Today on the Dividing Line Dr. White took a call on presuppositionalism concerning R.C. Sproul’s objection that we cannot escape from ourselves and hence must start with ourselves in epistemology. Dr. White did not have any problem pointing out the fundamental reason that Sproul is wrong (and inconsistent) by appealing to the theological argument that we are epistemologically tied to God as it were by virtue of our having been created in the image of God. John Calvin notes this right away in his Institutes. Make sure to listen to Dr. White’s answer provided at the link above as I have only paraphrased his answer from memory and did not state it in full. He goes on to talk more about presuppositionalism versus other methods of apologetics and the transcendental argument as a call to conversion (to borrow Van Til’s language). Good stuff!
I want to mention three other points for people curious about this “objection” to ponder:
1. There is a difference between ultimate and proximate starting points.
2. There is a difference between principle and practice.
3. There is a difference between logical and temporal order.
Maybe we can unpack these in the future, but for those who tend to think through this issue in these type of categories it will not take long to figure out how the objection might be answered through drawing these distinctions.
Update: Paul Manata graciously posted a significant portion of his review of one of Sproul Jr.’s books as it pertains to this objection. I have included it here for those who do not read comments.
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Here’s from my review of Sproul JR.’s book, Tearing Down Strongholds:
Sproul’s main, and number one critique, is about the presuppositionalists (alleged) very idea of “start with” or “begin with” God. First, Sproul is not very clear here. For example, on pages 137, 138, 150, and 186 he mentions those who “start with God,” but on p. 174 he refers to the same group as those who “start with the Bible.” Surely this is a major difference in starting points!
Sproul takes “start with” in a temporal sense. He makes this clear in many places. Take, for example, what he says on p. 138. He says although it “is attractive” to say we “start with God,” we cannot because the “difficulty with this view” is that we “cannot begin with God.” Why? Sproul continues:
“To those who say, ‘I begin with God’ or ‘I presuppose God,’ we ask, ‘Who begins with God?’ One might try to get around this problem with the semantic trick, and affirm instead, ‘God is.’ While it is certainly true that God is, and that his being is in no way dependent upon our acknowledgment of it, we nevertheless ask, ‘Says who?’ We do not start with God but with ourselves.”
Thus, we can see that Sproul takes “start with” in a temporal sense because the “I” comes before the God in the sentence: “I start with God.” But, Sproul seems unaware of previous discussions over this very critique. This is the same critique given by Gerstner et al. in Classical Apologetics (p. 185, 212). This very critique was likewise rebutted by John Frame in Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic, Westminster Theological Journal (47, 2 (Fall 1985), 279-99). This was discussed 17 years before Sproul’s JR.’s book! Sproul shows absolutely no familiarity with the debate.
Maybe Sproul missed that article. Well in 1987 Frame’s Doctrine of The Knowledge of God addressed this topic as well. Maybe Sproul didn’t read pgs. 125-26? If so, then we have Frame’s 1994 book, Apologetics to The Glory of God (p.13) in which he discusses this critique. Since that was a footnote Sproul might have missed it. If so, we have Bahnsen’s tome, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis, where he defines “start with” in non-temporal terms (p.2). What is the basic gist of the above answer to the critique? Frame writes,
“They stress the pre in presupposition and thus take it that a presupposition is something someone believes before (temporally) one believes anything else. This is wrong. The pre should be understood mainly as an indicator of eminence (e.g., preeminence), not temporal priority” (AGG. p.12).
Therefore, Sproul’s number one critique is based off a major misunderstanding of the idea of “start with.”
Next, Sproul uses this shaky foundation to stand on and launch another criticism. Sproul discusses “logic and the presuppositionalist” on page 150. He talks about “our friends” in the presuppositionalist camp who “start with God” and the “problem” that they have by doing this. What is this problem? Well, to say “I do not start with logic; I start with God” invites this sharp critique by Sproul: “I’m delighted to hear that you do not start with God but with logic.” That is to say, since the presuppositionalist is set up as “starting” with God temporally, he can not have logic yet. He must get there next as in, 1 and then 2. So, since he does not have logic yet then he cannot ward off a contradiction; and, hence, if he “starts with God” then he “does not start with God.” There’s no “logic,” yet, to stop Sproul’s attack. There are many problems here:
(i) Sproul says in a parenthesis that God “is, of course, logic.” Is Sproul saying that presuppositionalists don’t believe this? (Well, it is vague and Sproul would need to tell us what he means by saying “God is logic.”) But on page 148 Sproul tells us that presuppositionalist Gordon Clark translates John 1:1 as God being logic. So, maybe Sproul just means that Van Tillian presuppositionalists don’t believe that God is logic? If he does not mean this then when the presuppositionalist says, “I start with God,” he is, by definition, also “starting with logic;” since “God is, of course, logic.” Sproul seems to not even understand this problem.
(ii) Van Tillian presuppositionalists “start with” an entire worldview (cf. Bahnsen, Van Til: R & A, pp. 461-67), one which already has logic (and its metaphysical and epistemological justifications) included. Therefore, Sproul is again caught having a severely diminished understanding of Van Tillian apologetics.
(iii) Most devastating, Sproul says that we need to “start with the rules of logic” (p. 151). Well to this I simply respond, “Who starts with the rules of logic?” If Sproul replies, “Logic is” then I simply ask, “Says who?” You see, unless Sproul is equivocating on “start with,” he has the same problem he leveled against the presuppositionalist! Indeed, when Sproul says that he “starts with himself” I can simply say, “I’m delighted to hear that you do not start with yourself.” Since Sproul does not have logic yet then I can contradict him! Thus the very sword Sproul yields to cut the presuppositionalist actually ends up cutting himself! It is also interesting how he “starts with” logic, and also “starts with” himself. If “starts with” is viewed “temporally,” this this is problematic.