Against fundamentalist presuppositionalism

Discussion in 'Apologetical Methods' started by steven-nemes, Aug 11, 2009.

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  1. steven-nemes

    steven-nemes Puritan Board Sophomore

    The goal of presuppositional apologetics, or at least some versions of it as I understand them, is to prove the necessity of the Christian worldview: Christianity is true and only Christianity, and all others are incoherent and inconsistent and cannot account for reality. Christianity, also, is necessarily true, or so they say.

    Now for a thing to be necessarily true is two things, though they both basically are the same: it must be true in every possible world, and its denial must entail a contradiction. There are problems with the claim that Christianity is necessarily true, one of them being the fact that no Christian presuppositionalist has shown that at least all the other worldviews we know about are inconsistent and contradictory, let alone all possible worldviews which are not Christianity. The difficulty of that sort of task aside, however, it can easily be shown that Christianity is not necessarily true:

    Imagine a possible world where God creates man and never decrees that man sins (or, if you don't believe that God decrees sin, imagine a world where he creates men without free will and they always do good). In such a world, there is no incarnation and no atonement, because there is no need, because there is neither of these things, there is no Christianity. Christianity is not true in this worldview because there is no sin and no Jesus of Nazareth who took on the sins of the world. So Christianity is not necessarily true.

    A presuppositionalist can defend his claim to the necessary truth of Christianity by supposing that such a world is not actually possible--though it's hard to see how that might be the case. It certainly seems to be free of contradiction and absurdity. (Unless the presuppositionalist wants to claim that, because of God's nature, he decrees that men sin necessarily--but that is a mighty strange claim and doesn't seem to be very plausible.)

    What does the presuppositionalist argue for, then? For the necessary existence of the Christian God? Even if he can argue for that (even though it seems troublesome and difficult enough), that doesn't prove Christianity true at all. He can exist and Christianity still be false, as was shown above. Then the presuppositionalist is at best arguing for a form of theism and not Christianity, which was his purpose from the beginning.

    What can the presuppositionalist do about all this? Perhaps he ought to adopt a more liberal approach, distancing himself from the fundamentalism of Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen, arguing merely that presupposing Christianity makes a great deal of sense about the universe, a sort of abductive argument for Christianity. This I have no problems with, and it is quite a quick-and-useful method when discussing the truthfulness of the Christian faith, but it is some distance from what the first presuppositionalists set out to do.
  2. sastark

    sastark Puritan Board Graduate


    Yeah, this is gonna be fun to watch.
  3. Whitefield

    Whitefield Puritan Board Junior

    Labeling the presuppositional apologetic as fundamentalism seems to "poison the well" and is not conducive to a constructive discussion.
  4. steven-nemes

    steven-nemes Puritan Board Sophomore

    I didn't argue that presuppositionalism was fundamentalist, but rather, I am arguing against what I call "fundamentalist presuppositonalism", like fundamentalist Baptists or fundamentalist Islam; very conservative presuppositionalism, basically, and I explained what conservative presuppositionalism is: the claim that Christianity is necessarily true.
  5. Whitefield

    Whitefield Puritan Board Junior

    Is there a form of presuppositional apologetics that doesn't make this claim? Can you give me an example of a presuppositional apologete who you would define as "non-fundamentalist"?
  6. steven-nemes

    steven-nemes Puritan Board Sophomore

    Like John Frame, who it seems to me has does not endorse the claim that Christianity is necessarily true; Francis Schaeffer is another example; Brian Bosse on this website is another example. They are what I would call more "liberal" presuppositionalists.
  7. CatechumenPatrick

