When time permits, I have been writing on the subject of apologetic theology and methodology (see previous articles HERE, HERE, and HERE). As I have done so, it has been my desire to interact with any challenges offering serious critiques of my position, particularly those from the classical apologetic camp.
Earlier this year, I was directed to a four-part series of posts critical of presuppositionalism written by a fellow named Adam Tucker who is the Ratio Christi campus chapter director at UNC Greensboro. The four posts were originally one paper Adam presented at the 2013 conference for the International Society of Christian Apologetics. All four articles are linked from HERE.
I can say at the outset that unless you are really a hardcore student of apologetics, the subject matter I am going to address may be a tad murky. In fact, I imagine a lot of you will glaze over and check out after the first few paragraphs. You know, the old “I’ll save this for later” excuse.
I am interacting with a critical evaluation of presuppositionalism’s view of epistemology, so I can understand if you wish to take off mid-way through. Additionally, the posts I am considering are loaded with technical, philosophical jargon; but to be fair, Tucker wrote his paper for a specialized conference full of beard-stroking, ceiling-gazing Christian apologists who use a lot of philosophically loaded and jargoney lingo, so I expect the same with such a paper.
The problem, however, is that the author doesn’t seem to have a complete grasp of what it was Van Til taught, as well as what his students taught who carried his legacy into our modern day. No amount of jargon can cover over that shortcoming as I will show moving through my evaluation. In spite of that, I think it is important to address these apologetic disagreements with our methodological opponents for the sake of sharpening our thinking, testing our theology, and honing our presentations, so let me get started.
Background and Overview
It may be helpful before I begin to provide something of a background and summary of the paper. The background isn’t spelled out in the paper so much as it is my speculation I am applying to his arguments, so I am happy to be corrected; but I think I can explain why the author tackled the subject at hand.
A couple of years ago, Dr. Richard Howe, who teaches at Southern Evangelical Seminary, wrote on his blog about how he was troubled after having attended an apologetic lecture given by Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis. The particular lecture wasn’t recorded, but his discussion of what was presented sounds to be standard AiG apologetics, which I believe to be standard biblical apologetics.
According to Howe, Ken Ham explained how the evolution vs. creation debate is not based upon which side has the best evidence or whether evidence determines the truthfulness of creation or evolution. Rather, there are two ways of looking at reality, either through the lens of God’s infallible Word or man’s fallible word. Thus, as Ham went on to explain, our “starting point” as Christians when arguing against evolutionary constructs and defending biblical creationism must be God’s Word.
Howe stated that he was disturbed by Ham’s presentation and claimed that the watered-down presuppositionalism he used to defend his argument was bankrupt, self-refuting, and fraught with many problems. Howe was especially bothered by Ham’s discussion of the term “starting points” because he believes it leads to “perspectivism,” Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy that uses subjective means to determine “truth.”
He goes on to argue that Ken Ham, or any presuppositionalist for that matter, cannot have their “starting points” in Scripture, because in order to understand Scripture a person must first have in place a hermeneutical grid, or interpretive rules that draw out meaning from the biblical text, before he can even discuss the Bible.
Oddly, his reaction is against Ham’s main point in his presentation that answers the question of why the Bible teaches a young earth. Howe claims he himself is a young earth creationist, but seems to miss the fact that young earth creationism is a position that is largely determined from the revelation of Scripture alone, not evidence as Ham correctly points out. As I noted in my response article to Howe, his old earth classical apologist buddies believe he is “denying reality” because of his young earth views and they typically start with a different biblical hermeneutic when they defend their position.
Now, coming back to the posts at hand. Tucker, I believe, is basically expanding upon Howe’s argument that states it is extremely problematic for Christian apologists to ground his “starting points” in Scripture, because how we interpret or know Scripture needs to be established first apart from the Bible so as to understand the Bible. At least that is what I believe he is attempting to argue because he cites from Howe’s original blog article a number of times in his presentation.
Briefly summarized, Tucker argues against the view of “starting points,” by first attempting to dismantle the presuppositional idea of worldviews, that being, all men intersect and interpret their world, as well as interact with humanity, from a particular set of preundertstandings or interpretations, or what can be defined as a “worldview.” For the presuppositionalist, it is the worldview of the person an apologist assails in the apologetic encounter. In his first article, he identifies the concept of a “predetermined” worldview with the concept of sociology of knowledge, or the notion that all men view reality according to certain a priori presuppositions that serve as a grid which filters everything a person seeks to understand.
Tucker then moves to answering the question of whether or not fallen men can know things about their world, according to their own experience, apart from God. He suggests that our minds are in fact a tabula rasa, or “blank slate,” that can be written on by our sense experiences, which in turn lessens, if not entirely does away with, the doctrine of the noetic effects of sin upon mankind. And he is also especially dismissive of the presuppositional idea of there being no “brute facts,” or what would be understood by presuppositionalists as “uninterpreted facts in God’s universe.”
