I am leading a guided reading of the Manual of Christian Evidences by George Park Fisher. It is freely available online and will serve as a base for discussing Christian apologetics throughout this series. The chapters are short and readable. I encourage you to join in by reading the chapters and commenting with your thoughts. When I discuss the book, I will be citing page numbers from the edition linked above.
It is always important when reading a non-fiction book to find the thesis. What is it that George Park Fisher is trying to accomplish with his Manual?
Spoiler alert (har har): the answer is that he’s trying to establish the veracity of “the New Testament histories” (2). I think a valuable question to follow such a statement up with is “so what?”
Suppose Fisher succeeds, and shows that the NT histories are trustworthy, would not some scholars continue to argue that this doesn’t demonstrate the miraculous contained therein (as I’m sure Tim can attest, given his recent debates with Bart Ehrman)? That is, would not many historians say we can trust the NT documents as history, but we need not trust the miraculous therein?
I think a possible response to this is actually found in another work by a dead apologist, J.J. Blunt. In his “Undesigned Coincidences,” he notes that “by establishing the truth of ordinary incidents which involve the miracle, which compass the miracle round about, and which cannot be separated from the miracle without the utter laceration of the history itself, goes very near to establish it.” (J.J. Blunt, “Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings both of the Old and New Testaments: An Argument of their Veracity” (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 9-10).
Interestingly, this is not so much the tactic Fisher uses going forward. He could defend the value of such a study by noting that because of the way some of the miraculous accounts are embedded in those NT histories, we cannot excise the miraculous without making the whole thing nonsensical. That is, the miraculous is itself part of the history. However, he opts for a different approach, as we will see in the coming chapters.
What do you think of this as a response? What other responses might be possible? Moreover, what other points in this chapter came to mind for you?
Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!
Apologetics Read-Through: Historical Apologetics Read-Along– Here are links for the collected posts in this series and other read-throughs of apologetics books (forthcoming).
Dead Apologists Society– A page for Christians interested in the works of historical apologetics. There is also a Facebook group for it.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
Cornelius Van Til pioneered the field of “presuppositional apologetics” primarily through his works Christian Apologetics and The Defense of the Faith. His arguments are easily misunderstood as question begging or viciously circular. Herein, I have presented a brief outline and analysis which reveals that while the presuppositional approach may indeed have some logical faults, the overall system has a certain power to it and can be integrated into a total-apologetic system.
The Presuppositional Apologetic: Theory
Van Til was very adamant that believers cannot and should not give up any ground to those who are non-Christian. He argued that “Christian theism is a unit. Christianity and theism are implied in one another… Christianity can never be separated from some theory about the existence and the nature of God” (Christian Apologetics, 17). Again, he is adamant: “We must defend Christian-theism as a unit” (The Defense of the Faith, 28).
Along with his emphasis on defending Christianity as a unit, Van Til equally impressed the point of the extreme divergence of views between the Christian and the non-Christian. Apologetics must acknowledge the nature of man. Van Til placed particular emphasis upon the notion that apologists cannot ignore that “we shall have to choose between two theories of knowledge. According to one theory God is the final court of appeal; according to the other theory man is the final court of appeal” (The Defense of the Faith, 58). Because of this, “it becomes quite impossible…. [to] agree with the non-Christian in his principles of methodology to see whether or not Christian theism be true” (The Defense of the Faith, 118-119).
The key to understand here is that Van Til does not accept that there is a neutral reason “out there” by which Christians and non-Christians can arbitrate the truth of Christianity; his point is that there is no neutral ground and that one’s presuppositions will determine one’s end point. Again, he writes, “this [apologetic method] implies a refusal to grant that any area or aspect of reality, any fact or any law of nature or of history, can be correctly interpreted except it be seen in the light of the main doctrines of Christianity” (Christian Apologetics, 124).
However, Van Til takes it even further and argues that one must presuppose the truth of Christianity in order to make sense of reality: ” What is the content of this presupposition, then? It is this: “I take what the Bible says about God and his relation to the universe as unquestionably true on its own authority” (The Defense of the Faith, 253); again, “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything” (Christian Apologetics, 19). Thus, Van Til’s apologetic does not make Christianity the conclusion of an argument; rather, Christianity is the starting presupposition.
