Formal Faith

The Concept of Faith in the Abstract

The presence of formal faith in every allegedly non-believing system of thought is often a profound discovery for those who are new to presuppositional apologetics. By “formal faith” I mean merely faith. Faith qua faith. It is not overly important what that faith is in. Strictly speaking, it does not matter that this form of faith be in anything at all. Faith is simply considered in the abstract. Formal faith is generic faith. And we all have it. Or so says the individual who is new to presuppositional apologetics.

The Concept of Faith in Presuppositional Apologetics

Presuppositionalists love to point out the presence of formal faith (hereafter Faith) in non-Christian systems of thought.


For example, imagine that Charles takes Reason as ultimate. The presuppositionalist will note that Charles can only accept Reason upon the basis of Reason. Ah, but then there has been a great leap of Faith from the very beginning! The presuppositionalist flaunts a knowing smile and announces that Charles does not take Reason as ultimate after all, but Faith.


And then there is Ana. Seeing the predicament Charles has gotten himself into, she complains to the amateur apologist that Charles has his head in the clouds. Every good anti-theist knows that the Senses are ultimate. But the presuppositional apologist has his retort at the ready. He proudly proclaims that the Senses will be accepted in virtue of the Senses, and so Ana too takes Faith to be ultimate in her theory of knowing.


Armed with his newfound discovery of the presence of Faith in every position, the amateur presuppositional apologist jumps into Internet discussions with atheists and leaves them dumbfounded because of their Faith. He points to the presence of Faith in a system as rendering it equivalent to the Christian position in terms of epistemological value. He has confirmed the old saying that, “Everybody has faith in something!” At best, his interlocutor is exercising Faith just like he is; at worst, the atheist and his presuppositionalist opponent are at a stalemate. And with that, the amateur presuppositionalist brushes his hands together and calls it a day. The Christian position is circular. But so is the non-Christian position. Both rely on Faith. The presuppositionalist just showed that with TAG. Not everyone is persuaded of course, but somehow the presuppositionalist takes that to confirm that he has done the right thing. Bahnsen would be proud.

Still, something does not seem exactly right. Setting the Christian worldview on par with the non-Christian worldview in terms of Faith does not seem to be as conducive to the Christian cause as one had originally hoped. Just what is missing? Just because the non-Christian takes Faith to be ultimate, or begins with Faith, does not mean that it is proper for the Christian to do so as well. Perhaps the presuppositionalist has gotten off track with his thoughts concerning Faith.

The Axiomatic Alternative

A number of my friends want to circumvent the difficulty of Faith (in terms of possible implications for circularity) by positing the Christian worldview, or parts of the Christian worldview, as axiomatic. They claim this is a more proper way of speaking about the presuppositional approach to epistemology. So for example, God is held as an axiom of a corresponding epistemology. Other axioms may be suggested as well. Positing Christianity as an axiomatic system spares one the embarrassment of having to ascribe to any type of question-begging circularity characteristic of fallacious thought. It also eliminates the need for Faith. Or so it is claimed.

Once a person is questioned concerning his acceptance of axioms, he will answer by suggesting that some contradiction results from rejecting the axiom in question. But how does he know this? Surely it is only by way of Reason or Senses or similar means that axioms are known and/or defended. So it is a bit of a toss up as to whether or not an axiom is more ultimate than the Reason or Senses etc. by which that axiom is known and defended. Of course, one might also simply accept an axiom as such. But then what is to prevent someone else from doing the very same thing, leading us back to the arbitrariness that plagued the first understanding of presuppositionalism described above?

More fundamentally, most of the items that are posited in this axiomatic version of presuppositionalism as axioms are not actually axioms at all. An axiom is a well-defined term used especially in deductive systems and can be contrasted in a number of ways with particular Christian doctrines which are posited as axiomatic in the presuppositionalism under discussion. So perhaps we need a better term here. Like “presupposition.” But the use of that term does not necessitate the alleged difficulties outlined in the account of the amateur presuppositionalist from above.

Finally, while there may very well be difficulties with Faith as proposed by the presuppositionalist from earlier in our discussion, surely there are not difficulties with faith as the Christian should understand that concept. So the presuppositionalist who suggests that positing an axiom or axioms is our way out of difficulties that haunt worldly systems of thought may be worried about something that is nothing to be frightened of in the first place. Not only can non-Christian systems of thought like Objectivism posit axiomatic systems in the same way that the presuppositionalist wants to do here, but doing so does not free us from the alleged difficulties in view. The axiomatic alternative stems from a rationalistic tendency which need not distract the Christian.

In the next post we will retrace our steps to see if there is a better way of looking at this entire subject. I suggest that there is.


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