Persuasion or Proof?

The Migration of Christian Apologetics From Foundationalism to Language-Games

(Written for Professor John Frame, March 1994)

  1. Introductory Remarks
  2. The Rise of the Paradigm Model
  3. The Subsequent Shift From Proof To Persuasion
  4. Norman Malcolm’s Wittgensteinian Fideism
  5. Greg Bahnsen’s Transcendental Argumentation
  6. Difficulties With Bahnsen’s Transcendental "Proof"
  7. Bahnsen’s Underlying Method: Apologetics As Explanation
  8. Apologetics As Explanation: The Shift From Old To New
I. Introductory Remarks

In this century, classical foundationalist epistemology was significantly challenged by the thinking of Ludwig Wittgenstein (in philosophy of language) and Thomas Kuhn (in philosophy of science). The twofold conclusion common to these men with respect to epistemic justification was that (1) criteria for rationality or intelligibility are paradigm-dependent and paradigm-relative, and as a result (2) traditionally linear forms of proof according to the foundationalist scheme are ultimately insufficient and must eventually give way to circular forms of persuasion. In this paper I shall argue that a corresponding shift towards adopting and applying this twofold conclusion characterizes some contemporary trends in Christian apologetics, including the Wittgensteinian fideism of Norman Malcolm and the transcendental argumentation of Greg Bahnsen. These trends will be surveyed below, with a brief evaluation of their respective strengths and weaknesses in relation to their value for Christian apologetic endeavor.

II. The Rise of the Paradigm Model

Before evaluating the Christian apologetic trends noted above, the shift from the "foundation" to the "paradigm" as the unit of rationality ought to be explained.

Traditional epistemology, at least in the modern period dating from Descartes, has usually structured knowledge according to a foundationalist conception. Specific propositions are taken to be incorrigible or indubitable—perhaps laws of logic and of causality, simple reports of sense-data, etc.—and then the rest of our knowledge is built up, more or less rigorously, from these foundations. Thus in any discussion of the certainty which attaches to various knowledge claims, attention is invariably focused upon the certainty of these foundations, as well as of the method used to generate knowledge from them. A conclusion is seen to be both persuasive and rational to the degree it is shown to be legitimately built up, either inductively or deductively, from an initial set of foundation-statements which are accepted by all relevant parties.

Prior to this century, most Christian apologists assumed something like the above epistemology in their argumentation with unbelievers. Various facets of Christian theism were argued by means of linear proofs—again, either inductive or deductive—from premises which unbelievers already accepted, to Christian conclusions. The conclusions were said to be either logically certain (as in some versions of the arguments from being and cause), or morally certain (that is, highly probable, as in the arguments from design and morality, or in arguments from historical evidence for the resurrection, the historicity of the Bible, the inspiration of the Bible, etc.). The conclusions were also seen to be rational depending upon how consistently they were inferred from the universally-accepted set of foundation-statements.

Now it was precisely this foundationalist epistemology that was challenged in the present century by Wittgenstein and Kuhn. It was always a problem for classical foundationalism to determine the logical stopping point for the justification of a particular conclusion. If the conclusion could be justified by reference to the foundation which implied it, the further question could always be asked, "And what justifies that foundation?" The usual answer was that the foundation (perhaps laws of logic plus sense-experience) was self-evident, and therefore indubitable.

Wittgenstein addressed this question in his work On Certainty[1], several times making reference to our Weltbild, or "world-picture" as a key to understanding the foundations of our knowledge, and the certainty which we attach to it. He tried to show that an individual’s world-picture originated, not in a way of reflective thinking, but in a way of acting, inherited through participation in a language-using culture. And this way of acting constituted the logical stopping point for the justification of our certainty in knowledge claims. Indeed, to identify this way of acting in a community, this publicly shared set of practices, is to reach the end of the process of giving such grounds:

. . . As if giving grounds did not come to an end sometime. But the end is not an ungrounded presupposition: it is an ungrounded way of acting (§110).

Giving grounds, however, justifying the evidence, comes to an end;—but the end is not certain propositions’ striking us immediately as true, i.e. it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game[2] (§204).

