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.
- 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. ↩
May has been the month of interviews, mainly because I put them all off until the end of the spring semester! Here are a couple more, for your viewing pleasure:
While you’re at it, check out the channels of the two hosts:
The Gospel Truth (Marlon Wilson)
The Christian Worldview Project (Jordan Ravanes)
John is Roman Catholic, so obviously we have our disagreements on some significant issues, but the conversation was focused on the philosophical and theological merits of the argument. John is the host of the Classical Theism Podcast which has featured quite a range of guests and topics.
An interview with Eli Ayala on presuppositional apologetics and related topics:
Also check out the interview Eli conducted with my colleague Mike Kruger a couple of weeks ago:
Summary of Chapter 2
Chapter 2 explores in more detail the idea of common notions discussed in the preceding chapter. Dr. Fesko’s overall goal is to show that Anthony Burgess’s views on common notions, which are also implicit in the Westminster Standards, are in line with a prior tradition extending through the early modern Reformed period back to Aquinas (at least).
The chapter begins by reviewing Burgess’s position on common notions. In short, Burgess associates common notions with divinely established “laws of nature” which God has revealed both externally (in the created order) and internally (the law “written on the heart”; Rom. 2:14-15). Fesko summarizes:
Burgess describes common notions thus: “The Law of Nature” consists in those common notions which are ingrafted in all men’s hearts,” some of which include the existence of God as well as a general knowledge of the difference between good and evil. Burgess positively invokes Thomas Aquinas’s (1225-74) treatment of natural law and common notions to substantiate his point. In agreement with Aquinas, Burgess believes common notions do not require proof because they are self-evident. (p. 30)
Burgess denies that “the fall completely obliterated common notions from the human heart.” He also rejects various opinions on the “precise boundaries of the law of nature” in favor of the view that the law of nature aligns with “the moral law delivered by Moses at Sinai” (p. 31; this section is repeated almost verbatim from p. 16).
The next section (“Comparative Analysis”) surveys how the concept of common notions appears in various sources, from the ancient Greeks through to early modern theologians and confessions, and aims to show that “Burgess’s views were of ancient and modern origins and were held by the overwhelming majority within the early modern Reformed tradition.” (p. 31)
Summary of Chapter 1
Chapter 1 explores the term light of nature, primarily as it appears in the Westminster Confession (five times: 1.1, 1.6, 10.4, 20.4, 21.1). In seeking to understand what the Westminster divines meant by the term, Dr. Fesko proposes to focus attention on the lectures of Anthony Burgess, one of the divines, due to the “structural similarities” between Burgess’s work and the Confession itself. As he explains:
Hence, an examination of Burgess’s lectures on the law provides a primary-source explanation of what the Westminster divines intend by the term light of nature. Through the use of Burgess’s lectures, this chapter demonstrates that the light of nature denotes three things: (1) natural law, (2) human reason, and (3) God’s natural revelation in creation. In short, the light of nature denotes the book or order of nature written and designed by God — an important tool in defending the Christian faith, a tool forgotten by many in contemporary Reformed theology but regularly used by early modern Reformed theologians. In contrast to some recent analyses of the first chapter of the Confession, Burgess gives a full-throated defense of the light of nature as natural law and human reason. (p. 13)
The chapter consists of two main sections: one on natural law, the other on human reason.
Burgess argues that the law of nature “consists in those common notions which are ingrafted into all men’s hearts.” Fesko observes that the common notions include “belief in the existence of God and a general knowledge of the difference between good and evil.” (p. 15) He further notes that Burgess appeals to Aquinas’s treatment of natural law to confirm his argument that these “common notions do not require proof because they are self-evident.” (p. 15)
In considering “the precise boundaries of the law of nature,” Burgess assesses various options and concludes that the law of nature coincides with “the moral law delivered by Moses at Sinai.” (p. 16) Fesko contends that this position was fairly typical among early Reformed theologians. According to this mainstream view, the light of nature includes “common knowledge among believer and unbeliever that binds them to the same moral standards but leaves the unbeliever far short of true faith and saving knowledge.” (p. 18)
In his defense of natural law, Burgess appealed not only to Scripture (e.g., the moral wisdom of Moses’s pagan father-in-law) but also to several pagan philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca) who manifested a partial knowledge of moral norms and even of the existence of God.
