Return of the Presuppositionalist: A counter-critique of a critique of presuppositionalism.

phantommenace-300x225-150x150I was sent a link to view (a 4 part series) which ended in a critique of presuppositionalism. The full article can be found here:

Revenge of Objectivity: Preunderstanding, Presuppositions, and First Principles (Part 4)

Feel free to read the whole 4 part series.

So, lets get started:

“Naturally, the same problems with any representationalist epistemology are also embedded in the representationalism found within the presuppositional system.”

Presuppositionalism runs on a revelatory epistemology, not a representationalist epistemology.

“While the Thomist would certainly agree that God is the ultimate cause of all reality other than Himself and that the universal forms of things exist “first and foremost in the divine intellect, as the archetypes according to which God creates the world,”42 he would most certainly disagree that man somehow “reconstructs” the “interpretations of God” about reality. As has already been said, Aquinas holds that knowledge is the union of the knower and the known. And for Aquinas, man knows according to his mode of being, based on the kind of thing he is.”

Which means, as Van Til wrote:

“It is the species that exist in the facts of sense that are said to be discovered by the intellect, and this discovery is not merely a passive something…no non-Christian can finally escape the virtual identification of the human mind with the divine mind. So Aristotle, in thinking of the human mind as discovering the intelligible species in the things, is virtually attributing the same powers to the human mind that he attributes to the divine mind. The active mind of man is ideally identical with the active mind which is God. What this position really amounts to, is that man can by these self- evident principles interpret reality correctly without taking God into consideration from the outset.”
Van Til – Reformed Pastor and Modem Thought.

“Thus, man’s knowledge begins in sense experience and expands from there. As philosopher Peter Kreeft explains, “Again we must distinguish the claim that all our knowledge begins with sense experience from the claim that it is limited to it. From its beginnings in sense experience, by abstractions and reasoning, knowledge can rise to immaterial things [emphasis in original].”43 Claiming that one’s knowledge starts with experience rather than with God (whether information from the Bible or some other type of special revelation) does not limit one to pure naturalism, materialism, or some probabilistic god as many presuppositionalists claim. Again, as Kreeft notes, “We are neither mere beasts nor angels but somewhere between them, and therefore our mode of knowing is neither wholly biological and bodily, nor wholly spiritual and immaterial. For our mode of knowing depends on our nature. Thus we rise from the empirical to the intellectual, and we interpret and understand the empirical by the intellectual.”44 Since epistemology has been freed from the starting point of the mind of man, and it has been shifted to reality as such, the possibility of objective knowledge and interpretation seems to again be a possibility.”

This kind of realist view was covered here. If I skip over some sections of the post (mainly the positive presentations of the authors realist views) then it is no doubt because I feel they are adequately addressed in the aforementioned link.

“But recall that Bahnsen claims their is no possibility of neutrality and that “there are no facts or uses of reason which are available outside of the interpretive system of basic commitments or assumptions which appeals to them.” Others hold that neutrality, and thus objectivity, is impossible because there can be no “brute” or “uninterpreted facts” since all “facts have been interpreted in terms of our existing commitments.” My first question for those holding this view is, are these facts true for everyone, regenerate and unregenerate, or are these facts only facts inside your own interpretive system of basic commitments and assumptions? If it is indeed true for everyone, then it seems this position is false. If it is not true for everyone, then it remains the case that there are facts and uses of reason which transcend world views with which we can reason with unbelievers.”

Lets look at the context of that quotation:

“Since neutrality is unattainable for either the unbeliever or believer, and since they have conflicting ultimate standards for judging claims to knowledge, the task of apologetics will ultimately be carried on at a presuppositional level. Contrasting worldviews are being debated. Each worldview has its presuppositions about reality, knowledge, and ethics; these mutually influence and support each other. There are no facts or uses of reason which are available outside of the interpretive system of basic commitments or assumptions which appeals to them; the presuppositions used by Christian and non-Christian determine what they will accept as factual and reasonable, and their respective presuppositions about fact and logic will determine what they say about reality. Thus there can be no direct proof offered for the truth of either perspective; direct appeals to fact and reason are emptied of argumentative strength by the opponent’s presuppositions (with which he understands and accepts facts and logic in a different light altogether). The argument between believer and unbeliever must then be indirect, admitting the impossibility of a neutral approach to reasoning and facts which allegedly outside of an interpretive system. The argument must pit the unbeliever’s system of thought as a unit over and against the believer’s system of thought as a unit. Their overall perspectives will have to contend with each other, rather than debating isolated points in a piecemeal fashion.”