Our desire to further explain how certainty can arise from these actions themselves is wholly out of place, according to Wittgenstein. "It is so difficult to find the beginning. Or, better: it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not try to go further back" (§471). And yet that is exactly what we try to do, futile and senseless as that project may be! We want to go further back, endlessly searching for grounds and explanations, when "the difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing" (§166), that "at some point one has to pass from explanation to mere description" (§189). This is Wittgenstein’s so-called "full-stop," discussed at length by D.Z. Phillips.[3]

Norman Malcolm (to whom we shall return below) best summarizes the above points, in his paraphrase of Wittgenstein’s doctrine of the origin of our world-picture:

We are taught, or we absorb, the systems within which we raise doubts, make inquiries, draw conclusions. We grow into a framework. We don’t question it. We accept it trustingly. But this acceptance is not a consequence of reflection. We do not decide to accept framework propositions. We do not decide that we live on the earth, any more than we decide to learn our native tongue. We do come to adhere to a framework proposition, in the sense that it shapes the way we think. The framework propositions that we accept, grow into, are not idiosyncrasies but common ways of speaking and thinking that are pressed on us by our human community.[4]

III. The Subsequent Shift From Proof to Persuasion

The above picture (if acceptable) has significant implications for the task of Christian apologetics and/or evangelism. For how do we approach the average unbelieving adult after he inherits his background, his world-picture? Is it possible for him, once his reflective capacities have been suitably developed, to reason his way towards a different world-picture, in the way traditionally conceived by foundationalist apologists? Can he discern that his presently Godless world-picture is false, or at least not rationally justified, and so choose one that he believes is so justified? Wittgenstein would decisively condemn these last two questions as committing a blatant category mistake, for they raise the senseless prospect of rationally justifying something of which the property "justified" cannot possibly be predicated. World-pictures, as the ground of certainty, cannot themselves be classified as either true or false, for "if the true is what is grounded, then the ground is not true, nor yet false (§205). Or again, "at the foundation of well-founded belief lies belief that is not founded" (§253). Or yet again, the language-game "is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). It is there—like our life" (§559).

This is not to say that one’s world-picture cannot be significantly modified, or even radically transformed. But Wittgenstein’s key point is that rational proofs and arguments must give way to persuasion, and even intellectual conversion, as a means of embracing a different or new world-picture. For example, Wittgenstein says that if we meet a man who, due to his distinctive cultural background, was "taught that the earth came into being 50 years ago, and therefore believed this," then "we might instruct him" in various ways. But in doing so "we should be trying to give him our picture of the world [Weltbild]. This would happen through a kind of persuasion" (§262). Or if a king was "brought up in the belief that the world began with him," Wittgenstein does not think that the right view could be proven to the king. Rather, he would have to be converted to the right view in a special way. In being "brought to look at the world in a different way," his world-picture would consequently have shifted (§92). And if we want to understand how physicists might persuade those who consult oracles, of the truth of the laws of physics, Wittgenstein advises us to "think what happens when missionaries convert natives" (§612).

Wittgenstein thinks it highly significant "that one is sometimes convinced of the correctness of a view by its simplicity or symmetry, i.e., these are what induce one to go over to this point of view. One then simply says something like: ‘That’s how it must be.’ " (§92). A sort of duck-to-rabbit gestalt switch takes place, as the new world-picture is shown (not proven) to the individual.

Now as G.H. von Wright (one of the editors of On Certainty) points out, Wittgenstein’s account of persuasion and conversion to a Weltbild is strikingly similar to Thomas Kuhn’s account of revolutionary shifts in scientific paradigms.[5] For Kuhn, different paradigms are conflicting, and therefore incommensurable, sets of scientific standards. Because a paradigm sets the standards of rationality and acceptance for scientific theories, linear proofs for paradigms are logically impossible; inherently circular exhibitions of a paradigm’s properties must be made, so that the person says, with Wittgenstein, "That’s how the world must be." Compare Wittgenstein’s assessment of the situation with Kuhn’s, which follows it:

What we call historical evidence points to the existence of the earth a long time before my birth;—the opposite hypothesis has nothing on its side. Well, if everything speaks for an hypothesis and nothing against it—is it then certainly true? One may designate it as such.—But does it certainly agree with reality, with the facts?—With this question you are already going around in a circle (§§190-91).

[The choice] between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life. Because it has that character, the choice is not and cannot be determined merely by the evaluative procedures characteristic of normal science, for these depend in part upon a particular paradigm, and that paradigm is at issue. When paradigms enter, as they must, into a debate about paradigm choice, their role is necessarily circular. Each group uses its own paradigm to argue in that paradigm’s defense.

