Apologetic Methods, apologetics, Presuppositionalism, The Transcendental Argument

Debate Review: Greg Bahnsen vs. Gordon Stein

Advocates of the presuppositional approach to Christian Apologetics have long hailed the debate between Greg Bahnsen (the late Christian theologian and apologist, noted for his achievements in presuppositional apologetics and development of theonomy–a view of the Law for Christians, pictured left) and Gordon Stein (the late secularist noted for his links to Free Inquiry among other things, pictured below, right) as a stirring triumph of presuppositional apologetics over atheism in a point-by-point debate. Recently, I listened to the debate and thought I would share my impressions here.

Debate Outline

Bahnsen Opening Statement

From the outset, it was clear this debate was going to be different from others I’d listened to or watched. Bahnsen outlined what he means by “God,” outlined a few general points about subjectivism, and then quickly dove into a presuppositional type of argument. He began with an attack on the idea that all existential questions can be answered in the same way:

The assumption that all existence claims are questions about matters of fact, the assumption that all of these are answered in the very same way is not only over simplified and misleading, it is simply mistaken. The existence, factuality or reality of different kinds of things is not established or disconfirmed in the same way in every case. [All quotes from the transcript linked below. My thanks to “The Domain for Truth” for linking this.]

Bahnsen then mounts an argument which is perhaps the most important innovation of presuppositional apologetics: the attack on neutrality. He notes that Gordon Stein in his writings puts forth a case for examining evidence in order to determine if God exists. He relies upon the laws of logic and seems to think that this avoids logical fallacies. Yet, Bahnsen argues, Stein has just argued in a circle as well. By presupposing the validity of the laws of logic and other forms of reasoning, he has fallen into the trap he has stated he is trying to avoid. As such, Stein’s outlook is not neutral but it is colored by his presuppositions. Bahnsen notes:

In advance, you see, Dr. Stein is committed to disallowing any theistic interpretation of
nature, history or experience. What he seems to overlook is that this is just as much begging the question on his own part as it is on the part of the theists who appeal to such evidence. He has not at all proven by empirical observation and logic his pre commitment to Naturalism. He has assumed it in advance, accepting and rejecting all further factual claims in terms of that controlling and unproved assumption.

Now the theist does the very same thing, don’t get me wrong. When certain empirical
evidences are put forth as likely disproving the existence of God, the theist regiments his
commitments in terms of his presuppositions, as well.

Therefore, what Bahnsen presses is that it is only on the Christian theistic presupposition that things like the laws of logic, the success of empirical sciences, and the like can make sense. He makes the transcendental argument for the existence of God:

we can prove the existence of God from the impossibility of the contrary. The transcendental proof for God’s existence is that without Him it is impossible to prove anything.

Gordon Stein Opening Statement

Stein opens by clarifying what he means by “atheist”: “Atheists do not say that they can prove there is no God. Also, an atheist is not someone who denies there is a God. Rather, an atheist says that he has examined the proofs that are offered by the theists, and finds them inadequate.”

Stein then argues that the burden of proof is definitely in the theist’s court. He goes on to address a number of theistic proofs and finds them wanting. In fact, the rest of his opening statement is spent addressing 11 separate arguments for the existence of God, including the major players like the moral, cosmological, and teleological arguments.

Cross Examination 1

In the first cross-examination, Bahnsen asked Stein whether the laws of logic were material or immaterial. Stein finally, quietly, admits that the laws of logic are not material. Yet then Stein turns around and in his own cross examination presses triumphantly a point he thinks will be decisive. He asks Bahnsen, “Is God material or immaterial”; Bahnsen responds, “Immaterial.”; after a brief segway, Stein poses the following question which, by the tone of his voice, he seems to think carries some weight: “Apart from God, can you name me one other thing that is immaterial?” To this question, Bahnsen responds quickly, “The laws of logic.” The crowd erupts. Stein lost that one.

First Rebuttal: Bahnsen

Bahnsen spends most of his rebuttal arguing that the laws of logic are not mere conventions, and that Stein cannot make them such. If Stein does, then, argues Bahnsen, he can’t actually participate in a logical debate, because they could each declare a convention in which they each win the debate.

He goes on to re-stress the transcendental argument and point out that Stein failed to address it. He develops it a bit further by attacking the notion that an atheistic worldview can make sense of logic:

And that’s because in the atheistic world you cannot justify,you cannot account for, laws in general: the laws of thought in particular, laws of nature,cannot account for human life, from the fact that it’s more than electrochemical complexesin depth, and the fact that it’s more than an accident. That is to say, in the atheist conceptionof the world, there’s really no reason to debate; because in the end, as Dr. Stein has said, allthese laws are conventional. All these laws are not really law-like in their nature, they’re just,well, if you’re an atheist and materialist, you’d have to say they’re just something that happensinside the brain.

But you see, what happens inside your brain is not what happens inside my brain.

Stein First Rebuttal

Stein argues that laws of logic are indeed conventions, saying:

The laws of logic are also consensuses based on observations. The fact that they can predict something correctly shows they’re on the right track, they’re corresponding to reality in some way.

Oddly, Stein continues to act as though Bahsnen’s argument was a variety of cosmological argument. He argues that before we can ask “what caused the universe” we must ask whether the universe is actually caused. He then tries to address the argument more explicitly, saying that it is “nonsense” and that various cultures do indeed have different logic. His most direct argument against the trasncendental argument is that “If matter has properties that it behaves than we have order in the universe, and we have a logical, rational universe without God.”

