I want to continue with evaluating Adam Tucker’s critique of presuppositional apologetics he offered at the 2013 International Society of Christian Apologetics. The paper has been transferred into a series of four blog posts that can be found linked from HERE. I already provided a ton of background in the first part, so I would exhort readers to read it first before proceeding with this one.
Again, I apologize that this material may be a bit weighty and boring to some; but I believe the following discussion is vital to how we think biblically about evangelism and apologetics, so try to stick it out. Let’s get up, take a walk, grab some coffee, and come back.
Tucker raises a number of critical objections against presuppositionalism, but I’d like to focus on four that stood out to me:
1) If there are no “brute” or “uninterpreted facts” are those “facts” true for everyone, regenerate and unregenerate, or are these facts only facts inside our own interpretive system of basic commitments and assumptions?
First, we need to have the correct definition of “brute facts” and what Van Til meant by the concept. When Van Til talked about “brute facts,” he meant there were no facts uninterpreted by God, because God is the creator; He is the one who interprets all facts. Uninterpreted facts are therefore meaningless, explained Van Til, the product of a universe of pure chance. Because God is sovereign and has decreed His eternal plans and operates according to His creative and providential activity, all “facts” find their meaning grounded in His character. So when a presuppositionalist says there are no brute facts, he means to say there are no facts uninterpreted by God.
Thus, as John Frame notes in his analysis of Van Til’s thought,
“Philosophers and scientists have sometime sought to base their thinking on “brute facts,” because they have wanted to find a starting point for human thought outside of God’s revelation. Since, on their view, human thought is ultimate, it must be based, not on God’s prior thought, but on something prior to all thought, namely fact. These brute facts must be utterly independent of the laws imputed to reality by human thought, if they are to be the justification for human thought. [Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 180-181].
So to answer Tucker’s question, yes, those facts are true for everyone everywhere because it is God who imputes meaning to all facts. Two plus two is four in a base ten number system and is equally true for a believer as it is for an unbeliever because the mind of God is logical.
He then follows up his main question by stating, “If it is indeed true for everyone, then it seems this position is false. If it is not true for everyone, then it remains the case that there are facts and uses which transcend world views with which we can reason with unbelievers.” Tucker concludes that real “brute facts” are identified with the so-called “first principles” or what he also defines as “Transcendental Presuppositions” which everyone undeniably shares.
As a presuppositionalist, I would agree with him that everyone undeniably shares those “first principles/Transcendental Presuppositions.” However, unbelievers share them not because they have the ability to experience them with their senses, and draw the proper conclusions as to how they are to understand those principles, but because God their creator has stamped His image on their hearts. So if we properly use Van Til’s definition of “brute facts,” there are still no uninterpreted facts, because God, by the fact He is the sovereign creator, brings meaning to and interprets those “first principles.”
2) If Scripture is to be the starting point for the Christian in an apologetic encounter, how exactly are unbelievers to understand Scripture? From where would the principles of hermeneutics come?
Citing from Richard Howe’s blog article blasting Ken Ham’s lecture that I noted in my first part, Tucker quotes him as stating, “But if Ham cannot get from God’s word his principles of interpretation that he needs to understand God’s word… then he would have to say that he gets his principles of interpretation from man’s word.” Howe goes on to chide Ken Ham, because he had said man’s word is faulty; yet, he seems oblivious to this ridiculous philosophical conundrum he has created for himself.
Both Howe and Tucker are of the opinion that a person cannot understand the meaning of the Bible unless one first has in place a system of hermeneutics, principles of interpretation that draws meaning from the text. Since the Bible doesn’t have a particular section within its pages providing any readers with the rules of how to read it, no apologist can then start with the Bible, because how to read it must be established first before you can read it. Thus, we have to first learn from men who have developed hermeneutics in order to even read the Bible. It is an embarrassing, sophomoric claim to tell people a Christian must have a starting point in God’s infallible Word, when in point of fact they are really starting with man’s fallible word so as to comprehend God’s infallible Word.
I know these two men think they have pointed out a clever defeater for presuppositionalism, but I don’t believe they truly grasp the problem they have created even for themselves. If it is true that we must first have a system of hermeneutics in place before we can use the Bible, then that has to be true for any form of communication either verbal or written. Any literary story, written correspondence, or speech, would essentially be meaningless if what they are saying is true. Even his sacred “first principles” that Tucker has been advocating here is subject to this quandary.
But no one lives like that. Humanity communicates with each other all the time without even thinking once about systems of hermeneutics. I can have a technical talk with the clerk at Best Buy about computers, attend a reading of poetry at a book club, even have tweet exchanges with trolls on Twitter, and know instantly what is being written or said. And if there is some uncertainty as to what’s being stated, it is rather easy to figure out with some clarifying questions. Why is that? Again, because God not only originally created mankind with the ability to communicate with each other, but more importantly, with God almighty.
