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John Frame

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Inerrancy and Presuppositional Apologetics: A different approach to defending the Bible

question-week2Scripture is inerrant because the personal word of God cannot be anything other than true. -John Frame (The Doctrine of the Word of God, 176 cited below)

One of the most difficult issues facing evangelical Christian apologists is the doctrine of inerrancy. I’m not trying to suggest the doctrine is itself problematic. Indeed, I have defended the doctrine in writing on more than one occasion. Instead, I am saying that defending this doctrine in an apologetics-related discussion is difficult. Here, I will explore one way that I think should be used more frequently when discussing the doctrine.

What is the problem?

There are any number of attacks on inerrancy and Biblical authority, generally speaking. Very often, when I discuss the Bible with others in a discussion over worldviews, I find that the challenge which is most frequently leveled against the notion of inerrancy is a series of alleged contradictions. The second most common objection is some sort of textual criticism which allegedly shows that the Bible could not be without error in its autographs. A third common argument against inerrancy is to quote specific verses and express utter incredulity at their contents.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the definition of inerrancy is often misunderstood. For simplicity’s sake, I will here operate under the definition that “The Bible, in all it teaches, is without error.” I have already written on some misconceptions about the definition of inerrancy, and readers looking for more clarification may wish to read that post.

How do we address the problem?

Most frequently, the way I have seen apologists engage with these challenges is through a series of arguments. First, they’ll argue for the general reliability of the Bible by pointing out the numerous places in which it lines up with archaeological or historical information we have. Second, they’ll argue that these historical reports given in the Bible cannot be divorced from the miraculous content contained therein. Given the accuracy with which these writers reported historical events, what basis is there to deny the miraculous events they also report?

Other apologists may establish inerrancy by rebutting arguments which are leveled against the doctrine. That is, if one puts forth an argument against inerrancy by pointing out alleged contradictions, these apologists seek to rebut those contradictions. Thus, once every single alleged error has been addressed, this approach concludes the Bible is inerrant.

Now, I’m not suggesting that either of these methods are wrong. Instead, I’m saying there is another way to approach the defense of the Bible.

A Presuppositional Defense of Inerrancy

Suppose God exists. Suppose further that this God which exists is indeed the God of classical Christian theism. Now, supposing that this is the case, what basis is there for arguing that the Bible is full of errors? For, given that the God of Christianity exists, it seems to be fairly obvious that such a God is not only capable of but would have the motivation to preserve His Word as reported in the Bible.

Or, consider the first step-by-step argument for inerrancy given in the section above, where one would present archaeological, philosophical, historical, etc. evidence point-by-point to make a case for miracles. Could it not be the case that the only reason for rejecting the miraculous reports as wholly inaccurate fictions while simultaneously acknowledging the careful historical accuracy of the authors is simply due to a worldview which cannot allow for the miraculous at the outset?

What’s the Point?

At this point one might be thinking, So what? Who cares? 

Well, to answer this head on: my point is that one’s overall worldview is almost certainly going to determine how one views inerrancy. The point may seem obvious, but I think it is worth making very explicit. If we already hold to a Christian worldview broadly, then alleged contradictions in the Bible seem to be much less likely–after all, God, who cannot lie (Numbers 23:19), has given us this text as His Word. Here it is worth affirming again what John Frame said above: the Bible is inerrant because it is of God, who is true.

Thus, if one is to get just one takeaway from this entire post, my hope would be that it is this: ultimately the issue of Biblical inerrancy does not stand or fall on whether can rebut or explain individual alleged errors in the Bible–it stands or falls on one’s worldview. 

One final objection may be noted: Some Christians do not believe in inerrancy, so it seems to go beyond an issue of worldview after all. Well yes, that is true. I’m not saying a defense of inerrancy is utterly reducible down to whether or not one is a Christian or not–as I said, I think evidential arguments are very powerful in their own right. I am saying that inerrancy is impossible given the prior probabilities assigned by non-Christian worldviews and altogether plausible (not certain) given Christian worldview assumptions. 

A Positive Case for Inerrancy

Too often, defense of inerrancy take the via negativa–it proceeds simply by refuting objections to the doctrine. Here, my goal is to present, in brief, a positive argument for inerrancy. The argument I am proposing here looks something like this (and I admit readily that I have left out a number of steps):

1) Granting that a personal God exists, it seems likely that such a deity would want to interact with sentient beings
2) such a deity would be capable of communicating with creation
3) such a deity would be capable of preserving that communication without error

Therefore, given the desire and capability of giving a communication to people without error, it becomes vastly more plausible, if not altogether certain, that the Bible is inerrant. Of course, if God does not exist–if we deny that there is a person deity–then it seems altogether impossible that an inerrant text could be produced on anything, let alone a faith system.