J. V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics seems to be drawing a lot of attention. Since folk keep asking me about it, I’ve decided to blog through the book over the summer months. Here’s the publisher’s summary:
Challenging the dominant Van Tillian approach in Reformed apologetics, this book by a leading expert in contemporary Reformed theology sets forth the principles that undergird a classic Reformed approach. J. V. Fesko’s detailed exegetical, theological, and historical argument takes as its starting point the classical Reformed understanding of the “two books” of God’s revelation: nature and Scripture. Believers should always rest on the authority of Scripture but also can and should appeal to the book of nature in the apologetic task.
Some preliminary comments:
1. This won’t be a formal book review, which would normally be written after reading the entire book. It will be more like a running commentary: I’ll read a chapter at a time, summarize its contents, and offer various comments. Some of the points I raise or questions I pose may turn out to be addressed in later chapters; if so, all the better.
2. I should declare my biases at the outset. I come to the book as a card-carrying Van Tilian presuppositionalist. I believe Van Til was basically correct about Reformed theology demanding a distinctively Reformed approach to apologetics which honors the sovereignty of God and the self-attesting nature of Scripture, recognizes the proper relationship between general and special revelation, and takes into account the in-principle antithesis between believing and unbelieving thought. I’ve set out my views on apologetic methodology in various publications and in my RTS course lectures.
3. There are, however, differences of opinion among Van Tilians, just as there are differences among Reformed Thomists and other classical apologists. For example, I agree with John Frame that presuppositionalism doesn’t rule out the use of the classical theistic arguments (e.g., versions of the cosmological and teleological arguments) and evidential arguments (historical, scientific, etc.). I suppose that puts me at odds with some other Van Tilians. On the other hand, I agree with Greg Bahnsen (over against Frame) that there’s something distinctive about the transcendental argument which sets it apart from the classical theistic arguments, and that it ought to be the centerpiece of a presuppositional apologetic. I mention these things only to lay my cards on the table at the outset.
4. I also have to confess that I find intramural Reformed debates over apologetic methodology a bit tiresome. I’ve been involved in these discussions for over two decades now; after a while, you just keep hearing the same arguments back and forth. It’s also wearisome having to correct the same old misrepresentations of Van Til over and over again. So I will be interested to see if Dr. Fesko brings anything new to the table that will move the discussion forward. I hope so!
5. I previously commented on an article by Dr. Fesko which makes some criticisms of Van Til and some of his followers, so that serves as part of the backdrop to this series of interactions with his book (which I trust will reflect a collegial spirit!).
One criticism of presuppositional apologetics is that its advocates rarely if ever offer serious arguments for their distinctive claims (e.g., the claim that our ability to reason presupposes the existence of God). The criticism is overstated, but there is a measure of truth to it. I count myself a presuppositionalist, but I’ve been frustrated in the past by presuppositionalists who seem to imagine that declaring what Van Til’s “transcendental argument” purports to demonstrate is tantamount to actually making that demonstration. Simply asserting that “without God you can’t prove anything at all” or that “your very ability to reason presupposes the existence of God” does nothing whatsoever to explain why those weighty assertions should be believed. Likewise for the failure of non-Christians to answer questions asking them to account for their ability to reason, to know truths about the world, to make meaningful moral judgments, etc., in terms of their own worldviews. Questions cannot substitute for arguments, no matter how pointed those questions may be.
So it’s important for presuppositionalists to present arguments in support of their claims, and to ensure their critics are aware of those arguments so that they can be critically evaluated. In that spirit, I thought it would be useful to gather in one place my own presuppositional arguments, as well as my attempts to explain or reconstruct the arguments of other presuppositionalists:
- If Knowledge Then God (2005) — a paper in which I summarize Van Til’s transcendental argument (actually multiple versions of it) and contrast it with the theistic arguments of Alvin Plantinga.
- The Theistic Preconditions of Knowledge (2006) — an argument that human knowledge presupposes the existence of God.
