. But most classical apologists do not take that line. Aquinas is the prime example of classical apologetics, and he didn't think that, even though he thought his arguments for God's existence were sound.

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