Covenantal Apologetics and Other Religions

Introduction

Nick Norelli recently wrote:

I think the thing is that plenty of presuppositionalists debate (look at James White who debates like every other day) and I’m sure they employ their method, but I think it lends itself to certain subjects better than others. For example, when I reviewed Gary Demar’s book on Bahnsen’s apologetic I noted how devastating I think PA is against atheism but I struggle to see it as being as strong against other forms of theism which can make the same claims (i.e., they all have their gods and their scriptures to appeal to).”

The question concerning the use of presuppositional (I am happy to call them “covenantal” for various reasons [1]) apologetics in dialogue with religious varieties of the non-Christian worldview [2] is a common one. Sometimes the question is offered as an objection. Sometimes the objection is made more specific. Contrary to popular thought, the covenantal apologetic method can be just as effectively used in dialogue with religious varieties of the non-Christian worldview as it is in dialogue with atheism.

Common Objection

A frequent objection to the covenantal method of apologetics is that it does not take into account the need for answers to questions concerning other religions and not just atheism. There is a small bit of truth in this owing to covenantal apologists having traditionally focused the vast majority of their energies upon going after the “atheist worldview”. Some of the most popular examples of debates where covenantal apologetics were used have involved atheists. Covenantal apologist Greg L. Bahnsen debated atheists Gordon Stein, Edward Tabash, and George Smith. John Frame debated atheist Michael Martin. Paul Manata debated atheists Derek Sansone and Dan Barker. Doug Wilson debated atheist Christopher Hitchens in addition to Barker. These men have had other debates and there are other covenantal apologists. However, this list includes the debates which are most well-known and are or were available in audio, video, or text format. There is no doubt that the popularity of exchanges with atheists is partially to blame for the false impression that covenantal apologetics work better or exclusively with atheism and not other religious positions, but there is still more fueling this objection.

People are typically introduced to covenantal apologetics through other methods of apologetics. As is the case with any other change from one position to another the old categories of thought do not immediately leave. Additionally, reactionary resistance to old categories of thought owing to one’s awareness of their errors leads to more radical versions of the new categories of thought than what the new position actually prescribes or entails. It is not unusual for people to think that non-Christians who claim some version of a religious view are capable of resting on the existence of immaterial abstract objects, universality, absolutes, and other such worldview features necessary to make human experience intelligible. Here is where the categories of classical apologetics are actually plaguing one’s thoughts.

One should not mistake TAG for a traditional argument against materialism through describing the nature of the laws of logic. Refuting materialism does not prove that Christian theism is true. Formal agreement concerning moral laws does not prove that Christian theism is true. Rather, entire worldviews with their respective features are set over against one another and through an exchange of internal critique, Christianity is proven true. Setting entire worldviews with their respective features over against one another entails that TAG is not strictly an a priori argument promising Cartesian certainty. There is absolutely nothing objectionable in using evidences in apologetics with other religions. Recall that the God of Christian Scripture is the God whom we presuppose as the precondition of all rational thought. An impersonal, abstract entity will not do. Anything less than the God who has revealed Himself to us as described in the Reformed creeds will not do.

Consistency

It is not the case that somehow the covenantal apologetic method is inadequate to deal with “religious” manifestations of the non-Christian worldview. Such a concession would be unnecessary not only due to its falsehood, but also because no other method is sufficient to take on the challenge of non-Christian religious worldviews. If one is not going to stand on the Christian worldview then what worldview is one going to stand upon? What do classical and evidentialist apologists speaking of probability and hypotheses and “establishing some of the alleged attributes of a general concept of god” have to offer in terms of responding to religions that share the very doctrines they are supposedly able to establish through reason?

