Reason, Evidence and Presuppositional Apologetics
Some Preliminary Considerations
Rev. Brian M. Abshire
Since the time of the Enlightenment, the role of human reason has become paramount in Western thinking. Though initially based on the out-workings of a thousand years of Christian presuppositions, modern man discovered that reason had given him significant power over the material universe. Reason, gave birth to Science and Technology, the twin demigods of autonomous man. Science and Technology, gave man the illusion that he could exist without reference to the supernatural, especially a supernatural God. As the boundaries of human knowledge expanded, more and more of human life could be safely categorized into the safe, materialistic constructs of 19th century rationalism. If not dead, at least, to modern man, God was no longer relevant.
The response of the Church to the devastating influence of scientific materialism was three fold. Some Christians simply capitulated, in the form of theological liberalism (wherein the Church says nothing to modern man, that he is not already saying to himself). Others, found solace in theological irrelevance, as the fundamentalists retreated from every area of life except the personal and subjective aspects of pietistic Christianity. Finally, broad evangelicalism gave in to compromise and acculturation, retaining a semblance of theological orthodoxy, but adopting materialist categories while slowly adapting the faith to prevailing norms.
As a result, the modern Christian finds himself under constant, subtle pressure to conform to humanistic and materialistic standards. In attempting to defend the historic Christian faith, much of the Church has implicitly borrowed philosophical categories from the humanists, and then watched in horror as the humanist captured the universities, seminaries, media, politics, education and culture. Even such stalwart defenders of the faith as B. B. Warfield, compromised on evolution, textual criticism and apologetics simply because he borrowed the thought forms of logical positivism so prevalent in his day. Warfield lost Princeton, the Presbyterians lost their church, and America entered into a theological dark age.
A resurgent Christian faith must return to basics to understand where we went wrong, and why, before something new can be built. There is a time for planting, and a time for reaping, but also a time to break up the soil. One significant philosophical failure that caused the Christian faith to lose its power and effectiveness was a sub-Biblical view of human reason and apologetics. This brief essay is an introduction to the fundamental approach of how the consistent Christian worldview is to be applied in one of the most basic areas, defending the faith against the attacks of her adversaries.
The Role of Apologetics
The term “apologetics” comes from a compound Greek word made up from “apo” meaning for and “logos” meaning “a word.” It thus literally means “a word for” and in Koine Greek was a legal term referring to a formal, courtroom speech given in defense of something 1. Over time, it came to have a specific contextual meaning within the Christian community. In the early Church, apologetics concerned itself with showing the pagan Roman Empire that Christians did not eat babies rescued from exposure (why else would people want to save unwanted children?), drink blood during communion, or indulge in sexual orgies during the Love Feast. Essentially, the task of apologetics was to defend the Church against the attacks of her adversaries.
As time, and the accusations against Christianity changed, the role and even the purpose of apologetics changed as well. In both the early and medieval church, apologetics was synthesized with Greek philosophy with Plato being said to be “God’s Moses to the Greeks.8″ The influence of Greek philosophy on Christianity cannot be over-estimated. In attempting to deal with a radical worldview opposed to Biblical presuppositions, there has always been a tendency within the Church to adjust herself to the current “zeitgeist” of the age. Hence some modern writers insist that apologetics is the systematic working out and presentation of intellectual, scientific and philosophical arguments for the credibility of the Christian faith.2″ They thus already have conceded considerable ground to the enemy, for they have chosen “credibility” as the goal. Apologetics thus is denigrated to a plea for “equal time” in the market place of ideas with the assumption that a neutral, objective audience will carefully and impartially weigh the evidence and reason to the “correct” conclusion regarding Jesus Christ.
For others, apologetics is almost synonymous with Christian philosophy3. And again, the methodology, terminology, goals and limitations of godless philosophy are borrowed, “integrated” into Christianity, and the faith compromised. For some the role of reason is paramount4 while for others it is an affront to faith.5 For some apologetics must concern itself purely with philosophy and philosophical issues, while for others it is simply a sub-division of theology.6 In modern times, those in the liberal and neo-orthodox camps as represented by Barth, Brunner, Bultman and Tillich have abandoned any systematic defense of the faith since they have already given up on the faith itself!9
Apologetics and Christian Philosophy
In order to avoid confusion, apologetics and philosophy can and must be differentiated. In medieval thought, when theology was still the queen of the sciences, apologetics was that branch of theology concerned with defending the faith while philosophy was concerned with the development of a consistent Christian world view10, albeit it a worldview tainted by Greek philosophy. Today apologetics and philosophy often overlap because theology has been dethroned and philosophy has assumed the burden for providing ultimate meaning, a burden she does not bear easily or successfully. Therefore, the major intellectual attacks come from the philosophical implications of materialism and humanism.
A truly Christian philosophy, especially in the area of epistemology (how we know what we know) is necessary to provide an essential foundation for the apologist’s work. The apologist cannot function unless he understands and operates within a consistent, Biblical worldview. Thus in this sense, Christian philosophy should provide the tools and methodology for apologetics, while the apologist uses the tools to defend the faith.
Yet, Christian philosophy itself can begin only after the theologian has done his work, exegeting the Scriptures and arriving at conclusions regarding the over-arching truths of the Bible. It can be argued that the tools the theologian uses are the ones the philosophers gives him; e.g., a theory of knowledge, linguistic analysis, etc., 11. However, without the theologian, the philosopher has no way to verify his theories of knowledge. The philosopher begins his work with certain assumptions, assumptions that cannot stand independently of the existence and attributes of the Living God. Hence, what presuppositions does the philosopher brings to bear on any question, where do those presuppositions come from, and what makes them valid? What is knowledge? Is true communication possible? If so, how so?