The resulting circularity does not, of course, make the arguments wrong or even ineffectual. The man who premises a paradigm when arguing in its defense can nonetheless provide a clear exhibit of what scientific practice will be like for those who adopt the new view of nature. That exhibit can be immensely persuasive, often compellingly so. Yet, whatever its force, the status of the circular argument is only that of persuasion. . . [I]n paradigm choice there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community.[6]

Note the Wittgensteinian themes of community, persuasion, circularity, and paradigm in Kuhn’s account. For Kuhn, paradigm-shift involves a type of "gestalt switch," wherein a picture of a duck is now seen to be that of a rabbit.[7] Similarly for Wittgenstein, we shall stick to the opinion that the earth is round, "unless our whole way of seeing nature changes" (§291). Kuhn acknowledges a traditional "philosophical paradigm initiated by Descartes," i.e. foundationalism. And yet he notes, in a possible allusion to Wittgenstein, that "today research in parts of philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and even art history, all converge to suggest that the traditional paradigm is somehow askew."[8]

The above excursion into Kuhn is simply meant to illustrate and better articulate Wittgenstein’s doctrine of Weltbild transformation, by seeing how a later philosopher has successfully applied the same basic idea to a popularly conceived model of certainty—the natural sciences—and drawn out its consequences accordingly.

IV. Norman Malcolm’s Wittgensteinian Fideism

It must be kept in mind that neither Wittgenstein nor Kuhn were Christian in their thinking. But one philosopher who has skillfully adapted Wittgenstein’s concept of Weltbild to problems of religious justification and persuasion is Norman Malcolm. In his essay The Groundlessness of Belief (quoted earlier), Malcolm agrees with Wittgenstein that the old foundationalist sense of "justification" can only be applied within a language-game, and not to one:

Within a language-game there is justification and lack of justification, evidence and proof, mistakes and groundless opinions, good and bad reasoning, correct measurements and incorrect ones. One cannot properly apply these terms to a language-game itself. It may, however, be said to be "groundless," not in the sense of a groundless opinion, but in the sense that we accept it, we live it. We can say, "This is what we do. This is how we are."[9]

Malcolm then identifies two basic "systems of thought": religious, and scientific. And although "[w]ithin the framework of each system there is criticism, explanation, justification. . . we should not expect that there might be some sort of rational justification of the framework itself." This conclusion is why Malcolm is often labeled a Wittgensteinian fideist, for he repudiates any attempt at the rational justification of a religious point of view (Christian or otherwise).

How then is an unbeliever to be led into a state of belief, according to Malcolm’s approach? Not through proof or argumentation, for these wrongly try to present grounds for what is inherently groundless. Rather, such individuals can be persuaded to embrace particular religious doctrines through a two-step process. First, they are caused to have a religious viewpoint:

Education, culture, family upbringing, can foster a way of seeing the world. A personal disaster can destroy, or produce, religious belief. Religious people often think of their own belief as a result of God’s intervention in their lives."[10]

Second, the religious viewpoint they have received then helps them to correctly interpret the evidence and reasoning for specific religious dogmas, evidence which is presented by the apologist: "I think there can be evidence for the particular doctrines of a faith only within the attitude of religious belief."[11] "[P]roffered phenomena or reasoning cannot have religious import for him unless he has at least an inclination toward a religious Weltbild. This is the necessary medium, the atmosphere, within which these ‘evidences’ can have religious significance."[12]

So what positive conclusions can we draw for Christian apologetic witness from Malcolm’s discussion? First, there is no ultimate, rock-bottom, rational justification for religious doctrines, in the sense that earlier apologists purported to give one. Rather, as with his secular counterparts Wittgenstein and Kuhn, proof must give way to persuasion, and grounds must give way to causes. Second, religious people have nothing to fear from the outside attacks of unbelieving science or history. For Christianity is just as rational as any other system of interpreting the world.[13] Third, only within a religious Weltbild (which may be a "result of God’s intervention in their lives") can the presentation of subsequent evidence for God and his truth make any sense: "unless he already shares that [religious] vision in some degree, he will not take your examples in the way you want him to take them."[14]

The above are valuable insights in their own right. But upon reflection they do not go far enough, and so Christians who desire to apply them should be wary of some severe limitations to Malcolm’s brand of Wittgensteinian fideism. First, his generic concept of a "religious" language-game is much too broad to serve any purpose towards Christian conversion. It is not a substantive enough conception to adequately interpret the evidence that is presented to the unbeliever. Any notion of religious belief that can embrace both Christianity and Buddhism[15] is unwarrantably vague and ultimately unhelpful. Are Buddhists supposed to be able to adequately interpret the meaning of the New Testament Gospels, for instance, simply because they embrace this "attitude of religious belief"?

