Have you ever heard of the presuppositionalist apologetic method? What about the transcendental argument for the existence of God? If you’re not into debating religion or the existence of gods then you probably neither know nor care what they are. Some people, however, are quite taken with them. When many people interact with me about my non-belief, either online or in person, they cannot resist debating me about my beliefs even if I tell them I don’t really care for the process. Oh sure, sometimes I can get into it because it’s almost like a sport. Sometimes it can be downright fun (Yeah, I know I’m a nerd). But there are always those people who don’t see it as fun—they see it as a mission, a crusade, a conquest. These people are nowhere near as fun to play with. They take themselves far too seriously, and instead of being open to considering new perspectives on anything, they are simply out to win.
Some folks approach this process by debating science and natural processes, believing that if we simply look at the world around us it should convince us that whichever god they were brought up to believe in 1) exists and 2) is the only “right” one. They are using one of the oldest arguments there is, and they are doing so because they haven’t yet figured out that this can’t really be done well anymore. One of the writers of the Bible similarly asserted that people should know that the Abrahamic god was the right one—and the only one–by simply looking at nature (it was Paul of Tarsus if you must know). Rather presumptuously he argued that even polytheists are closet monotheists because deep down (in spite of what they were taught growing up) they somehow know that there is only one god, not many, and that of all of the options available, Paul’s god is the only one that is right. I wish he had taken the time to explain his reasoning a little more but alas, he did not. We are supposed to just know. Nature is supposed to teach us.
But it doesn’t. To be fair, it doesn’t really teach that there are not any gods, either. It just doesn’t make any assertions on the subject. Things just work the way they work and for most of human history we haven’t been able to understand how they work so we just said there must be a giant invisible person (or persons) making them happen. This isn’t a very good answer because it still doesn’t address how things work. So the last few thousand years have seen the human race in a relentless pursuit of an understanding of the world around us in order to have some measure of ability to predict or even control those natural processes which formerly were a mystery to us. We do this because we want to improve our living conditions. We want a better life, and science and technology have provided that for us in many ways (Note those inclined to argue against that last sentence. They are usually up to something surreptitiously evangelistic).
But with each passing century, scientific discoveries are providing natural explanations for things formerly seen as supernatural. Thunder no longer makes us think the gods are clashing swords in an epic celestial duel. The movements of the planets no longer seem like magic to us (see, there’s this thing called gravity, although it is “just a theory”). Even the development of our own species has turned out to be significantly more complex and gradual than our ancient religions could have ever envisioned. Sensing that the steady forward march of science is slowly reducing the “god of the gaps” argument to what Neil deGrasse Tyson calls “an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance,” in the 1930’s a Westminster Seminary professor named Cornelius Van Til pioneered a new strategy for the defense of the Christian faith. He called it the “presuppositionalist” method of apologetics (henceforth PA), and its line of reasoning basically goes like this:
IF it is true that a god does exist, and IF there is only one true god, and IF that god is the god of the Christian Bible, and IF the proper reading of that Bible is the Reformed Calvinistic view in which humankind is seen as totally depraved and warped by sin in all of our faculties, including even our minds, THEN there is no use appealing to our intellects through reason, logic, or empirical evidence. It is only through a supernatural work of the sovereign God of the Bible that saving faith or understanding can be born in the human soul. In fact, a consistently applied presuppositionalist epistemology goes on to assert that nothing can be properly known apart from divine revelation, not even basic mathematics (for an entertaining conversation, ask a thoroughgoing PA enthusiast about that topic). In a sense, this line of reasoning dictates that you must simply accept the above series of presuppositions (assumptions) because, it is argued, those who reject them must do so by relying on alternative, competing presuppositions about the nature of reality and the reliability of our perception of it. It’s kind of like an elaborate tu quoque argument which says, “Hey! You atheists have faith in something, too! You’re no better than we are!”