The contributors to Choosing Hats make an apparently radical claim: People cannot know anything if God has not revealed Himself to them. Certainly then, people cannot know God without revelation. Our epistemology is revelational; we start with the presupposition that God has spoken and stay there throughout our thoughts and actions. Finite, fallible, sinful humanity can know nothing of God apart from His revealing Himself to us, hence Christian apologists who desire to move from some would-be autonomous position to the conclusion that God exists engage themselves in futility. Likewise for those who wish to prove the existence of some non-existent god. We therefore set forth the challenge to religious unbelievers to prove to us the existence of their gods while noting that they have not the slightest opportunity to get anywhere if they do not start from something which claims to be a revelation of their god. Framing the challenge in this way significantly narrows the field of what people may consider “competitors” by virtue of their alleged revelational epistemologies. There are few world religions that even claim to have anything like what the Bible is to Christianity.

It must be made clear that we need not fear answering non-Christians of any sort while standing upon the Christian worldview. We are not to flee from religious sects or turn about and cease to utilize sound methodology. The procedure which should be used in encounters with religious positions is the same procedure used with atheist positions. It must be shown that the God of Christian Scripture alone provides the preconditions for any intelligibility whatsoever and that all manifestations of the suppression of the truth of God result in a failure to render anything intelligible upon their corresponding presuppositions.

A general approach to religious varieties of the non-Christian worldview and other forms of theism will be presented here without much attention to specific objections which have been made along these lines or examples of particular variations of religious non-Christian worldviews. Nick writes, “I struggle to see it as being as strong against other forms of theism which can make the same claims (i.e., they all have their gods and their scriptures to appeal to).” Nick significantly narrows the scope of his concern when he specifies that the varieties of non-Christian worldviews he has in mind are theistic. He narrows it even more when he states that they “can make the same claims (i.e., they all have their gods and their scriptures to appeal to).”

Most religious varieties of the non-Christian worldview are excluded from the discussion because of the way the aforementioned concern is stated. Obviously atheism is out of the picture, as are similar positions like agnosticism and all positions which are in some way predicated upon or involve a rejection of theism. Coincidentally a significant portion of the prized answer to religious positions has already been presented. Most religious views of the world are reducible to atheism.

Transcendental Argument for God

TAG is often thought of as an excellent way to show that atheism is false but people can have trouble seeing how TAG is used to show that other non-Christian worldview variations are false. Some non-Christian understandings of the world are much more similar to the Christian worldview than atheism. As was just mentioned, some varieties of the non-Christian worldview are so much like the Christian worldview that they actually admit to borrowing from the Christian worldview! The question which now has to be asked is how the transcendental method argues with other theists who also have a transcendent revelation? Here the other theists appeal not only to false absolutes and authority, but to false revelation as well.

Covenantal apologetics are not the same thing as the Transcendental Argument for God; although given what I mean by the terms, the two are obviously intertwined. As odd as it may sound, the two are often confused with each other. People also sometimes make the mistake of thinking that the Transcendental Argument for God (TAG) is the only argument we can or should use in apologetics because there is so much emphasis placed upon it. However, many other arguments can be used that are also effective and glorifying to God.

Scriptural Response

There are many examples of non-Christians who claim that the Bible is the Word of God. Two popular examples are Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. Many Christians are unaware that Muslims also claim that the Bible is the word of their god Allah. Additionally, there are modern day Jews who accept large portions of Christian Scripture as revelation from their god. Someone might even try to make up some other non-Christian religion that is so much like Christianity that it appears impossible to show how it cannot also be considered the precondition of intelligibility.

It should not surprise us at all that insofar as a variation of the non-Christian worldview is consistent with the Christian worldview it is in theory able to account for some features of intelligibility. TAG is an argument set forth to show as much. Where variations of the non-Christian worldview deviate from the Christian worldview they fail to account for intelligibility and this is still perfectly consistent with TAG. Nevertheless, in order to provide a clear answer to the concern about non-atheistic non-Christian worldview variations TAG needs to be momentarily set aside. Our focus needs to be on the presuppositionalism that is behind TAG.