The consistent Biblical theologian must answer that we know, because God knows. God is triune, and has eternal fellowship within the members of the Godhead. Thus, there is real communication possible and real content to be communicated, because of the unchanging nature of God Himself. God has revealed Himself through Scripture, hence knowledge, relationships and communications are all possible because of the very nature of God12. Without the theologian’s work, the philosopher has no intellectual foundation on which to build and extrapolate from. This argument is indicative of the fundamental problem facing Christian apologetics. Where do we begin? What assumptions are we making regardless of which side we choose?
It can be argued, that the philosopher’s main task, is to take the eternal, unchanging principles of God’s infallible and authoritative word and apply them to form a consistent, Biblical world view. He must show how the Scriptures apply in every area of human endeavor such as art, science, language, culture, etc.13 Instead, modern Christian philosophy is often conspicuous by its absence. It offers little except the warmed over dregs of the latest, discarded, humanist fad. “Phileo Sophia,” the love of wisdom, has become the love of man’s wisdom, no matter how depraved, bankrupt or destructive to the Faith.
The Task of Apologetics:
Apologetics must defend as true, what the theologian reveals from Scripture.14 The Apostle Peter sates that we must give a “word for” the hope that is within us. In context, that hope was the resurrection. Greek philosophy, and the Gnostic doctrines that grew from it, saw an irreconcilable difference between flesh and spirit. God was spirit, and therefore anything spiritual was considered superior. Humans left this material world behind to become spiritual beings (and if good enough, enjoyed the spiritual pleasures of the Elysian Fields).
Christianity on the other hand taught that Christ had risen from the dead, a resurrection that in Greek thought was both unnecessary and counter-productive (cf. Acts 17:32). Peter’s call then is to do more than simply defend the resurrection, but also the very reasons why the resurrection was important. Hence, it required an attack on the basic working presuppositions of the pagan worldview. The Greek concept of Spirit Vs. Matter was simply wrong, and the Christian is required to confront it. Peter is not calling for Christians to synthesize Greek philosophy with Biblical theology, instead, at rock bottom, he demands that we face a demonic world view, and challenge it at it’s most basic presuppositional level. The Greek view was wrong, dead wrong, and people who accepted it were going to go to hell for believing it.
Apologetics therefore has both a negative and positive aspect. The positive aspect is that Christianity is true, because it is true to reality.15 Christian presuppositions, and only Christian presuppositions answer the fundamental human questions about existence, future, personality, etc. Those who refuse to accept and acknowledge the truthfulness of Christianity are living in a self conscious philosophy of contradiction and inconsistencies. No matter however they try, their world view must inevitably lead to slavery, tyranny and death.16 Thus the Christian message can be proclaimed with boldness, confidence and excitement. Christians are the only people with the truth about the essential nature of the universe.
The negative aspect of apologetics is found in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself against the knowledge of God and we take captive every thought in order to make it obedient to Christâ€¦” The pagan worldview is futile and foolish (Rms 1:21ff). The Christian gospel demands exclusivity. Either Christ is right, or He was wrong. No man comes unto the Father but by Him. Therefore, the apologist must blow away the pagan’s philosophical smoke screen and reveal the terrible consequences of his self-conscious denial of the God of Scripture.
This negative work is not done to win points in some academic debate, nor is it to puff up the Christian as the expense of others (1 Cor 8:1ff), nor is it just to gain some ground in the market place of ideas. Instead, the destructive work is an essential part of a truly Christian demonstration of love (Jer 1:10). There is a time for building up, and a time for tearing down. A man must first acknowledge that he is lost, before he can be saved. The unregenerate man must be shown the consequences of his sin and the folly of his godless lifestyle. The apologist’s task is to strip the unregenerate man of his metaphysical fig leaves, so that God might re-clothe him with new linen (Rev. 3:18).
Thus rather than just defending the faith against unjust accusations, Biblical apologetics must go on the offensive, turning the tables on the unregenerate man’s world view. The apologist must use the truth as a weapon, to pierce the human heart. The best defense is a good offense.
Therefore, Christian apologetics must do more than simply wait for the unregenerate man to attack whenever and wherever he pleases. Our commission from the Lord Jesus Christ is to attack the very gates of hell and plunder it’s contents (Matt 16:18). How sad, and how telling, that in this faithless age such a wonderful promise of victory is turned into a promise of defeat? Most Christians when (or if) they read these verses, incredibly turn the promise around to mean that Satan will never successfully conquer Christ’s church. But gates don’t attack anything! Gates defend! The Church is not the one on the defensive here, but Hell! The Christian gospel is so powerful, so confident, so strong and guaranteed of success that even the citadel of Satan himself cannot stand against her!
Sadly, in the last one hundred years, Christians have a adopted a defeatist mentality regarding history, science, philosophy and culture, surrendering them often to the enemy without firing a single shot.17 From a nation with an almost unanimous consensus of Christian thought in 1640, we have become a polyglot society of New Age Humanists, secular materialists, cultists, eastern religions and out right God-haters. Humanists have taken control of the education system that Christians built, while barring Christianity from the classroom. Yet, Biblically speaking, it is the Church’s task to “plunder the strong man” who has already been bound by King Jesus by His victory over Satan on the cross (Matt 12:29).
Apologetics ought to be a razor sharp sword, slashing and piercing the opposing viewpoints of what is falsely called knowledge. Thus rather than simply being on the defensive, apologetics is supposed to turn the tables on the pagan world view and go on the offensive, taking captive every thought for Christ.