I  consider this a positive argument because it proceeds from principles which can be established (or denied) as opposed to a simple assertion. It is not a matter of just presupposing inerrancy and challenging anyone who would take it on; instead it is a matter of arguing that God exists, desires communication with His people, and has brought about this communication without error.  Although each premise needs to be expanded and defended on its on right, I ultimately think that each is true or at least more plausible than its denial. Christians who deny inerrancy must, I think, interact with an argument similar to this one. Their denial of inerrancy seems to entail a denial of one of these premises. I would contend that such a denial would be inconsistent within the Christian worldview.

Note that this argument turns on the issue of whether or not God exists. That is, for this argument to be carried, one must first turn to the question of whether God exists. I would note this is intentional: I do think that inerrancy is ultimately an issue which will be dependent upon and perhaps even derivative of one’s view of God.

Other Books

One counter-argument which inevitably comes up in conversations about an argument like this is that of “other books.” That is, could not the Mormon and the Muslim (among others) also make a similar case.

The short answer: Yes, they could.

Here is where I would turn to the evidence for each individual book. Granting a common ground that these claimed revelations–the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Qu’ran, etc.–are each purported to be inerrant and that their inerrancy is more probable on a theistic view, which best matches reality? In other words, I would turn here to investigate the claims found within each book in order to see if they match with what we can discern from the world.

The argument I am making here is not intended to be a one step argument for Christian theism. Instead, it is an argument about the possibility of an inerrant work.

iw-poythressAppendix 1: Poythress and Inerrancy

Vern Poythress provides an example of how this approach works. In his work, Inerrancy and Worldview (my review of this work can be found here), he continually focuses on how worldviews color one’s approach to challenges presented against inerrancy such as historical criticism, certain sociological theories, and philosophy of language. One example can be found in his discussion of historical criticism:

The difference between the two interpretations of the principle [of criticism] goes back to a difference in worldview. Does God govern the universe, including its history, or do impersonal laws govern it? If we assume the latter, it should not be surprising that the resulting principle undermines the Bible… It undermines the Bible because it assumes at the beginning that the God of the Bible does not exist. (Poythress,  Inerrancy and Worldview , 53, cited below)

Yet it is important to see that my approach here is different from that of Poythress. His approach seems to be largely negative. That is, he utilizes presuppositionalism in order to counter various challenges to the Bible. When a challenge is brought up to inerrancy, he argues that it of course stems from an issue of worldview. Although this is similar to my approach, Poythress never makes a positive argument for inerrancy, which I consider to be a vital part of the overall defense of the doctrine.

Appendix 2: Standard Presuppositionalism and Inerrancy

I would like to note that I am not attempting to claim that my defense of inerrancy here is the standard presuppositional approach. The standard presuppositional approach is much simpler: the apologist simply assumes the absolute truth and authority of God’s word as the starting point for all knowledge.

It should not surprise readers that, given this approach, most (if not all) presuppositionalists embrace the via negativa for defense of inerrancy. That is, the standard presuppositional defense of the Bible usually is reducible to merely pointing out how the attacks on Scripture stem largely from one’s worldview, not from the facts.

Thus, one of the foremost presuppositional apologists to have lived, Greg Bahnsen, writes:

[I]f the believer and unbeliever have different starting points [that is, different presuppositions from which all authority comes for the realm of knowledge] how can apologetic debate ever be resolved? [In answer to this,] the Christian carries his argument beyond “the facts…” to the level of self-evidencing presuppositions–the ultimate assumptions which select and interpret the facts. (Bahnsen, Always Ready, 72 cited below).

It should be clear that this standard presuppositional defense is therefore very different from what I have offered here. The standard presuppositional defense simply reduces the debate to “starting points” and attempts to show contradictions in other “starting points” in method, exposition, or the like. My defense has noted the vast importance of worldviews in a denial of inerrancy, but has also offered a positive defense of inerrancy. Yes, this defense turns on whether God exists, but that can hardly be seen as a defect or circularity in the argument.

Links

Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason.” I often ask questions for readers and give links related to interests on this site.

