Cornelius Van Til and John Warwick Montgomery are two of the most prominent defenders of opposing views of apologetics. Van Til defends presuppositionalism, an apologetic method that is founded on the notion that God’s existence must be presupposed–it is the beginning of the reasoning process rather than the end. Evidentialism is a school of apologetics that seeks to show that evidences–often historical evidence for the Resurrection–yield the conclusion that God exists and that Christianity is true. One of these views (presuppositionalism), in other words, argues top down by assuming God exists and showing how the world cannot be understood without that posited fact; the other (evidentialism) goes bottom up, showing how beliefs that are, purportedly , shared by Christians and non-Christians may demonstrate the truth of Christianity.
What makes these two particularly interesting is that they each offer a kind of parable for their position. These parables each, individually, reveal much about how the apologist thinks apologetics ought–and ought not–to be done. Though their parables are too long to post in their entirety, we will here examine some key aspects of both Van Til’s and Montgomery’s picture imagery about how apologetics should work.
Cornelius Van Til’s Misters White, Grey, and Black
Cornelius Van Til’s apologetic approach is illustrated in an extended section of his work The Defense of the Faith. Here, he utilizes three men: Mr. White (standing in for the presuppositional apologist), Mr. Grey (standing in for the evidential–he calls “Romanist-evangelical”–apologist), and Mr. Black (standing in for the non-Christian) in dialogue with each other to illustrate how he believes apologetics should work, as well as what he sees as fatal objections to his opposition.
The section in question is found in p. 312-340 of the aforementioned work. Van Til argues that Mr. Black will be more comfortable with Mr. Grey because Mr. Grey concedes some ground to him: “Mr. Grey uses the Bible, experience, reason, or logic as equally independent sources of information about his own and therefore about Mr. Black’s predicament” (313). Though he concedes that Mr. Grey may see the Bible as “by far the most important” of these sources, the problem is that he sees these sources of knowledge independently. A problem that develops over this dialogue as Van Til develops it is that Mr. Black refuses to see himself as a lost person in need of repentance, and so Mr. Grey’s position cannot challenge the foundation of his view: a rejection of the authority of the Bible.
Mr. Grey can stand on “common ground” with Mr. Black (320) and this allows for a quicker response from Mr. Black to Mr. Grey than to Mr. White. Here, of course, we begin to see Van Til’s explicitly Calvinist/Reformed position come through. It is simply the case that Van Til believed that his position was such that it would offer an absolute refutation of all but the Calvinist/Reformed position, in addition to being used with non-Christians. This limits the applicability of his argument a bit for those who do not accept that position, but we’ll press on.
The crux of the argument comes when the question of proofs of the existence of God and Christianity come up. Here, Van Til notes that “If one reasons for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity on the assumption that Mr. Black’s principles of explanation are valid, then one must witness on the same assumption” (339). Thus, in the dialogue, we see Mr. Grey attempting to witness to Mr. Black, having come to an agreement that Mr. White is wrong on a number of levels. But Mr. Grey is taken aback when Mr. Black fails to concede the argument. Here, we see Mr. Black speaking to Mr. Grey:
“[Y]ou are now witnessing to Christ as well as to God, to Christianity as well as to theism. I suppose your argument… would be similar in nature… You would argue that the Jesus of the New Testament is probably the Son of God and that he quite probably died for the sins of men…. by witnessing instead of reasoning you seem to admit that there is no objective claim for the truth of what you hold with respect to Christ. Am I right in all this?” (337-338)
This, for Van Til, is where the evidentialist argument completely collapses. Because they fail to have an objective basis for believing in God/Christ, they ultimately concede the position to the non-Christian, allowing only for subjective witness to the truth of Christianity. Because Mr. Grey concedes that Mr. Black can reason independently of the truth of the Bible, he allows Mr. Black to use his independent reason to utterly reject the same. This concession is seen when Mr. Grey “nods approval” to Mr. Black’s argument that “unconditional surrender to the authority of Scripture is irrational” (332). He does the same when Mr. Black objects that it is rationalistic (ibid). Further, because Mr. Grey admits of “possibility” rather than certainty when it comes to arguments about the existence of God, he allows the non-Christian Mr. Black to reject God based on “possibility” as well. Probability does not yield certainty, so certainty is what is required. Only Mr. White’s position which argues from absolute certainty by presupposing the truth of the Bible is capable of granting an objective basis for affirming God’s existence and Jesus Christ as God, in addition to many other Christian doctrines.
Thus, for Van Til, the necessity of his position is proved by the argument that, without such a presupposition, the non-Christian may be perfectly comfortable rejecting Christianity through means of “probability” already present in his or her view of the world.
John Warwick Montgomery, a prominent evidential apologist, felt the weight of Van Til’s argument and offered his own parable in response. Montgomery’s parable may be found in his work Faith Founded on Fact: Essays in Evidential Apologetics. There, he writes of the people of Shadok and Gibi, who each refuse to concede any “brute” or “neutral” ground regarding facts. For each, it is his or her own God who is the one, single, true God that must be presupposed (God-Sh for Shadok and God-G for Gibi). A brief excerpt gets at the heart of John Warwick Montgomery’s argument:
Shadok: You will never discover the truth, for instead of subordinating yourself to revelation truth (Bible-SH), you sinfully insist on maintaining the autonomy of your fallen intellect.