Thus, apologetics defends the Christian gospel by aggressive attacks on the pagan world view while answering the objections and false accusations of the enemy. One of the central issues therefore concerns the tools and methods used to do so. The weapons chosen reveal much about the Biblical consistency of the underlying theology. As in the other areas, the Church has adopted a variety of approaches for giving an answer for “the hope that is in us” with significantly different results. Perhaps the Church has been defeated so thoroughly in time, because the apologist, the theologian and the Christian philosopher have failed so dismally in their task.
1. Wallace, Ronald., Apologetics, New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, J.D., Douglas, editor, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1974, pg. 56
2. Ramm, Bernard, Apologetics, Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, Evererett Harrison, Editor, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1975, pg. 55
3. Hoover, A. J., Apologetics, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Waler A. Elwell, editor, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1989, pg. 70
4. Sproul, R.C., Classical Apologetics, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1984, pg. 212
5. Luther Martin, Theology of the Reformers, Timothy George
6. Lewis, Gordon R., Testing Christianity’s Truth Claims, Moody Press, Chicago, 1976, pg 17
7. Pinnock, C. H., Apologetics, New Dictionary of theology, Sinclair B. Ferguson, editor, Invervarsity Press, Downers Grove, 1988, pg 36
8. Bahnsen, Greg L., Socrates on Christ, The Reformation of Christian Apologetics, Foundations of Christian Scholarship, Gary North, editor, Ross House Books, Vallectir, CA. 1979, pg 223
9. ob. Cite. Lewis, pg. 197
10. Bourland, Gense, An Introduction to Christian Apolgetics, Institute for Biblical Studies, 1975, pg. 7
11. ibid. pg. 9
12. Rush, Rousas, J., By What Standard, Thoburn Press, Tyler Texas, 1983, pg. 158
13. Schaeffer, Francis, Escape from Reason, IVP, London, 1973, pg. 37
14. op. Cite. Bourland, pg. 12
15. Schaeffer, Francis, How Should We then Live? Fleming H,. Revell Company, New Jersey, 1976, pg. 127
16. ibid. pg. 253
17. Rookmajer, H. R., Modern Art and the Death of Culture, IVP, London, 1973, pg. 43
Approaches to Apologetics
There are three common ways that the task of apologetics has been approached by various groups of the Christian church in history. The first is the semi-pelagian appeal to reason of the Roman Catholic church1. The second is the evidentialist apologetic of contemporary evangelicalism (sometimes called the classical or traditional) which is also dependent upon reason. This view is supported by such contemporary evangelicals such as Clark, Gerstner, Sproul, Carnell et all2. Finally, there is the presuppositionalist approach of certain reformed theologians such as Cornelius Van Til3. In each approach, the view of the unregenerate man determines how the apologetic is presented.
Roman Catholicism early in its history borrowed its basic world view from Greek philosophy. Greek philosophy had provided the basic set of assumptions for the entire “civilized” world of Western culture. When Christianity became respectable (and in fact in order to become respectable) many of the early church fathers borrowed heavily from Aristotle, Plato and Socrates4. Because it began with the unregenerate man’s view of itself, the Roman concept thus saw no real distinction between the regenerate man and the unregenerate man in the area of human reason.
Original righteousness was understood to be something supernatural rather than natural.5 When sin entered the world, the Romanist believes that man lost his supernatural righteousness but not his reason. Human reason is then thought to be the common ground6 between Christian and non-Christian.
This can be clearly seen in the famous theistic proofs of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas assumed that the unregenerate mind could be and would be convinced by appeals to his autonomous reason7. In Roman theology, conversion was a matter of autonomous man weighing the evidence and choosing the alternative he thought best fitted his concept of right8. This position is consistent with Rome’s abandonment of Augustinianism and consequent semi-pelagian view that sin is not an innate part of unregenerate man but rather something he adds to his nature through conscious choice. Grace for the Romanist is something done to one, rather than for one.
However, the Biblical Christian must reject this understanding of the nature of the unregenerate man. Though many evangelical Arminians also tend towards a semi-pelagian view, the Bible is clear that without the light of Christianity, man has neither a correct view of himself nor of God.9 The natural man does not and cannot understand the things of the spirit and therefore interprets reality without an essential part of the equation (1 Corinthians 2:14). Further more, even if he does discover some truth, his unregenerate nature will suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). There can be then no appeal to a supposed neutral ground of human reason because the unregenerate man is incapable of understanding spiritual realities (Ephesians 4:17-18).
Yet, many evangelicals, including some in the Reformed camp, also hold that reason is the key to apologetics and the common ground with the unbeliever. The traditional evidentialist approach attempts to show the unregenerate man that Christianity is credible and should be accepted by him10. But this reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of reason and its legitimate use. Reason is simply a process of ensuring that a conclusion logically follows from the starting premises. One’s conclusions are either logical or illogical depending upon whether the premises justify the conclusions.11.
But reason in and of itself is inadequate to demonstrate whether the premises themselves are true! The basic premises (or presuppositions) themselves must be arrived at by some other process than reason. Contrary to the philosophy of ancient Greece, there are no neutral axioms, which may be discovered by pure reason alone. One may reason very soundly from improper premises and thus arrive at ridiculous conclusions12. Thus, a given statement may be logical and reasonable, based upon certain premises, but considered impossible and incredible if viewed from the perspective of another set of premises.
For example, if one’s basic premise is that the earth is flat, it is very reasonable to conclude that if sailing due East will cause one will fall off the edge of the Earth. But if one begins from different premises, then such a conclusion is ridiculous and incredible.
