Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dialogue With a Reformed Baptist Presuppositionalist (vs. John Knight)

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Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987)

[see also a helpful article on presuppositionalism]

Hi John,

[his intro]:

I would describe myself as a Reformed Baptist, following broadly within the Van Tillian tradition, especially as developed by Greg Bahnsen on the one hand & John Frame on the other. (Both were students of Van Til.) By common consent, Dr. Van Til was a poor writer, one whose sparkling analogies sometimes appeared in the oddest places. And, no doubt, there are additional issues, clarifications, & corrections to be addressed by Christian thinkers to day & in the future. However, it is worth noting that Van Til’s writings anticipated many of the important developments in 20th Century philosophy. The challenges posed by Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Quine, Sellars, Polanyi, & Plantinga to “modern philosophy” support Van Til’s general critique of unbelief.

Thanks for your cordial remarks in the Open Forum. I am responding to the comments that you made (after you made me aware of them) in response to my paper, Reply to Greg Bahnsen's Defense of Presuppositional Method and Critique of Evidentialism: "Evangelism and Apologetics". Your words will be in blue.

. . . Assuming, of course, that you really want to get into some of the more interesting questions in the debate.

Absolutely! Good dialogue is an increasingly rare commodity these days. How refreshing to find someone who seems to enjoy it as much as I do, and a nice guy to boot!

As to Mr. Armstrong’s comments on Dr. Bahnsen’s article, Mr. Armstrong returns repeatedly to the claim that Bahnsen is presenting a Straw Man of evidential apologetics by accusing evidential apologists of neutrality. This criticism appears to be Mr. Armstrong’s core complaint, which he repeats throughout the article.

I don't claim to be an expert on Bahnsen. I was simply responding to the best of my ability, to what I understood his arguments to be. Sometimes one can make further assumptions about opponents' underlying premises that are mistaken. We'd have to go through my replies and see where our differences lie.

And please call me Dave!

To that extent, I do think that I have interacted with the substance of his comments.

Not if you haven't gone through my reasoning point-by-point, as I am doing presently. You don't know if you have misunderstood some of my arguments or misconceived the premises lying behind them. We're all prone to that mistake (and usually unintentionally) . It's always good to look at the actual particulars of someone else's argument rather than make broad, grand assumptions which may be mistaken in part or wholly.

I hope I have done so politely & amiably.

Yes; I greatly appreciate that, as I am sick to death of completely unnecessary hostilities simply because people have some honest disagreements. I've never fully understood that, and I don't think I ever will.

[I]t is possible that our disagreements can sorted out through a simple clarification of terms & issues.

I think that is a distinct possibility, once you fully understand my overall outlook on apologetics and philosophy. Several indications of common ground have already appeared, as I responded (below). I can tell by the people you cite (Plantinga and Polanyi, whom I love and have been highly influenced by, Kuhn, etc.; Cardinal Newman: a profound influence on my thought, has been compared to Polanyi in several ways) that we are on the same page quite often. That doesn't surprise me. It may not surprise you, either, but surely it shocks many who think that the divide in these areas is much bigger than it actually is.

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*** CLICK ON "Tolle, lege!" immediately below to finish this article ***

As a Reformed Baptist & recovering evidentialist, I find Mr. Armstrong’s reply to Dr. Bahnsen unsatisfying. He seems to misunderstand Bahnsen’s critique of attempted epistemological neutrality as an attack on the sincerity of evidentialists & “classicists.”

Okay; we'll see!

Bahnsen is not attacking the good intentions of classicists & evidentialists. He is instead pointing out the futile nature of trying to prove the truth of Christian theism from non-Christian presuppositions.

This, of course, hinges on what one means by "prove". I think there are relatively few things that one can absolutely prove. On the other hand, I believe in natural theology, which means that I think there are certain things that all men know intuitively or instinctively or with a properly formed intellect by virtue of logic, that Christians can then build upon in their apologetic.

What would be the basis of your argument?

My argument against Bahnsen is in my paper. I don't recall all particulars without revisiting it (as I have written many hundreds of papers). As we get deeper into this, I'd like to see you examine particular arguments of mine.

Historical evidence of the Resurrection? Apart for Christian presuppositions, one can never prove that Christ rose from the dead.