If some religious variation of the non-Christian worldview is to explicitly accept the authority of and borrow from the Christian Scriptures then there is no need to argue from anything other than the text of Scripture itself. Of course issues of canon, translation, transmission, history, and other evidences may be brought to bear upon the discussion taking place since it involves a parroted Christian frame work upon which the aforementioned issues are to be understood according to the religious position in question. There is nothing involved in this procedure which is not already a part of the covenantal apologetic method or incompatible with TAG or a concession to other apologetic methods. Rather, the unbeliever is called to be consistent with his or her own ultimate authority which just so happens to rightfully belong to Christians. But notice something; the aforementioned illustrations (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, etc.) are inconsistent with Christian theism.

It is extremely rare to find versions of the non-Christian worldview which claim a personal revelation from God. Those who profess belief in some god-like entity who has not revealed itself to humanity have no way of knowing that their god-like entity exists. A transcendent but not immanent being is neither personal nor knowable and an immanent but not transcendent being is neither absolute nor knowable. If God is not knowable apart from revelation then the position which tries to claim God but not revelation is inconsistent. If God is not knowable apart from revelation then the non-Christian position which tries to claim the revelation of the Christian worldview is inconsistent. Thus an internal critique is formed and TAG is seen once again to be driven by a claim concerning the impossibility of the contrary. An inconsistent worldview cannot be the precondition for intelligibility.

Philosophical Response

Though it is possible to take down religious varieties of the non-Christian worldview through a direct appeal to Scripture when Scripture is accepted by such positions as authoritative one might still mount a philosophical assault on the unbelieving view. A grid through which religious positions may be evaluated and internally critiqued will at the very least include metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Other features shared by all varieties of the non-Christian worldview may also be included in this grid. Arguments will make an even more explicit appeal to the unique characteristics of the Christian worldview than is often offered in exchanges with atheists. The issues of human dignity, human limitedness, and redemption must be stressed along with the triune, authoritative, absolute and personal nature of God. The respective problems of human dignity, human limitedness, and redemption which exist in non-Christian religious views must be pressed along with the specifically epistemological problems of the one-and-the-many, arbitrariness, normativity and obligation. These are only some of the subjects which will be discussed perhaps more emphatically when engaging in apologetics with world religions using the covenantal apologetic method.

A short time after using this method in teaching a class I found the following on a blog belonging to one of my students:

I am a Christian, currently attending a Southern Baptist Church, which I have been going to for a few years now. I was saved (to use the Christian phrase) when I was seven years old, after being raised in the Christian faith all of my life. I wasn’t baptized until I was eleven, shortly after my sister was. However, for the past few years (I’ve forgotten since when), I’ve been questioning my faith, and why I believe what I do. It’s been a burden to me, but I never told anyone about it, not even my family.

The past few Wednesday nights at church, my Sunday School class has been doing a study of other religions, comparing them to Christianity, and explaining why Christianity is the only true faith, and why the other religions (and their worldviews) are self-contradictory.

Last week, I was thinking about everything I had learned and had ever been taught. I was also reading my Bible at the time (somewhere in Proverbs, I think). All of a sudden, I felt as if a light bulb had clicked on; like I had reached the bottom of the hill and landed safely. I realized that everything I had ever been taught about God and Jesus and Christianity was true–God is the creator of our world, and He loves us so much that He sent His only Son to die on the cross (one of the most painful and demeaning ways to die) just for us, to forgive us for every sinful thing we’ve ever done and will ever do. All we have to do is believe that, and put our faith and trust in Him, and we will be saved, and have eternal life.

I feel like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders, and I can only be grateful to God and my Christian friends who have helped me to make this discovery. I do feel a sense of relief by writing this, even if no one will read it. I feel like a child who has made a discovery for the first time, as foolish as that may sound.

Sayonara for now!