Debate Segment Two

Stein Opening 2

Stein argues that the problem of evil is an evidential argument against the existence of God. He states that it raises the probability that there is no God. He asserts that there is no physical evidence for God. Stein then argues that God has not provided evidence for his existence, but that He should do so. Finally, he turns to the problem of religious diversity, asking why God would allow other religions if there is only one God.

Bahnsen Opening 2

Bahnsen argues that Stein placing the laws of logic into a matter of consensus undermines their usefulness and in fact  defeats the purpose of rational inquiry and debate. He argues further that Stein’s definition of laws of logic within pragmatic terms doesn’t come close to the extent of the laws of logic.

Stein Rebuttal

Stein argues that bahnsen hasn’t actually done anything to explain the laws of logic. He argues that simply saying they are the thoughts of God doesn’t mean anything, and that it does nothing to explain them. He therefore argues that Bahnsen fails to provide an adequate explanation for the facts of the universe.

Bahnsen Rebuttal

Bahnsen presses the point that Stein’s entire system is based upon presuppositions which he cannot justify. Induction is undermined in an atheistic worldview because there is no reason to believe that things will continue to happen as they do currently happen. He briefly addresses the problem of evil by saying that within an atheistic universe there simply is no evil, so it makes no sense from Stein’s perspective to press that issue.

Closing Statement: Stein

Stein’s closing statement seems to be more of a rebuttal than anything. He argues that there can be evil defined in an atheistic universe as that which decreases the happiness in people. Yet even this, he says, “We don’t know”–we don’t know that there is evil in an atheistic universe, rather it is a consensus and pragmatically useful.

He argues that we can know about induction because of statistical probability: it is highly improbable that the future will be different from the past because it has been similar in activity to the past for as long as we know.

Closing Statement: Bahnsen

Bahnsen finally presses the transcendental one last time. He argues that while Stein has called it hogwash and useless, he hasn’t actually  responded to it. Bahnsen states that once more the atheistic worldview can’t make sense of itself. For example, saying the future will be like the past due to probability begs the question: there is nothing in the atheistic worldview to say that probability can help determine what the future will be like. It might work pragmatically, but it fails to give any explanation. Finally, Bahnsen argues that you cannot be a rational, empirical human being an an atheistic universe.

Analysis of the Debate

It is abundantly clear throughout this debate that the presuppositionalist takes a very different approach to debate and apologetics than those from other methods. One can see this immediately when Gordon Stein delivers his opening statement, which was presumably prepared beforehand, and goes to answer common theistic arguments like the cosmological and teleological argument. But Bahnsen never once used either of these arguments, and took an entirely different approach. I think this initially caught Stein off guard and that impression remained throughout the debate.

Stein’s responses to Bahnsen were extremely inadequate. This became very clear in their debate over induction and empiricism. For example, although Stein held that he could say the future will be like the past based upon probability, he had no way to say that the world was not spontaneously created 5 minutes ago with implanted memories and the notion that the future will be like the past. Bahnsen didn’t make this argument, but it seems like it would line up with his reasoning. Of course, he would grant that the theist has to presuppose that God exists in order to make sense of induction, but that was exactly his point: without God, nothing can be rational.

I found it really interesting that Stein kept insisting that the laws of logic are mere social conventions. He kept pressing that some cultures do not hold that they are true as defined. But of course, cultural disagreement about a concept doesn’t undermine the truth value of a concept. If, for example, there were a culture that insisted that 2+2=5, that wouldn’t somehow mean that 2+2=4 is a logical convention, it would mean the culture who insisted the sum was 5 would be wrong. Similarly, the laws of logic may be disagreed upon by some, but to deny them is to undermine all rationality.

Overall, I have to say I was shocked by how this debate turned out. I have long been investigating presuppositional apologetics and continually wondered how it would work in an applied situation. It seems to me that to insist on a presupposition in order to debate would not work, but Bahnsen masterfully used the transcendental argument to reduce Stein to having to argue that logic is merely a social convention while ironically using logic himself to attack theism.

It seems to me that this debate showed what I have suspected for some time: presuppositional apologetics is extremely powerful, when used correctly. Now I’m not about to become a full-blown presuppositionalist here. My point is that it is another approach Christians can use in their witnessing to those who do not believe. I envision a synthesis of presuppositional apologetics with evidentialism. Some may say this is impossible, that they are anathema to each other, but I do not think so. They can be used in tandem: the presuppositional approach to question the worldview of others, while the evidentialist approach can be used to support the notion that the Christian worldview provides the best explanation for the data we have.


Listen to the debate yourself. Get it here. The transcript I used was also from this page. Thanks to the author for such a great resource.

I’ve been researching and writing about presuppositional apologetics. For other posts about presuppositional apologetics, check out the category.

I highly recommend starting with the introduction to the most important thinker in the area, Cornelius Van Til.

Choosing Hats– A phenomenal site which updates fairly regularly with posts from a presuppositional approach (the author uses the term “covenental apologetics”). The best place to start is with the post series and the “Intro to Covenental Apologetics” posts.

The Domain for Truth– Another great presuppositionalist web site. I highly recommend browsing the topics here.