Christians and non-Christians share completely different basic assumptions about the nature of the universe. Reason by itself fails to be the common ground between Christians and non-Christians since they must always arrive at different conclusions for they begin from different points.
Some may then argue “is not reason itself as a process neutral since both Christians and non-Christians use it?” Both believer and unbeliever may in fact use the process of sound reasoning, but the issue here is whether it serves as the mythical neutral ground. Reason itself presupposes a consistency and coherency to the universe that is denied by the pagan mind. But we are getting ahead of ourselves; more about this later.
Unlike the older Roman apologists, some evangelicals, (possibly affected by the relativistic spirit of the age), no longer think that one can prove God exists,13 assuming that Kant and Hume have destroyed the theistic proofs once and for all. They appear to be saying that apologetics must try a new tack. It even appears at times as if they are merely pleading for equal time (and equal tenure?) in the market place of ideas.14 Yet, the myth of a neutral, scientific community, impartially weighing the evidence and arriving at a reasonable conclusion is simply not true in regards to the claims of Christ!
Sometimes some apologists seem anxious to show that “we’re not just some ignorant fundamentalists.”15 Apologetics is then presented as necessary because we want to show that we are not like those who simply accept Christianity on blind faith by an appeal to authoritarianism16. Thus if the apologist simply shows that Christianity is not “incredible,” then some think they have accomplished their task.
Credibility Vs Truth
Yet again, this assumption reveals a basic misunderstanding of what credibility is and how it is obtained. Credibility is a sociological phenomenon completely unrelated to truth.17 A thing is credible to the degree to which it fits within the expectations and assumptions of a person at a given point in time.18 Thus the Aristotelian view of the earth being the center of the universe seems incredible to us, but was the dominant scientific theory 500 years ago.
Today the deity of Christ or the supernatural character of the Bible may be incredible to secular humanists, but that says nothing about whether the doctrines are true, but rather how readily they will be accepted and whether they fit into the contemporary zeitgeist. Thus the desire for credibility is fruitless if something is contrary to the presuppositions of the age. One hundred years ago, the idea of germs causing disease or that doctors should wash their hands between patients was simply laughed at and the man who propounded it so ridiculed he died in ignominy and shame. The concept was simply “incredible!” Hence the quest for credibility is a fools errand.
Furthermore, one can “prove” anything by reason as long as the basic premises are accepted. For the pagan, Christianity is just another “logical absurdity” 19 in that it makes sense, if you grant the Christian his premises. But if the premises are not accepted, then the argument, no matter how logical or reasonable will not be accepted either.
Popular apologists such as Josh McDowell place considerable emphasis on the historicity and reliability of the New Testament documents or the arguments from fulfilled prophecy 20. They argue from a “Common Sense” philosophy tinged with 19th century empiricism, i.e. the brute facts are in an of themselves so overwhelmingly convincing that any “reasonable” man must decide in favor of Jesus.21
Yet again, the key word here is “reasonable”. A man finds reasonable that which conforms to his expectations of the nature of reality (or agrees with his basic premises). An unreasonable thing is something which contravenes his basic presuppositions. Thus if his world view is such as to rule out a priori the existence of the supernatural (e.g. Kant) then any supernatural evidence will also be ruled out as being “unreasonable”.
One cannot appeal to a man’s reasonableness without taking his basic presuppositions into consideration. It is interesting to note that “common sense” philosophy is itself the result of a Christianised world view which no longer is the consensus of Western thought. When society held to a Christian consensus, even ungodly men thought within Christian categories and forms. But once that consensus disappeared, then so does the ability to communicate to “reasonable” men.
While popular apologists do say that apologetics in and of themselves will not win anybody to the faith22, it sometimes appears that winning the argument and winning the souls is almost the same thing. The assumption seems to be that the major problem most unbelievers have with the gospel is ignorance and bad teaching.23 “If only pagans could be given all the facts, then they would reason through to the right conclusion.” Thus for some, the major problem today on university campuses is that the truth is being suppressed. However, once people see the truth, then they will change24.
But as worthy as these men are (and as valuable as their collections of evidences are) their approach basically differs little from the Romanist position being semi-pelagian, arminian and evidentalist25. They make human reason the basis of their appeal and by doing so play into the opposition’s camp. An example of the inadequacy of this approach can be seen in E.J. Carnell’s argument why scientists cannot logically reject the possibility of the resurrection out of hand. He argues that there are many exceptions to supposed natural laws because we have not yet discovered all there is to discover about the natural universe. Therefore it is illogical to rule out a priori the resurrection for supposedly violating natural laws. He says, “The Christian thus may scientifically plead the existence of a law, yet unknown and unplotted, which can cover the resurrection of Jesus Christ” 26
But Carnell has thrown the baby out with the bath-water! By trying to appeal to the unregenerate man’s supposed autonomous reason and to force him to admit that Christianity is credible, he ends up placing a supernatural event within the framework of the natural universe! If the supernatural evidence of Christ’s deity is removed by making it a part of the natural world, then Christ is simply creature, not creator.
But it is exactly the supernatural character of the evidence that the unregenerate man will not and cannot abide. He does not want Christ to be God. His very nature stands in rebellion to Christ and all that He is and has done. He would be very happy to place the resurrection within the context of a materialistic and naturalistic universe. One could take such a man right to the garden tomb on the first Easter morning while the angel was rolling away the stone and still not convince him to become a Christian (after all, how many of the Roman guards became believers!). He would simply nod knowingly, make some notes, and prepare his next academic paper (probably entitled, “Some Preliminary Considerations of Post Grave Trauma). The problem facing the unregenerate man and the gospel is not intellectual, but moral. It is not that he can’t believe, but rather he does not want to believe (Romans 3:9ff).