Reading Genesis 1-3, when God told man he could eat of any tree freely except the one in the midst of the garden, the man had to know what a tree was, what it was to eat, and understand prohibitive commands. The hermeneutics he needed to engage the world and thrive was given to him at creation and remains there to this day in each person. Sure, we speak different languages and have differing cultural influences that shape our worldviews, but if there is misunderstanding, it doesn’t take any time to figure out what is being said.
Only in the pages of books called Five Views of Hermeneutics and in the makeshift class rooms at a philosophical apologetic conference is the question of so-called competing hermeneutics even seriously pursued.
3) If man’s mind is darkened, and knowledge starts in the mind, then it stands to reason that man is incapable of accurately knowing anything about reality.
That comment defines for us a profound and significant theological disagreement between the classical apologetic model and presuppositionalism. Classical apologists separate the will of man from his reasoning and makes them two distinct, anthropological categories. As Tucker goes on to explain, while he affirms the influence of sin upon man’s ability to understand and correctly interpret reality, he believes that problem is mostly due to moral reasons because of the weakness of the will. In other words, man’s reason is relatively free from the influence of sin, where as his will is not. So man retains his reasoning abilities to take in knowledge according to his sense, but his weak will may affect his ability to interpret that knowledge accurately.
Presuppositionalist, on the other hand, go to Scripture (our starting point!) and what God has revealed about the nature of man. The Bible does not compartmentalize the nature of man in the way classic apologists insist. Instead, the Bible tells us sin impacts the totality of who man is, so that both the will of man and his reasoning are affected by the fall. For instance, Ephesians 4:17 states that unbelievers walk in the “futility of their mind (reasoning ability),” that their “understanding is darkened (reasoning ability),” all because of their “blindness of heart (will and reason).”
Though I certainly agree with Tucker that men can learn things and take in knowledge with their senses, their sin and rebellion against God causes them to reject the proper conclusions regarding that learned information. So for example, an unbeliever can be shown information that affirms the rationality of God’s existence, or the historical facts about the crucifixion of Jesus and His resurrection, and the textual reliability of the NT documents. Even though he can take in that information with his senses, he refuses to believe that information is true, and will, as Paul writes in Romans 1:18ff., suppress that truth in unrighteousness.
4) If the unbeliever has his own language and logic and interprets everything through the same filter of his worldview, how exactly does he come to embrace an entirely new “worldview,” particularly the worldview of Christianity?
The biblical answer is of course the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life.
The question regrettably illustrates the troubling manner in which classic apologists will often diminish the work of the Holy Spirit in enlightening the mind of men to believe savingly, as well as correctly, upon the knowledge they do receive about God during an apologetic/evangelistic encounter. Tucker’s follow up comment not only diminishes the work of the Holy Spirit, it even underestimates the polluting influence of sin upon the intellect. He goes on to ask, “how does a regenerate mind help one rightly know reality?” and then mockingly suggests that such is merely “punting to the Holy Spirit.” The person, he states, would only know the thoughts about reality given by the Holy Spirit and not reality itself.
He gives the impression that he thinks presuppositionalists are saying there are different sets of “facts” for the reality of unbelievers, but others for believers. But that is not what they are saying at all. Reality is the same for both believers and unbelievers. It is the meaning brought to understanding the reality that is the difference and sin, as Scripture declares, blinds the mind of men to the point they view reality apart from God. Believers and unbelievers share the same reality, but draw radically different conclusions about its meaning. That is why evolutionists read the “facts” and draw an entirely different history for the origins of the earth than the one recorded in Scripture.
The goal of apologetics and evangelism is to bring the biblical worldview to bear upon the unbiblical one held by the unbeliever and trust the Holy Spirit to open eyes and draw sinners unto Christ for salvation.
I don’t wish for my evaluation to come across as a personal disparagement against the author. I commend him for involving himself in campus ministry tailored to reach college students with the Gospel. My exhortation is that he revisit what it was Van Til taught. I think he missed some crucial points of presuppositionalism that are important to grasp in order to offer a genuine critique, for instance his overview of brute facts.
I would also exhort him, as well as other classic apologists, to provide a biblical frame work on which to hang their methodology. His presentation was devoid of any biblical theology and the citation of Scripture was glaringly absent. That may not be intentional because the thrust of the article was geared more to evaluating epistemological philosophy.
However, in the context of Christianity, it is paramount that we draw our thinking toward the application of God’s Word in these matters. As believers who proclaim the Gospel, I want us to develop our apologetic methodology built upon the exegesis of the Word of God that produces a robust biblical theology that shapes our practical methodology. I personally don’t see the classical apologetics advocated with Tucker’s articles leading me in that direction.