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


47 thoughts on “Debate Review: Greg Bahnsen vs. Gordon Stein

  1. I envision a synthesis of presuppositional apologetics with evidentialism. Some may say this is impossible, that they are anathema to each other, but I do not think so. They can be used in tandem: the presuppositional approach to question the worldview of others, while the evidentialist approach can be used to support the notion that the Christian worldview provides the best explanation for the data we have.

    I’m not sure that what you’re perceiving as a synthesis of a divide between presuppositionalism and evidentialism is actual or stemming from some misunderstanding of presuppositionalism.

    Presuppositionalists would say that all the evidence supports the notion that the Christian worldview provides the best explanation for the data we have.

    When this issue came up on Triablogue and Wintery Knight a few weeks ago I gave the following quote from Van Til, which bears repeating:

    “The objective evidence for the existence of God and of the comprehensive governance of the world by God is therefore so plain that he who runs may read. Men cannot get away from this evidence. They see it round about them. They see it within them. Their own constitution so clearly evinces the facts of God’s creation of them and control over them that there is no man who can possibly escape observing it. If he is self-conscious at all, he is also God-conscious. No matter how men may try they cannot hide from themselves the fact of their own createdness. Whether men engage in inductive study with respect to the facts of nature about them or engage in analysis of their own self-consciousness they are always face to face with God their maker. Calvin stresses these matters greatly on the basis of Paul’s teachings in Romans.”

    (A Christian Theory of Knowledge, 10.3.b.1)

    Presuppositionalism has a high view of evidene. They just think that the evidence can be used in wrong ways and right ways. You said: “…the most important innovation of presuppositional apologetics: the attack on neutrality.” and this would probably get at the wrong way to use evidence: in a supposedly neutral framework.

    Posted by The Janitor | July 30, 2012, 8:13 AM
    • Indeed… I think there is a lot of overlap and it is difficult to draw fast and hard lines between the two approaches. Most current apologists, even presuppostionalists like Frame, have a great deal of synthesis. I have more to say on the topic, which I said in my response to SLIMJIM (see that comment).

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 30, 2012, 5:19 PM
    • Presuppositionalism is nothng more than circular reasoning of the highest order

      Posted by Tony Jiang | January 12, 2013, 5:35 PM
      • I think that logic is a human (read: intelligent being) construction, a way to look at the world and make choices — logic doesn’t actually exist as a ‘thing’, although it is material since it’s based in our thoughts, which are electrochemicals or whatever. And i think you want physics if you’re talking about things only appearing in one place at a time

        Posted by waffles | January 13, 2013, 7:26 PM
      • what you havent given me a rebuttal thats kinda disappointing…

        Posted by waffles | February 3, 2013, 8:15 PM
  2. JW,

    Thank you JW. Good service by summarizing a great debate, as well as good analysis. This debate reminded me of one I heard in Atlanta in the 80s between Wm. Lane Craig and Richard Dawkins (I think it was).

    I would like to offer my take. I came away from both debates agreeing as much with the supposed atheists as with the supposed theists. I find their admission telling (which I have heard many times): “Atheists do not say that they can prove there is no God . . . . [or] deny there is a God. Rather, an atheist says that he has examined the proofs that are offered by the theists, and finds them inadequate.”

    With this I heartily agree! Let me explain why. First, I ask you to try with me to think like they do, put ourselves in their shoes:
    -They do not know God (whether God knows them is another issue not addressed here)
    -The so-called ‘proofs’ for God’s existence are woefully inadequate; they rest on presuppositions as well the naturalists’; these actually miscue people with sharp minds
    -The burden of proof is in God’s court, or with his surrogates, the theists (here, the basic historical problem is with the self-proclaimed Vicar of Christ, who has ruined this for everyone), that is, no one can think of God without thinking of his surrogates who surely do a poor job of representing him
    -Scientists are unsure of so-called ‘natural laws’ or code “written in”, i.e., the created order; so they cling to the next best thing, a dualism:

    human knowledge = conventional consensus / theory

    natural phenomena

    This is the best humans can do with what they have, and there are two big limitations to contend with:
    -All they have got = the universe
    -Best they can do (man can): build consensus/agreement about what we know and why (even that is tainted by human perfidy: jealousy, lying, prejudice, skepticism, and worse: human substitution for God: religion, idols, philosophy, etc.)

    Two main theories/assumptions on which they rely (because w/o God humans are monists: one over-arching explanation for reality w/self as arbiter of what is true, or worse, the wannabee-god of reality):
    (1) Everything is material/natural; only natural
    (2) Everything is spiritual; only spiritual and material reality is an illusion (maya)

    Second, I believe the fundamental difficulty with the breakdown in communication is that most Christian theists themselves are uncritically monists. That is, God is part of their imaginarium, their world of ideas. This is in some respects understandable. Yet, it is the crux of the problem. We have not sufficiently learned/acknowledged, as theists, that there are two kinds of reality or maybe two realities, instead of one that includes everything, including God.

    Maybe this diagram can help somewhat (I guess I can’t include a diagram), although it is limited as well. I believe that Bahnsen and Stein were talking past each other, notably for example in relation to laws. Bahnsen was, I believe, trying to articulate the created order as it is, that is, laws or code written into the universe to govern movement, transfer of energy, relations of entities, time, etc. Whereas, Stein was referring to knowledge/theory of these laws, which is limited, and therefore best kept to a consensus among experts and subject to change as we know more. Since he is unsure of the former, he relies only on the latter. It is insufficient for theists to claim that God’s existence anchors these laws, as well as the so-called laws of logic, etc.