A second, perhaps related, criticism is that Malcolm makes an unnecessarily forced distinction between "religious" language-games and other (e.g. scientific) language-games. If the truth be told, all language-games have a religious character, in the sense that religious language is both ordinary (descriptive of all aspects of life) and odd (often resisting verification).[16] Thus, "the great divide is best formulated not as a difference between religion and science, nor between neutral and religious language, but between belief and unbelief."[17]

Third, Malcolm’s concept of causation of, and persuasion to, religious belief needs to be supplemented by an understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who takes away our rationalizations by leading us from mere "seeing" to "seeing as".[18] It is the Holy Spirit who transforms our perception of the crucified Christ from that of a stumbling block or foolishness into "Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1Co 1:23-24). The Spirit’s role must be acknowledged, because "the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1Co 2:14). The Holy Spirit uses means to accomplish his task of conversion, so that the way he intervenes in a person’s life may be through the "education, culture, family upbringing, [or] personal disaster" Malcolm previously mentioned.

Fourth, it seems that the Christian would want to say more than that Christianity is "just as rational" as any unbelieving Weltbild. The Christian, if he desires to remain faithful to the statements of Scripture on this point, would indeed want to say something stronger: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and knowledge" (Pr 1:7); "The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ " (Ps 14:1); "For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom" (1Co 1:25); and "the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight" (1Co 3:19). Here Christianity is portrayed, not as a mere peer among rational equals, nor even as simply more rational than its godless alternatives, but rather as the only rational, intelligent, wise way of looking at the world. Indeed, these verses seem to imply that commitment to and dependence upon God’s word and wisdom is constitutive of rationality itself!

V. Greg Bahnsen’s Transcendental Argumentation

One thinker who vigorously rises to the challenge of this last criticism of Malcolm is Dr. Greg Bahnsen. In many ways Bahnsen acknowledges, and applies in his apologetics, the epistemological shift detailed above. Thus he adopts the fundamental conclusion that persuasion must ultimately be circular, not linear.[19] And he similarly believes, with Malcolm, that evidence for faith can only be properly interpreted from within a framework of faith. But Bahnsen also believes (contra the earlier discussion) that proof can be given for the framework of Christian faith, proof that will exclude all alternate Weltbilden from rational consideration.

Now this is a startling claim, at least at first glance. It combines the earlier (stronger?) foundationalist conception of "proof" with the more modern (and modest) recognition of mere persuasion through circular exhibition of the evidence. Bahnsen has presented this proof for the Christian faith several times in public debate, calling it a "transcendental argument for the existence of God."[20] It is basically a form of reductio ad absurdum, which seeks to show that all non-Christian views of the world reduce to contradiction and meaninglessness. To paraphrase Bahnsen’s basic position in the recorded debates: "The proof for Christian theism is a proof from the impossibility of the contrary. That is, unless one presupposes the existence of the Christian God, there is no rational justification for laws of logic, induction, and moral principles. The non-Christian is not able to account for the universality, normativity, and objectivity of logical, scientific, and ethical laws. Without God, he is ultimately left with chaos and meaninglessness." And so throughout the ensuing debate, Bahnsen repeatedly tags the unbeliever with an inability to justify his belief in and use of logic, induction, and ethics.

Now, we must surely praise this argument for the many good insights it contains, insights which in some respects make it superior to Malcolm’s approach. First, Bahnsen’s argument reveals to us that he is well aware of the fact that the task of the apologist is not simply to get the unbeliever to believe in the existence of God. In contrast to most earlier foundationalist approaches to theistic argument, the unbeliever is not simply being asked to add one more item to his ontology which he had previously left unacknowledged, in the same way one can acknowledge the existence of a new species of zebras in Africa. Rather, the task of the apologist is to get the unbeliever to subscribe to an entirely different view of the world, wherein belief in God changes one’s understanding of everything else in the world—changes it in a way in which belief in the existence of African zebras presumably does not. His belief in God will "connect up with" his belief in logic, induction, morality, etc., in a deep, illuminating, and explanatory way. He will thus come to see the world, not simply as a world with a God, but as God’s world—which will make a world of difference to him!

Second (and this is where Bahnsen’s approach is clearly superior to Malcolm’s), his argument seeks to do justice to the biblical passages quoted in connection with the final criticism of Malcolm above. It seeks to persuade the unbeliever that God’s wisdom is, in the final analysis, the only wisdom worthy of the name. It will not leave the unbeliever in the mistaken belief that his own unbelieving language-game is "just as rational" as that of the Christian. It will instead set forth Paul’s rhetorical questions in all their probing fullness: "Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" (1Co 1:20)

VI. Difficulties With Bahnsen’s Transcendental "Proof"

And yet, while acknowledging all of the good intentions which Bahnsen’s reductio is designed to fulfill, including its explicitly biblical intentions, we must equally consider, has the impossibility of the contrary really been demonstrated through this argument? Has Bahnsen really strengthened the circular method of persuasion into actual, incontrovertible proof? At least two criticisms can be made here, one concerning the inherent incompleteness of an inductive approach, the other concerning the logical role of a brute fact.[21]