The presuppositional approach here cannot be stressed enough. For Van Til, one simply cannot grant to the non-Christian any epistemic point. “We cannot avoid coming to a clear-cut decision with respect to the question as to whose knowledge, man’s or God’s, shall be made the standard of the other. …[O]ne must be determinative and the other subordinate” (The Defense of the Faith 62-63).
What place is had for evidences in Van Til? At some points, he seems to be very skeptical of the use of Christian evidences. In particular, the fact that he argues there is no neutral evaluation grounds between the Christian and non-Christian seems to imply that there can be no real evaluation of such arguments apart from Christianity. One of Van Til’s most famous illustrations of the use of evidences can be found in The Defense of the Faith pages 332 and following. He uses three persons, Mr. Black (non-Christian), Mr. Grey (Christian non-presuppositionalist), and Mr. White (presuppositional/reformed apologist):
Mr. Grey… says that, of course, the “rational man” has a perfect right to test the credibility of Scripture by logic… by experience… [Mr. Grey then takes Mr. Black a number of places to show him various theistic evidences. Mr. Black responds:] “you first use intellectual argument upon principles that presuppose the justice of my unbelieving position. Then when it it is pointed out to you that such is the case, you turn to witnessing [subjectively].
…At last it dawned upon Mr. White that first to admit that the principles of Mr. Black, the unbeliever, are right and then to seek to win him to the acceptance of the existence of God the Creator… is like first admitting that the United States had historically been a province of the Soviet Union but ought at the same time to be recognized as an independent and all-controlling power… If one reasons for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity on the assumptions that Mr. Black’s principles of explanation are valid, then one must witness on the same assumption [which makes witnessing wholly subjective.] (p. 332-339)
It can be seen here that even evidences for Van Til must be based within a presupposition. There is no way to look at evidences in the abstract. One can either offer them within the presuppositions of Christianity or outside of Christianity. For Van Til, once one has agreed to offer evidences outside of Christianity, one has granted the presuppositions of the non-believer, and therefore is doomed to fail.
His argument is therefore a type of “transcendental argument.” He argues that only within the Christian worldview can even the rationalism of the unbeliever make sense. Non-Christians may reject belief in God, but this is not a rational rejection, according to Van Til. Rather, “Sin will reveal itself in the field of knowledge in the fact that man makes himself the ultimate court of appeal… Man has declared his autonomy as over against God” (The Defense of the Faith, 58). Mankind is actively suppressing the knowledge of God. “It is not that we are merely brought into existence by God, but our meaning also depends upon God” (The Defense of the Faith, 63).
To sum up Van Til’s apologetic, then, there are three major points:
1) There is no neutral starting point between the Christian and non-Christian. One must presuppose either.
2) Christians should therefore presuppose Christianity in their apologetic and seek to show how only upon Christian presuppositions can one make sense of reality.
3) The transcendental argument: Only if God exists can their be a basis for morality, science, history, and rationality.
Analysis and Application
I admit that I am quite sympathetic to those who argue this type of apologetic is viciously circular. For example, one proponent of Van Tilian apologetics is John Frame. In his defense of presuppositional apologetics, he writes, “Premise 1: Whatever the Bible says is true. Premise 2: The Bible says it is the Word of God. Conclusion: Therefore, the Bible is the Word of God” (Frame, 356, cited below). I can’t help but think that while this argument is deductively valid, using P1 is to beg the question against the non-Christian. But of course, that’s exactly what Van Til urges. One must start with Christian theism and the Bible as presuppositions and reason from there. Therefore, I’m inclined to think that presuppositionalism cannot stand on its own. However, I do think that Van Til’s method can be saved from logical absurdity and made applicable in a part of a “cumulative case” type of reasoning (or certainly, it could be paired with a type of Reformed Epistemology).
The way I would propose for this is to utilize Van Til’s apologetic by showing Christians and non-Christians how philosophical presuppositions can color one’s evaluation of evidence and even of reasoning itself. Instead of offering only evidences or only witness in a vacuum, the Christian apologist should indeed focus upon how one’s presuppositions change one’s evaluation of evidence or witnessing. One presuppositional approach to the problem of evil can be found, I’ve suggested, in Job.