    Because, inadvertently, however little or much we are conscious of the fact, when we assume and argue cause and effect, most theists, I believe, think of the First Cause as inside the left diagram. That is, within their understanding of reality, represented by the large circle, which encompasses everything (they know). For most Western Christians God is the biggest, first cause, which causes everything else. To the extent we think this way, as I, myself have until lately, theistic arguments for the existence of God, while strictly following the laws of logic, ultimately fail, because God is within their system of logic. This God is really an idea, immaterial in the sense of an idea, something within creation.

    I believe the fundamental departure of the Church from our Hebrew-biblical roots was at this point. Remember the Greeks, and earlier the Assyrians and others, who thought the Jews were atheists because they had empty temples and altars with no images, no entities. It was not just because God is unseen. It is that he is NOT of this universe. The OT Jews were more correct in representing the reality of things than we supposed ‘theists’.

    I try to represent this by the diagram on the right, but even it is skewed. We have our universe of created reality and ideas, similarly as those who do not know God on the left. In addition, distinct from all we have and know, is God. God existed prior to and is distinct from that which he created.

    He is not of our reality. If we were of his reality, the universe would be an emanation from God, like the Greeks and Neo-Platonists believed. Or some sort of pantheism. But the Bible does not describe things this way (see Gen 1; Psa 115; Deu 10:14; Jon 1:9; Neh 9:6; Isa 10:5-16; etc.).

    Scripture describes these differences in many different ways, but really, if we don’t grasp that he is a different reality than ours, we tend to interpret these descriptions from within our box. So, we think of him as higher, better, stronger, more ancient, etc. than we, when what he is really saying is that he is these because he made high, good, strong, and time and he himself is something different. Like, but not the things he makes.

    The imported ideas of transcendance and immanence to Hebrew-biblical thinking are off the mark. They reflect a dualism instead of a covenantal relationship between God, who is something we are not (we are not really sure what he is so we use words like spirit and unseen), and his creation which is another, a created, thing, something which does have matter, energy, some unseen and even immaterial aspects, as well as evil in it.

    So, of course humans cannot discover, find, prove, measure God with tools and ideas limited to within creation. He is not here in that sense. He gave us these gifts to fulfill our creation mandate to care for and cultivate the universe. He, himself, is unapproachable by human device. The atheists are correct, so far as the limits of human knowledge. We should acknowledge this and commiserate with them. Of course, it is true (and we can wish that humans without God would so infer) that the rules of logic and what we call natural laws, and even existence itself is implausible without a Creator-sustainer (Col 1), but they choose to disregard this ‘logic’, as Paul states in Romans 1 and Ephesians 4, among other places in Scripture.

    However, it is not that he has left himself without trace or witness. And it is not as if he is totally separate. Rather, while being distinctly other, he is, nevertheless, near every one of us (Act 17). It is that we, his witnesses, misrepresent him. Of course, even were we to represent him well, some will turn away. But that does not excuse our misrepresentation in our lifestyles and in our use of Greek thinking to explain fundamentally different (scriptural) explanations of reality. By relying upon arguments that stem from a God who is an idea within our imaginarium, instead of the God revealed in Scripture who is prior to and distinct from created reality, we blind people to the truth by offering a mirage.

    So, we live in a situation, difficult as it is to grasp, that there is another reality, God, outside ours. We would not even know this if he had not, in love, chosen to reveal himself. He would be near by, hidden. It is a shocking thing to the materialist, seemingly alone, to have God reveal himself!

    Most do not even entertain the possibility of a real, outside God. The most humans do is invent their own caricatures, imitations of a god, and invent their own religion and service. And, I maintain, much of christianism does the same, using Bible verses to justify their erroneous beliefs. No wonder many scientists and materialists reject our caricatures. As Arnold Toynbee famously penned near the end of his life: “People have not rejected Christ but a poor caricature of him.”

    If we concede that there are two realities or kinds of reality, God and his creation, then statements like in the movie Rudy to the effect that he knew there is a God and he is not him, make more sense. He really is not him. Explanations for things like evil and sovereignty and free will and also for material phenomena are much more plausible when based on two completely different realities than defaulting to a monistic starting point.

    Posted by Dan Porter | July 30, 2012, 3:04 PM
  3. It’s always a delight to see a Non-Presupper offer a fair assessment of Presuppositional Apologetics (PA). Your overview was cogent, concise, and highlighted many of the essential elements of PA that Bahnsen pressed in this debate. Many men have become PA advocates after listening to this debate. Ravi Zacharias quotes it with great admiration. Bahnsen and Van Til were apologetic titans but many TAGsters and Non-TAGsters have pursued advancing PA against the numerous refined and nimble challenges that have surfaced the last two decades. James Anderson is often named as the one of the most sound and prominent PA adherent in academia. Frame, Oliphint, Poythress, and others have produced selectively potent books and resources that often are consistent with VT and GB.

    Posted by apologetics2020 | July 30, 2012, 3:39 PM
  4. Hey brother, Thanks for the link. I would have to go through this more slowly and have been encouraged with your posts and thoughts on Presuppositionalism, and thus far I hope that this can be a good model of how Christians can agree to disagree in a godly matter.
    Concerning the last point of synthesizing Presuppositionalism with Evidentialism, I don’t take Presuppositionalism to be against evidence per se, nor do I see Evidentialism is all about evidence while Presuppositionalism is not at all for the use of evidences. In fact, I do think there can be a way evidences for the Historic Christian faith to be marshalled under a Van Tillian framework; I believe works still needs to be done on this in general, but I thought this might give a bit of a taste of the direction of what that would look like: http://thirdmill.org/newfiles/jim_li/jim_li.vantil.pdf.

