Van Tillian Presuppositionalism and Evidence

This past semester I took Apologetics with Dr. Tony Curto at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. I have to say that this course was the best I have taken in seminary, with Ethics being a close second. Dr. Curto taught us from a Van Tillian Presuppositional perspective, and he did so much more consistently than other alleged presuppositionalists that you may come across today. At this point, I won’t go into all of the inconsistencies of other presuppositionalists, but I will say that one popular Idahoan apologist focuses far too much on rhetoric, and how to incorporate one-liners into his apologetic presentations, when he should be focusing on the epistemological inconsistencies of his opponents. But I digress…

To begin, I will note that I am a hard-line Bahnsen disciple. That is to say that I find Wilson, Frame, White, and others to be too inconsistent for my taste, and as a presuppositionalist, my focus in on consistency. Certainly these men are a step above the classical and evidential apologists, but they leave much to be desired. Further, I’m happy to admit that as a presuppositional apologist I do in fact use circular reasoning, but I will add that all reasoning is circular, insofar as if one contends that he is a rationalist, he grounds all of his reasoning in reason, and if one is an empiricist, he will certainly ground his reasoning in experience. So yes, my friend, my reasoning is circular, but so is yours, no matter what philosophy you may hold to.

This established, I will now move to the heart of the matter. The following is taken from from my research paper for the course mentioned above, which was focused on the place of evidence in Christian apologetics. I will not be posting the paper in its entirety, but pieces of it in different posts. For preliminary purposes, a word should be given concerning the definition of evidence. Apologetic evidence used by Christian apologists can be divided into two categories, that evidence which points to the truth of the Triune God of Scripture, and theistic evidence which appeals to general theistic proofs without initially applying said evidence to the God of the Bible. In the case of the former, the apologist will argue specific evidences for the Christian God, while in the case of the latter, the apologist will first argue a generic god or creator, and then apply the initial evidence to the Triune God of Scripture. Regardless of which category the argument falls into, for my purposes, it is considered evidence. First, I will critique the classical and evidentialist schools in their uses of evidence, then I will give a biblical (presuppositional) approach to incorporating evidence in apologetic encounters. Let us begin with the classical method.

Classical apologetics is philosophical in nature, and therefore very concerned with the ability to think and reason properly. Therefore, at the heart of the classical model of apologetics is the idea of common ground. The believer and unbeliever have to find common ground on which to start a dialog concerning the proofs for the existence of God. The classical apologist believes that this notion of common ground is to be found in the created world.

Sproul and Gerstner have argued:

“From a different perspective, however, there is a common ground, namely the whole of creation. Believer and unbeliever live in the same universe. Each sees the same phenomena. The unbeliever and the believer can agree that two and two are four, and that certain principles of deduction are valid while others are invalid. Thus a kind of common ground is established.”[1]

Sproul and Gerstner believe that using the classical proofs after establishing common ground will help to correctly reconstruct natural theology for the unbeliever. This is because they believe that there are epistemological assumptions that are universally help by all men, believer and unbeliever alike. There are three universal assumptions given that are supposedly universally held, “The validity of the law of noncontradiction”, “The validity of the law of causality”, and “The basic reliability of sense perception.”[2]

William Lane Craig similarly argues a case for systematic consistency. Craig assumes that inductive and deductive reasoning are universally held truths, and that when both forms of reasoning are used to form a logically consistent case “fitting all the facts known by experience”[3], then there is a systematically consistent worldview. Craig argues for logical consistency, but acknowledges that such arguments can never lead to absolute truth, only probability.

He argues that rational certainty is an impossibility when it comes to the existence of God, but that Christians and unbelievers alike must be satisfied with plausibility when attempting to answer the question of God’s existence. Craig weakly attempts to justify this outlook by arguing two points:

“first, that we attain no more than probability with respect to almost anything we infer… without detriment to the depth of our conviction and that even our non-inferred, basic beliefs may not be held with any sort of absolute certainty… and second, that even if we can only show Christianity to be probably true, nevertheless we can on the basis of the Spirit’s witness know Christianity to be true with a deep assurance that far outstrips what the evidence in our particular situation might support…”[4]

With these convictions about the validity of the Christian faith, Craig then focuses on the classical proofs, particularly the cosmological argument. In chapter three of his book, Craig tells stories about he and his wife evangelizing young people while using the cosmological argument. He notes that in neither case did the person become a Christian, but in both cases the person that was a total atheist at the beginning of the conversation now believed in a first cause, which might be a god. For whatever reason, he considers these encounters to be successful, as if bringing one from total unbelief to belief in a generic higher power is something to be celebrated, rather than idolatry.

Whether the classical proofs for the existence of God are argued by Craig or Sproul, it must be noted that these arguments are not distinctively Christian in any way, and one cannot maintain the integrity of the argument by trying to persuade a person to go from atheism, to deism, to theism, and then to Christianity. All of the arguments used by classical apologists can be used to argue for a generic theism, but from there one has to jump to the religion of his choice with nothing substantial to bring the two together.

Turning an atheist into a theist is not, nor has it ever been the goal of Christian apologetics. While there may indeed be stages in the conversion of the lost, it is not necessary to bring a person to deism, and hope to one day bring them to theism, and then tell them about Christ. This is certainly not the model that Paul used in Athens. Classical apologists start in the wrong place; instead of starting with the revealed will of God in Scripture, they start with philosophy, building their apologetic from the “common ground” fallacy outside of Scripture.

In my next post I will examine the theory and practice of the evidentialist school regarding their use of Christian evidence.

[1] R.C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presupposition Apologetics, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984) 71.

[2] Sproul, Gerstner, Lindsley, Classical Apologetics, 72.

[3] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994) 40.

[4] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 40.

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1 Response to Van Tillian Presuppositionalism and Evidence

  1. Sent to my Kindle. Will comment tomorrow.

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