    CatechumenPatrick Puritan Board Freshman

    It seems like your whole argument against the necessary truth of Christianity is confused by your idiosyncratic definition of "Christianity," as:
    "In such a world, there is no incarnation and no atonement; because there is no need, because there is neither of these things, there is no Christianity. Christianity is not true in this worldview because there is no sin and no Jesus of Nazareth who took on the sins of the world. So Christianity is not necessarily true."
    If "Christianity" means the orthodox doctrines of the incarnation, atonement, and sinfulness of man (to require the two former)--and only these!--then many, I take it, will admit you are quite right. But so what? You haven't shown that Christianity by the more common meaning (e.g., including the existence triune God of Scripture), is not necessarily true, right?
    Why you say that, if the presuppositionalist can prove the necessary existence of the triune God, then he still hasn't proven Christianity true at all, is odd. Isn't this merely because you have so reduced the meaning of "Christianity"?
    Also, could you show us where CVT or Bahnsen contend that Christianity, in your meaning of the word, is necessarily true? E.g., that if God creates at all, he must create a world in which there is sin, incarnation, and atonement?
    Perhaps I've misunderstood somewhere?
  8. The Calvin Knight

    The Calvin Knight Puritan Board Freshman

    For clarifications sake what you are labeling "fundamentalist presuppositional apologetics" is more often referred to as the "strong modal form of TAG". Your labels don't help because if there is either "liberal" presup./TAG (Frame) and fundi. presup./TAG(Van Til, Bahnsen) then what is just plain presuppositional apologetics/TAG?
  9. toddpedlar

    toddpedlar Iron Dramatist

    "a great deal of sense about the universe"? That's a pretty weak foundation to rest your apologetic on, and it puts you at a complete standoff when discussing the faith with Muslims, Mormons, Hindus or anyone else who thinks their philosophy "makes a great deal of sense about the universe".

    I also don't see how your 'hypothetical world' proves anything about whether Christianity is necessarily true or not. If you're going to be true to presuppositionalism, then you have to realize that indeed such a world is impossible based on the presupposition of the triune God. Under other presuppositions, of course, such a world would be viewed as possible - but at the heart of presuppositionalism is the embracing of the fact that EVERYONE has root presuppositions, and subseuqent showing that any alternative to the presupposition of the Triune Godhead is impossible. Your argument really doesn't hold any water if you treat Van Tillian presuppositionalism correctly as it is actually practiced.
  10. Ask Mr. Religion

    Ask Mr. Religion Flatly Unflappable

    What do you mean by the part I have underlined? And what do you mean by the other implication that no presuppositionalist has demonstrated the inconsistencies of non-Christian worldviews?

    Ignoring the special pleading in your scenarios about "Christianity" that have already been pointed out, your arguments are defeatable by the well-grounded practitioner of presuppositionalism.

    For example, playing off your contrived themes, one might ask...

    Would a world with no sin be the best possible world for the common good?

    Would a world with no sin be the best possible world for the greatest good?

    The answers would lead to the inevitable head-on epistemological thrust of presuppositional approaches.

    Last edited: Aug 12, 2009
  11. Peairtach

    Peairtach Puritan Board Doctor

    I think that presuppositionalists like Van Til and Bahnsen have shown that the God of the Bible - compared with the various other personal and impersonal deities and philosophies on offer - is the only adequate foundation for the universe. People can invent other Gods - like the "Quadrinity" - to challenge that position, but one of the major problems with these is that we know they're invented. Hence presuppositionalists and other apologists can and should take Allah versus the God of the Bible (Yahveh) seiously, or Christian Theism versus Atheism seriously, but not Christian Theism versus the Quadrinity.

    "For their rock is not is not as our Rock, even our enemies themselves being judges." I.e. Non-Christians have to presuppose the Christian God in order to make sense of the world, because every other "god" is an inadequate foundation, unlike "I AM THAT I AM".

    The main problem I have with presuppositionalism, is, Can it be made comprehensible to the average man in the street? It's important that an argument - even a very sound one - must be understood in order to be effective. A "poorer" argument, e.g. Look at all the fulfilled prophecy in the Bible;the Bible must be true, can be more effective than a better presuppositionalist argument, if the person you are evangelising understands the argument.
  12. toddpedlar

    toddpedlar Iron Dramatist

    If the man in the street then claims that all the prophecies written in the Bible were in fact written after they occurred, then where do you go?