The Presuppositional Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til– I explore the presuppositional method of apologetics through a case study of the man who may fairly be called its founder, Cornelius Van Til.

Debate Review: Greg Bahnsen vs. Gordon Stein– I review a debate between a prominent presuppositional apologist, the late Greg Bahnsen, and a leading atheist, Gordon Stein. It is worth reading/listening to because the debate really brings out the distinctiveness of the presuppositional apologetic.

Sources

Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 1996).

John Frame The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010).

Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and Worldview (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) 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.

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Analogical Language, Doctrine of God, and the World

800px-Lavaux_Alpes_et_Lac_lémanIn God’s world, everything is, after all, comparable to everything else. Granted, we tend to wince a bit when something we love or admire is compared to what we consider an unworthy object… Everything is related to everything else. There is nothing that ‘has nothing to do with’ anything else… To criticize a metaphor as such is to engage in criticism at the word-level, rather than the sentence-level, which is an illegitimate practice. (John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, cited below, 231-232)

One of the most interesting discussions in theology is the use of language about God and the world. Much ink has been spilled in writing about this topic, because it is of critical importance. If human language is incapable of meaning anything in relation to God, then we can say literally nothing about God. There is also much discussion over the relation of different things in creation to other things. Are there bits of creation which are absolutely unique?

Creation

It does not seem to be the case that any part of the created world is sui generis in the sense that it is absolutely unique from anything else in creation. Consider anything you like which exists. It is easy to draw parallels. A flower and an automobile are both made of matter; a lake and a grove each contain water. The analogies may take a while to think up, but they are there.

God and Analogy

Conversely, we find great difficulty when we try to relate creation back to God. We think of analogies for the Trinity and discover they all fall into one variety of Trinitarian heresy or another. The problem is because although creation gives us evidence for a creator, creation is not the creator. Using analogies to try to compare the deepest mysteries of God to the natural world is theologically dangerous. However, using analogies to discuss God is not always impossible. Indeed, the Bible is filled with analogies regarding God: God is like a rock, a mother hen, a fortress, and the like. Thus, it is possible in principle to compare the created world with the creator. The problems come when we try to turn the relations of the Godhead into relations of the natural order. So it is necessary to remember that though we can speak analogically of God, we should be careful in choosing what we are speaking of. To speak analogically of the Trinity to things such as the states of water invites heretical understandings of the Trinity.

Another difficulty is when we read human relationships back onto the Trinity as well. One error which has unfortunately become quite common is to look at the terms “Father” and “Son” and assume that these names for the divine persons must mean that the relationship between these persons in the Godhead entails eternal subordination. Such thinking is extremely anthropomorphic. It reads human relationships back onto God. Again, creation is not the creator. Human relationships should not be our model for the doctrine of God. One should never govern the doctrine of God by human analogy, and to eternally subordinate one of the persons of the Trinity introduces hierarchy into the Godhead and invites multiple theological mistakes.

Doctrine of God, therefore, should always be the guide. Analogies should flow from God to creation rather than from creation to God. Thus, we should say “God is like x”; not “x is like God.” Semantically, these two sentences are fairly equivalent. My point is that prioritizing God in such language helps us to focus on the necessity of prioritizing God’s reality over our own. When we speak analogously of God, we must remember that we are not saying God is like creation in that an aspect of creation is Godlike or somehow an exact replica of an attribute of God. Instead, when we speak analogously of God, we must speak from God to us.

Talk About God

God is the being which is absolutely unique. There is no one like God (2 Samuel 7:22; 1 Chronicles 17:20; Jeremiah 10:7). But does this mean that we are incapable of talking about God? Indeed, some theologians have favored the notion that we can only speak analogically of God. For example, when we say God is loving, what is meant by that phrase is not that God is loving in the sense that we are loving, but rather that God is something like loving is for us. However, this notion seems to me to be just as mistaken as attempting to describe Trinitarian mysteries in naturalistic forms. For if God cannot be known other than analogically, then we have no true knowledge of God. The claims of those who argue we can only speak analogically of God leads to a state of affairs in which we know nothing of God. After all, when I make the claim that “God loves us” my claim, on this view, is reducible to: “God loves us, but this love is qualified in some unknown [and unknowable!] sense.” For if we were able to know what it means to say “God loves us” that is itself univocal and not analogical. Thus, those who claim that we can only speak analogically of God eliminate the possibility of knowing anything at all about God.

