Does Presuppositionalism Confuse Ontology and Epistemology?

Occasionally one hears classical apologists (especially those of a Thomist persuasion) claim that presuppositionalists are guilty of “confusing ontology and epistemology” or “confusing the order of being and the order of knowing.” R. C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, Richard Howe, and Steven Cowan are among those who have leveled this charge.1 In this post, I want to explain why I think the objection itself is confused.

Let’s start with some representative comments from Dr. Geisler:

The basic difference between Van Til and Aquinas is that while they both agree ontologically that all truth depends on God, Van Til fails to fully appreciate the fact that finite people must ask epistemologically how we know this to be a fact. In short, Van Til confuses the order of being and the order of knowing. […] If there is a theistic God, then surely everything Van Til says is true. But we cannot beg the whole question and merely assume or presuppose the theistic God of Christianity. Our presuppositions cannot be arbitrary, or our apologetics is merely an arbitrary way of begging the question.2

Dr. Howe concurs and offers an analogy to reinforce the point:

What the Presuppositionalist has confused here is the difference between the order of knowing and the order of being; or, if you will, the difference between a certain metaphysical consideration and a certain epistemological consideration.

a. Take as an example the illustration of a map to Atlanta. In the order of being, there would have to be the city of Atlanta before there could be a map showing one how to get to Atlanta. Thus, in the order of being, Atlanta is first.

b. However, in order to find one’s way to Atlanta, one might need a map. Thus, in the order of knowing, the map is first.

c. In the theistic argument debate, the theist certainly sees that in the order of being God is first, since, if God is the creator of all things besides Himself, then, if there was not a God, there would be nothing else at all, not even an argument for God.

d. But in the order of knowing, it might be the case that one would need a “map” to God, i.e., a theistic argument.

e. Just as using a map to find Atlanta says nothing amiss about the metaphysical priority of Atlanta to the map, likewise, to use a theistic argument to find God says nothing amiss about the metaphysical priority of God to the argument.3

So what exactly is the presuppositionalist’s mistake? Here’s my best reconstruction. As fellow Christian theists, the classicalist and the presuppositionalist agree that God holds ontological priority in all things. God alone is self-existent, the source of all existence, the first cause of all other beings. There’s no dispute on that point. The classical apologist, however, says that when it comes to knowing God, we cannot simply start with God. We have to start with reason and sense experience, with basic logical principles and immediate observations of the world, and from that epistemological launchpad infer that God exists. Thus, while God must be first in the “order of being,” reason and sense experience must be first in the “order of knowing.”

In contrast (so the objection goes) the presuppositionalist insists that we have to “presuppose God” or “presuppose God’s Word” in order to know God or to argue for God’s existence. But that’s begging the question, the classicalist objects. We can’t know that God exists by merely assuming that God exists. We have to start with something other than God, namely, reason and sense experience, which can serve as common ground between the believer and the unbeliever. Contrary to confused presuppositionalists like Van Til, God cannot be epistemologically prior even though God is ontologically (metaphysically) prior.

Before I explain where this criticism goes awry, we should note that the “order of being” versus “order of knowing” distinction has its roots in Thomism. Aquinas was basically an empiricist (of the Aristotelian kind) who held that our knowledge of God must be a posteriori. (This is one reason why he rejected Anselm’s a priori ontological argument for God’s existence.) For Aquinas, God cannot be known directly; he can only be known indirectly by way of his effects. To know God, we must reason from effect (creation) to cause (Creator) — hence the Five Ways. Thus, while God is ontologically prior (the first cause of all things) he is epistemologically posterior (known by an effect-to-cause inference from his works of creation and providence).

If you’re a Thomist who is committed to this framing scheme, so it’s no surprise that you’ll think presuppositionalists (who characteristically take issue with Thomism) have confused ontology and epistemology. But why accept those Thomist assumptions in the first place? In principle, there’s no reason why we couldn’t have an immediate, non-inferential knowledge of God. Consider, for example, William Alston’s defense of the claim that we can have an immediate experiential awareness of God, or Alvin Plantinga’s argument for non-inferentially warranted beliefs about God by way of the sensus divinitatis.4 Presuppositionalists could adopt either of these accounts, or any of various other accounts of immediate, intuitive natural knowledge of God.