    Presuppositional apologetics are not difficult to understand. Conversations that take place between a presup apologist and an unbeliever are normal, everyday conversations. No big jargon, no fancy word-games, nothing. It's a misunderstanding, I think, of presuppositional apologetics to think that the discussions are needlessly highbrow and intricate. They really needn't be at all.
  13. CharlieJ

    CharlieJ Puritan Board Junior

    Actually, the Quadrinity exception strikes at the very heart of a transcendental argument, because a transcendental argument must show that the denial of the transcendental premise is necessarily a contradiction in all possible worlds. Those are the rules, and Quadrinity shows that TAG does not live up to the demands of transcendental argumentation.

    The reason why Quadrinity in particular is so effective is that it offers an alternative 'god' who still accounts for the "one and the many." Just as an aside, I don't think it's proper to appeal to the Trinity to explain "the one and the many" for two reasons. First, we don't really understand exactly how God is one and many, so there's no way we can transfer that knowledge to our general epistemology. Second, the epistemological problem of "the one and the many" concerns how people relate species to genus, which is not how the members of the Trinity are related. Thus, it is an equivocation.
  14. Puritan Sailor

    Puritan Sailor Puritan Board Doctor

    You are also not understanding the foundation of presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalism is working out the philisophical implications for what the Bible claims. The Bible states that there is only one God and one way of salvation. That is the objective foundation of presuppositionalism. It is the Bible which tells us the nature of ourselves, the world, and the mess were in. If the Bible is true, then all other religions are false. All the presuppositionalist has to do is show the inconsistencies of any other religion which the Bible itself does an many occasions. See Acts 17, Psalm 115, Isaiah 45, etc. And if the Bible is true, then man is in fact made in the image of God, actually knows God in some way under the covenant of works, and has a twisted heart designed on contradicting the true God as much as he may get away with. Again, presuppositionalism is just working all those truths out philisophically when it defends the faith against other religions.
  15. jwithnell

    jwithnell Moderator Staff Member

    Is presuppositionalism "arguing for ..." anything? Mr. Van Til was developing a consistently reformed position across all disciplines of theology. You could not argue for the existence of God because God's existence is the axiom upon which the rest of your position rests. Mr. Van Til was developing a consistent Christian philosophy.
  16. Spinningplates2

    Spinningplates2 Puritan Board Freshman

    A note to my presuppositionists brothers; you are making me so proud and jelous at the same time. I have read the things you are writing but I can't condense them into words as clearly as you are doing on this thread. Todd, Pactrick, Charlie and you others are blessing my morning and strengthing my faith.
  17. sastark

    sastark Puritan Board Graduate

    Isn't this missing the one "presupposed" truth upon which presuppositionalism is founded? That being: the Bible is the true, revealed Word of God. The Quadrinity may try to account for the one and the many, but it fails the test of presuppositonalism, because it is not found in Scripture and is therefore a false description of God. What presuppositionalism presupposes is not the Triune God, but the Triune God of Scripture. Any other supposed god is false because it cannot be found in the Bible, which alone is our foundation upon which our religion is built.
  18. Blue Tick

    Blue Tick Puritan Board Graduate

    How do you or would you argue for the truth and correspondence of Christianity?
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2009
  19. CharlieJ

    CharlieJ Puritan Board Junior

    Actually, no, that's not what Van Tillian presuppositionalism is. Van Til advocted a form of transcendental argumentation which originated with Kant and is heavily indebted to him. A transcendental argument does not proceed by pronouncing something to be true based on evidence or testimony, but by pronouncing it to be a necessary precondition for knowledge. I believe Van Til said something to effect of, "Unless God is back of everything, you can know nothing." He did not argue that Christian theism is true because the Bible says so, but because the alternative is self-defeating, not providing a sufficient epistemological foundation.

    This is where confusion sets in. Evidentialist apologists argue for the existence of God and the trustworthiness of the Bible. Van Til completely changed the nature of apologetics by suggesting that apologists had been setting their sights too low and that both God and Scripture could be proved simply by the impossibility of the contrary. He argued that the God of the Bible was the only suitable explanation for the intelligibility of the world, and that all other worldviews only existed by being inconsistent with their own fundamental presuppositions.