Think on this for a moment with me. Suppose the claim is correct. We can only know God analogically. Thus, God is “like” something loving, but not actually something loving in the sense we mean when we say loving. If we say that God is Just, we cannot mean it in any sense which we know to be true univocally. The difficulty rating only increases when we consider those properties exclusive to God. We claim that God is omnipotent–all powerful. But on the view that we can only speak analogically or metaphorically of God, God is all-powerful, but only “like” having power in the sense that we conceive of when we think of power. God doesn’t actually have the capacity to do anything which is logically possible, for that is merely conceiving of power within the realms of human language; no, God, on this view, has omnipotence*, which is omnipotence + something that we cannot know. Thus, such an assertion undermines all knowledge of God.

Therefore, we must admit that talk about God has some sense of univocity to it. When the Bible teaches that God is just, that concept of justice is univocal in some sense with our own. We can understand some truths about God.

Once we have established this point, it is again extremely important to realize that the flow of such truths is from God to us and not vice-versa. God’s justice is the perfect form of what we understand to be just. God’s love is perfect love, which our human love can only imitate. Yet in that imitation, we have some understanding of what it is like to be loving. Thus, we can know God without knowing everything about God.

To Sum Up

Religious language is one of the areas of philosophical theology which is often just assumed. I think it is to our own discredit that we avoid such discussions. I have shown how misunderstandings of religious language can lead to theological errors which can be fairly easily avoided. The way we can avoid such errors, I have charged, is to remember that language about God should always flow from God to us. God is perfect, and our language about God should never be used to limit that perfection. Thus, we cannot limit God to human relationships or human understandings of deity. On the other hand, we should not be so pessimistic of our possibility of knowing God that we undermine any possibility of speaking truthfully of our Lord.

Links

Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason”

Source

John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) 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.

The Unbeliever Knows God: Presuppositional Apologetics and Atheism

100_1270-2-2[A]ll men already know God–long before the apologist engages them in conversation–and  cannot avoid having such knowledge… People lack neither information nor evidence… [A]ll men know that God exists… In a crucial sense, all men already are “believers”–even “unbelievers” who will not respond properly by openly professing and living obediently in accordance with the knowledge they have of God. (Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 179-180, emphasis his, cited below).

One crucial point of presuppositional apologetics is that even the unbelieving atheist really does know God. All people have knowledge of God. None can turn from it, none can escape it: everyone knows God. This knowledge is not saving knowledge. Instead, it is knowledge which is suppressed. The knowledge is ignored or even reviled. The quote above from the famed presuppositionalist Greg Bahnsen is just one example. C.L. Bolt, a popularizer of presuppositional apologetics, says similarly:

 It is in the things that have been created that God is clearly perceived. This perception is, again, so clear, that people have no excuse. Not only do all of us believe in God, but we know God. (C.L. Bolt, cited below)

What are we to make of this claim? What is the point from the presuppositionalist perspective? The claim is firmly rooted in Paul’s discussion of God’s wrath against evil in Romans 1-2 (see the text at the end of this post). Therefore, it behooves all Christians to reflect upon the notion that God is known to all people. Presuppositional Apologists have done much reflecting on these subjects, and here we shall reflect upon their insights.

galaxy-5-2What is meant by ‘knowledge of God’?

It is important to outline what exactly it is that this knowledge is supposed to be. Greg Bahnsen notes in Van Til’s Apologetic that the claim is, in part, that “[all people/unbelievers] ‘have evidence’ that justifies the belief that [God] exists” (182).

Note that there is an important distinction within presuppositional thought about what this knowledge of God means. John Frame makes it clear that there is a sense in which the unbeliever knows God and yet another sense in which the unbeliever does not know God (Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God 49, cited below). According to Frame, the unbeliever knows “enough truths about God to be without excuse and may know many more…”; but “unbelievers lack the obedience and friendship with God that is essential to ‘knowledge’ in the fullest biblical sense–the knowledge of the believer” (ibid, 58). Furthermore, the unbeliever, according to Frame, is in a state wherein he fights the truth: the unbeliever denies, ignores, or psychologically represses the truth, among other ways of acknowledging God as the truth (ibid).

Frame also makes clear the reasons why all people know God in at least the limited sense: “God’s covenental presence is with all His works, and therefore it is inescapable… all things are under God’s control, and all knowledge… is a recognition of divine norms for truth. Therefore, in knowing anything, we know God” (18). Frame elaborates: “[B]ecause God is the supremely present one, He is inescapable. God is not shut out by the world… all reality reveals God” (20).