I agree. I've never claimed that one could prove such a thing. I think Reginald stated it well in the same combox:
In the first place, the Catholic wouldn't try to prove that Christ rose from the dead, if by "prove" you mean "provide incontrovertible evidence". Some things must be accepted by faith. We can only remove the obstacles to that acceptance by demonstrating that the the faith is a reasonable thing - and that there are good reasons for being Christian (and Catholic).
Even if you succeed in convincing the unbeliever, he doesn’t have to conclude that, therefore, Christ is God. There are other options.

That's right, though I do think most such people would agree that if the resurrection were "proven", that this would constitute significant evidence towards the proposition that Jesus might, in fact, be God. They use the supposed implausibility of the Resurrection, precisely as a means to discount Jesus' claims.

More generally, the facts do not speak for themselves. Facts only make sense within an interpretive framework, a point made by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Thomas Kuhn, and Wilfrid Sellars, among others.

I couldn't agree more.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument? It’s based on a fundamental misinterpretation of set theory. And even if the math made sense, it wouldn’t prove the Christian God or even a personal god as the first cause.

I agree. What I have said is that it shows that theism is at least as reasonable as atheism. I think it is a very strong argument, though.

Even worse, the argument presupposes a linear view of time. What about the unbeliever who has a cyclical view of time, like many pagan religions?

One's view of time doesn't eliminate their burden of dealing with causation. I think the argument can be made, at least, that time is linear back to the big Bang. Before that, we can't say (and the Christian can simply posit by faith that this was "eternity past" -- before divine creation. But in any event, unless one is anti-science, they cannot escape the fact that present-day cosmology and physics require a belief that the present universe began in that instant of the Big Bang.

The Argument from Design? While I respect the work done by William Dembski & Michael Behe, they are the first to admit that, even if their argument is correct, it only proves design. It does not identify the designer: Terrestrial life could have been designed by non-carboniferous aliens.

I agree again.

More generally, do you propose to argue from “the facts” to prove the existence of Our Lord?

No, because I don;t think "proof" of such things is possible. It is only possible to create what I would call a "plausibility structure" whereby, as a result of cumulative evidences of various sorts brought to the table, the Christian view, or at least theism, is shown to be far more worthy of allegiance and reasonable than any alternative. In the end, faith will always be required. We can't connect the dots of faith with reason, because that would undermine the very basis and necessity of biblical faith. They are simply two different things.

Do you begin with sense perceptions & experience as you ultimate foundation of knowledge & try build, brick by brick, a tower to the heavens, finally proving the existence of God? This philosophical approach is called “empiricism,” and it is self-refuting. It cannot prove the existence of God because it cannot prove anything.

It requires prior belief in the validity of sensory perception. I've written for 25 years that science requires faith to even begin. So this is nothing new to me. I accept Polanyi's critique of empiricism. But in any event, I don't think you can absolutely prove that God exists. This has been my position for as long as I can remember. One can have a very strong assurance of faith that He exists, and is benevolent. But faith is not reason. It ought to be not contrary to reason, but it ultimately transcends it, as another category.

Armstrong also seems to misunderstand Bahnsen’s approach as mere proclamation of the Word. A quick review of the Bahnsen-Stein debate will end that illusion forever. In that debate, Bahnsen tears down the atheist world-view of Dr. Stein. Stein had built his argument on a house of sand (his atheist world-view). When Hurricane Greg tore through the auditorium that night, Stein was left without any basis to criticize or even doubt the Christian world-view, and most of the audience saw it.

I understand that presuppositionalism is about questioning the premises of opponents. I highly relate to that because my usual methodology is socratic. I do the same thing all the time (and become very unpopular in some circles for doing so, believe me!). So what I did to presuppositionalism (in my first major paper on it) was to subject it to the same treatment that it gives to others, by examining its presuppositions. And, of course, it turns out to be radically circular, which is unacceptable.

Bahnsen, by the way, recorded a sermon or lecture on the Paul’s Mars Hill presentation. He makes a good case that Paul was a presuppositionalist.

perhaps you can outline that argument as we proceed. I'd be interested in seeing it. I think all Christians should have much in common, epistemologically, and we often do far more than we imagine. Note above, for example, how many times I agreed with your own premises and major aspects of your approach to questions of proof and apologetics.

