Adventures in Missing the Antithesis

Paul Baird recently addressed what he seems to think is the “philosophy that underpins the Christian Presuppositional Apologetics.”[1] He’s wrong, of course, but let us show him why, shall we? He cites Chris’ citation of an argument tucked away in the appendix of PA:S&D as that supposed “underpinning.” Interestingly, he goes on to ask why “do Presuppositional Apologists not start with this explanation that PA is about establishing the need for a unique self sufficient knower and identifying that self sufficient knower exclusively as the Christian god?”[2] Well, that is readily apparent – because we don’t believe that to be the case. It’s not only false, but ridiculously so. See, Paul is suffering from the same problems that many do. They take their own presuppositional commitments, map them onto our own, and claim equivalency. This is not only highly detrimental to a proper understanding of what it is we are saying, but highly detrimental to being taken seriously as an objector. If Paul wishes to be taken seriously in his objections to PA, he must actually understand what does underpin it. Namely, he has to understand that Reformed Theology is what determines what we are saying – and that this predates Bahnsen significantly. In fact, he needs to understand that Bahnsen himself is not the one to look to at all for this! If Paul is serious about understanding what PA is, he must understand what Reformed Theology is. It’s that simple. The proper application of Reformed Theology in an apologetic context is what gives us the Presuppositional Apologetic.

So, if this isn’t what underpins the Presuppositional Apologetic, what does? Let’s make sure we, at least, don’t miss the antithesis! What we are after, contra Paul’s assertions, is to “press the antithesis” – indeed, as Bahnsen himself puts it, “This theme of the principial, epistemological and ethical antithesis between the regenerate, Bible-directed mind of the Christian and the autonomous mind of the sinner (whether expressed by the avowed unbeliever or by the unorthodox modern theologian), remained part of Van Til’s distinctive teaching throughout his career.”[3] Van Til, who we regard as the founder (and revivalist of) Presuppositional Apologetics, said that “It is necessary to become clearly aware of the deep antithesis between the two main types of epistemology”[4]. In short, if it is to be said that there is a fundamental underpinning to PA, it would be the doctrine of antithesis. Says Van Til, “Rather than wedding Christianity to the philosophies of Aristotle or Kant, we must openly challenge the apostate philosophic constructions of men by which they seek to suppress the truth about God themselves, and the world…It is only if we demand of men complete submission to the living Christ of the Scriptures in every area of their lives that we have presented to men the claims of the Lord Christ without compromise. It is only then that we are truly Biblical first and speculative afterwards. Only then are we working toward a Reformed apologetic.”[5]

We, then, cannot be considered to be trying to “establish the requirement for there to be a self sufficient knower, a variation of the argument from necessity that is usually articulated as the prime mover argument, and the assertion that that self sufficient knower can only be the Christian god.” That, according to Van Til, would simply be “wedding Christianity to the philosophies of Aristotle or Kant”! Further, Bahnsen argues, it is not this one argument which is the foundation of our apologetic. “In terms of theoretical principle and eventual outworking, the unbeliever opposes the Christian faith with a whole antithetical system of thought, not simply with piecemeal criticisms. His attack is aimed, not at random points of Christian teaching, but at the very foundation of Christian thinking. The particular criticisms which are utilized by an unbeliever rest upon his basic, key assumptions which unify and inform all of his thinking. And it is this presuppositional root which the apologist must aim to eradicate, if his defense of the faith is to be truly effective.[6]

Our goal is to set the presuppositional commitments of believer and unbeliever in antithesis – not to make a pseudo-cosmological argument. What we are concerned with, however, is arguing by “presupposition” – not by “prime mover”. All too often, neophytes to the study of Reformed theology and its commensurate apologetic pack the baggage of non-Reformed theology and argumentation over into that sphere. This is not the “silver bullet” they think it is – it is, unfortunately, a simple error, and quite commonly made. What Paul seems to have done is to take an argument from an appendix, in a book written when Bahnsen was quite young, incidentally, and make it into an all-encompassing, foundational principle of methodology. It’s neither the case that this argument is foundational, nor that it is fundamental to our methodology. Paul would be far better served by paying attention to what Van Til laid out as those foundations, and what Bahnsen himself said were those foundations. To make such a spectacular leap of unwarranted proportions simply denudes Paul’s comments of their strength and accuracy.