First, Bahnsen’s frequently equivocating language at crucial points in these debates leads one to suspect that not even Bahnsen himself really believes he has achieved a logical demonstration of the Christian worldview, despite initial claims to the contrary. Thus when Bahnsen explains why it is necessary for the abstract, universal laws of logic to be derived from the transcendent nature of God—instead of simply assuming with the secularist the transcendental nature of logic on its own—Bahnsen says (emphasis mine), "it seems to me you need to have a world view in which the laws of logic are meaningful" or "I believe that Christianity provides [a meaningful account of logic], and I just can’t find any other one that competes with it that way." And here we must ask: has he really demonstrated the impossibility of the contrary? Indeed, can that impossibility really be demonstrated through a merely inductive analysis of a finite series of alternate world views that present themselves to us in the context of a debate? Is he not, through such an analysis, simply expressing his faith that all possible forms of the contrary are impossible? For how could all possible alternate world views be examined one by one? Or, barring that, how could it be shown that all alternate world views are in principle impossible? Presumably the reason that they are wrong is not that they are simply different from Christianity, but because of some other, more specific, feature which characterizes each of them. No one would want to be caught saying, "World view #739 is wrong because it is different from Christianity." The argument would have to be more cogent, and less viciously circular, than that. Anybody is able to argue for the impossibility of the contrary if they are allowed to (1) premise their own worldview at the outset, and (2) stipulate from within their worldview that all opposing positions are impossible! (Especially if they need not actually make that stipulation cogent with respect to all other world views.)[22]

Second, we must ask whether Bahnsen has cogently (i.e., non-arbitrarily) decided the issue in the "battle of the brute facts" (logic vs. God). Bahnsen counters the secularist’s own supposition of logic (or induction, or ethics) as a brute fact by positing God as the brute fact which then explains logic.[23] But the question still remains: why does the unbeliever need to account for logic, but the believer doesn’t need to similarly account for God? Isn’t there a disparity in epistemic responsibility between the Christian and the secularist? Consider the formal (not substantive) similarity between this type of transcendental argument, and the traditional theistic arguments (from existence, design, morality, etc.):

Argument #1: Transcendental

Argument #2: Traditional

a. the universal, normative character of the laws of logic must be accounted for.

a. the existence (or apparent design, or moral facts, etc.) of the universe must be accounted for.

b. only the existence of the Christian God can account for the universal, normative character of the laws of logic.

b. only the existence of the Christian God can account for the existence (or apparent design, or moral facts, etc.) of the universe.

c. therefore, God exists (for the contrary is impossible, as it leaves the laws of logic—and all our reasoning—unaccounted for).

c. therefore, God exists (for the contrary is impossible, as it leaves the existence (or apparent design, or moral facts, etc.) of the universe unaccounted for).

Premise (a) of argument #1 can be denied, by simply assuming the transcendental nature of logic and thereby denying the necessity of a further account. Premise (a) of argument #2 can be denied (as was done by Hume, Russell and others) by simply assuming the eternal existence of the universe and thereby denying the necessity of a further account.

(As an aside, premise (b) of each argument can also be denied, on the grounds that the "only" in each premise is an indemonstrable qualifier. As was said under the first main criticism concerning the inherent incompleteness of induction, how do we know that only the Christian God can account for these things?)

Now denials of premises (a) and (b) are the typical attacks that have been made upon the traditional theistic arguments, and—Occam’s Razor playing no favorites—I do not see why parallel attacks cannot be made upon the transcendental argument. Thus it seems that the fallacy of each argument stems from the common structure the arguments share. In each argument the necessity of a higher level of explanation is only asserted by the Christian theist, but not defended. Now to be sure, the existence of God is compatible with the existence of the laws of logic and with the existence of the universe. With this harmless claim the secularist has no problem. But, he asks, whence the necessity of the former for the latter? This was after all implied in the original claim concerning "the impossibility of the contrary."

VII. Bahnsen’s Underlying Method: Apologetics as Explanation

So what’s going on here? What is Bahnsen really doing, if he is not demonstrating the impossibility of the contrary in his debates? I propose that Bahnsen is still doing something quite valuable: he is trying to persuade the unbeliever to convert to a new, Christian view of the world by (to paraphrase the earlier Kuhn quote) premising that view of the world and then exhibiting to the unbeliever what reasoning, science, and morality will be like for those who adopt this new view. He is also seeking to show how absurd the unbeliever’s worldview looks to the Christian. But the one thing he is not doing—in the midst of all of this persuading and converting and showing—is demonstrating to the unbeliever that all non-Christian alternatives are impossible. Alas, although all demonstrations may be persuasive (at least to a properly-situated audience!), not all persuasions are actually demonstrative (of what is actually the case), as any ex-cult member will be ready to acknowledge.