Gibi: Quite the contrary! [He repeats exactly the same asseriton, substituting (Bible-G) for (Bible-Sh)]… (114)
The conversation goes on, referencing Van Til’s insistence on the notion that the non-Christian wears colored glasses that make it impossible for them to see anything outside of their single-hued world. Montgomery concludes “The hopelessness of this encounter should be painfully evident. Neither viewpoint can prevail, since by definition all appeal to neutral evidence is eliminated” (115, emphasis his). Thus, John Warwick Montgomery’s own parable is a counter to Van Til’s, one which argues instead that neutral evidence–evidence that Mr. Grey, Mr. White, and Mr. Black all have access to–must exist, for otherwise they would have nothing to which they could appeal to determine who is right.
A Critical Comparison
The conversation between these competing parables does not, of course, stop with the original authors. The late Greg Bahnsen, a defender of Van Til’s apologetic, wrote an article responding to John Warwick Montgomery’s critique. There, Bahnsen argues that Montgomery misunderstands presuppositionalism on a number of accounts, but primarily because “Montgomery fails to see that Van Til’s apologetic claims that use of facts and logic is not simply directed in a different direction on non-Christian presuppositions, but is in principle impossible” (see link, emphasis his). In contrast, Greg Habermas, another evidentialist, argued that it was Bahnsen who failed to get at the critique Montgomery offered. In his own article, he replies to Bahnsen by arguing that:
the often contradictory interpretations of facts must be taken, in the sense of the
creative intermix between induction and deduction that Piercean abduction or “inference
to the best explanation” typifies, to the facts themselves. (see link)
These hint at a much broader debate, largely centered around the nature of facts. The presuppositionalist argues there is no neutral ground (a position that appealed to me enough at one point [almost 10 years ago! ah!] to write a post on it). The evidentialist argues that, quite contrary, there must be neutral facts because otherwise no one could determine whether their own view is correct. The presuppositionalist responds by arguing that it is only by presupposing the one true worldview (eg. Christianity) that one may correctly analyze facts. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to appeal to facts, not because they are “brute” or “neutral,” but because worldviews other than Christianity are necessarily inconsistent. That is, it is certainly possible for any non-Christian to know truth, but only because they have inconsistently turned from their worldview to adopt presuppositions of Christianity on certain points. The extent to which the non-Christian has true knowledge, then, is the extent to which their own worldview is inconsistent.
At this point, readers may wonder how these two contrary positions could ever meet. I honestly begin to despair myself, trying to draw this to a close. Rather than attempting to offer decisive conclusions in this debate that has gone on for years and thousands upon thousands of words, I want to offer a few of my own observations.
First, it seems to me that, supposing presuppostionalists are correct and there is no neutral ground, it is impossible to engage with other worldviews without making a practical, working assumption that there is such neutral ground. Though the presuppositionalist may be correct in that the non-Christian is inconsistent at every point they can agree on facts, they must come to some facts that they do agree on. At that point, the presuppositionalist may point out the non-Christian is inconsistent, and thus build their case from there, but it is only at that point that the methods truly diverge. Indeed, when one observes someone like Greg Bahnsen in debate (a review that is probably more favorable than I would be now), one sees the vast difference in method from someone who uses a more evidential or classical approach. But my point is that, on a practical level, there isn’t actually a huge difference between the evidentialist and the presuppositionalist when it comes to utilizing facts. They may both object to this, but the presuppositionalist would point to a fact (which they would, yes, hold may only be properly understood or believed from a Christian perspective) that Jesus was in fact crucified and died in order to show the truth of the Resurrection, and the evidentialist would point to that same fact, though their overall cases may differ. It is only when the presuppositionalist moves to the overarching, so-named transcendetal argument that the methods would radically differ. Now, plenty of presuppositionalists would use the TAG (transcendental argument for God) immediately, so their method will be quite different.
It does seem to me that the above comments yield the notion that presuppositionalism may be a bit too strong in its utter denial of any possibility of contact with the unbeliever. On an objective, totally abstract level one may concede that. But given that human language works for communication, there must be points of contact. Sure, that may mean the non-Christian is inconsistent on that high, abstract level, but it also means that the presuppositionalist can operate around the same when it comes to offering evidence–which itself falsifies the accusation that presuppositionalists don’t utilize evidence.
Another possible negative of the presuppositional view is that it is unfalsifiable, because at every point on which there is disagreement, the presuppositionalist may simply appeal to a misunderstanding. Like John Warwick Montgomery’s parable, they may simply assert the non-Christian is not understanding or suppressing the truth, and that’s why they don’t acknowledge it. Of course, some presuppositionalists may see this unfalsifiability as a strength of their position, which, they might argue, yields certainty of belief. But then, we come full circle into the notion that any other unfalsifiable view could appeal to the same reasoning.
I hardly think I’ve solved these problems, but it is a worthy exercise for those interested in apologetics to engage with these two divergent methods and try to learn from them. For myself, I think an integration of various methods works best.
All quotations used are from the works cited and used under fair use for purposes such as criticism.
Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008).
Gary Habermas, “Greg Bahnsen, John Warwick Montgomery, and Evidential Apologetics.” https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.bing.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1108&context=lts_fac_pubs. Accessed January 2019.
Greg Bahnsen, “A Critique of the Evidentialist Apologetical Method of John Warwick Montgomery.” http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pa016.htm. Accessed January 2019.
John Warwick Montgomery, Faith Founded on Fact (Edmonton, AB Canada: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology, and Public Policy, Inc., 2001).
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 I say “purportedly” because presuppositionalists would deny that non-Christians may share any beliefs with Christians. By not having the same starting point–God–all other facts come into question.