Moreover, as Reformed epistemologists have emphasized, there’s an important difference between knowing God’s existence and demonstrating God’s existence. The latter is the concern of apologetics. But the means by which we know God’s existence need not be the means by which we show God’s existence. Classical apologists, especially Thomists such as Geisler and Howe, have a tendency to conflate the two (e.g., in their application of the “order of being” versus “order of knowing” distinction to the question of apologetic methodology).

Anyway, all this is background context. What of the objection itself? As the quote from Dr. Geisler indicates, the charge that presuppositionalists “confuse ontology and epistemology” is arguably just a variation of the old “presuppositionalism argues in a circle” or “presuppositionalism begs the question” objection, which has been addressed ad nauseam by presuppositionalists. Put simply, the criticism confuses a premise of an argument with a presupposition of an argument. Presuppositionalists don’t demand that unbelievers take “the God of the Bible exists” or “the Bible is God’s Word” as a premise and then — voilà! — deduce that very premise as a conclusion. Rather, they argue that our very ability to reason presupposes a certain worldview, a worldview founded on the God of the Bible and his works of creation, providence, revelation, and redemption. Since I’ve rebutted the charge of question-begging before, I won’t say any more about it here.

However, there’s another way to see why the Thomist objection is mistaken. Van Til doesn’t confuse ontology and epistemology, precisely because his central argument for biblical theism depends on a distinction between the two. Van Til’s transcendental argument for God (TAG) is an epistemological argument for an ontological conclusion: it aims to show that the existence of God (ontology) is a necessary precondition of human knowledge (epistemology).

Consider these statements by Van Til about his presuppositional method:

It is the firm conviction of every epistemologically self-conscious Christian that no human being can utter a single syllable, whether in negation or affirmation, unless it were for God’s existence. Thus the transcendental argument seeks to discover what sort of foundations the house of human knowledge must have, in order to be what it is.5

[T]he argument for Christianity must therefore be that of presupposition. With Augustine it must be maintained that God’s revelation is the sun from which all other light derives. The best, the only, the absolutely certain proof of the truth of Christianity is that unless its truth be presupposed there is no proof of anything. Christianity is proved as being the very foundation of the idea of proof itself.6

Whether or not one buys into Van Til’s argument, it ought to be clear what he’s intending to argue, viz., that God’s existence is a metaphysical precondition of human knowledge and rational argument. In an important sense, Van Til does start with reason and sense experience. He starts with the assumption (which both believer and unbeliever have to grant in practice) that human knowledge is possible. But that’s merely the proximate starting point of the argument; it isn’t a claim about our ultimate epistemological authority. Van Til is saying, in effect, “We agree that there is a ‘house’ of human knowledge, but let’s consider what metaphysical foundations that ‘house’ must have in order to stand.” In other words, we need to reflect on what kind of ontology is necessary for a successful epistemology.

In short, there’s no confusion of ontology and epistemology in Van Til’s argument. The two are distinguished and related just as they should be.

Folded MapFinally, let’s revisit Dr. Howe’s map analogy. His distinction between “the city of Atlanta” and “a map to Atlanta” is helpful for understanding the Thomist approach. The city must exist prior to the map (“order of being”), but if one is to find Atlanta, one has to begin with the map (“order of knowing”).

The implication, however, is that presuppositionalists somehow get the city and the map mixed up. Perhaps they say that one has to start in the city in order to use the map — or worse, that there’s no real distinction between the city and the map!

But this isn’t at all how the presuppositionalist sees things. If we’re going to apply the map analogy, we should understand that the presuppositionalist wants to press this line of inquiry:

What accounts for the fact that we have a map in the first place?

How are maps even possible and available to us?

What must be the case for there to be any maps at all?

The answer isn’t hard to discern: There must be a Cartographer. The existence of a Cartographer — a designer, producer, and distributor of maps — is a necessary precondition of our having maps in general (whether a map to Atlanta, London, Timbuktu, or wherever).

So in terms of Dr. Howe’s map analogy, the salient difference can be put as follows. The classical apologist, with his traditional theistic arguments, says:

Look, here’s a map! Let’s see where we end up if we follow it.