Therefore, this knowledge should be understood as the blatant, obvious awareness of God found in the created order. It is not saving faith or saving knowledge; instead, it is knowledge which holds people culpable for its rejection. All are accountable before God.

df-van-tilThe Implications of the Knowledge of God

The Practical Implications of the Knowledge of God

Of primary importance is the notion that there is no true atheism. Instead, atheism can only be a kind of pragmatic or living atheism: a life lived as though there were no God. All people know that God exists. The eminent Calvinist theologian, William Greenough Thayer Shedd writes, “The only form of atheism in the Bible is practical atheism” (Shedd, Dogmatic Theology Kindle location 5766). This means that people can live as though there were no God, but none can genuinely lack knowledge of God. Atheism is a practical reality, but not a genuine reality. The very basis for a denial of God is grounded on truths which can only be true if God exists. Here is where the distinctiveness of the presuppositional approach to apologetics

Van Til notes, “It is… imperative that the Christian apologist be alert to the fact that the average person to whom he must present the Christian religion for acceptance is a quite different sort of being than he himself thinks he is” (The Defense of the Faith, 92). His meaning is directly applicable to the discussion above. Christian apologists must take into account the fact that the Bible clearly states that those who do not believe in God themselves know God already.

Furthermore, this knowledge of God is of utmost importance. Bahnsen writes, “Our knowledge of God is not just like the rest of our knowledge… The knowledge that all men have of God… provides the framework or foundation for any other knowledge they are able to attain. The knowledge of God is the necessary context for learning anything else” (181). As was hinted at above, without God, there is no knowledge. Even the unbeliever relies upon God for any true beliefs he has. Van Til notes, “our meaning… depends upon God” (63).

Apologetics in Practice

For presuppositionalists, this means that apologetics is reasoning with people who already know and use their knowledge of God to ground whatever knowledge they do have and bringing them to an awareness of their double-standards. They reject God in practice, but accept God in their epistemology. Thus, presuppositional apologists use the transcendental argument: an argument which seeks to show that without God, the things which we take for granted (knowledge, logic, creation, etc.) would not exist.

Can evidentialists use the insights of presuppositionalists here as well? It seems they must; for the Bible does clearly state that everyone knows God. However, the way evidentialists may incorporate this insight is by using an evidential approach to bring the unbeliever into an awareness of the knowledge they are rejecting in practice. Thus, a cosmological argument might be offered in order to bring the unbeliever into an awareness that their assumptions about the universe can only be grounded in a creator.

Conclusion

We have seen that presuppositional apologetists makes use of the knowledge of God attested in all people by Romans 1 in order to draw out a broadly presuppositional approach to apologetics. I have also given some insight into how evidentialists might use this approach in their own apologetic. We have seen that the core of this argument is that all people know God. Therefore, there are no true atheists; only practical atheists. All true knowledge must be grounded on the fact of God. There are none with an excuse to offer before God at judgment. God’s existence is clear. The unebeliever knows God.

I end with the Biblical statement on the state of the knowledge of the unbeliever, as written by Paul in Romans 1:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools…

Links

Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason”

Unbeliever’s suppression of the truth-A brief overview of the notion that unbelievers are suppressing the truth from a presuppositional perspective.

The Presuppositional Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til– I analyze the apologetic approach of Cornelius Van Til, largely recognized as the founder of the presuppositional school of apologetics.

Choosing Hats– A fantastic resource for learning about presuppostional apologetics.

Sources

C.L. Bolt, “An Informal Introduction to Covenant Apologetics: Part 10 – Unbeliever’s knowledge of God.

Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998).

John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987).

Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (4th edition, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008).

Shedd Dogmatic Theology (3rd edition, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) 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.

The Presuppositional Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til

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.

Conclusion

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.

Sources

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.

SDG.

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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.

A Denial of Theological Determinism

It was not too long ago that I read a book by John Frame, a respected Calvinist theologian, entitled No Other God: A Response to Open Theism. In my review of that book, I wrote, “Interestingly, while I went in reading this book looking for some good arguments against Open Theism, I came out with the realization that theological determinism is a far more dangerous doctrine indeed.” It is time to address theological determinism more fully.