In fact, what Bahnsen is utilizing throughout his debates is a new variation on the very old theme of apologetics as explanation. This was hinted at earlier when it was remarked that Bahnsen’s desire was for his opponent to see how his "belief in God will ‘connect up with’ his belief in logic, induction, morality, etc., in a deep, illuminating, and explanatory way." Whereas in traditional apologetics an appeal was commonly made to God as an explanation for the existence of the diverse and sensible phenomena observed in the universe (design, morality, or the existence of being itself), Bahnsen now is—through his "new" transcendental apologetic—making an appeal to God as a sufficient warrant for either the epistemic certainty of a particular truth-claim (e.g. ethics), or the intelligibility of a particular epistemological practice (e.g. induction). That is, the God-of-the-physical-gaps has metamorphosed into the God-of-the-epistemological-gaps.

Consider the following imaginary (though I believe plausible) exchange between Bahnsen (B) and the secularist (S):

(B) You can’t know that induction is rationally justified, unless you’re willing to acknowledge the God who guarantees the rationality of induction.

(S) But why not? Consider this analogy: Can’t I know that the shape of a marble is spherical without understanding or even acknowledging the molecular structure which underlies it and gives it that particular shape? Similarly, can’t I know some things about induction without knowing all things about it? Is my knowledge false, or not genuine, simply because it is not infinite or exhaustive?

(B) No, our knowledge does not need to be infinite to be genuine. But as a Christian, even if I don’t know all things about X, I know that God knows all things about X, and thus I know that God vouchsafes to me conclusions concerning X for which I myself don’t have an explicit argument. As for you, holding as you do to a Godless worldview, you really don’t have knowledge that induction is rational, but only a knowledge-claim, which reduces to an ungrounded, unjustified opinion.

(S) But the very thing at issue is what constitutes the rational justification for knowledge-claims, and which knowledge-claims need to be so justified! You can’t simply invoke your God-criterion to prove your case against me. That’s a vicious circle with no persuasive power at all!

What (S) is pointing out is the epistemological God-of-the-gaps which often emerges in Bahnsen’s (and some other Van Tilians’) style of argumentation. The Christian is not required to explicitly state all the steps for his argument for God, for he somehow knows that although "the argument may be poorly stated, and may never be adequately stated," it is still the case that "in itself the argument is absolutely sound."[24] But why the non-Christian cannot also build this same type of luxury into his own worldview at some point, is left unsaid.[25]

VIII. Apologetics as Explanation: The Shift From Old to New

At one time traditional theists tried to explain the complexity of certain features of the universe by reference to the designing power of God. Or they tried to explain the existence of the universe by reference to the creating activity of God. Or they tried to explain our moral intuitions—the system of judgments they form, their stubborn resistance to assimilation into a purely subjectivistic outlook—by reference to God as moral lawgiver to the creatures he has made in his image. Now the shift away from these sensible phenomena, towards more epistemological considerations, seems to be in vogue. Thus one tries to explain the rationality of commitment to induction, and to scientific law, by reference to various aspects of God’s providential ordering, and to his sustaining the various features, of his creation through time. Or one explains the universality and normativity of logical laws, by appealing to certain aspects of God’s character, or the Trinity.[26]

It would make for a very interesting historical study to try to investigate why this explanatory shift from sensible phenomena to epistemic practice has occurred within some schools of Christian apologetics. The precise dating of the shift in Christian apologetic strategy from "God as explanation of experienced (sensible) phenomena" to "God as warrant for epistemic practice" would be hard to pin down, though presumably the shift was induced by an increasing sophistication in the counterarguments of atheistic apologetics. Some might take the watershed "inducers" to be Darwin and other evolutionists, who proposed alternative, non-theistic, explanations of the aforementioned sensible phenomena.[27] As a result,

Many people, including many theologians, are deeply prejudiced against any theistic argument based on a claim that science cannot explain something. Immensely (and rightly) impressed by the success of modern science in explaining the phenomena of nature, they judge it reasonable to assume that any remaining "gaps" in the scientific explanation of the world can in principle, and very likely will in fact, be filled by the continuing advance of science. A "god of the gaps," postulated to account for things that science cannot yet explain, seems to them a monarch of an inexorably dwindling realm, and doomed to be dethroned.[28]

But if science can explain every sensible phenomena, then what in turn explains science? Thus scientific success may lead reflective Christian apologists to kick the epistemological stakes higher, to consider the very presuppositions of science (e.g. induction).