To me, this strategy is in effect a forfeiture. When the Giant Invisible Person theory of the world first showed up (originally it was multiple people, not merely one), it was the only convincing explanation for everything from mountains and rainbows to why snakes slither on the ground. But much better explanations have come along since then (for most things, not yet for everything) so this line of reasoning is significantly less convincing today. It’s been called the “god of the gaps” argument because it is essentially an appeal to ignorance (“I don’t know how such-and-such works, therefore a giant invisible spirit is doing it”), and it carries less weight in an Information Age. For this reason, many of the defenders of Christianity have given up what they call “evidentialist” approaches and have changed strategies, adopting the PA approach instead. They have essentially quit trying to “prove” that their God exists and have shifted the burden to the non-theist to “prove” how his worldview makes sense of things without one. Presuppositionalists suggest that the apologist should begin negatively, arguing that non-theists lack the sufficient “preconditions of knowledge” to argue against the claims of Christianity. By that they mean to posit that logic and argumentation require a transcendent intelligent Being to validate the process—to ground it in something other than the logic of the arguer.
They have a point. There is a certain subjectivity to logic and argumentation which limits it, philosophically speaking. You have to assume certain things (like the “law of non-contradiction“) for the enterprise to even work. These are assumptions without which rational discussion cannot even commence. You have to start somewhere, right? But how do you demonstrate the validity of your starting point? All subsequent discussion will be an analysis of the arguments that you construct on top of your foundational assumptions; but how do you analyze the foundation itself? The PA approach seeks to capitalize on this inherent limitation of argumentation by simply saying, “You guys start with logic and reason, but what are those based on, huh? Tell me that!” I’m tempted to reply, “It’s turtles all the way down, son!” (Sorry, inside joke…just google it). Their game plan is to cast a shadow of doubt on empiricism, naturalism, and/or rationalism just long enough to turn around and suggest that the Bible and Christian monotheism are as good starting points as any. In fact they are superior, they suggest, because laws of logic for them necessitate a transcendent Lawmaker. Sounds vaguely like another argument from design when you put it that way.
I have two initial reactions to this approach. The first is to point out the hubris of it. When understood correctly and applied consistently, this line of reasoning suggests that it’s not just atheists who lack the “preconditions of knowledge,” but anyone other than a trinitarian Christian monotheist who also believes in sovereign election (in other words, a Calvinist). If you do not accept both trinitarian theology and the five points of Calvinism, you’re out. Sorry about you Wesleyans. And you Jesus-only folks are out, too. Don’t even get them started on Catholics or the Orthodox. Van Til and his followers have made it clear that this method is based on a rather monumental pile of assumptions, and it never seems to bother them either how exclusionary this approach is to the rest of the Christendom or how lacking in parsimony. Which leads me to my second reaction and the biggest weakness of this method of apologetics:
Instead of demonstrating the validity of each of the planks of their own platform, they assume that any weakness in yours means you must now accept theirs in its totality, as if that were your only other option. Their worldview is based on dozens of assertions, each of which need its own rational validation but never gets it. They open a small crack in your own reasoning in hopes of driving a bus full of assumptions into it, hoping you won’t notice what they just did. This approach relies on more logical fallacies than I care to enumerate. Someone with more patience and time than I have could easily spell them out for you if you care to dig deeper. But I honestly think that would be a waste of time. Here’s why:
Ultimately this method of apologetics is the first one to recognize that faith and reason don’t really get along as well as some would like to believe. I have much more to say about this, and I intend to write about it as soon as my crazy work schedule allows (during the school year I teach full-time in addition to having two part-time jobs plus parental responsibilities for up to four young children at any given time). For now, I’ll just point out that the apostle Paul made it abundantly clear that the faith he was spreading is not predicated on persuasive logic or reasoning (see 1 Corinthians 2). This is a faith which celebrates “the foolishness of a cross” and should make no claims to rational respectability just to avoid looking silly. Not too long ago a Reformed Seminary student wrote an article for Relevant Magazine which articulated this message quite well. Toward the end he said, “we have been exhorted to consider these persecutions as blessings instead of reasoning them away with how good we are in philosophy.” After spending 20 years as a practitioner—an insider to the Christian faith—I have to say that he makes an excellent point. As Paul once said, “If Christ has not been raised…we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:14-19).
Rather than claiming rational superiority to non-belief, it seems to me that the most faithful Christian approach to this matter is to simply acknowledge that faith is a completely different approach to the world than what skeptics are employing. Yes, I know you believe skepticism requires some kind of faith as well. I disagree, but I’ll have to save that explanation for another day :) In the meantime, maybe you should take some time to consider if you’re really willing to embrace the foolishness of the cross. That is what your faith demands.