    Posted by SLIMJIM | July 30, 2012, 4:55 PM
    • I do think synthesis already occurs but I can’t help but think that, in particular Van Til but also Bahnsen both would reject the use of the historical argument if one used it as an apologetic for the Bible. In other words, it seems to me from both of their writings that they would reject an argument that said that “some evidence” => “the Bible is true.”

      Rather, they both argue that it is “the Bible is true” => “evidence will show the Bible is true.” Or, as Frame put it, “The Bible is true” => “The Bible is true.”

      So a strict evidentialist and a strict presuppositionalist would have great conflict. I am neither. I think that both approaches offer a great deal of good and can be synthesized. However, I do think on reading Bahnsen and Van Til (specifically, Bahnsen’s “Always Ready” and “Presuppositional Apologetics” and Van Til’s “The Defense of the Faith” and “Christian Apologetics”) that they would reject most evidentialist arguments. And the reason would be not because they think the evidence is poor, but because evidentialists offer the arguments as entailing the truth of some part of theism or Christianity or the Bible. They both hold you must take Christianity as primary before the argument can begin.

      Do you think my reading is incorrect here?

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 30, 2012, 5:03 PM
      • I can see where you are coming from. Off the top of my memory brother, it would seems that one has to be careful of blanket statements against Bahnsen or Van Til concerning Christian evidences. I think we also have to note what are we trying to prove specifically with “evidences” and from there even distinguish the types of evidences Van Til and Bahnsen had in mind. If by evidences we mean the traditional Classical arguments for the existence of God, we can all agree they were definitely not fans of them. However, it does not seem to imply that they were against evidences to prove other kinds of Christian claims. At least in my readings, they were not against evidences for the sort of historical claims such as “The Apostle John wrote John,” etc.
        Hey J.W., are you currently residing in Southern California and still going to Biola? It seems I might not be too far from you.

        Posted by SLIMJIM | July 30, 2012, 5:15 PM
      • “If by evidences we mean the traditional Classical arguments for the existence of God, we can all agree they were definitely not fans of them.”

        Right… and evidentialists definitely are. That’s why I would draw a pretty solid line there. However there are those who cross over, like Frame.

        I do not live in SoCal. I am in Minnesota. It’s the distance learning program. If you’re coming to the EPS conference I’ll be there, though :).

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 30, 2012, 5:21 PM
      • Ah man, I was hoping to treat you to In-and-Out Burgers (Southern California thing). I’ll consider EPS conference sometimes in the future =)

        Posted by SLIMJIM | July 30, 2012, 5:27 PM
  5. The debate transcript I read was painful. Like a pair of six year olds arguing over policy responses to China’s central bank’s manipulative currency devaluations.

    One thing I have never ever seen is any presuppositionalist give a *positive* account of how Yahweh “explains” something like the laws of logic. I certainly didn’t hear any of that here. What would such an account – the account the presupper demands all non-christians make – even look like? It surely cannot be a causal explanation, since causes only apply to events occurring in time and space. But neither could it be a deductive explanation, since one is quite capable of arriving at e.g. the Pythagorean Theorem in the absence of such a premise; and no one has yet show how to do something like make a formal derivation of the validity of modus ponens from the book of Leviticus.

    This observation is consistent with my hypothesis that apologetics is more about generating “stumper questions for skeptics” than with generating any positive knowledge or uplift to the species generally.

    Posted by Staircaseghost | July 30, 2012, 10:06 PM
    • “It surely cannot be a causal explanation, since causes only apply to events occurring in time and space.”

      How do you know that?

      Posted by Thomas Larsen | August 1, 2012, 5:27 AM
    • Because that’s what “cause” means?

      I don’t see any good reason to adopt such a restrictive understanding of causality. What led you to define causality as applying only to events occurring in time and space?

      Posted by Thomas Larsen | August 1, 2012, 11:19 PM
      • By observing that, in noncontroversial cases of cause, the function to which the concept is put is to express the expectation that we can reliably predict the state of the universe at time t+1 given the state of the universe at time t for some given observed phenomenon. And then asking if there is any coherent sense, even if only analogical, in which this practice can be extended to situations in which no two distinct observations of the state of the universe are being related, and then realizing that this is absurd. And then realizing that most people, even many professional philosophers, have never sat down and analyzed what they mean by “cause”, and so alarm bells don’t go off when the apologist starts using it, not to state entailments between states of a world-model, but as a sort of non-cognitive toe-tag tracking moral responsibility.(“2+2=4, love is better than hate, the world is comprehensible — PRAISE GOD!!!”)

        Posted by Staircaseghost | August 2, 2012, 10:33 AM
      • I’m not sure there is such a thing as a noncontroversial case of cause. Have you interacted with Hume?

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 2, 2012, 10:38 AM
      • yes this is right Thomas, StaircaseGhost is making the fallacy of assuming that any “fact” is limited to what is sense perceptible, it is not… that is a fallacy

        Posted by Gary Oliver | December 28, 2013, 9:57 AM
  6. Reblogged this on Theology-that absurdity!.

