Presuppositional Apologetics In Debate

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.”

As Nick mentioned in his response to someone concerning the apparent absence of presuppositional apologetics in the realm of debate, James R. White of Alpha and Omega Ministries is a presuppositionalist and can hardly be charged with not debating. Doug Wilson, who recently engaged Christopher Hitchens in a series of books, formal debates, and discussions (see the movie Collision) also uses presuppositional apologetics. Nevertheless, questions concerning the use of presuppositional apologetics in debate are common. One of the reasons that there may not appear to be many presuppositionalists debating is that there are not many presuppositionalists. Given the popularity of apologetics in general and the so-called “New Calvinism” (as though there has never been a resurgence of Calvinism before; we are quite self-centered people) presuppositionalism is probably on its way to becoming more popular because of the links which exist between Calvinism and presuppositionalism. However, a number of obstacles still stand in the way of the popularity of presuppositional apologetics and their use in debate.

There is not much literature on the subject of presuppositionalism written at an introductory level. Those who are properly introduced to presuppositionalism and become more serious about it are often turned away by the more complex criticisms which have been leveled against it and its respective arguments (namely, TAG). It is far easier and far more acceptable to jump on the Plantingian bandwagon (yes I have read him, yes I do appreciate his work, and yes I did call it that) than it is to work through the various objections to the presuppositional method that have been raised due to an increase in familiarity with the presuppositional apologetic method and its subsequent evaluation by some very bright Christian thinkers in the analytic tradition. No apologetic method or epistemology will ever be found that has not in some way been questioned or had an objection brought against it. Note that this is directly due to the nature of apologetics and epistemology. The difference in the case of presuppositionalism is that the responses to questions and objections are severely lacking.

The aforementioned observation is not intended to imply that the types of questions and objections under consideration have not already been addressed or even sufficiently addressed in primary sources concerning the topic. However, critics have a tendency to attempt to read the primary sources while standing on one leg (charitably construed) and there are few who are up to the challenge of providing them with answers from or in accordance with the primary sources applicable to whatever problem is being discussed. Cornelius Van Til and Greg L. Bahnsen (both of whom held PhDs in Philosophy from accredited universities, by the way) were certainly not infallible, but they were not idiots either. Frankly, some of the complaints that have been raised against TAG as of late do more than just entail that Van Til and/or Bahnsen were mistaken; they imply that the men were not the brightest crayons in the box. Given that Bahnsen was no burnt sienna one must conclude that there is work to be done. Such work requires more than parroted rhetoric and intellectual laziness on the part of those who are familiar with presuppositionalism. To be fair, some of those who are extremely familiar with presuppositionalism have been the same people offering objections. However, one can recognize with Van Til that a midget can see further than a giant when he stands on the giant’s shoulders. It is certainly the case that we need more midgets.

To be continued.


3 Comments

Midas Vuik

I absolutely agree; if the project of presuppositional apologetics is to be successful, (1) the TAG must be clearly stated and defended, (2) objections to the TAG and the presuppositional method must be adequately answered instead of evaded, and (3) the Christian worldview must be shown to be the only worldview capable of accounting for the intelligibility of the world.

Jared

Good post and point. One reason may be because the source of presuppositionalism was originally Van Til’s published works, of which many were class syllabi not meant for public scrutiny but as a supplement in the WTS classroom. Those works without the proper context can admittedly be less than ideally clear at points. As more and more second generation VanTilians came along (Bahnsen, Oliphint), those concepts lacking clarity were systematized and clarified. At WTS, the approach has changed terms from “presuppositional” with its now post-modern connotations, to “covenantal apologetics”, emphasizing its theological foundation. Entering this third generation and a revival in Van Til, I’m looking forward to further work out there that applies the proper biblical/VanTilian approach to recent iterations of unbelief and Christian apologetic self-inconsistency.

G. Kyle Essary

Jared,
That’s a good point. Dr. Oliphint has done a good job with editions of Van Til such as “Defense of the Faith” where he has placed further explanations in the footnotes. Unfortunately, another issue is that Van Til intends not just to defend Christianity in general, but specifically as it is interpreted by the Reformed confessions, which brings its own language to the fore. For instance, to someone uneducated in Reformed theology, the first few chapters of Van Til’s Defense of the Faith will seem unintelligible since it deals with inter-Reformed discussions of common grace.

Some apologists of the Christian faith are extremely intelligent in regards to philosophy and surprisingly ignorant in regards to both Scripture and theology, especially in regards to Reformed theology. Unfortunately, that means they struggle in understanding Van Til, and even someone as respected as Bill Craig struggles to see how Van Til is a philosopher because his theological language (which permeates his writing) is so foreign to a Molinist Southern Baptist theologian/philosopher.

This is likewise true of Jellema, Kuyper, Dooyeweerd and other philosophers who are distinctly Christian in their worldview. They get written off as “theologians” (as if this is derogatory) because of the lack of theological understanding in their interlocutors.


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