Still others, in this possible historical inquiry, might trace the turning point earlier than Darwin, to Hume and Kant, who were skeptical about the possibility of human access to genuine[29] explanation—theistic or otherwise—of such phenomena. Thus the attention of the Christian apologist may invariably turn from knowledge as such to the pre-conditions of knowledge, i.e. its transcendental requirements.

Now apologetics as explanation, old or new, is not apologetics as proof. Consider Richard Swinburne’s defense of scientific unobservables that are posited as an explanation for sensible phenomena:

[I]t is no objection to explaining X by Y that we cannot explain Y. . . Scientists have always thought it reasonable to postulate entities merely to explain effects, so long as the postulated entities accounted simply and coherently for the characteristics of the effects. The existence of molecules with their characteristic behavior was "no more to be accounted for" than observable phenomena, but the postulation of their existence gave a neat and simple explanation of a whole host of chemical and physical phenomena, and that was the justification for postulating their existence.[30]

Similarly, Swinburne argues, the supposition of God, while not explaining everything, does explain some things, and therefore fits well into a chain of explanation. But note well: if this is the case, then in what sense is God being used as a stopping point in the explanatory process? As a pragmatic stopping point? As that which gives us enough "simplicity" and "coherence" and "neatness" in our view of things, so that we can’t help but be persuaded? But then is apologetics reduced to a species of folklore, where we all sit around the campfire swapping stories—our explanations of the world—in the hope that some will take our tales as their own, through an aesthetically-induced gestalt switch? Is epistemology really a branch of anthropology or sociology?[31]

I must bring such anxious and perhaps misguided questions to an end by noting that our discussion has returned to the very point from where it began: Wittgenstein’s emphasis upon intellectual persuasion and conversion, Weltbilden and gestalts. D.Z. Phillips points out, in the article earlier referenced, that in Zettel (§314) Wittgenstein describes what he calls

a remarkable and characteristic phenomenon in philosophical investigation: the difficulty – I might say – is not that of finding the solution but rather of recognizing as the solution something that looks as if it were only a preliminary to it. ‘We have already said everything. – Not anything that follows from this, no this itself is the solution!’

This is connected, I believe, with our wrongly expecting an explanation, whereas the solution of the difficulty is a description, if we give it the right place in our considerations. If we dwell upon it, and do not try to get beyond it.

The difficulty here is: to stop.[32]

I must confess, the difficulty he describes plagues me still. For "the right place in our considerations" is an evaluative phrase, and as such points beyond itself to a scale of values as a point of reference. But stop. . . reluctantly. . . I will.

For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? (2Co 2:15-16)


[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, Basil Blackwell, 1969. All references to this volume will be by section (§) number.

[2] A language-game is essentially language embedded in action. Wittgenstein characterizes it as a given (§ 317), a form of life (§344), a set of practices common to a linguistic community that imposes restrictions on what can and cannot meaningfully be said within that community (§65). Some propositions play a peculiar logical role in the language-game (§136). They cannot be doubted, for they constitute the framework within which any doubt can be meaningful (§115). Thus no grounds for doubt exist with respect to these propositions, which taken together constitute the individual’s world-picture.

[3] D.Z. Phillips, "Wittgenstein’s Full Stop," in Perspectives on the Philosophy of Wittgenstein, Irving Block (ed.), The MIT Press, 1981, pp. 179-200. cf. Wittgenstein’s Zettel, §314.

[4] Norman Malcolm, "The Groundlessness of Belief," ch. 6 of Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, R. Douglas Geivett and Brendan Sweetman (eds.), Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 95.

[5] G.H. von Wright, Wittgenstein, University of Minnesota Press, n.d., pp. 180-81. cf. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970 (2nd ed.), especially his chapter on "Revolutions as Changes of World View," pp. 111-35.

[6] Thomas S. Kuhn (see previous footnote), p. 94, emphasis mine.

[7] ibid., pp. 114-117.

[8] ibid., p. 121. In a different context (pp. 44-45) Kuhn summarizes Wittgenstein’s argument, made in the Philosophical Investigations, that identifying certain objects only requires recognizing so-called "family resemblances," rather than a complete set of necessary and sufficient attributes.

[9] Malcolm, op. cit., p. 98.

[10] ibid., pp. 101-102.

[11] ibid., p. 101.

[12] ibid., p. 102.

[13] This conclusion, that Christianity is just as rational as contrary or opposing positions, has some affinities with Plantinga’s so-called Reformed Epistemology. But it stands in stark contrast with Bahnsen’s use of transcendental argumentation (discussed later), which seeks to demonstrate the impossibility of contrary positions.

[14] Malcolm, op. cit., p. 103.