- Presuppositionalism and Frame’s Epistemology (2009) — an essay on John Frame’s distinctive contributions to epistemology and apologetics, in which I sketch out (in the final section) a triperspectival presuppositional critique of naturalism.
- The Lord of Non-Contradiction (2011) — an article (co-authored with Greg Welty) which argues for the existence of God from the laws of logic.
- In Defense of the Argument for God from Logic (2013) — our responses to several critiques of the argument in the previous article.
- Antitheism Presupposes Theism (2011) — a defense of Van Til’s provocative claim, which extends the argument for God from logic into an argument for God from any belief stance (including agnosticism).
- Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism (2016) — the outline of an argument to the effect that atheism cannot account for objective rationality.
In addition, my book Why Should I Believe Christianity? offers a broadly presuppositional (and evidential!) case for the biblical Christian worldview.
Good question! I offer my answer, over eight chapters and a couple of hundred pages, in the second volume of the recently launched Christian Focus series, The Big Ten: Critical Questions Answered. The new book — ingeniously titled Why Should I Believe Christianity? — is basically an introductory exposition and defense of the biblical Christian worldview, but with some distinctive features (on which, see below). In this post, I’ll summarize the content of the book for anyone who might be interested to read it or give it to a non-Christian friend.
Chapter 1 (“Why Believe?”) considers the general question, Why should I believe anything at all? Simply put: we should believe something if it’s true, and we generally determine whether something is true by way of reasons (which can take different forms). We should aim to have beliefs that are objectively true, rather than beliefs that are (say) comfortable, desirable, or fashionable. The chapter also briefly addresses the epistemological cul-de-sacs of relativism and skepticism.
Chapter 2 (“The Big Picture”) seeks to explain why Christianity should be evaluated as an entire worldview: as a comprehensive, integrated, self-contained, self-defining perspective on everything that exists and matters to us. I explain what a worldview is, why worldviews matter, why only one worldview can be true, and how we can apply four ‘tests’ for evaluating worldviews in order to identify that one true worldview.
Chapter 3 (“Christianity as a Worldview”) sets out a summary of the Christian worldview along familiar lines: God, creation, mankind, fall, revelation, salvation, and consummation (“the final chapter”). One of my aims here is to explain the biblical worldview in ‘ordinary’ language (as far as that’s possible!) and in a way that communicates the internal coherence of that worldview.
Chapter 4 (“God is There”) makes a case for the central tenet of the Christian worldview — the existence of the personal creator God of the Bible — based on six features of our everyday lives that we all take for granted: existence, values, morality, reason, mind, and science. I also suggest that while God’s existence can be demonstrated through reasoned arguments, such arguments aren’t necessary in order to know that God exists, because his existence is plainly evident from his creation (Romans 1:19-20).
Chapter 5 (“God is Not Silent”) contends that if a personal creator God exists then he would speak to us, and that God has in fact spoken to us through the prophetic scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. (You’ll have to get the book to find out how I make that argument!) Along the way I explain why, when it comes to divinely inspired scriptures, we should favor the Christian view over the alternative views of Judaism and Islam. I close out the chapter with an appeal to the ‘expert’ testimony of Jesus.
Chapter 6 (“God With Us”) focuses on the true identity of Jesus. Here I make a fairly traditional case for the deity of Christ, appealing primarily to his own testimony and that of his disciples, but also drawing on other confirming evidences. One feature of the argument is that it connects the incarnation with the other tenets of a Christian worldview, highlighting again its inner coherence. The chapter finishes by addressing a common objection, namely, that a divine incarnation is logically impossible and therefore can be dismissed regardless of the supposed evidence.
Chapter 7 (“Defying Death”) explains why Christians believe in the resurrection of Christ and how that essential article of the Christian faith fits into the broader biblical worldview. After dealing with some common objections to miracles, I argue that it’s reasonable to believe in the resurrection and unreasonable to accept any of the various naturalistic alternatives.
Chapter 8 (“What Now?”) ties together the various threads of argument in the preceding chapters and leaves the unbeliever with a challenge: If not Christianity, then what? There must be some worldview that corresponds to reality and makes sense of our experiences of the world. If it isn’t the Christian worldview, which worldview is it? There’s certainly a fence between Christianity and its competitors, but it isn’t one you can sit on.