    Posted by Lord Griggs | July 31, 2012, 10:14 PM
  7. I think what you meant to say is that there are no noncontroversial *analyses* of cause. Not that there are no noncontroversial *cases*. I bet you put gasoline in your car instead of water because the one causes it to go and not the other. I bet you cook a pizza by taking it out of the freezer and into the oven when you want to cause it to be cooked, not the other way around.

    So far my original observation remains intact: to the best of my knowledge, no presuppositionalist ever attempts to demonstrate how Yahweh *explains* any of the things typically adduced in TAG, for any reasonable definition of “explain”. Consequently I’ve been given no reason to reconsider my thesis that this mode of argument is about shutting down the opponent rather than about making positive contributions to human knowledge.

    Posted by Staircaseghost | August 2, 2012, 11:40 AM
    • If there is no such thing as cause, then there is no analysis of cause.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 2, 2012, 11:45 AM
      • Was I being that unclear about what I was looking for? It sounds like people here are much more familiar with the primary presupp literature than I am, so what I was hoping for was something like either “NO, YOU’RE WRONG, Van Til or someone else clearly provides a reasonable definition of ‘explain’ and shows how Yahweh meets these criteria on p.342…” or “HEY, YOU’RE RIGHT, I never noticed that the CENTRAL PREMISE of the argument is completely unsupported and hopelessly conceptually confused.”

        Posted by Staircaseghost | August 2, 2012, 12:32 PM
      • Hold up a moment, we haven’t hashed out what I’ve been pressing yet. How do you ground causation? What you have so far is a pragmatist response that seems extremely naive.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 2, 2012, 12:48 PM
  8. No one needs to know how I do or not “ground” causation in order to answer my very simple question. In what sense of “explain” do presuppositionalists – any presuppositionalists, ever – demonstrate how Yahweh explains what they say he explains, and where can I read this “explanation”?

    I don’t expect that any given person’s philosophical analysis of causality will be the same as mine, but so what? Recall that in my first post I don’t even demand that the “explanation” be a causal! I also allowed that it could be a deductive or logical one, or some unspecified third kind. What I’m looking for is ANY JUSTIFICATION AT ALL beyond bare assertion for the presuppositionalist’s CENTRAL CLAIM that Yahweh explains what they say every other world view cannot, for ANY reasonable definition of “explain”.

    Just a page number will do.

    Posted by Staircaseghost | August 2, 2012, 3:08 PM
    • Very well:

      John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 104: “Even logic itself is value based… the power of logic is normative and ethical. It tells us what we ought to confess as a conclusion, granting our confession of premises.”

      Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 265, after arguing that secondary causes are “established by God” [p. 244, “God is the ultimate cause back of whatsoever comes to pass.”]: “Suffocation of science and of all human experience would take place if either ‘classic realism’ or modern idealism were true. For then there would be no causes at all. All reality would be composed of irrational particulars.”

      Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, p. 619: “[T]he Christian worldview does not have this intellectual dilemma of justifying the causal principle… It is transcendentally justified by the inner coherence of our presupposed worldview, or within its wider context, being entailed by both the nature and promises of God…” Bahnsen refers the reader back to p. 220ff for an argument to this effect. In fact, p. 220-260 is an extended argument to this effect.

      Now, I turn back once more to saying that literally the only way you have causation–and you admit this–is by assuming it works. You say no one needs to know, but you’ve already argued it pragmatically, which of is ultimately vacuous.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 2, 2012, 6:17 PM
      • Thanks. I’m having difficulty tracking these down; none of them are in google books or the LAPL system, so it might be a while before I can evaluate them fully. But just as a matter of first impressions, based only on these snippets:

        Remember, the thing I claim never to have seen has two components, that there is an aspect of 1) specifically Christian belief not available to anyone else that 2) potentially *explains*, for some reasonable value of “explains”, logic, morality, uniformity etc. rather than merely asserting without argument that it does. The quote from Frame doesn’t even look like an attempt to do either of those things. The fact that logic and other conversational norms are, err, normative is not really a matter of dispute, and appears to be tangential to the rest of the discussion.

        I have no (conceptual) trouble with Van Til’s claim that Yahweh might be the “ultimate” cause, in the sense of being a first mover who set everything in motion, with foreknowledge of every causal event that would result down the line. But this picture presupposes an ordered universe in which effects follow regularly from causes as a temporally and metaphysically prior state of affairs to Yahweh. That is, it seems to operate *within* an ordered universe, rather than *explaining* it, which is what the presuppositionalist claims to be able to do. I hope this isn’t a prelude to him arguing that Yahweh causes causality *itself* to operate, because you can easily see the vicious regress involved.

        In contrast, Bahnsen appears to say that “the causal principle” is not “explained” in the sense of being caused, but in the sense of being a deduction or entailment. But if this is correct, then when the presuppositionalist starts talking about logic, does he say that *logic* follows by deduction, in which case, infinite-regressville again?

        I suppose, in addition to the two criteria, I asked for a Zeroeth Criteria, that it be an argument or demonstration, not merely an assertion. I would have granted form the start that presuppers *assert* they can explain these sorts of things, so when I track down the text I imagine the footnotes on p.220 will be where I should look first. That seems to be the most promising candidate for what I’m asking for.