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[sometimes below I will be replying to points John made in response to others]

I have two sets of questions…

1.) Are claiming that there is no definitive proof for Christian theism?

If by that one means airtight rationalistic proofs that no sane man could possibly doubt, yes. That's how I interpret the word "proof": within the framework of rationalism and/or empiricism. But then I believe in the assurance of faith and the reasonableness of accepting God's revelation in faith, based on a number of other supporting factors.

Are you claiming that your apologetic provides only probable proof for Christian theism? Or even some lower standard?

I think one can achieve a very high degree of certitude (Cardinal Newman's word, I believe, in his Grammar of Assent) by revelation and reason together, as well as other things. I think there are many beliefs that are (in Plantinga's terms) "properly basic" and perfectly plausible and permissible for rational people to believe. So, in sum, I think my evidentialist apologetic could provide an "exceedingly probable" basis for belief: as much as is humanly possible through reason alone (reason that men of all kinds can agree upon, based on the universality of logic, scientific method, etc.).

2.) Is this position the consensus at this website?

It's my website, and my position, is as just described, so that is the position here! Commenters may show a spectrum on these matters. Catholics can have differing apologetics. I tend to combine aspects of different schools.

Please keep in mind that I never claimed that Catholics would use the historical argument. (I skimmed the index, and I didn’t see it presented on this site.)

I've written an entire book, Mere Christian Apologetics, that uses such arguments, in an attempt at a general Christian apologetic (not distinctively Catholic at all in that book). A second similar book, Christian Worldview vs. Postmodernism, tries the same approach, but geared towards atheists and agnostics.

I asked how a non-presuppositionalist proposes to vindicate the claims of Christianity, and summarized the inadequacies of three popular approaches, two of which do appear on this site, IIRC.

I have given a thumbnail sketch of how I do so.

Mr. Armstrong seemed to suggest that the presuppositional approach abandons argumentation for proclamation.

Sometimes it does do so, I think, either directly, or in effect or strong implication. In fact, one might argue that it must do this, insofar as it holds that believer and non-believer hold so little in common that they can scarcely communicate with each other (and incorporating the effect of Total Depravity or the unregenerate state).

That debate provides a clear counter-example to this misapprehension.

Perhaps. I'd rather stick to dialoguing with you at the moment.

* * *

Presuppositions are inevitable. One cannot even ask questions without relying on presuppositions.

This is correct.

The difference is between non-Christian presuppositions that lead to irrationality & contradictions

I agree.

& Christian presuppositions which provide solid foundations for knowledge, for reason, for induction, for math, science, moral obligations, language and so on.

Our worldview is coherent and consistent in all aspects of life. It doesn't follow, however, that overtly "Christian" presuppositions are required for things like math and language.

* * *

"If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty."

~Ludwig Wittgenstein


I cherish reason, logic, science, mathematics, & history. I wish to give them a firm foundation. How can I do that apart from Christian presuppositions?

Take courses on those subjects in some school. One doesn't have to start with Christian presuppositions to learn any of those things. But being a Christian helps one to become a relatively better historian or scientist because secularist and rationalist baggage brought to those tasks obscure the best science that could be done.

I agree that the presuppositionalist can & should use "evidentialist" arguments. For example, he can present the historical evidence for the Resurrection, based on number & date of manuscripts, internal consistency, external consistency & so forth. Of course, the hard-core unbeliever will deny that this evidence proves the Resurrection. [Or maybe not. An existentialist might acknowledge the fact of the Resurrection without attaching any significance to it. Os Guinness recounts one such incident.] The apologist is then in a position to force the unbeliever to defend his theory of historical knowledge.

I agree. That's exactly what I would do. I've done similar things many times in my numerous debates with atheists.

Or, as the proverb says, "Argue with a fool according to his folly, lest he seem wise in his own eyes."


On the other hand, any argument that takes man as the ultimate source of knowledge is a rejection of divine authority. It is also dangerous to use bad arguments to defend the faith. It discredits the faith & leads to intellectual confusion.

Or, as the proverb has it, "Do not argue with a fool according to his folly, lest you become like him."

[Proverbs 26:4-5]. I love this couplet of passages, with the one counseling the opposite of the other, so that the varied application depends on situation and prudence.

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