    So, to summarize, Van Tillian presuppositionalism is not about taking the Bible as our presupposition. It is about positing the God of the Bible as the only presupposition that successfully accounts for intelligibility. This is the philosophical definition of presupposition within a transcendental framework. Really, one cannot correctly understand Van Til without understanding something of Kant and the development of German Idealism.


    Oh, I just remembered, in the Bahnsen-Stein debate, Bahnsen specifically denies that he is arguing his position "because the Bible says so."
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2009
  20. sastark

    sastark Puritan Board Graduate

    Without making a statement for or against what you have said, I will have to wait until I can review Van Til to see if I agree with what you have said.

    Thank you, though, for the reply.
  21. Whitefield

    Whitefield Puritan Board Junior

    But Gordon Clark does ... would he be considered a fundamentalist in this category?
  22. steven-nemes

    steven-nemes Puritan Board Sophomore

    I will respond to all of your posts later today; at the moment I've got somewhere to be.
  23. MMasztal

    MMasztal Puritan Board Sophomore

    I just read your post... 18, huh?
  24. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    I'll just state in passing (since I have little time at the moment) that objections like these are what have convinced me to be a "Common sense presuppositionalist" ("presuppositional Thomist" is too vague--so I've dropped the term).

    I do think that the Kantian assumptions of presuppositionalism do need to be challenged--methinks a Reidian epistemology accounts for our knowledge better.
  25. The Calvin Knight

    The Calvin Knight Puritan Board Freshman

    I too am leaning toward a Reidian/common sense presuppositionalism in light of some quibble's with the strong modal form of TAG, what Steven has labeled "Fundamentalist Presuppositionalism" (I disagree with his label). It also seems that Michael Horton leans this way as well, see his article here(you need to be a subscriber to Modern Reformation to read it): It basically just shows a leaning towards recovering forms of common sense realism.
    There are also some articles over at Triablogue pertaining to this topic as well, see especially this one: Triablogue
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2009
  26. Whitefield

    Whitefield Puritan Board Junior

    Is this unaided common sense or regenerated common sense?
  27. Confessor

    Confessor Puritan Board Senior


    I think terms like "fundamentalist [fundy] presuppositionalism" might best be reserved for "inside" conversations, just as you wouldn't call a Roman Catholic a papist to his face unless you intended to anger him. Although, I do believe that "fundamentalist presuppositionalist" does sound less offensive than "papist."

    As I told you recently, I'm straying somewhat from "orthodox" Van Tillian presuppositionalism. This is foremost because I reject the Van Tillian notion that we have to argue for the impossibility of an unbelieving worldview. I'll get to that in a second. First, though, I believe there's a problem with your example that Christianity is not necessarily true: a presupper probably wouldn't say that "Christianity" entails the all the specific religious-historical events that take place in this world. They might make "Christianity" less specific than that, referring only to the ontological Trinity as the necessary basis of knowledge, but in that case it isn't true that the Bible in toto is necessary for knowledge. Presumably, a presupper could argue both for the necessity of the ontological Trinity and the necessity of revelation for knowledge, but in this case, again, the specific content of the Bible is not necessary for knowledge, just the facts of Trinity-ness and divine revelation.

    In any case, while I don't think you have a perfect critique of "orthodox" presup, I do think that it can be critiqued. in my opinion to say that every verse of the Bible is necessary for knowledge is a bit absurd, but that once the case for Christianity is reduced to an argument for the necessity of Trinity and of divine revelation, then there is no root disagreement with evidentialists.

    Anyway, regarding what I said above: "I reject the Van Tillian notion that we have to argue for the impossibility of an unbelieving worldview." There are basically two reasons Van Til gives for this if I'm not mistaken: (1) arguing probabilistically would make possibility more ultimate than God (which is according to CVT a pagan concept), and (2) giving unbelievers any probability would give them some sort of excuse for their unbelief, but they are to be "without excuse."

    (1) is vague. It also doesn't realize that probabilistic argument is made not because of some ontological assumptions about the universe - e.g., that some substance or void called "possibility" was the birthplace of God by some demiurge -- but because of humans' limited perspectives. We don't know things with philosophical certainty, and therefore we cannot claim to know things with philosophical certainty, because we are finite.