The presuppositionalist, with his transcendental argument, says:

Look, here’s a map! How is it even possible that we have such a thing?

We don’t even need to follow the map to know that it presupposes the existence of a Cartographer. In fact, the analogy can be milked a little further. The presuppositionalist will point out that the map doesn’t have an independent authority of its own. Any authority the map possesses derives from its author, which is to say, from its creator. Moreover, the map should be used only as its creator intended it to be used.

Far from confusing ontology and epistemology, then, the presuppositionalist seeks to expose a deeper relationship between them than the classical apologist does.

  1. R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Zondervan, 1984), 229-230; Norman L. Geisler, Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Baker Book House, 1991), 17-18; Richard G. Howe, “Some Brief Critical Thoughts on Presuppositionalism” (2006); Steven B. Cowan, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” in Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder, eds., In Defense of the Bible (B&H Academic, 2013), 432.
  2. Geisler, Thomas Aquinas, 18.
  3. Howe, “Some Brief Critical Thoughts on Presuppositionalism,” III.A.3.
  4. William P. Alston, Perceiving God (Cornell University Press, 1991); Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000).
  5. Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (P&R, 1977), 11.
  6. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (P&R, 3rd ed., 1967), 298.

9 thoughts on “Does Presuppositionalism Confuse Ontology and Epistemology?”

  1. Owen Anderson

    Hi James, good article with useful clarifications. I agree with this from the article: “Rather, they argue that our very ability to reason presupposes a certain worldview, a worldview founded on the God of the Bible and his works of creation, providence, revelation, and redemption.” What I would add is that this type of argument (any argument) presupposes reason in itself as the laws of thought. It is in this sense that reason is transcendental. Such arguments presuppose that it is a problem for the non-theist if their view involves a contradiction. They also presuppose that reason is ontological (laws of thought as well as laws of being) and that contradictions are not reflective of reality.

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  3. Pingback: Mid-July 2020 Presuppositional Apologetics’ Links | The Domain for Truth

  4. Thanks for writing this, it was super helpful to clarify in my mind both the charge against presuppositionalism and how one might answer it!

  5. From what I’ve read by Geisler, he’s a kook and NWRT, as the internet lingo goes.

    Howe is different, as he actually has some thoughtful things to say about the subject. I’m sure he gets some stuff wrong, but there are a couple of things he says that I agree with. One thing in particular is this:

    “…for all the energy spent by those who try to champion the Presuppositionalist method, most of the discussion is wasted since very often it ends up that the Presuppositionalist uses the apologetic method of the Classical approach.”

    Consider for instance your own argument from logic with Greg Welty. This is a deductive-form argument with premises that you support via sub-arguments. In that sense, it’s structured no differently (as far as I can see) than any of the standard classical theistic arguments.

    So, I don’t think he’s accusing you of begging the question here. Instead, he thinks presuppositionalists are just mischaracterizing their own approach, by taking it to be something special and unique when it’s really just the usual sort of ‘premises-to-conclusion’ argumentation we all know and love.

    1. Hi Ben,

      Sorry for the long delay in replying. In brief: I think there is something distinctive about TAG, but not its logical form. (I know some presuppositionalists take a different view; I disagree with them.) TAG has to be formulated as a deductive argument. What’s distinctive about it is that, unlike classical theistic arguments, it doesn’t take merely take the possibility of reason and argumentation for granted, but rather seeks to expose the preconditions of reason and argumentation as such in order to demonstrate the epistemological necessity of theism. Like all transcendental arguments, it’s anti-skeptical in its orientation: it employs a retorsive strategy to show that the skeptic (in this case, the skeptic about God’s existence) has to tacitly presuppose the very thing that he doubts. There are other ways to draw a contrast between TAG and the classical theistic arguments, but that will do for now. The point is that the contrast doesn’t lie in a difference of mere logical form.