So in response to the writer’s question: These facts would not be held as being factual within some unbelieving worldviews – but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t still binding on them. Can we still reason with unbelievers? Most certainly, but because of common grace:

“When the case has been boldly made that the unbeliever must repent and admit to his suppressed knowledge of God if he is to have theoretical grounding for any knowledge whatsoever, then the Holy Spirit either opens his eyes at present or will do so at a coming day. In this present life God’s common grace restrains the apostate from utter intellectual self-destruction. While not positing neutral ground between the Christian and non-Christian interpretative systems, common grace nevertheless prevents the non-Christian from being consistent with his futile boast of autonomy. But in that coming day the unbeliever will cease to be schizophrenic and will fully become what he continually strived to be, but as yet could not be—completely independent of God. This will be hell.”
Bahnsen, Greg (2009-03-01). Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated & Defended (Kindle Locations 2808-2813). American Vision. Kindle Edition.

“When the believer argues with the unbeliever he should take this difference into account. The only reason there is not absolute antithesis in their use of language (and hence, hopeless confusion) is because of God’s common grace. Since the unbeliever is not completely epistemologically self-conscious, he can still hear and understand the word of the gospel. Yet in principle their respective outlooks and language would be absolutely divergent.”
Bahnsen, Greg (2009-03-01). Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated & Defended (Kindle Locations 2862-2865). American Vision. Kindle Edition.

“However, the unbeliever is still the image of God, living on metaphysical common ground with the Christian, and being restrained in his rebellion against God’s clear, necessary, sufficient, and authoritative revelation in nature and Scripture by common grace.”
Bahnsen, Greg (2009-03-01). Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated & Defended (Kindle Locations 2958-2960). American Vision. Kindle Edition.

“Moreover, those holding the view above are either using words like “interpreted” and “existing commitments” univocally or they are not. If they are, then they are in fact using language in such a way that is the same across world views, but this is precisely the type of thing they are claiming cannot be done. On the other hand, if these concepts are not being used univocally and those outside the Christian world view have no understanding of these concepts, then they also have no reason to understand why these concepts are important or why they should change their world views (more will be said about this momentarily).”

Actually we never claimed that couldn’t be done – as you can see above in regards to our understanding and importance of common grace, and its action on unbelieving thought and ability to communicate.

“As Howe points out in referencing a similar scenario with Van Til, it seems the presuppositionalist knows such concepts are the same for all world views which “is why he can successfully and rightly require the non-Christian to give an account of it. This is so, however, only because in fact there are some brute facts which are meaningful in terms of the nature of reality.”45 These brute facts would of course be the Transcendental Presuppositions which everyone undeniably shares.”

Not because there are some brute facts, but because people are created in the image and likeness of God, and although fallen and sinful and aim to distort as much of the knowledge of God as possible, are restrained from doing so by God’s common grace, which is the platform that gives us an ability to communicate.

“Yet another problem with the presuppositional view is specifically related to hermeneutics. Bahnsen says, “…to reason with the non-Christian in a fashion purporting to be independent of God or independent of reliance upon revelation is to honor the unregenerate’s notions of ‘evidence’ and ‘verification’ as legitimate and correct. However, for the Christian it is Scripture that governs every area of his life, even his concept of ‘evidence’ and the way he reasons with skeptics.”46 Based on his own view of epistemology, Bahnsen, and Ken Ham who has made similar statements, have dug themselves an inescapable hole. How exactly are they able to understand Scripture? From where would the principles of hermeneutics come? They could not come from the Bible, on pains of contradiction, since one would be able to understand the Bible prior to having any principles of understanding.”

Due to common grace and being created in the image of God with reasoning faculties, as mentioned, people are able to understand that language has meaning, and people can understand literary works, which include the Bible.

As Bahnsen notes in regards to hermeneutics :

WE AFFIRM that, although unbelievers can understand the literary sense of the Scriptural text, the saving discernment, acceptance, and application of God’s word requires the Holy Spirit’s work of enlightenment, regeneration, bestowal of faith, nurture and sanctification.”
WE AFFIRM that God’s verbal revelation in Scripture is intended as a public communication and must be properly understood according to the same principles of interpretation which apply to any human, non-esoteric, literary work.
WE AFFIRM that the Scripture is interpreted correctly only when interpreted according to its letter (“literally”) in the normal, historical and grammatical sense, taking account of a text’s literary genre (whether figurative or not, etc.) and the author’s intent (as determined semantically, and by the local and broader literary contexts).
WE DENY that Scripture, as some would allege about any literary work, is empty of fixed and objective meaning so that its language makes no unchanging disclosure, its authorial intent is inaccessible, and every reading of a text constitutes a misreading.”