    (2) is simply false. It is not the case that unbelievers receive some excuse just because some particular apologist does not make his case strongly enough. If it is true that all unbelievers are without excuse for not believing in God, then it follows that their being without excuse must in some form be non-inferential; otherwise anyone who failed to hear an apologist's specific argument for the certainty of God's existence is without excuse. And if their being without excuse is non-inferential, then it follows that the apologist is not giving them excuse by failing to give them the inferential reasons why God must exist.

    I still have presuppositionalist tendencies and am appreciative of them, e.g. believing that Christians are obliged to accept the Bible on its own authority, but I have taken a different stance regarding the permissibility of evidences and natural theology. I'll make a new thread on that after I'm done making my way through this thread.

    -----Added 8/12/2009 at 03:49:37 EST-----

    Hi, Todd. Hope you're doing well.

    I think your criticism establishes that other people will disagree, but not that they will be correct or untouchable in their disagreement. To be quite honest, this objection of yours has the same structure as the Roman Catholic objection against "private interpretations" of Scripture, e.g. "How do you know your interpretation's right? Thousands of other denominations would disagree with you."

    The answer is that this doesn't put us at a standoff, for there still is a place to look for the answers. Muslims, Mormons, and Hindus can still have holes in their philosophies and inconsistencies with the real world, and that is what the Christian apologist should look for.

    Interestingly, the standoff objection is usually applied to presuppositionalists. :)

    If it is available, you give him evidence to show that they were written earlier.

    This leads me to another problem with "orthodox" VTian presup: the premise that no evidence can be commonly interpreted by people of different worldviews. Even in one of the most extreme examples VT gives, the resurrection of Christ, he demonstrates that they share a common interpretation to some extent: in his trialogue (is that a word?) with Mr. Gray, Mr. White, and Mr. Black, he has Mr. Black agree with Mr. Gray that Jesus rose from the dead after Mr. Gray presented some evidences, and then Mr. Black interprets it as a naturalistic phenomenon. Even in this situation, you have both Mr. Gray and Mr. Black in agreement on the fact of Jesus' rising from the dead -- and the only problem is Mr. Black's secondary distortion of the fact. Van Til in examples like these establishes the existence of such facts but elsewhere denies them.

    I'm not sure these can be sharply distinguished. Take the existence of objective morals, for existence. An evidentialist might say that the existence of moral laws which implies a moral Lawgiver, whereas a presupper might say that given the Christian worldview morals make sense (because a moral Lawgiver makes sense) but given an atheistic-empiricist worldview they do not (because a moral Lawgiver does not). In the presupper's argument, you have him applying the conclusion of the evidentialist argument to each worldview and showing how one worldview remains consistent while the other doesn't.

    But this is simply to say that the presupper is using the exact same argument as the evidentialist, but also is assuming his starting point. I am going to clarify this difference (or rather this similarity) on a new thread I am going to make entitled, "A Synthesis of Apologetics."
  28. Christusregnat

    Christusregnat Puritan Board Professor


    Please define your term "philosophical certainty", and explain its relationship to finitude.

  29. Confessor

    Confessor Puritan Board Senior

    If we know something with philosophical certainty, then that means that we have no possible reason to doubt it. For instance, I can know with certainty that I exist because even if I doubt my existence, it still implies the existence of a doubter.

    This does mean that we cannot know with philosophical certainty that (e.g.) a computer screen is in front of us. But I think this demonstrates just how high (too high in my opinion) Van Til is raising the bar when he asserts that the Christianity can be argued as true with certainty.

    Since we are finite, it follows that we cannot know everything, and therefore in most of our situations there could be some proposition that we don't know that could potentially disprove what we think we do know. For instance, take the "evil demon" and sensory experience. Because we are not omniscient, we do not know with certainity that our senses correlate to an external reality.

    Does this mean we should wallow in skepticism? No. But it does mean that we need to be careful about what we assert to know with certainty.

    Thanks for asking, Adam.
  30. Christusregnat

    Christusregnat Puritan Board Professor


    You are welcome for asking!

    So, if I understand you correctly, you do not believe that certainty is attainable because of finitude; is that correct?

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