Paul tells us “the argument” is “about establishing that there ought to be a god, not that there is a god.”[7] If Paul had done the requisite study on the topic, instead of making unwarranted leaps, he would know that this is simply not the case. The PA argument is an argument “by presupposition” – it is a transcendental argument, from the impossibility of the contrary. Further, Van Til expressly states that it’s not about “establishing that there is a god.” Paul is negligent in his treatment of the position he is critiquing, yet again. Van Til tells us: “Christianity offers the triune God, the absolute personality, containing all of the attributes enumerated, as the God in whom we believe. This conception of God is the foundation of everything we hold dear. Unless we can believe in this sort of God, it does us no good to be told that we may believe in some other sort of God, or in anything else. For us everything depends for its meaning upon this sort of God. Accordingly, we are not interested to have anyone prove to us the existence of any other sort of God but this God. Any other sort of God is no God at all, and to prove that some other sort of God exists is, in effect, to prove that no God exists.”[8] Further, he replies: “The apostle Paul lays great stress upon the fact that man is without excuse if he does not discover God in nature. Following Paul’s example Calvin argues that men ought to see God, not a god, not some supernatural power, but the only God, in nature. They have not done justice by the facts they see displayed before and within them if they say a god exists, or that God probably exists. The Calvinist holds to the essential perspecuity of natural as well as biblical revelation.”[9] So, as we can see, Van Til says the express opposite of Paul’s assertion. Paul seemed to have implied that our recent Journal was a “waste of 30 minutes” – but with his seemingly consistent misunderstanding of our position, it becomes fairly clear that his reading comprehension and attentiveness is to blame on this score. If he had read my first paper, for example, he would know that I said “our opponent must, in order to actually address us, object to something very particular” – not to mention that I cited Van Til, just as I did above. Further, if he had read my second paper, he would know that I said: “Unregenerate men have knowledge of God sufficient to leave them without excuse; They know the God who created them exists, and enough of what He is like to well know that they are responsible to Him in all respects, and must submit to Him accordingly. They know that they are sinners against that God, and that they will have to account for their sin before Him. Yet, they do not want to hold that knowledge in the light, where it confronts them. They constantly attempt to suppress that truth, and to replace it with an unlivable lie.” Properly, I used a definite article, and was specific.

We do not argue for or about “a god.” This is incontrovertible, despite Paul’s attempted controversies. Second, we are not making some sort of “prime mover” argument, nor is the central, foundational, basic argument of the PA anything other than a transcendental argument. It’s not as if we haven’t explained what the transcendental argument is. It is not as if we have not expressed what the heart of our apologetic is. It is, however, the case that objectors consistently and unaccountably ignore these explanations, in favor of their speculative theories, which are easily countered by reference to what we have actually said. Paul keeps asking what a transcendental argument is. Paul, however, is apparently unable to read our website, OR any of the primary literature which we constantly refer to, to find out what that is. If we did share it with him, again, I have no doubt that he would begin to tell us what we are “actually” arguing, as he did in the post I’ve cited. Instead of making himself look foolish in such a visible and puzzling way, I would once again exhort Paul to take the time to actually examine what it is that we are saying, instead of reinterpreting sidebar discussions as if they are central of fundamental, in the strange and un-compelling fashion he has chosen to do so thus far. When he discusses the quotation from Bahnsen he presents, he shows no evidence of familiarity with the context of the citation. If he’s willing to make such a controversial comment on it, to the tune of an assertion that this, in juxtaposition to our stated position, is the real basis of a PA, it would make sense for Paul to argue why this is the case, would it not? Unfortunately, it does not seem to be the case that Paul even owns this book, nor that he has read it. Contrary to Paul’s assertion, this argument regarding the self-sufficient knower is being made in the context of a transcendental argument. It is pointing out the preconditions for the intelligibility of knowledge, contra solipsism and skepticism. Paul, to be taken seriously with these sorts of comments, really would be better served by reading the books he is making arguments from, as he apparently has failed to do. Chris properly used Bahnsen’s citation in context; Paul failed to do so, in a rather spectacular fashion.

  1. [1]http://patientandpersistent.blogspot.com/2011/10/fundamentally-flawed-discussing-pa_08.html
  2. [2]Ibid.
  3. [3]Bahnsen, At War With the Word: The Necessity of Biblical Antithesis, Introduction – http://www.reformed.org/apologetics/index.html?mainframe=/apologetics/At_War_With_the_Word.html
  4. [4]Van Til, Cornelius, A Survey of Christian Epistemology [Originally “Metaphysics of Apologetics,”] (New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publ. Co., 1969), v
  5. [5]Geehan, E.R., Jerusalem and Athens, (New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publ. Co., 1955), pp 24-28
  6. [6]Bahnsen, At War With the Word: The Necessity of Biblical Antithesis, 1.B.3. – http://www.reformed.org/apologetics/index.html?mainframe=/apologetics/At_War_With_the_Word.html
  7. [7]http://patientandpersistent.blogspot.com/2011/10/fundamentally-flawed-discussing-pa_08.html
  8. [8]Van Til, Defense of the Faith (4th Ed.), pg 34
  9. [9]Ibid., 120, emphasis his

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