        Recall that I expressed doubts about what the very *form* of such “explanations” might be; 27 replies later, I still don’t feel like I’m in a position to say “according to Bahnsen, the nature of the proposed explanation relation is ____”. Picture me in the position of an agnostic who is trying to tease apart two hypotheses: A) the nature of logic/morality/etc. is a very difficult puzzle for which there are no satisfactory answers B) the nature of logic/morality/etc. are puzzles which non-theistic approaches *per*se* are unsatisfactory. If the former hypothesis is correct, then constantly hectoring unbelievers to explain life, the universe, and everything is simply a rhetorical maneuver based on the false dichotomy, “you can’t explain X, therefore I can”.

        So such demands are neither here nor there with regard to my initial question. Alternatively, if you are saying you can’t even explain what it means when you say you can explain something without appealing to a paradigm-dependent standard of what constitutes an explanation, then any worldview is as good as any other, because there are no paradigm-independent standards of evaluation. And I thought Christians are normally supposed to be *opposed* to relativism!

        Posted by Staircaseghost | August 5, 2012, 3:28 PM
      • I think your comment here betrays a certain kind of naivete about non-western culture. For example, you write “The fact that logic and other conversational norms are, err, normative is not really a matter of dispute, and appears to be tangential to the rest of the discussion.”

        Yet Zen Buddhists, as just one example, do consider this a matter of deep dispute.

        “But this picture presupposes an ordered universe in which effects follow regularly from causes as a temporally and metaphysically prior state of affairs to Yahweh.”

        I think you have this exactly backwards. The order comes from God putting it there, not as some brute fact.

        ” But if this is correct, then when the presuppositionalist starts talking about logic, does he say that *logic* follows by deduction, in which case, infinite-regressville again?”

        This depends upon which presuppositionalist you ask. I’ve found in Van Til a few areas where he does seem to think that logic is not itself inherently logical, but had to be imbued with some kind of form or meaning by God. It’s an interesting side area.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 7, 2012, 7:17 PM
  9. “I think you have this exactly backwards. The order comes from God putting it there, not as some brute fact.”

    Define “put”. That is what I have been trying to get anyone, anyone at all who thinks there is something to presuppositional apologetics to do. What is the nature of the explanation relation? This round should be chambered and ready to fire for anyone who wants to put these arguments in their apologetic arsenal.

    Is it causal? Every single example I know which involves something “putting” something somewhere is causal. E.g. if I hear someone say they put the keys on the desk they mean they caused the keys to be on the desk. Did Hashem *cause* causality? Welcome to infinite regress. But I can’t even get a straight answer about whether that is what the claim even is!

    This is why I found the atheist debater so painful to listen to. He was so flustered it never occurred to him to ask Bahnsen what on earth he was even talking about.

    “I’ve found in Van Til a few areas where he does seem to think that logic is not itself inherently logical, but had to be imbued with some kind of form or meaning by God. It’s an interesting side area.”

    Side area?!? It is the absolutely central and fundamental premise of the entire argument!

    I am told that Hashem can “explain” logic, morality, causality etc. in a way that has eluded each and every non-christian philosopher since Thales — but no one can tell me even in abbreviated form what they mean when they say this hypothesis “explains” something? I feel like I’m punching smoke here.

    Posted by Staircaseghost | August 8, 2012, 10:12 PM
    • I think you’re moving goal posts here. I say God puts (poor choice of terminology, I admit) order into the universe. You ask how. We could keep moving the goal posts. You asked how God really adds anything to the explanations, and I gave the example. To then continue to move the goal posts back is disingenuous.

      I offered explanation for a phenomenon. That explanation does not itself need to be necessarily explained. For example, if you were to ask how we get water, and I offered the explanation that it is from combining hydrogen and oxygen, you could continue to ask “how” questions indefinitely until we got to a point where I would have to resort to saying “That’s just a property of those molecules.” Then you could say “HA! Gotcha!” But of course you wouldn’t have gotten me. You asked for an explanation of how we get water. I gave one.

      Similarly, I gave an example of how God can explain order in the universe. I don’t need to go further than the explanation I offered so that you can keep moving the goal posts.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 9, 2012, 10:17 AM
      • On the contrary. The goalpost remain where they were in my very first comment. I said I have never seen a presuppositionalist *show* how Hashem “explains” anything, for any reasonable value of “explain”. If you think “put” is a poor choice of words, then why don’t you follow this up with what you think a *good* choice of words would be?

        If you asked me, after 30 replies, to answer the question “do presuppositionalists say Hashem *causes* causality/logic/morality, or are they using some other definition of “explain”?” I still don’t know! I am forced to conclude at this late hour – pending my reading of the references you so helpfully supplied – that presuppositionalists have no idea whatsoever what they mean when they say Hashem “explains” something, because they’ve never actually thought it through. The argument’s rhetorical effectiveness seems to derive exclusively from burden-of-proof-ambushing one’s opponent; if any student of presuppositionalism had a worked-out stance on the sense in which these things are “explained”, I think I would have heard it by now.

        I am manifestly not “asking for an explanation for the explanation you provided”. That is just a stock retort apologists train their devotees to make in response to a completely different argument. I am asking you to provide the explanation in the first place, so I can see if it falls prey to obvious and immediate circularity. If the explanandum appears in the explanans, then it is no explanation at all.

        Remember, what distinguishes presuppositionalism from other apologetics is that it claims to offer a *superior* account of why logic, causality etc. work to simply assuming them as brute facts. But if your account assumes as a brute fact something like “Hashem’s will has the power to cause things to happen” then you are not merely doing what you accuse atheists of doing (helping yourself to a concept you demand everyone else justify), you are making things worse for yourself with a flagrant parsimony violation.