  6. Let me add one other thing about the circular reasoning charge. This has been leveled by William Lane Craig, for instance, in the *Five Views* book where he responds to John Frame. As a sweeping criticism of all presuppositionalism, perhaps it is too strong. In particular, I haven’t noticed you ever begging the question. But there seems to be little doubt that Frame does. He writes:

    “But are we not still forced to say, ‘God exists (presupposition), therefore God exists (conclusion),’ and isn’t that argument clearly circular? Yes, in a way. But that is unavoidable for any system, any worldview. … One cannot argue for an ultimate standard by appealing to a different standard. That would be inconsistent. So there is a kind of circle here.”

    For Frame, he is self-consciously engaged in circular reasoning, but he just thinks that’s somehow okay in this case. And this view is shared by others, for instance Sye Ten Bruggencate and the Pastor Dustin Segers, who openly refer to their apologetics reasoning as ‘virtuously circular’.

    I guess you want to repudiate such views, which is good. And then you maybe also want to say that theirs is a distortion of ‘true’ Van Tilian apologetics. Fair enough—then Craig’s criticism wouldn’t apply to you, in that case. But I don’t think it’s correct to say it never applies to presuppositionalism at all. Some presuppositionalists really do engage in circular, question-begging forms of reasoning. And some of them even admit it!

    1. A few things to say here.

      1. I’m a huge Frame fan, but I don’t think he makes the circularity point in the most helpful way here. I agree with his claim about arguing for ultimate standards; that seems unavoidable for any consistent system of thought. But his “God exists, therefore God exists” example is misleading because it’s a viciously circular argument that has no rational traction. I’ve discussed the charge of question-begging previously here. The important point is to distinguish between the premises of an argument and the presuppositions of an argument.

      2. Many philosophers do recognize a distinction between viciously circular (“question begging”) arguments and virtuously circular arguments (where ultimate standards/sources have to be vindicated in part by appealing to those standards/sources, or where the truth of the conclusion is presupposed in some non-trivial sense by one or more of the premises, as is the case in some transcendental arguments). See, e.g., the IEP entry on “Epistemic Circularity”. So presuppositionalists aren’t out on a limb here.

      3. That said, I don’t think presuppositionalists have always done a good job of defending the notion of virtuous circular reasoning. And as you say, there are indeed some popular presuppositionalists “who really do engage in circular, question-begging forms of reasoning.” Needless to say, I do not endorse every argument employed by every self-designated presuppositionalist. :)

  7. James, feel free to delete my previous response. This one is identical. The difference is this one has link through my name to my blog, which touches on Ben’s point about transcendental arguments.

    “So, I don’t think he’s accusing you of begging the question here. Instead, he thinks presuppositionalists are just mischaracterizing their own approach, by taking it to be something special and unique when it’s really just the usual sort of ‘premises-to-conclusion’ argumentation we all know and love.”


    Of course TAG is deductive, but it is unlike other deductive arguments. What sets TAG apart from garden variety deduction is that with the latter we begin with some truths (or inferences) and reason to others – but that to which we reason is not presupposed as a necessary precondition for the intelligible experience of the original fact of experience.

    TAs pertain to preconditions for the possibility of the existence of some basic or common experience. That is, TAs put forth necessary precondition(s) without which a generally accepted experience is unintelligible. Finally, another distinguishing trait of TAs is that preconditions for such basic or common experiences are not learned by experience. The preconditions pertain to what can be known only apart from experience.

    In analytic form a transcendental argument may look as follows, [where P is a common experience and Q is a necessary precondition for P, which can be appealed to on an a priori basis (and not according to a posteriori inference)].

    Prove Q exists by way of: If P, then Q:

    1. ~Q (Assume the opposite of what we are trying to prove: Assume Q does not exist.)
    2. If ~Q –> ~P (If Q does not exist, then P does not exist since Q is a precondition for P)
    3. ~~P (It is false that P does not exist – i.e. P does exist.) (Contradiction)
    4. ~~Q (It is false that Q does not exist.) (Modus Tollens 2, 3 and 4)
    5. Q (Q exists.) (Law of negation)

    In other words, for P to exist, Q must also exist since Q is a necessary precondition for P. Since P exists, then so must Q.

    The analytic form of the argument is common and is most often used for non-transcendental arguments (I think your point). However, because TAs are concerned with preconditions for intelligible experience and how reality is, TAs have a unique quality about them both in what is purported as a shared experience among humans as well as the profundity of the transcendental itself.

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