Further, due to the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit acting on people’s minds, we are able to understand scripture more and more. Not necessarily comprehensively, but sufficiently. Unbelievers can reason, they can understand language only because God enables them to and restrains their full self-destruction and suppression of the truth of God. God enables people to understand His revelation to them, however unbelievers suppress this knowledge as much as possible, but that suppression is not stronger than God’s common, illuminating or redeeming grace.

A few more quotes from VT on this issue (helpfully put together here):

“We thus stress Paul’s teaching that all men do not have a mere capacity for but are in actual possession of the knowledge of God” (DOF 109).

“But Reformed theology, as worked out by Calvin and his recent exponents such as Hodge, Warfield, Kuyper and Bavinck, holds that man’s mind is derivative. As such it is naturally in contact with God’s revelation. It is surrounded by nothing but revelation. It is itself inherently revelational. It cannot naturally be conscious of itself without being conscious of its creatureliness. For man self-consciousness presupposes God-consciousness. Calvin speaks of this as man’s inescapable sense of deity” (DOF 107).

“God has never left himself without a witness to men. He witnessed to them through every fact of the universe from the beginning of time. No rational creature can escape this witness. It is the witness of the triune God whose face is before men everywhere and all the time. Even the lost in the hereafter cannot escape the revelation of God. God made man a rational-moral creature. He will always be that. As such he is confronted with God. He is addressed by God. He exists in the relationship of covenant interaction. He is a covenant being. To not know God man would have to destroy himself. He cannot do this. There is no non-being into which man can slip in order to escape God’s face and voice. The mountains will not cover him; Hades will not hide him. Nothing can prevent his being confronted ‘with him with whom we have to do.’ Whenever he sees himself, he sees himself confronted with God.

“Whatever may happen, whatever sin may bring about, whatever havoc it may occasion, it cannot destroy man’s knowledge of God and his sense of responsibility to God. Sin would not be sin except for this ineradicable knowledge of God. Even sin as a process of ever-increasing alienation from God presupposes for its background this knowledge of God.

“Why waste words on the idea that non-Christians do not have good powers of perception, good powers of reasoning, etc. Non-Christians have all these. If that were the issue, then the contention should be made that non-Christians are blind, deaf, and have no powers of logical reasoning at all; in fact, they should be non-existent” (DOF 292).

“Every man has capacity to reason logically. He can intellectually understand what the Christian position claims to be. Conjoined with this is the moral sense that he knows he is doing wrong when he interprets human experience without reference to his creator. I am therefore in the fullest agreement with Professor Murray when, in the quotation you give of him, he speaks of the natural man as having an ‘apprehension of the truth of the gospel that is prior to faith and repentance’” (DOF 257).

“Now the question is not whether the non-Christian can weigh, measure, or do a thousand other things. No one denies that he can. But the question is whether on his principle the non-Christian can account for his own or any knowledge. I argued that when two people, the one a Christian and the other not a Christian, talk things out with one another, they will appear to differ at every point” (DOF 288).

“It is this fact, that the natural man, using his principles and working on his assumptions, must be hostile in principle at every point to the Christian philosophy of life, that was stressed in the writer’s little book, Common Grace. That all men have all things in common metaphysically and psychologically, was definitely asserted, and further, that the natural man has epistemologically nothing in common with the Christian. And this latter assertion was qualified by saying that this is so only in principle. For it is not till after the consummation of history that men are left wholly to themselves. Till then the Spirit of God continues to strive with men that they might forsake their evil ways. Till then God in his common grace, in his long-suffering forbearance, gives men rain and sunshine and all the good things of life that they might repent. The primary attitude of God to men as men is that of goodness. It is against this goodness expressing itself in the abundance of good gifts that man sins. And even then God prevents the principle of sin from coming to full fruition. He restrains the wrath of man. He enables him by this restraint to cooperate with the redeemed of God in the development of the work he gave man to do.

A lot of what Van Til is talking about here is the ‘in practice’ vs ‘in principle’ issue. As Van Til said elsewhere : “Unbelivers can count, they just can’t account for counting”.