        Posted by Staircaseghost | August 11, 2012, 8:12 PM
      • I’m not even a presuppositionalist so I don’t claim to speak for them. What I do find is that presuppers seem to claim that the way God explains logic, morality, etc. work is indeed because God’s will and power is able to do so. I don’t, however, see how this is less parsimonious. In essence: instead of many brute fact explanations, you have one necessary truth. Then, the line of argument the presuppers tend to use is to show how other explanations fail to work on their own grounds. It seems to work pretty well in practice. The core of presuppositionalism is indeed that all worldviews have circularity, so you won’t find me defending them on that ground. Of course it’s circular; they never claim it isn’t. What they do claim is that your (meaning everyone’s) view is circular too. Once that is set aside, they argue the specifics. Can your [everyone’s] view justify its own presuppositions?

        So I think maybe you’re asking presuppositionalists the wrong questions. You wrote, ” I am asking you to provide the explanation in the first place, so I can see if it falls prey to obvious and immediate circularity.”

        Well yeah, it does fall into circularity. Read any presuppositional apologist on the topic. Now you’ve admitted you pretty much haven’t, so maybe that’s why you’re getting so flustered over it. Hopefully the explanation above works.

        I myself am trying to figure out how good their arguments are, so I appreciate the dialog, but I think you’re really missing the point of their entire system.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 11, 2012, 11:51 PM
    • If I am understanding the question, it is not a matter of God creating logic, morality etc. God is in his essential nature logical and good; therefore our logic and morality reflect the mind and character of God. His nature governs the creation to such an extent that we are thinking God’s thoughts after him. God could not create an illogical or immoral universe. Logic, for example, is a necessary characteristic of anything God could create. I feel I have a fair grasp of presuppositionalism, so I might be able to answer better if you have specific questions.

      Posted by Nick Beckwith | July 29, 2013, 2:05 PM
  10. Thanks for your review of this debate, i listened to this debate yesterday found on sermons audio and thought it was more of a draw kind of like Dan Porter and Stair-ghost have commented. I agree though that Stein never really understood the assertion that he had a presuppositions even though it was made evident by the end that he did. Bahnsen equally though did not explain to me why these laws are necessarily caused by God as Stairghost mentioned as well, Dan Porter also mentions the two reality problem. It would seem to me scriptural revelation is the only way to reconcile these two issues the First is obvious because the God of the Bible asserts many times he inhabits/is a different reality as well the names he gives Himself also answer the causal evidence that Stairghost asks for He says “I am that I am.” The one “who was, is and will be”. Remember this same God does not only say they know God inherently but that the unbeliever is blind/deaf/dead etc. thus to try to bring about sight/hearing/life without the word is fruitless rambling. Just my two bits, I feel that you can not divorce this apologetic from scripture

    Posted by Richard Wiebe | January 23, 2013, 2:25 PM
  11. I disagree that one cannot employ evidential (E) and presuppositional (P) methods together. At first it does appear that you would be something of a Classical Foundationalist, Fideist AND Reformed Epistemologist all in one, but if you think of P and E as attacks rather than defenses, I think it could work. Just as a football team might have a great passing game does not mean they can’t employ their running game at will. It just gives the other team one more thing to have to address. In a debate I think this could be a great attack, b/c you are strategically making the opponent have to spend time RESPONDING to a variety of claims, and less time making propositions. Using a fighting analogy, it would be like kicking and punching during the fight, but as soon as you show your opponent you are willing to try to wrestle and grapple as well, their attention suddenly gets even more divided and must think less about attacking and more about “is he going to strike or is he going to try to throw me to the ground?”

    It’s simply pointing out the weakness of a position in multiple ways. A theist probably cannot approach his own universe in both a presuppositional AND evidential context and still remain consistent, but if your goal is mainly to attack another’s position I think it could be extremely useful.

    Posted by Timothy | March 14, 2014, 6:49 PM
    • I agree to some extent. I think that one could indeed use each in its own way and I favor an integrative approach to apologetics which uses various methods (presup; evidentialism; classicalism; even fideism) to defend the Christian faith. Given that I said this in the post, I’m not sure if you’re disagreeing with me or someone else but it looks like your comment was just a respone to the post generally.

      The one thing I would say, however, is that many presuppositionalists would disagree with what I said. For example, some presuppositional apologists even say evidentialism is sinful (!). I admit that I am extremely skeptical of such claims and think there is little rational or biblical basis for these same notions, but that may be part of the reason that evidentialists and presuppositionalists tend to operate in separate spheres rather than integrating.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 15, 2014, 12:55 AM
      • Oops! I thought I had responded to someone else’s COMMENTS above. Sorry about that. I actually liked what you had to say, and agree that some sort of concord would be useful in a debate. Maybe not so much for pinning down my OWN personal beliefs, however. I don’t think I can personally believe both P and E at the same time!

        Posted by Tim Henderson | March 15, 2014, 3:35 AM
      • Just read the post by the Presuppositionalist about Evidentialism being sinful. I can totally see how P+Calvinism leads to that conclusion. I have good friends who are Calvinist and they have the general mindset of the guy who wrote that article. In some of their views, it’s impossible to be a Christian and not a Calvinist.

        Posted by Tim Henderson | March 15, 2014, 3:45 AM


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