Tag Archives: presuppositionalism

Reforming Apologetics (Common Notions)

Reading time: 9 minutes

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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)

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Reforming Apologetics (The Light of Nature)

Reading time: 8 minutes

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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.

Natural Law

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.

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Reforming Apologetics (Introduction)

Reading time: 6 minutes

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.

Reforming ApologeticsSome 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!).

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A Selection of Presuppositional Arguments

Reading time: 2 minutes

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:

In addition, my book Why Should I Believe Christianity? offers a broadly presuppositional (and evidential!) case for the biblical Christian worldview.

Why Should I Believe Christianity?

Reading time: 5 minutes

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.

Why Should I Believe Christianity?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.

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The Atheist’s Guide to Intellectual Suicide

Reading time: 1 minute

Having been recently promoted to associate professor, I was invited to give a short lecture at our Fall convocation service last week. The audio of the lecture (“The Atheist’s Guide to Intellectual Suicide”) is now available on iTunes U.

On a closely related note, check out these good thoughts by my colleague Mike Kruger on the current state of public debate over moral issues.

Does Presuppositionalism Engage in Question-Begging?

Reading time: 4 minutes

The Gospel Coalition is running a series on methods in apologetics. The latest installment is “Questioning Presuppositionalism” by Dr. Paul Copan, who raises four criticisms of presuppositionalism, one of which is the old canard that presuppositionalists engage in fallacious circular reasoning. (I think all four are misguided in one way or another, but the other three will have to wait for now.) He writes:

First, it engages in question-begging — assuming what one wants to prove. It begins with the assumption that God exists, and then concludes that God exists. Such reasoning would get you an “F” in any logic class worthy of the name!

Dr. Copan is a gentleman and a scholar, so I’m sure he doesn’t realize quite how insulting this sounds to presuppositionalists! (For comparison, imagine someone claiming that evidentialists commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent because they use inductive inferences.) This criticism has been answered many times, so it’s disappointing to find it cropping up yet again (although perhaps presuppositionalists should take comfort from the fact that Dr. Copan doesn’t offer any new criticisms!). Even so, I’ll try to explain one more time why this complaint so badly misses the mark.

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Antitheism Presupposes Theism (And So Does Every Other ‘Ism’)

Reading time: 7 minutes

By this rejection of God, agnosticism has embraced complete relativism. Yet this relativism must furnish a basis for the rejection of the absolute. Accordingly, the standard of self-contradiction taken for granted by antitheistic thought presupposes the absolute for its operation. Antitheism presupposes theism. One must stand upon the solid ground of theism to be an effective antitheist.

(Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. xi)

“Antitheism presupposes theism” is one of Van Til’s best lines, because it captures in a nutshell the genius of presuppositional apologetics. It’s not merely that theism is true; it’s not merely that theism can be shown to be true; it’s that theism can be shown to be true by any attempt to prove it false. One can prove theism to be false only if, as a matter of fundamental metaphysical fact, theism is true — which is just to say that antitheism is self-defeating.

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The Lord of Non-Contradiction

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Philosophia Christi has kindly permitted me to post on my website a preprint of “The Lord of Non-Contradiction: An Argument for God from Logic”, which I co-authored with Greg Welty. I wrote the first version of the paper, but Greg did all the heavy lifting; the argument is indebted to the ideas he developed in his DPhil dissertation on theistic conceptual realism.

Logic

Here’s the abstract:

In this paper we offer a new argument for the existence of God. We contend that the laws of logic are metaphysically dependent on the existence of God, understood as a necessarily existent, personal, spiritual being; thus anyone who grants that there are laws of logic should also accept that there is a God. We argue that if our most natural intuitions about them are correct, and if they’re to play the role in our intellectual activities that we take them to play, then the laws of logic are best construed as necessarily existent thoughts — more specifically, as divine thoughts about divine thoughts. We conclude by highlighting some implications for both theistic arguments and antitheistic arguments.

While we don’t discuss Van Til or presuppositional apologetics in the paper, those so inclined will recognize this as a more robust exposition of a common presuppositionalist argument and they’ll also appreciate (I hope) the concluding remarks.

No Dilemma for the Proponent of the Transcendental Argument

Reading time: 1 minute

The editor of Philosophia Christi has kindly permitted me to post on my website a preprint of my article “No Dilemma for the Proponent of the Transcendental Argument: A Response to David Reiter”. The article is scheduled to appear in the Summer 2011 issue along with a short rejoinder from David. It was a profitable exchange, and it’s gratifying that Philosophia Christi considers TAG to be worthy of critical scholarly discussion. Van Tilians should also be thankful for sympathetic, well-informed critics like David. May his tribe increase!