If there principles were true, they couldn’t do anything like what we are talking about, but it is precisely because their worldview is false that they can do these things.

As an aside, I think there are principles in scripture that show us how we should interpret it:
as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.”(2 Peter 3:16)

Ie Authorial intent. You can’t have a distortion without having an intended meaning.

“As was noted earlier, if man’s mind is darkened, and knowledge starts in the mind, then it stands to reason that man is incapable of accurately knowing anything about reality.”

Again, this smacks of Kuypers thoughts on this issue:

It seems to me that, in this way, Van Til has appreciably advanced Reformed apologetics in our day by building on the strengths of the two outstanding Reformed theologians and philosophers, B.B. Warfield and A. Kuyper; yet he has done so without wandering into the questionable inferences drawn by these two great thinkers with respect to their distinctive contributions. Kuyper’s writings vigorously set forth the fact that the believer and the unbeliever use antithetical principles in their respective philosophy and science. The ethical alienation of the natural man from God had to be stressed, and this alienation is operative in the noetic realm. The antithesis between the natural mind and the regenerated mind, Kuyper saw, would produce opposing theories of knowledge. This was Kuyper’s distinctive emphasis. From it he drew the illegitimate inference that apologetics was virtually useless; apologetics and communication with the unregenerate were seen as hopeless because of the unbeliever’s depravity. Thus apologetics inevitably tends to be accommodationist in character.[13] On the other hand, Warfield’s distinctive emphasis was on the objective clarity of God’s revelation, such that it could not be genuinely rational to reject the Christian faith; the evidence for the truth of the Bible was manifest and could not be overlooked with intellectual justification. However, from this commendable distinctive Warfield drew the illegitimate inference that the natural man, using “right reason,” could interpret and judge the revelation of God correctly. As can be readily seen, a disagreement had developed between Kuyper and Warfield. Kuyper’s illegitimate inference (viz., apologetics is virtually useless) contradicted Warfield’s commendable emphasis (viz., the evidence is so plain that we can show unbelief to be against all reason). Further, Warfield’s illegitimate inference (viz., the natural man can use right reason and God’s revelation) contradicted Kuyper’s commendable distinctive (viz., the antithetical principles of the natural and regenerate minds produce opposing theories of knowledge). What Van Til has done is to incorporate the emphases of these two Reformed scholars, without following them into their illegitimate inferences (which produced the dispute between them). Van Til clearly sees the principial antithesis between the believer and unbeliever in epistemology. Because of the unbeliever’s espoused presuppositions, his thinking would—if pursued consistently—destroy the very possibility of meaning, intelligible experience, and knowledge; on his most basic assumptions the non-Christian cannot use reason correctly and evaluate the evidence of God’s revelation aright. Yet Van Til also sets forth the objective clarity of God’s revelation, saying that it is utterly unreasonable to reject Christianity. The evidence for the truth of God’s word is so obvious that we can be certain in our Christian convictions and can show the folly of unbelief. The result is Van Til’s presuppositional defense of the faith and transcendental argument for the veracity of God’s revelation. Apologetics is definitely useful, for the unbeliever is still a creature made in God’s image and God has made His revelation manifest to all men. Yet in this apologetic argument the unbeliever should be shown that he is in no position to pass judgment on God’s word and that right reason is impossible for him, given his espoused presuppositions. Christianity is thereby presented to the unbeliever as the only reasonable position for men to hold; the truth of Christianity is advanced as the foundation without which there could not be proof of anything else at all.”
Bahnsen, Greg (2009-03-01). Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated & Defended (Kindle Locations 713-739). American Vision. Kindle Edition.

“Perhaps most troubling for the presuppositional system is the fact that, according to their own method and assumptions, the project they suggest is not even possible. If objectivity is an impossibility, and if one cannot interpret facts apart from one’s own world view, then it is impossible, in principle, for someone to come to a new world view even after being confronted “head-on” by the “opposing and correct form of life.” If the unregenerate has his own “language and logic” and interprets everything through the filter of his own world view, then will he not also interpret everything from the “opposing and correct form of life” through that same filter according to his same logic? Would he not see his opponents views through the same jaundiced eyes with which he views everything else? Why should the alleged problems in the unregenerate’s world view be viewed any differently by him than the “facts and logic” to which Bahnsen refers?”