The Debate

There are many sides to the debate over the content of and/or level of determination entailed by of God’s omniscience. Briefly, I will summarize what I see as the four major positions:

  1. Open Theism- Open Theists hold that the future is, in some sense, “open” to the extent that even God doesn’t know for sure what will happen. God knows everything that might happen, and so can plan for every contingency.
  2. Theological Determinism- Essentially, the view that God, in His sovereignty, has determined everything which will happen. It is generally paired with compatibilism, the view that, despite God’s determining of creaturely action, those creatures are still responsible for their behavior.
  3. Molinism- The “middle knowledge” perspective holds that God knows counterfactuals of creaturely freedom–God knows what anyone will do in any situation–and so comprehensively knows the future. However, molinists hold that God does not determine what will happen, He merely foreknows it.
  4. “Bare Omniscience”- Those who hold this view basically fall into a combination of the previous three categories–mixing and matching as they will.

The Biblical Evidence

I’m only briefly going to operate under a claim which I’m sure will be quite contentious for all involved, so I will qualify it heavily:

P1: The Biblical data about God’s omniscience lacks the philosophical development to settle the issue. 

Now, this claim is very qualified: essentially I’m claiming that any one of the four positions discussed only briefly above can claim some kind of Biblical justification. Do I personally think they are all equal? Not at all, actually. But I do think that each position can put forth at least a few passages to try to justify their position. Thus, my suggestion is that the issue needs to be settled philosophically, not exegetically.

Some may latch onto this claim and rejoice, arguing that “J.W. has clearly rejected the Bible! [insert series of Bible verses]!” Such a strategy is wrongheaded for a number of reasons, foremost among them is the forcing of [cited verses] into a preconceived philosophical paradigm. I’m not arguing that the Bible cannot or does not reveal philosophical development. Rather, my argument is that on this issue, the Bible does not present a specific picture. Certainly, there are those who will disagree and say, “Well J.W. is just wrong! The Bible clearly states [favored position]!” It is not here my purpose to enter into a proof-text vs. proof-text argument. Rather, I wish to argue that determinism cannot be true and therefore one of the other positions must be the case. Given that most theologians grant there at least a few verses to support any of the previous positions, I think this is a safe qualification.

Against Determinism

I have argued extensively elsewhere for molinism and against open theism, and it is high time I turn my sights against determinism. I feel that theological determinism is, at best, philosophically untenable. At worst, it is incoherent. I shall put forth three theses to press my claim:

P2: Theological determinism’s only way to preserve creaturely responsibility (and thus save God from responsibility for causing evil) is compatibilism, which is incoherent.

Compatibilism, essentially, is the claim that God determines all things, and people are responsible for their actions.

I confess that, on the face of it, I struggle to understand compatibilism of any sort. But rather than giving in to a lack of imagination, I will seek to understand how theological determinists present compatiblism. Paul Helm, a Calvinist philosopher for whom I have great respect, writes “…God, though responsible, is not to blame for bringing about an evil act on the part of a human being if he has good reason for bringing such an act about, which he must have” (Helm, 164, cited below). Helm argues that God is the sufficient cause for all actions, but not the necessary cause of them. Because of this, Helm holds that “God may be ‘responsible’ for evil in some sense, but this does not mean that he is morally culpable” (Ibid, 164).

Again, I don’t see any way for this to work. First, if God really is the sufficient cause for evils, then it is extremely difficult to see how God would not be culpable. Sufficient causation implies exactly what it seems to: that God’s action alone is sufficient to bring about the evil. Yet Helm seems to think that because he holds that God is not a necessary condition for the evil actions, this removes God from responsibility.

Again, this seems to be exactly backwards, for at least a couple reasons. If God is the sufficient cause of all things, then that means that for any evil I can imagine (let’s say the Holocaust), one need only to refer to God to reveal its cause. Now Helm would hold that humans are the necessary conditions for this evil to occur. In other words, while God may have determined it to be such that the Holocaust would occur, it would not have occurred had there not been creatures to bring it about. But if this is the case, then it seems God is indeed squarely to blame for such evils because, after all, God is not only the sufficient cause of the events, but He also created the necessary conditions and set them up in such a way that these events would occur.

Other theological determinists take two supposedly different approaches to the problem. Some argue that because of total depravity, human wills are in fact free. In other words, humans are incapable of choosing good, but that does not mean they are not free or responsible because they continue to freely choose evil. This tactic does not seem to work, however, because theological determinists must also hold that God made humans in such a way that they would not desire good. In other words, God made these people totally depraved to begin with. Thus, those who disagree with determinists could counter by once more asking, “But isn’t God responsible for causing humans to only be free to choose evil anyway?”