Both the Roman and the traditional evangelical view fail to come to grips with the Biblical evidence of the depraved state of the unregenerate mind. Called in theology the noetic effect the main issues facing the Christian apologist is “just how badly is the mind of the unregenerate man afflicted by sin”?
The Romans and the Rationalists accept two myths concerning the unregenerate man’s mind. The first is the Myth of Reason, i.e., that the unregenerate man can and does reason rightly about God. The second is the Myth of Neutrality, i.e. that a sincere man when confronted with all evidence can and will impartially judge the evidence. These are “myths” because they fail to take seriously the Biblical data concerning the heart and mind of sinful men. The natural Man does and cannot reason properly about God. Rather than being an honest, impartial judge, he is in fact a crooked and perverse one.
1. Van Till, Cornelius, Christian Apolgetics, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Phillipsburb, 1976, pg. 42
2. Sproul, R.C., Classical Apologetics, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1984, pg. 220
3. Rushdoony, Rousas, J., By What Standard, Thoburn Press, Tyler Texas, pg. 8
4. Bahnsen, Greg, L., Socrates or Christ in Foundations fo Christan Scholarship, Gary North, editor, Ross House Books, Vallecito, 1976, pg. 196
5. op. cit. Van Till, pg. 149
6. ibid. pg. 42
7. ibid. pg. 43
8. op. cit. Rushdoony, pg. 136
9. op. cit. Van Till, pg. 43
10. McDowell, Josh, Evidence that Demands A Verdict, Campus Crusade for Christ, San Bernadino, 1972, pg. 235
11. Clark, Gordon H., Logic, The Trinty Foundation, Jefferson Md, 1985, pg. 1
12. ibid. pg. 3
13. Lewis, Gordon R., Testing Christianity’s Truth Claims, Moody Press, Chicago, 1976, pg. 126
14. Schaeffer, Francis, How Should We then Live?, Fleming H. Revell Company, New Jersey, 1976 pg 119
15. ibid. pg. 87
16. ibid. pg. 234
17. Guiness, Oz, The Grave Digger Files, IVP, London, 1986 pg 47
18. ibid. pg. 45
19. Bourland, Gene, Introduction to Christian Apologetics unpublished lecture notes from the Institute for Biblical Studies, Aberystiwth, 1975, pg 10
20. op. cit. McDowell, pg. 32
21. ibid. pg. 57
22. ibid. pg. 73
23. ibid. pg. 84
24. Bright, William, Come Help Change the World, Fleming H. Revell Company, Old Tappen, NJ, 1970, pg. 198
25. op. cit. Van Till, pg. 58
26. Carnell, E.J., An Introducton to Christian Apologetics, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1978, pg. 257
Presuppositions and Human Reason
The presuppositional approach pioneered by Cornelius Van Til during his tenure at Westminster Seminary, is the only method that consistently deals with the underlying problems of human reason from a Biblical perspective. No fact is intelligible unless understood in relation to other facts 1. Thus there can be no appeal to a brute “factuality” in arguing with the unregenerate because facts can only be understood within the context of a particular world view.2 Each person interprets the world through the filters of his own assumptions and presuppositions concerning the ultimate nature of reality.3
It is the basic underlying assumptions, or presuppositions of the pagan world view that must be challenged, not just the way he reasons from his basic axioms. Both Peter and Paul drove to the heart of the matter regarding the nature of Greek, proto-gnostic speculations about the nature of reality when he placed the resurrection at the center of the Christian gospel. Regenerate and unregenerate share different fundamental presupposition concerning the nature of reality. They cannot reason to the same conclusions because they begin at different starting points, and then have different rules when it comes to validating their reasoning. Thus both interpret “facts” within the context of their respective world views. When the Christian tries to “prove” his case to the unbeliever by an appeal to reason or evidence, the evidence will always be insufficient because autonomous man, beginning from himself, will not and cannot reason to a sovereign God.4
The Christian cannot effectively reason with the non-Christian about God because the unregenerate man is spiritually deaf, dumb and blind. It is not that the presuppositional approach eschews reason5, only that reason, cannot be the common ground because the unregenerate man cannot reason correctly about God. He is constitutionally predisposed to negatively evaluate any evidence he finds. He actively suppresses the truth about God (Rms 1:18). He is by nature, a God hater who does not seek for, nor want the things of God (Rms 3:9ff). Even supposed “moral” pagans fall into this category. They may want the blessings that flow from Christian principles, even while they reject the Christian gospel that makes them possible; e.g., the Pharisees of Jesus day were considered the moral elites of the nation. Yet they hated, feared and eventually conspired to murder Jesus. They refused to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, because regardless of their supposed morality, at heart, they hated God (Matt 21:41ff).
Even unregenerate men recognize the myth of neutrality of human reason. Robert A. Heinlein, one of the most popular science fiction writers of this century, and no friend to Christianity has said, “Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.”6 In short, man does not use his reason to understand the world, so much as they use their reason to justify whatever opinions they already possess.
Racial prejudice is an excellent example of this, on both sides of the issue. Bigots develop negative orientations about certain ethnic minorities, and no amount of reason will budge them from their hatred. On the other hand, for those who insist that there are and can be no distinction between races, decades of research showing intrinsic differences in IQ scores are simply rejected, because the conclusions do not fit the prejudice. In fact, the very issue of race relations is so polarized, that facts, figures, arguments, etc., are chosen or discarded, depending upon their utility in serving the groups’ ends.
