Van Tillian Presuppositionalism and Evidence Part the Third

If you’ve been keeping up with the blog, it is finally time to address evidence as used by the presuppositional apologist. Recently I’ve seen several blogs by people ranging from atheist to evangelical that attack the presuppositional method. In all cases, these folks have no idea what they’re trying to critique. In fairness, I think that presuppositionalism is often misunderstood by many professional theologians; as great as RC Sproul is, having read his critique of Van Til, I do not think he understands our apologetic, so it’s not altogether shocking that amateurs don’t comprehend our position.

The one thing I constantly see from the aforementioned bloggers is something like this: “Presuppositionalists believe that to prove the existence of God, you simply have to presuppose that he exists, it cannot work because one can presuppose that any god exists and be consistent. Therefore, presuppositionalism is a horrible method of apologetics.” Of course, this is a laughable definition. One thing such a statement shows is that the person saying it has never read Van Til or any reputable presuppositional apologist. Another thing such a statement shows is that the person saying it has a basic understanding of the definition of the word “presuppose” and naturally assumes that he or she can connect the dots and have a full understanding of presuppositionalism. In such a case, I’ll happily give you an “A” for effort… but I’ll give you an “F” for research, and you’ll fail the class.

Before jumping into the rest of my research, I want to take a minute to address the last part of the claim above; that is, that one can presuppose any god and be consistent. No presuppositionalist would ever claim to believe such a thing. We hold that one can only have a consistent world and life view when he trusts the Triune God of Scripture. Therefore, only a Christian can have a rational epistemology. The presuppositional apologist wants to push an unbeliever to acknowledge that he cannot be epistemologically consistent; that is, that he has no basis for his world and life view apart from the Triune God of Scripture. No person holding to any non-Christian religion can ever be consistent, whether he believes in no God or a million gods. The only consistent man is the Christian man.

This established, let’s get back to the use of evidence in presuppositionalism.

From the start, the presuppositional apologetic is vastly different from the previously discussed methods. As has been shown, the non-presuppositional apologists separate theology from apologetics; this is why Licona so quickly abandons Scripture in his apologetic encounters, and why Craig is content to argue for a first cause that may or may not be a god, which in turn may or may not be the Triune God of Scripture. The consistent biblical (presuppositional) apologist, however, cannot and will not separate what God has revealed about himself in Scripture from his apologetic methodology.

Notaro has noted:

“And as soon as we begin to elaborate upon God’s nature, we enter into a discussion of other Christian doctrines—not only the doctrine of God, but also the doctrines of man, Christ, salvation, the church, the last things, indeed all the foci of systematic theology.”[1]

Thus, there are no such things as minimal facts, unmoved movers, or bare theism. If one is going to defend the God of the Bible, he must defend the doctrines contained therein. One cannot defend the parts without defending the whole. Van Til puts it plainly, “Apologetics is the vindication of the Christian philosophy of life against the various forms of non-Christian philosophy of life.”[2] This being the case, presuppositionalism as an apologetic approach understands apologetics as pertaining more to the philosophy of Christian theism, while evidences pertain more to the historical aspect of Christianity. There is no separation between the two, and it comes down to a question of emphasis. That being said, the consistent apologist understands evidence to be “a sub-division of apologetics”[3] that requires a theological foundation.

Presuppositionalists in general, and Van Til in particular are often maligned for being anti-evidence, but this is not the case. Van Til has noted, “I do not reject ‘the theistic proofs’ but merely insist on formulating them in such a way as not to compromise the doctrines of Scripture.”[4] Thus, the presuppositionalist does indeed incorporate evidence into his apologetic method, but the question at hand is how he does so.

Unlike the classical and evidential methods, the presuppositionalist does not grant the unbeliever the ability to correctly reason or interpret evidence. This is because the natural man knows the truth, yet suppresses it in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18-19). If this is the case, then it is impossible to find common ground with an unregenerate man. The reformed understanding of total depravity is here affirmed in that natural men plainly knows what can be known about God because he has shown it to them. However, they strive to resist and suppress what has been so clearly revealed.

If rational reasoning is an impossibility, what then is the point of contact with the unbeliever? Since man is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), truth is not completely destroyed. The natural man does indeed possess some true knowledge, but he does so with borrowed capitol. Thus, the Christian apologist must show the inconsistency of the world and life view of the natural man, and use his borrowed capitol as building blocks toward destruction of his sinful worldview, and an acceptance of Christian presuppositions. There has to be a collision with the world and life view of the natural man, or there will be no true point of contact with his own true knowledge of God; this is why the ideas of common ground is incompatible with Christian theism.

This goes back to the epistemological fact that there is no neutrality in the world. All facts exist as facts because the Triune God of Scripture declared them to be so. This is ground that the apologist cannot give up in encounters with unbelievers. Any discussion of any fact is in effect a theological discussion, as facts could only exist in a world that has been created by the Triune God of Scripture. The Christian can start an apologetic discussion with any fact, and never have to retreat; factual statements are simply manifestations of a Christian world and life view.

Now it should be noted that a full expression of Christian theism is not always possible in our apologetic encounters, but the presuppositional apologist must use every fact to express the truth of the Triune God of Scripture. The presuppositionalist uses all facts to expose the inconsistency of the unregenerate, and the reality that only with Christian presuppositions can men have a consistent world and life view. Thus, the presuppositionalist can argue for the resurrection of Christ, or for the teleological argument, but he cannot do so on so-called “common ground”, as it does not exist. These arguments only have meaning when Christian presuppositions are in place, along with complete dedication to all of the doctrines revealed in Scripture. The apologist cannot give up epistemological ground in the debate. There is no neutrality, facts only exist because God created them, and unbelievers only acknowledge them as facts because they are made in the image of God, and inconsistently apply his standards to their lives.

Conclusion

Both the classical and evidential apologists make man the final judge of God. They ask man to look at evidence that God is who he says he is, and tells him to make a decision. In this way, both schools put the cart before the horse, so to speak. Both believe that the natural man may indeed correctly interpret the world around him; his epistemology remains unencumbered, and he may reason rationally without interference. Scripture, however, does not give the natural man the same benefit. While natural revelation is abundant, clear, and revealed to men by God, the apostle Paul tells us that the natural man suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18-19). He does so at every turn, denying the obvious truth he is confronted with all around him.

The presuppositionalist uses the tools that are available to him in his apologetic encounters; these include theistic proofs, as well as archeological evidence, and facts of history. However, the presuppositionalist realizes that these evidences for God are often ignored by unbelievers because they spend their lives suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. This is why presuppositionalists focus on the underlying philosophy of the unbeliever. All facts in the universe are evidence of the Triune God of Scripture; as such, they are all fair game in apologetic encounters. However, because of the suppression of truth by unbelievers, the presuppositionalist has the goal of changing the worldview of the unbeliever by attacking sinful presuppositions, and forcibly removing the blinders from his eyes.

[1] Thom Notaro, Van Til and the Use of Evidence, (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1980), 22-23.

[2] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2003), 17.

[3] Notaro, 26-27.

[4] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1967), 197.

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