The other tactic is to argue that while God is cause of all things, people themselves are the secondary cause. So while God might sustain my existence and even determine that I should do evil, it is I who do evil, not God. I am a creature, and I bring about the evil. God and I are separate entities, so it follows (on this view) that God is not the cause of evil. Now this view is really no different from Helm’s view explained above, but with less philosophical terminology. The problems with it are the same. Suppose we grant that it is the secondary causes, not God, which bring about evil. Whence these secondary causes? Why do these secondary causes act as they do? According to theological determinism, God created, ordained, and sustains these secondary causes. When a being brings about evil, that being acts secondarily–they are not themselves God. But God ordained and caused the world to be such that theses secondary causes would act in exactly the way in which they do. The secondary causes themselves are caused to act by God. So we have only pushed the problem back one step. Why would God cause secondary causes to do evil? It seems God would certainly be culpable for such evils.

Finally, a brief survey of those theological determinists who take the determinism seriously seems to confirm that God is the cause of evil. John Frame, for example, writes:

“The uniform witness of Scripture is that the evils of this life come from God” (Frame, cited below, 140).

“…[I]t is important to see that God does in fact bring about the sinful behavior of human beings, whatever problems that may create in our understanding” (68).

John Calvin himself wrote, in the Institutes:

When, therefore, they perish in their corruption, they but pay the penalties of that misery in which ADAM FELL BY THE PRDESTINATION OF GOD , and dragged his posterity headlong after him. Is he not, then, unjust who so cruelly deludes his creatures? Of course, I admit that in this miserable condition wherein men are now bound, all of Adam’s children have fallen BY GODS WILL. And this is what I said to begin with, that we must always at last return to the sole decision of God’s will, the cause of which is hidden in him.

It seems, therefore, that theological determinists, when consistent, acknowledge that God causes evil, and indeed wills it. The main reason given is some kind of mystery or hiddenness. I conclude this section with the observation that, despite attempts to the contrary, theological determinism must hold that God causes evil.

P3: Theological determinism is not a “lived” philosophy.

One of the tests for a philosophy–and I should think a theology in particular–is whether it is livable. If something is true, it should reflect reality. Theological determinism holds that every action I take is determined by God. I have found that in practice, I have not yet run into any theological determinist who agrees that they live as though their lives are determined. When bad things happen to them, they are distressed; when relatives are in danger, they pray for the danger to pass without harm; etc. Yet if theological determinism is true, none of these things would matter–all things are determined already. Even were one to pray, that prayer itself would have been determined, along with the outcome. Therefore, theological determinism seems to be unlivable.

P4: If theological determinism is true, I cannot know that it is true. It is therefore self-refuting.

Finally, even if none of the above arguments seem convincing, P4, at least, seems devastating to theological determinism. The argument itself is remarkably simple:

1) If I am determined by non-rational factors to have belief x, then I cannot rationally hold x.

2) On theological determinism, I am determined by non-rational factors to have any given belief.

3) Therefore, on theological determinism, I cannot rationally hold any given belief.

4) Therefore, if theological determinism is true, then I cannot rationally hold that theological determinism is true.

It seems to me that this argument is quite powerful. If theological determinism is true, then my beliefs are determined by God. That includes the belief I currently have that theological determinism is false. However, suppose I believed theological determinism were true. In that case, I have been determined by God to believe theological determinism is true. In fact, my act of deliberating and coming to believe that determinism is true would, itself, be determined. Thus, I cannot rationally hold theological determinism to be true (this argument can be attributed to a podcast from William Lane Craig, though I can’t track down the reference).

Given these reasons, it seems that there are some quite sound objections to theological determinism. Given that there are other positions with at least some Biblical support, it seems theological determinism should be abandoned. The position makes God the author of sin (contrary to the objections of its supporters), it is unlivable, and it is incoherent.

Sources

Paul Helm, Eternal God: A Study of God Without Time (New York, NY: Oxford, 2010), 2nd edition.

John Frame,No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001).

Image Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caen_palaisdejustice_peristyle.jpg

SDG.

——

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.

Book Review: “No Other God: A Response to Open Theism” by John Frame

I recently finished No Other God by John Frame. Seldom have I read a book with which I find I disagree so strongly on some issues, while agreeing adamantly on others. Frame pulls no punches and is unafraid to make sweeping generalizations and assertions. Due to the fact I pretty much split the book in half as far as things with which I agree or disagree, I shall proceed by noting these areas and close with a few conclusions.