The myth of a supposed neutral science has been glaringly exposed as various food manufacturers subsidize research supporting their products, and attacking others. Modern researchers are often little better than academic prostitutes, selling their studies to the highest bidder. How often does creation science receive even a hearing, let alone an impartial and fair one? Every time the materialists are foolish enough to debate, Christian apologists wipe the floor with them, but the propaganda machine still refuses to acknowledge the weight of the evidence. Huxley is quoted as saying that the evidence for evolution is so weak that it would be rejected out of hand, except that the only alternative is fiat creation, which simply cannot be excepted.7 Interesting, that after a century of Lyll’es uniformitarian presuppositions, catastrophism is making a powerful come back!
It has been argued though, that the natural universe is there for all to see and study and that there is no difference between believer and unbeliever saying, “there are two atoms of Hydrogen to one of Oxygen in every molecule of water. ” Isn’t the sky just as blue, the water just as wet, sunshine just as bright for the unregenerate as for the regenerate? Has not modern man, though reasoning from ungodly principles, uncovered many significant secrets of God’s universe and shown that they can and do reason properly?
Though the great scientific revolution of the past may have been pioneered by Christians, most of the significant scientific accomplishments of the past 100 years have been made by those adamantly opposed to a Christian world view. If the natural man’s reason is so perverted, and his reason so tainted, how can he discover so much about God’s universe? Surely there must be some common ground?
First, the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28ff is written deep within the human heart. There is no escaping the fact that we were created to subdue the creation. The problem of course is that we want to do so on our terms rather than God’s. Thus it should not surprise Christians, that even god-haters attempt to subdue the earth. There is such a thing as prevenient grace.
Secondly, while it is true that the unregenerate man sometimes arrives at good conclusions, he can do so, only by being inconsistent with his pagan presuppositons of the nature of the universe.8 For example, though he denies the sovereignty of God and must therefore presume a universe governed by random chance, he lives as if his life still has meaning and purpose. When he fails to do so, his life is usually nasty, brutal and short. Though his presuppositions state that he is only an animal, and therefore controlled by animal instincts, he still passes moral judgments, believes in love rather than lust, seeks self improvement and self actualization, though there are no good reasons for him doing so.
Modern man is modern man only by living inconsistently with his own philosophy. In today’s existential counterculture, the very thought of absolutes is absurd, Yet this same counter culture condemns the murderer, the child molester, the rapist and thief, just as if there really was such a thing as moral absolutes and right and wrong. Schaeffer deftly recognized that the humanist Jean Paul Sartre save away his case as an existentialist (i.e., that there is no right or wrong, just individual choices) when he signed a petition condemning German atrocities during the Spanish civil war.9 The logical and inevitable progression to existentialism is Nilhism, a philosophy of despair and brute power. Thus the two most consistent humanists in history were the Marquis De Sade and Adolph Hitler.
It can therefore be argued, that all progress in the natural sciences in the past 150 years is a direct result of men reasoning illogically from their own premises, assuming the reality of Christian truths that their own researches are designed to prove! It is only by borrowing intellectual capital from the Christian world view that the non-Christian is able to discover anything at all. And once that capital is gone, we should expect the humanist to begin drying up.
For example, modern science, increasingly coming under the sway of eastern existential monism, is rapidly grinding to a halt in the theoretical end as scientists become more consistent with their own presuppositions. While great leaps are being made in applied technology, the theoretical framework underpinning it, is in open disarray. In the book, “The Tao of Physics” the next generation of scientists are urged to consider new, revolutionary ways of seeing reality as the old paradigms break down. Based on Heizenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, modern physics finds that sub atomic particles (called “quarks”) have a disquieting tendency to act the way that the researchers want. Thus rather than finding an objective universe “out there,” which the “neutral” scientist studies, it appears that the very act of studying something may predetermine what the scientist finds!
Thus modern science is in a quandary about where it can go because it appears that their notions about the fundamental nature of the universe is simply, dead wrong. The scientists’ universe no longer fits, the nice safe, categories of 19th century materialistic empiricism. Bankrupt in their own atheism, and unwilling to even consider Biblical authority, modern science is seriously proposing Taoism (pronounced “daoism”) as an alternative way to understand the universe. Yet science and technology are themselves uniquely the result of Christian presuppositions.11
Only in the West, deeply influenced by Christian theism, did science and technology developed. Ancient Roman was a master user of stolen technology but never discovered science. Ancient China discovered gun powder and printing, but never developed a systematic science, and never utilized the inventions they did discover. How did Medieval Europe, considered by many to be inferior to ancient classical civilizations, ever discover so much about the natural world, that their cultural “superiors” managed to miss? The answer lies in their presuppositions about the fundamental nature of the world. Christian Europe believed in a creature/creator distinction, that the Creator was consistent in His character and purposes and that he had tasked the human race with the responsibility to exercise dominion over the world.
Furthermore, this Creator had revealed Himself sufficiently and authoritatively in a book. Therefore studying that book became of paramount importance. Rigorous methods of Bible study were developed to ensure that man properly understood that revelation. This in turn gave Christian Europe the basic tools that could also be used to study the natural world.14 This world view, combined with the mental tools of inductive reasoning, gave the West an advantage over other cultures that had existed for considerably longer periods of time. The universe was not random, chaotic or meaningless. It was supposed to make sense, and godly men ought to study it, and control it because a sovereign God would unlock its secrets.
Contrast the Christian approach with similar developments in China. Taoism prevented the development of a world view of applied technology that could exploit natural resources. In Taoism, health, wealth and security are found, not in trying to change things, but in “going with the flow.”15 Thus the very idea of trying to change, adapt or interfere with the “natural” order is unthinkable. Consider the same problems facing Eastern mysticism as a whole. Both Hinduism and Buddhism posit a world where there is nothing material, all is illusion, nothing is real. Pain, striving, work are all meaningless because reality consists in denying the created world and finding Nirvana by emptying one’s self of everything. Why should science ever develop in such cultures? How could it ever do so?