Conclusion

The final analysis shows that religious varieties of the non-Christian worldview do not serve to undermine the Christian worldview but rather establish it. One is driven back into the Christian worldview especially in the case of those varieties which are most like the Christian worldview. The Christianization of any given variation of the non-Christian worldview as well as the concern that such a creation may trump TAG are implicit concessions to TAG in that one is attempting to explicitly borrow from the Christian worldview in order to render human experience intelligible.

[1] As just one example, Jared recently commented, “At WTS, the approach has changed terms from ‘presuppositional’ with its now post-modern connotations, to ‘covenantal apologetics’, emphasizing its theological foundation.”

[2] Covenantal apologetics always ultimately involve some type of argument from the impossibility of the contrary. Religious varieties of the non-Christian worldview are still just variations on the same underlying theme of the rejection of the God of Scripture that so characterizes atheism. There are only two worldviews, Christianity and non-Christianity. There are numerous texts of Scripture which give rise to this understanding of worldviews. Within the realm of non-Christian thought there are many manifestations or varieties of the non-Christian worldview. For example, Islam and agnosticism are two different varieties of unbelief. These varieties of the non-Christian worldview are what people typically refer to when speaking of worldviews. This may serve to raise some interesting discussions about the terms one should use while describing the aforementioned entities, but for now the details on the issue must be set aside.


12 Comments

Jeff Downs

Thanks for this post.

I’m sure you are familiar with this, but more on the terminology switch see Scott Oliphint’s Presuppositionalism.

Greg

Also hot off the press and somewhat relevant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTK_-1hynD4

Jeff Downs

Thanks Greg.

I was listening to Greg Bahsen this morning (audio located on WTS site) in which he himself made the comment that presuppositionalism is not the best term to use. Although, his discussion was focused on the mischaracterization that presuppositionists don’t use evidence and Evidentalists do not have presuppositions.

BK

Excellent resource, Greg … thanks. I especially like his distinction between the Ontological and Economical Trinity, and why that distinction is relevant.

BK

Mike

Outstanding article. Important points were made with clarity and biblical fidelity. I personally utilize TAs in contending for CT (Christian Theism) with JWs , Muslims, Mormons, etc. as I press biblical truth on their doctrinal errors. Employing the Word to refute them is the priority and can be carefully supplemented by the truth of TAs. I also patiently bear the Law down on their conscience; subsequently I call them to repent as the offer of grace is proclaimed through the preaching of the Gospel.

RazorsKiss

I would contend that TAs are part of the Biblical witness, not a supplement to it. cf: Isa and the parade of false gods, Job’s finale, Acts 17, etc.

G. Kyle Essary

On the first Bahnsen Apologetics lecture from WTS at iTunes U, he addresses covenantal apologetics against other religions. Also, RTS has a John Frame apologetics course where he addresses other religions and cults as the heresies that they are.

Midas Vuik

Out of curiosity, what exactly do Van Til and Bahnsen mean when they say that non-Christian worldviews and religions are unable to “account for” things such as logic, science, and morality? In common parlance, “to account for” means to give an explanation, but Bahnsen clearly says this is not the case in his debate with Smith. Moreover, if he meant that, it would make the TAG an argument from ignorance since it would assert that all non-Christian worldviews are false simply because they are unable to come up with an explanation for a certain phenomenon. So when presuppositionalists say that non-Christian religions cannot “account for” logic, etc., are they saying that some aspect of logic is incompatible with such worldviews? In other words, that non-Christian worldviews are incoherent with regard to certain facts about the world? If so, why use the phrase “account for”? I suspect that Van Til and Bahnsen were using an entirely different definition from the two I have suggested, and I would be interested to see what they might have.

Shamgar

Midas,

Since nobody else has responded, I’d note that they use account for because it is something that exists. It’s not a hypothetical.

Given that we know logic exists in the world, your worldview needs to be able to account for that reality. This is not merely explaining that it exists. Your worldview must not be in conflict with reality.

Did Van Til set Christianity alongside other worldviews?

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