I wanted to offer some comments on an article over at Frank Turek’s Cross Examined website,
There have already been some solid responses since it has been posted. James White gave his thoughts during his October 4th, 2016 Dividing Line podcast and Steve Hays posted one of his withering beat down blog articles. I imagine there may be other rebuttals forthcoming.
The author presents a lot things I’d love to touch on, but with my purposes here, I wanted to focus in upon some specific comments he makes regarding methodology, particularly how we know what we know as presuppositionalists. I believe he provides some important thoughts to ponder.
I consider myself a presuppositionalist in my apologetic methodology, though I wouldn’t necessarily be a pure and clean Van Tillian drawn from the veins of covenant theology. I think Van Til did much to set apologetic methodology aright, especially wresting apologetics from the hands of Roman Catholics and Arminians, and anchoring it in a historical, apostolic, and biblical approach. I know for myself, presuppositionalism caused my evangelistic efforts engaging unbelief to leap light years beyond the canned soul-winning presentations I was taught in my Baptist churches growing up.
I have written quite a bit on the topic of apologetics over the years (articles are cataloged HERE for folk’s convenience). Though the bulk of those articles are critical of classic apologetics, I do have my criticisms of the current expressions of presuppositionalism as it is presented online and in social media contexts. Mainly, I am concerned that presuppositional practitioners complicate the terminology and methods to the point no one knows what it is the person is talking about. That presents a real problem. When someone like myself wishes to teach others to think presuppositionally regarding apologetics, I want to make sure folks are not confused as to what it is I am telling them.
I think because presuppositionalists can speak in cryptic terms, the author of the article interacts with what really amounts to a strawman version of presuppositionalism, and that makes it difficult to respond to his phantom. However, I believe his article is none the less useful, because those misconceptions he presents are founded upon what could possibly be an inadequate definition given to him by presuppositionalists. If he received bad information from folks, we cannot fault him when he attempts to offer a rebuttal with bad arguments.
Here is where we can seize the opportunity to sharpen our apologetics. There are two misconceptions he notes in his article I think are important to consider and correct. That in turn will help presuppositionalists to articulate clearly their theology.
The first one concerns what he falsely believes presuppositionalists teach regarding human reasoning. He writes,
… It is my understanding that according to the Calvinistic interpretation of Scripture, human reasoning is so totally depraved that any effort to understand or believe the Gospel is futile. Unless and until the Holy Spirit regenerates the reprobate mind, a person will continue to suppress the truth regardless of how well it is articulated or argued for.
That is not at all what Calvinism believes about total depravity. Total depravity doesn’t mean utter depravity, in that human beings are as wicked as they could be and totter on the brink of savagery and descending into a Lord of the Flies existence (even though that is a real possibility). The idea of total depravity is that sin effects the whole person, the entirety of his being. Every aspect of who a person is, is tainted by sin.
That would certainly include man’s reasoning ability. In fact, Ephesians 4:18 states that men’s minds have a darkened understanding. In other words, their reasoning abilities are clouded, or are the opposite of illumination.
So how does that play out in their ability to reason? Presuppositionalists are not saying men have no ability to reason, nor that they can never understand the Gospel message. What they are saying is that the sinner’s so-called reasoning is at its core hostile to the faith, and will more than likely just lead him to make even more excuses why he should continue rejecting Christ. Thus, a sinners reasoning will never save him, and thus he cannot be reasoned to saving faith.
The author seems to conflate the idea of reasoning with the idea of believing or making a commitment that is efficacious for an unbeliever’s salvation. Certainly a sinner can understand the content of the Gospel. I have personally spoken with a number of hostile unbelievers about the proofs of the Resurrection, the claims of Jesus, and argued passionately for the existence of God. Those unbelievers clearly understood what I was saying, a few acknowledging I made a good case. However, they reasoned in themselves that I was an idiot and rejected my compelling presentations none the less.
While I personally am willing to entertain the unbeliever’s demand for “proof” or answers to his or her hard questions about the Bible, some in my presuppositional circles are not. They are of the conviction that doing so is putting God on trial and conceding to the unbeliever’s rebellion against God.
I, on the other hand, recognize what the Bible tells me about an unbeliever: his reasoning is darkened, and unless God regenerates his heart, he will only remain in that darkness. That doesn’t mean, however, that I never speak with him about the Gospel, answer his pointed questions, or present so-called evidence when asked for it. A lot of the time, the presentation of evidence merely shuts the mouth of the scoffer and exposes his intellectual folly.
Secondly is the author’s understanding regarding how it is that we know the interpretation of Scripture. In an imaginary conversation he makes up between a classical apologist and a presuppositional apologist, he states the following,
“In other words, you can REASON from the text. The words of Scripture clearly do not interpret themselves. If that were the case we wouldn’t be having this discussion. You and I disagree about what the implications of Scripture are and therefore you have to attempt to demonstrate that your view is true by engaging in reasoning. Didn’t you say that our reasoning capabilities are fallen and that we should never place human reasoning above God’s Divine Revelation?”
Here is where the author touches upon one of the cornerstone, foundational differences between classicists and presuppositionalists. That being, what is it exactly that informs our understanding of Scripture?
Now a person may ask, “How exactly is that foundational?” It has to do with with ultimate authorities that shape our ability to know. Anyone who gets into a discussion about epistemology and Scriptural authority with a classical apologist will eventually reach the place where the classicist will insist that no one can really know what the Bible is saying or interpret it correctly WITHOUT first having a philosophical grid in place through which we filter our reading of Scripture.
For instance, Richard Howe, at Southern Evangelical Seminary, says that he presents a three-fold formula that builds a cumulative case for the Christian faith. He begins with philosophy that defines our “reality,” that moves him to demonstrating general theism, and then eventually the viability of Christianity. The authority of Scripture in defining Christianity is essentially the caboose in his apologetic train. When I have interacted with graduates of SES, my most notable foil being Adam Tucker (folks can find my articles addressing our exchanges HERE), that is the exact same model they all employ.
The same basic approach is utilized when interpreting Scripture. For the classicist, the proper interpretation of Scripture cannot be determined by just reading the Bible. A system of hermeneutics must be established first before anyone can read the Bible properly. So, for the classicist, it is naive, and a bit dishonest, for the presuppositionalist to say he starts his apologetics with Scripture. The presuppositionalist has smuggled in an outside authority, that being his system of hermeneutics, which is the true ultimate starting point, not the Bible. That system is ultimately determined by philosophy that interprets reality. Again, see this article I wrote responding to this very argument made by Richard Howe against presuppositionalism.
The presuppositionalist, however, understands that God desires to communicate with mankind and has thus created man with the ability to communicate not only with Himself, but also other men. In other words, the hermeneutics needed to read and understand Scripture is hardwired in men.
Think about it: people don’t need to learn a separate, philosophical grid first before they can read cook books, or instructions for changing engine oil, or The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As long as they have the basics of reading, a person can instantaneously determine if what it is he is reading is history, or poetry, or a story, or even a recipe to make a pie. The same is with Bible. A Christian doesn’t need to have memorized Aristotle’s philosophy for reality to understand Scripture, especially the Gospel. It is how God made man to communicate.
Presuppositionalists need to recognize the importance of clarifying these two truths. If they are concise in explaining what is meant by the totality of human depravity and its impact upon man’s basic reasoning, along with how it is we know about God and what it means when we say Scripture is our starting point, they will be making great strides in helping Christians understand how to defend the faith in a biblical fashion.