Yet, India and Japan both export some of the most capable technicians in the world. But to do so, they must live completely inconsistently with their own religious and philosophical presuppositions. They adopt Western thought forms, even while denying the irreconcilable differences between the two.
Thus it is more than ironic, that with the wide spread abandonment of Christianity, made possible by the scientific revolution, scientists at the cutting edge of theoretical physics are contemplating returning to the same philosophy that stagnated science for over two thousand years! “Professing to be wise, they became foolsâ€¦” (Rms 1:20).
Unregenerate man can reason, but he reasons badly and inconsistently. Only the Christian world view offers consistency, coherency and pragmatic results because it deals with the universe as it really is, not the way that sinful, rebellious men wish it to be.
Unregenerate Man and the Innate Knowledge of God
Finally, reason is unsuitable for common ground with the unbeliever because the Bible says that all men, everywhere, already, innately, know that God exists (Rms 1:20, 2:14, Psa 19:1ff, 14:1ff, etc.,). The Bible itself never offers proofs, evidences, reasons or arguments for the existence of the one true God but rather from the very beginning, simply assumes it (Gen 1:1). The problem is not evidence, but men who suppress the truth because of their wicked hearts (Rms 1:20).
This innate knowledge is not just of a “god” in general, but the Christian God.16 Every fact of creation screams it (Psa 19:1ff). The problem is that unregenerate man suppresses this knowledge because of his wicked heart and sinful nature (Rms 1:18ff). He cannot stand to face the reality that he is not god himself so will go to any lengths to avoid admitting the truth, even as far as worshipping dumb animals (Rms 1:22ff). Thus the use of Christian evidences do not and cannot convince the unregenerate man because he is unable to be convinced apart from a sovereign act of God’s grace ( ).
This is where presuppositionalism becomes the only consistent apologetical method for the Reformed believer. Basic Calvinism states that man does not choose God, but God chooses man (Rms 9:14ff, Jn 15:16). Regeneration must logically precede faith, for without regeneration, the unsaved lacks the ability to understand spiritual realities (1 Cor 2:14). Unless God takes away the scales that blind men’s eyes, they cannot and will not understand the reasons we give for our faith (2 Cor 4:3-6). Therefore, you cannot reason, with unreasonable men. Instead, it is the power of the gospel, in the hands of a sovereign God, that must give sinful men the heart transplant necessary to understand and accept the truth.
1. Van Till, Cornelius, Christian Apologetics, Presbyterian and Refomred Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, 1976, pg. 42
2. Ibid. pg 38
3. Holmes, Arthur F., Contours of a World View, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1984, pg 32
4. ob cite, Van Till, pg 51
5. ibid, Van Till, pg 35
6. Heinlein, Robert, A. Time Enough for Love, Double Day and Co., New York, 1977, pg 237
7. Morris Henry and Whitcomb John, The Genesis Flood, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1976, pg 442-443
8. Rushdoony, Rousas, J., By What Standard, Thoburn Press, Tyler Texas, 1983, pg 65
9. Schaeffer, Francis, Escape from Reason, IVP, London, 1973, pg. 37
10. North, Gary, Unholy Spirits, Dominion Press, Ft. Worth, 1086, pg 41ff
11. Rookmaker, H.R>, Modern Art and the Death of Culture, IVP, London, 1973, pg. 42
12. Scott, Kenneth Latourette, A History of Christianity, Volume 1, Harper and Row, New York, 1975, pg. 85
13. Schaeffer, Francis, How Should We Then Live, Fleming H. Revell, New Jersey, 1976, pg. 142
14. ibid, pg 135
15. Tzu, Lao, The Tao De Ching, Harper and Row, New York, 1978, pg 7
16. ob cite, Van Till, pg 58
Apologetics and Spiritual Warfare
In concluding this brief analysis on the inadequacy of human reason in apologetics, there is a third argument that is often over looked. All Biblical Christians will agree that this area is important, but precious little appears to be written about it in academic circles1. This may be because of the tendency among Christians to borrow their philosophical presuppositions from their culture and then re-interpret their theology accordingly. This happened historically both when Romanism was infiltrated by Greek philosophy as well as when Reformation theology was influenced by Enlightenment humanism. Both approaches ultimately fail to provide answers because they do not deal with the universe as it really is; i.e. as it is revealed in the Scriptures.
Though American culture is changing (frighteningly so!), the last 100 years has been marked by a decidedly anti-supernatural bias in both secular and Christian circles. As a result, many Christians have almost been embarrassed to admit their belief in Satan and the demonic. Consequently, apologists then have had little to say about spiritual warfare. Yet to neglect the influence of demonic opposition is to sell our theological birthright for a mess of humanistic porridge. The role of the supernatural is crucial to Biblical apologetics.
The term, “spiritual warfare” is here defined as the influence supernatural forces have on the conduct of human affairs. While this is an intriguing enough topic to warrant its own thesis, time and space here are limited. However it is clear in the Scriptures that there is a realm of conflict that transcends human armies or human thought.
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places…” Ephesians 6:13
It is narrow minded, sub-biblical and dangerous to assume that such warfare consists only of theological debates against liberal academics, or is waged purely in intellectual terms or is experienced only in attitudinal battles such as resisting temptation.2 Daniel’s experience in prayer reveals both the reality and the power of supernatural events in human situations. Daniel had been praying and fasting for three weeks and though God had heard his prayer from the beginning, the angelic messenger sent to answer that prayer was prohibited from accomplishing his task by demonic opposition (Dan 10:12-13). Demonic activity is real, it does have an impact and it certainly affects the apologist.