Furthermore, it seems to me that the transcendental argument is extremely potent. By arguing that even the process of reasoning cannot make sense apart from God, Christians can effectively place the burden of proof upon their opponents to show how their system can cohere with reality.
Finally, I can’t help but appreciate the tenacity with which presuppostional apologists, in the spirit of Van Til, pursue incoherent positions and actively turn people back to the presuppositional approach. The presuppositional apologetic, while not necessarily one I think can stand on its own, is extremely powerful.
Reading Van Til leaves me at points breathless with his innovation and boldness; but at other points it leaves me frustrated. He is not easy to understand, nor are his arguments always convincing. Too often, he axiomatically states a position and assumes his argument has carried his point. However, one can hardly dismiss the whole of Van Til’s thought as useless to Christian apologetics. Van Til’s transcendental argument has staying power, and his urges to focus upon presuppositions cannot be ignored.
This is but the first in a series of posts I have planned on presuppositional apologetics. I will be analyzing Van Til’s thought further, as well as diving into some other well-known proponents of presuppositionalism like John Frame, K. Scott Oliphant, and Greg Bahnsen. A few posts will focus on applied presuppositional apologetics.
Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith 4th Edition (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008).
—-, Christian Apologetics 2nd Edition (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003).
John Frame, “A Presuppositional Apologist’s Closing Remarks” in 5 Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000).
Links [Will update as series continues]
Proof that God Exists– an insightful view of presuppositional apologetics in practice.
Choosing Hats– A mammoth collection of articles from a presuppositional apologetic.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
“We don’t need apologetics. We just need the Holy Spirit.”
“We don’t need to ‘apologize’ for anything!”
“I just believe, and that’s all.”
“There doesn’t have to be a reason to believe in Jesus, you just have to feel it.”
Perhaps you’ve heard some variation of these mantras from leaders or members in your church. I have something to say:
They are wrong.
Consider Jesse Kilgore, a young man who read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, lost his faith, and killed himself.
Yeah, this is an extreme example. But think about it for a second: if you’re a member of a church community, have you heard of youths losing their faith? Have you heard or experienced the day a child comes home and says “I’m an atheist?”
“Okay,” you say, “but what does any of this have to do with apologetics?”
Well, perhaps its best to define the term first. Apologetics can most basically be defined as the defense of the faith. Apologists are people who study philosophy, theology, and other fields in order to become equipped to argue for the central teachings of Christianity. Such argumentation can involve both scientific and philosophical evidence.
Why do we need it? Think once more of the youths who leave the church: how often do they have a rationalization for this lack of faith? It is, in my experience, every time. “There isn’t enough evidence to believe in God,” they may say, or “There is so much evil in the world, I can’t believe there is a good God watching it all.” Such objections are indeed challenges to the faith. But without apologetics we would be left treading water. To the first objection, the response could only be “There may not be, but why not just believe?”; to the second, we could only say “God has his reasons.”
What about to someone like Jesse Kilgore? Could apologetics have helped him? I’m not trying to make light of his suicide–but I think that yes, apologetics would have helped. Had he been exposed to arguments for the existence of God, he would have known Dawkins merely caricatures them and ignores their premises. Had he read books on perspectives on the Creation account (theistic evolutionism, intelligent design, or creationism), he would have been unphased by Dawkins’ arguments for evolution. The bottom line is there are rational arguments out there which easily rebut Dawkins’ claims. It is a failure in the church that Jesse hadn’t been exposed to them.
Christians, I challenge you to learn apologetics. Learn a “case for Christianity” which you can utilize whenever you are witnessing to someone who thinks there are no reasons to believe. My own example of such a case is here. Learn about some more of the basic arguments. Read Lee Strobel, read William Lane Craig. But don’t reject apologetics. Our youths need more. Those without faith deserve more. Apologetics is part of the core of our Christian heritage, let’s make it part of our lives.
Let us not forget the commands to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19) and to always have a defense/reason (apologia) (1 Peter 3:15).