[15] cf. Malcolm, op. cit., p. 101.

[16] cf. John Frame, "God and Biblical Language: Transcendence and Immanence," God’s Inerrant Word, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, 1974)

[17] John Frame, review of Paul L. Holmer’s The Grammar of Faith, in Westminster Theological Journal (issue no. and date not available at press time—aack!), p. 230.

[18] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1987), pp. 156-158.

[19] I am not saying that Bahnsen has derived his views from Wittgenstein, Kuhn, or Malcolm! I am only noting similarities (and dissimilarities) in crucial respects. In actuality, Bahnsen derived many of his apologetic theses from Cornelius Van Til, whose discussion of these matters anticipated significantly that of the aforementioned thinkers.

[20] Bahnsen’s recorded debates with atheist activist Gordon Stein (at UC Irvine), and atheist ACLU lawyer Edward Tabash (at UC Davis) are available from Covenant Tape Ministry. Due to the dearth of publically-accessible printed material by Bahnsen on apologetics, the following discussion of his version of the transcendental argument is limited to the above-mentioned taped debates.

[21] Although some of following material has been previously worked out in an informal fashion by the author, this is the first time it appears in the context of a formal essay.

[22] Steven Hays (in personal correspondence with this writer) tries to argue that "there is no rational alternative to the Christian world-view because, if you deny the sovereign God of Scripture—a God sovereign in His self-subsistence, self-sufficiency, perfection, knowledge, power, wisdom, will, and goodness—the only alternative is recourse to an irrational, impersonal Absolute as your final reference point, and that is not a rational alternative" (emphasis mine). But (a) a subargument is needed as to why the sovereign God of Scripture (as opposed to the Koran, etc.) is the only rational and personal Absolute available for serious consideration, and (b) the rationality of a final reference point is being confused with the rationality of using that reference point as an alternative to the God of Scripture. Matter, for instance, may not be rational in itself, but I can certainly use matter for all sorts of rational purposes (such as explaining the behavior of the brain). And there is no necessary connection between the non-rationality of the reference point, and the rationality of its use as an explanation in various contexts.

[23] I take "brute fact" to be a fact which needs no further account or justification beyond itself. I assume God needs no further account (according to the Christian), and logic needs no further account (according to many secularists).

[24] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1955; revised and abridged, 1963), p. 200.

[25] Frame uses the above quote from Van Til to introduce his evidence/argument distinction: "Van Til should have said, ‘the evidence for God is absolutely certain, but not necessarily the arguments.’ " (Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction [class syllabus], p. 42.) But such a distinction seems to me to border on a category mistake. Certainty attaches to propositions, not evidence as such. Evidence simply is (or is not!). Now it is true that the presence of evidence can help make propositions certain. But evidence itself can only be said to be certain insofar as its character or quality is expressed by way of a proposition. If this is so, then the distinction between evidence and propositions with respect to certainty collapses.

[26] Steven Hays’ untitled apologetic prolegomenon for the class on Contemporary Apologetics attempts to show how only the Christian worldview competently makes intelligible the one and the many, the philosophy of mathematics, the subject/object relation in nature and logic, the actual infinite, knowledge of sensibles, the polarity of human existence, knowlege of intelligibles, time, change, motion, personal identity, and the relation between essence and existence in the creature. And this all in the first eight pages! Certainly his introductory remark, that "such an endeavor is ambitious, so that certain elements of it must be taken as tentative" is somewhat of an understatement.

[27] Thus evolutionary explanations of design (byproduct of natural selection), the human conscience (survival mechanism), and even existence itself (the Big Bang, or other naturalistic cosmogonies) were to eventuate as applications of Darwin’s original principles.

[28] Robert M. Adams, "Flavors, Colors, and God," ch. 16 of Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, R. Douglas Geivett and Brendan Sweetman (eds.), Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 231-232.

[29] By "genuine" explanation I mean explanation which explains appearances in terms of reality, the phenomenal in terms of the noumenal, the things as they appear to us in terms of the things in themselves.

[30] Richard Swinburne, "The Argument from Design," ch. 14 of Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, R. Douglas Geivett and Brendan Sweetman (eds.), Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 208-209.

[31] I am reminded here of a bit of personal testimony, that it was C.S. Lewis’ Christian interpretation of the facts of the moral universe, in the opening chapters of his Mere Christianity, that resonated so strongly within me as a primary means to my Christian conversion. Do I class Lewis’ "story" as a groundless interpretation, groundless in Malcolm’s sense of the term? Or was it my God-given nature bearing witness to the truth?

[32] D.Z. Phillips, op. cit., p. 179.

© 1999 Greg Welty

Last Revised: 19 July 1999