Again, this is a failure to take into account common grace and the ‘in practice’ vs ‘in principle’ distinction and everything we’ve discussed up to this point. The presuppositionalist shows, by an internal critique, that according to their own worldview, their presuppositions, they couldn’t do anything that they are doing or claim to do in practice, and that their own worldview falls into self-contradiction, inconsistency, arbitrariness and absurdity. You show that all that they are claiming and saying is impossible, given their core beliefs. As we already quoted before from Bahnsen:

“When the case has been boldly made that the unbeliever must repent and admit to his suppressed knowledge of God if he is to have theoretical grounding for any knowledge whatsoever, then the Holy Spirit either opens his eyes at present or will do so at a coming day. In this present life God’s common grace restrains the apostate from utter intellectual self-destruction. While not positing neutral ground between the Christian and non-Christian interpretative systems, common grace nevertheless prevents the non-Christian from being consistent with his futile boast of autonomy. But in that coming day the unbeliever will cease to be schizophrenic and will fully become what he continually strived to be, but as yet could not be—completely independent of God. This will be hell.”
Bahnsen, Greg (2009-03-01). Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated & Defended (Kindle Locations 2808-2813). American Vision. Kindle Edition.

“I certainly agree that the Holy Spirit draws to Himself those who believe and convicts them of their sin and need for a savior. But that is quite different than Bahnsen’s pious sounding appeal with which the problems associated with a representationalist epistemology remain. Suppose it is true that the unregenerate cannot rightly know, or think about, reality apart from the Holy Spirit working in his mind or God telling him what is real. How does having a “regenerate mind” help one rightly know reality? One would only know the thoughts about reality given by the Holy Spirit and not reality in itself. Hence, the unbridgeable gap between mind and extra-mental reality remains.”

What God knows about reality is the truth of what reality is. There is no reality outside of what God knows, therefore to know God’s thought’s about reality is to know reality.

“To elaborate, punting to the Holy Spirit to solve this problem simply moves the problem back a step. How would one know that it is actually the Holy Spirit working in his mind and not the devil or the tacos he ate last night?”

In regards to common grace, we are passive recipients of this – God simply chooses to restrain us via this. It’s not like we have an active role in receiving this grace – the most hateful rebellious atheists are recipients of this grace. We know the Holy Spirit is working on our minds if what we are thinking is consistent with scripture – the Holy Spirit will not lead us away from that. The work of the Holy Spirit doesn’t happen in a vacuum apart from the standard means of grace. He is sanctifying our minds to be able to think progressively more consistent with God’s revelation. The Holy Spirit does the sanctifying, we do the thinking.

“Simply claiming that it is the Holy Spirit would do little good since, for example, the Mormon would claim the same thing.”

They could *claim* that, but they have many other problems that they’d have to deal with that make their worldview absurd.

“How does one know who is telling the truth? And if knowledge begins in the mind, then there is still the unbridgeable gap between one’s thoughts about the Holy Spirit working in his mind and the reality of whether or not the Holy Spirit is working in his mind. Again, how is one to know that it is, in fact, the Holy Spirit working in his mind? Would the answer not be yet another appeal to some confirmation from the Holy Spirit that it is the Holy Spirit working in his mind? But how would one know that for sure? Are we to make appeals to the Holy Spirit ad infinitum? On the other hand, the only way, it seems to me, to bridge the gap for the presuppositionalist would be an even greater appeal to the Holy Spirit. But if the Holy Spirit becomes the bridge, whatever that would even mean, would it not result in some ultra-mystical non-Christian view where the Holy Spirit is actually the one doing all the thinking? To steal an illustration from Feser, this seems a bit like saying a baseball makes contact with a bat by hitting, not the surface of the bat, but a surface provided by the baseball. The problem then becomes how does the surface provided by the baseball have any efficacy in relation to the bat?”

See previous comments. This is just a misunderstanding as to how the Holy Spirit works on the mind of the believer in sanctification. I’d suggest the author study this area of the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. Further, all knowledge begins in God’s mind, not ours.

Suffice to say that if this the above is accurate of what the writer thinks, then Paul must have been quite the pious mystical type:

12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (ESV) 1Co 2:12-13

“Based on this view, the only options in the end seem to be complete skepticism, relativism, or a fideistic faith.”

Good thing that the authors view isn’t consistent with that of presuppositionalism. In order words, what the author is critiquing is something indeed, but whatever that is, it is not presuppositionalism.


One Comment

Slimjim

Thank you for this response


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