Though presumptuous to speculate about the nature of this kind of warfare without laying down the exegetical and theological basis, at least it can be noted that the Apostle Paul’s primary concern in Ephesians 6:10ff was neither attitudinal nor philosophical. Furthermore, the weapons he demands be used in this battle are neither intellectual, nor rational; but rather faith, truth, righteousness, the gospel and the Scriptures (Eph 6:14ff).
Reason thus cannot be considered the primary weapon for the apologist because the ultimate nature of the battle is not intellectual, but spiritual. He must take into consideration that the forces opposing the gospel are not merely human, but include the demonic as well.
Though arguable, it may be said that the major work of demons in this age is not to possess human souls. While this may make for entertaining and high grossing (pun intentional) movies, there is precious little said about demonic possession outside of the Gospels and the book of Acts. As the gospel goes forth in the epistles, the emphasis seems to be that demons work primarily to deceive men from understanding the gospel (2 Cor 4:3ff, 2 Tim 4:1, 1 Cor 10:20, 1 Jn 2:26, etc.), The unregenerate are blinded not by poor reasoning, but rather by demonic forces (2 Cor 4:1ff).
Jesus did not cast out demons with a good, sound, argument, but rather by His divine authority as God Incarnate. In the same way, using apologetics to face demonic opposition today, requires more than a high brow, intellectual discussion. What was put into a man by reason, is unlikely to be removed by reason. What was put into a man by a demon, will be removed only by something, or shall we say, Someone, greater (1 Jn 4:4).
The starting point then for effective apologetics is not the myth of a supposed neutral human reason, or the impartiality of the unregenerate mind. Instead, to be consistent, and Reformed, we must say the starting point is the Triune God of the Bible, who from all eternity knows and loves Himself and enjoys true communion within the godhead. This God is the ground of all being, and all men have both an inner witness, and the witness of the created order that tells them these things to be true. Yet sinful men willingly and knowingly suppress this knowledge to hide themselves from the truth because their wicked hearts are in rebellion to God.
Is there no place then for the traditional Christian evidences? I would argue that yes, there is a place and a role for both reason and evidence in apologetics. They are the tools which strip away the self deceptive smoke screens by which men hide from the truth. Which this cannot and will not bring about conversion, it does leave the unregenerate man without excuse.
The success of apologetics is not determined by how many people we are able to manipulate into making a decision, but rather by how faithfully we preach the Word of God. For two millennia, the Church has used an evidentiary approach, and Christendom could not withstand the assault of humanism. When a Christian consensus was maintained, then the Christian evidences were sufficient, because men were thinking in Christian categories and terms. But that is no longer true, and the evidence is now rejected out of hand because the presuppositions are firmly in place.
The unregenerate man is like the neurotic who was under the delusion that he was dead. A doctor tried to reason him out of his misbelief. He began by trying to show him dead men don’t bleed. He explained the wonders of the circulatory system, the intricacies of the heart, the fragile life span of human blood. He even took the poor man to the morgue, showed him a cadaver and cut the arm with a knife. “There,” said the doctor, “You now have indisputable proof that dead men don’t bleed.” The neurotic enthusiastically agreed. The doctor then pricked the man’s finger with a pin and squeezed out a small drop of blood. “Now what,” the doctor asked, “do you conclude from this?”
The man replied, “Well, what do you know! Dead men bleed after all!”
Christians cannot reason pagans to correct conclusions about God because we begin with completely different assumptions about the basic nature of reality. We can prove our assumptions to our own satisfaction, but never to his, for his heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. But we can expose the intellectual and moral vacuum of his life. We can make him stare into the miserable abyss to which his god hating presuppositions inevitably lead. We can encourage the faithful, while exposing the rot of humanism.
“But,” some will argue, “if all these things are true, what good does it do to speak to spiritually dead, deaf and blind men who suppress the truth?” The answer is straightforward; evangelism is our responsibility, but conversion is always a sovereign act of God’s grace. It is through preaching that God is pleased to convict men of their sin, regenerate their callused hearts and call them into His kingdom. Apologetics is simply one more tool in the evangelist’s kit that God has commanded us to use.
We have two distinct motivations for using apologetics. The first and foremost is the motivation to please God. We make it our ambition to please Him. And it pleases our heavenly father when we are obedient to Him. Since God has told us to preach the gospel, to give a word for the hope that is within us, we therefore do so gladly! We do not compromise the truth in order to make “converts.” We seek to please God and not men.
Secondly, in light of the above, we recognize that as finite men we can never know the state of another man’s heart because we can only judge the things we see on the outside. Thus when we share with someone about Jesus, we cannot know and we must not judge that man’s spiritual status. We do not know what is really going on inside as we share the truths of the Christian faith. We know that God is pleased to call men into His kingdom through the preaching of the gospel and thus we are responsible before him to do so whenever and where ever we have the opportunity. While we may bear witness of whether or not a man gives evidence of a regenerate heart, we must never take to ourselves what only belongs to God. Only God knows the heart (e.g. Psalm 44:21).
Hence, as we preach, God may well be working within the heart, using our words to convict them of their sin. The apologetics blast away at the smoke screens, at it just may be that God will convert that wicked heart.
The Christian faith need never retreat to intellectual fox holes fearful of the noises of the secular academic big guns. To the contrary, Christ silenced their pop guns at Calvary and the truth of His gospel will blast the enemy from their fortresses (2 Cor 10:4-5).