He further suggest that there is epistemological neutral ground on which a Christian can meet a non-Christian. In other words, Tucker, arguing for the classic apologetic camp of Aristotle (not sure when he was made an honorary Christian), Thomas Aquinas, and Norm Geisler, believes the world is full of uninterpreted, brute facts that Christians and non-Christians can seek together to understand their meaning apart from God telling us how we are to think about those facts. Hence, a Christian apologist does not need to have his “starting points” grounded in Scripture first, but can meet the unbeliever in the middle as it were, and using the God-given knowledge we all share about “reality,” and along with our common “sense experiences,” determine the legitimacy of those facts for or against the Christian faith.
Most of my interaction will focus upon answering a set of important questions Tucker raises in the fourth post. I’ll consider those questions in the second part of my review. For the remainder of this post, I’ll begin by pointing out what I believe is the fatal flaw to his entire thesis, because he inadvertently cuts the throat of his own case against presuppositionalists in his third article.
[S]ince it is the real world that we are able to know and make judgements about, we can see that our judgements, and objectivity in general, are based on the foundational principles of thought and being known as first principles, or Transcendental Presuppositions (not to be confused with Kant’s transcendental forms/categories). You cannot think without using first principles. These Transcendental Presuppositions include things like the laws of noncontradiction, excluded middle, and identity. You cannot think without using first principles. These Transcendental Presuppositions include things like the laws of noncontradiction, excluded middle, and identity.
He then cites Norm Geisler, who claims that the so-called “first principles” are allegedly determined by “sensible knowledge,” when a person intellectually apprehends with his mind alone that some things are “being” or some things are “non-being” and thus the law of non-contradiction is affirmed.
Tucker then writes,
To deny these undeniable and universally valid laws is to use them, and thus affirm them. Geisler notes, “The basic laws of thought are self-evidently true….The only direct ‘proof’ of them is to state clearly their meaning, so that their self-evident nature becomes intuitively or immediately obvious. First principles, then, are not only indemonstrable but are actually undeniable.”
Tucker, and by extension Geisler, is essentially affirming what presuppositionalists have always stated and taught. That being, the laws of logic, mathematics, even absolute truths and morality, are self-evident and rightly fall into the category of “first principles.” I would call them “transcendent truths.” Where presuppositionalists dissent from the classic model of apologetics, however, is with their understanding of how a person knows the reality of those “first principles.”
Tucker (and Geisler) suggests that people know them by learning about them with their sensible knowledge, or their sense perception. So a person learns that fire is hot and ice is cold as they experience the sensation of hot and cold. They then conclude the law of non-contradiction, something cannot be hot and cold at the same time in the same way.
Presuppositionalists, on the other hand, believe those “first principles” or “transcendent truths” reflect the character and mind of God our creator. The laws of logic exist because they are God’s laws of logic. Men only recognize and affirm what has always existed in the mind of God and that He has revealed to humanity at the creation.
Because men, according to Scripture, are created in the image of God, they too were designed to reflect the mind of God and think His thoughts after him. They affirm those principles/truths intuitively, not because they sensed them first, but because God has made man to think in a logical fashion. So early in a child’s development, they are acting in accord with the “laws of logic.” A toddler, early on, quickly affirms the law of non-contradiction when he realizes wooden blocks are hard and teddy bears soft.
Now Tucker, as well as Geisler, would more than likely say that those “first principles” or “transcendent truths” are what they are because God created them as such, or at least I would hope both of them would. It is exactly what a presuppositionalist like myself would say as well. But what I see Tucker saying here with his statement is that those first principles are only “first principles” when a person comes to recognize them through means of their sense perception. That may not be what he is believes, but that is what I read him to be saying.
If that then is the case with how men “know” things, Tucker is left in the same quandary that he claims is a problem for presuppositionalists: How do men know they are interpreting those “first principles” correctly? A person can easily be mistaken. Is the person to trust the collective wisdom of the rest of humanity? If men are a tabula rasa when it comes to understanding reality, then the hermeneutics used to interpret the sense data has to be in place first in order to draw the correct conclusions on how to utilize it properly. Tucker’s (and Howe’s) starting points, have to be grounded in something else.
The reason why this is important, the reader may be wondering, has to do fundamentally with how we engage unbelievers, defend the faith, and herald the Gospel. If we understand what the Bible says about the intuitive condition of man to reason or not reason, and that his reasoning abilities are heavily impacted by the noetic effects of the fall, our approach to apologetics and evangelism will be profoundly shaped. It will also impact how we utilize Scripture in our apologetic encounter, and how much we can expect an unbeliever to naturally understand and know.
What Tucker is saying is that all men approach the discussion of facts, reality, and apologetics all in the same fashion: they determine their validity and recognize their rationality by the means of their senses. Presuppositionalists, on the contrary, understand what God has revealed about the condition of man: That God created men to be hard wired to think rationally AND that sin drastically impacts how men use their ability to reason and what they should conclude from that reasoning by their senses.
Thus, because men are created in the image of God, they already have in place the hermenutical grid necessary to not only use the so-called “first principles” outlined by Tucker and Geisler, but to also understand the Scripture. God created men to communicate with each other, but more importantly, for God to communicate with man and man back to God. Hence, a Christian apologist can certainly use the Scripture as his apologetic starting point, because men have been created to receive and understand revelation in the form of human language.
I’ll stop here and deal with Tucker’s key questions for presuppositionalists in the next post on this subject.