Areas of Agreement

One of the strengths of Frame’s book is how clear his thinking is. His style of argumentation is precise, and he clearly lays out what he considers evidence for his positions. He is unafraid to make statements with huge implications.

A particularly interesting aspect of Frame’s work was a brief historical look at the roots of Open Theism, leading it back to the Socinianism. Frame points out that advocates of Open Theism tend to portray their view as the “new theology on the block” despite the fact that it has been around (and rejected) for quite some time.

I believe Frame is correct when he argues against the centralization of any one attribute of God. Specifically, the centralization of love on Open Theism tends to ignore other important attributes of God (49ff). (Interestingly, Frame’s own account of God unnecessarily over-emphasizes Sovereignty, though he disguises this by calling it “Lordship.)

Frame levels strong critiques against Open Theism’s reading of Scripture. Open Theists tend to advocate the “straightforward” reading of texts which help their case. One of Open Theist’s favorite passages is God testing Abraham. Yet Frame rightly notes that if there is a straightforward reading of the text, then God did not know the present truth of Abraham’s heart, whereas Open Theists attempt to use this to support God not knowing the future (47). Further, if God was trying to figure out how Abraham would act in the future, then He was trying to do something He couldn’t (determine what the libertarian free choices of humans would be) according to Open Theism. So the story’s straightforward reading does not work to support Open Theism. Frame urges a similar examination of other passages, though he doesn’t expand on it.

Areas of Disagreement

Despite these areas of agreement, I vehemently oppose Frame’s position on several issues. Most notably, on theistic determinism, compatibilism, and libertarianism.

First, libertarianism. Frame correctly notes that the core of Open Theism is the assumption of libertarianism. Yet his critique of libertarianism is wrongheaded. He caricatures libertarians as believing that choices are made in the absence of any motivation. He writes, commenting on the libertarian view, “if our decisions are caused by anything or anyone (including our own desires), they are not properly our decisions… to be responsible, we must be able to do otherwise” (121). Yet this is explicitly not libertarianism. Peter van Inwagen, for example, explicates libertarianism by saying “…that someone’s acts are undetermined does not entail that they are uncaused” (van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will, Oxford: 1983, p. 14).

But Frame explicitly centers his critique of libertarianism on a contra-causal account of freedom, saying, for example, “If guilt presupposed libertarian freedom, then in order to show that Hubert [a man accused of robbing a bank] is guilty, the prosecutor would have to show that his decision to rob a bank had no cause…” (126). But again, libertarians deny this very type of contra-causal freedom, so Frame is arguing against a straw man. Because Frame thinks libertarianism is so utterly central to Open Theism, this means that the core of his critique fails to hit home.

The problem with Frame’s counter against libertarianism is that it barely touches the surface of the philosophical arguments for the position. He correctly rails against the idea that our actions are just random occurrences, but incorrectly assumes that this is libertarianism.

Finally, the greatest area of disagreement I have with Frame is on his view of omnidetermination. Consider the following two quotes:

“The uniform witness of Scripture is that the evils of this life come from God” (140).

“…[I]t is important to see that God does in fact bring about the sinful behavior of human beings, whatever problems that may create in our understanding” (68).

I’d be curious to see how Frame reconciles these assertions with the constant witness of Scripture that God is just; fair; good; opposed to evil; etc. Frame utilizes several verses to support his position, but he makes primary those which say God uses “all things” and verses which say calamities are from God. But regarding the former, this can easily refer simply to permissive will, and regarding the latter, the verses he uses are out of context (and even were one to grant the “straightforward reading,” one could counter by saying the calamities are not every evil action, but merely those things which God uses–i.e. storms, other nations, etc.–to instruct His people). Frame, like many theological determinists, is not building even on sand, but on a void. Literally saying that God causes evil is so utterly repugnant and contrary to Scripture that this view overshadows all the good things Frame has to say.

Conclusions

Ultimately, No Other God is on target in a few ways, but it is wildly gunning the wrong direction on too many issues. Frame’s philosophical case against libertarianism is off the mark, he fails to deal with the strong philosophical arguments for libertarianism, and his view that God literally causes evil is baseless. Interestingly, while I went in reading this book looking for some good arguments against Open Theism, I came out with the realization that theological determinism is a far more dangerous doctrine indeed.

SDG.

Check out other posts about Open Theism here.

John Frame,No Other God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001).

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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. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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