Here’s J.W. Wartick’s take from Always Have a Reason blog.
Cornelius Van Til pioneered the field of “presuppositional apologetics” primarily through his works Christian Apologetics and The Defense of the Faith. His arguments are easily misunderstood as question begging or viciously circular. Herein, I have presented a brief outline and analysis which reveals that while the presuppositional approach may indeed have some logical faults, the overall system has a certain power to it and can be integrated into a total-apologetic system.
[…]The key to understand here is that Van Til does not accept that there is a neutral reason “out there” by which Christians and non-Christians can arbitrate the truth of Christianity; his point is that there is no neutral ground and that one’s presuppositions will determine one’s end point. Again, he writes, “this [apologetic method] implies a refusal to grant that any area or aspect of reality, any fact or any law of nature or of history, can be correctly interpreted except it be seen in the light of the main doctrines of Christianity” (Christian Apologetics, 124).
However, Van Til takes it even further and argues that one must presuppose the truth of Christianity in order to make sense of reality: ” What is the content of this presupposition, then? It is this: “I take what the Bible says about God and his relation to the universe as unquestionably true on its own authority” (The Defense of the Faith, 253); again, “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything” (Christian Apologetics, 19). Thus, Van Til’s apologetic does not make Christianity the conclusion of an argument; rather, Christianity is the starting presupposition.
The presuppositional approach here cannot be stressed enough. For Van Til, one simply cannot grant to the non-Christian any epistemic point. “We cannot avoid coming to a clear-cut decision with respect to the question as to whose knowledge, man’s or God’s, shall be made the standard of the other. …[O]ne must be determinative and the other subordinate” (The Defense of the Faith 62-63).
What place is had for evidences in Van Til? At some points, he seems to be very skeptical of the use of Christian evidences. In particular, the fact that he argues there is no neutral evaluation grounds between the Christian and non-Christian seems to imply that there can be no real evaluation of such arguments apart from Christianity. One of Van Til’s most famous illustrations of the use of evidences can be found in The Defense of the Faith pages 332 and following. He uses three persons, Mr. Black (non-Christian), Mr. Grey (Christian non-presuppositionalist), and Mr. White (presuppositional/reformed apologist):
Mr. Grey… says that, of course, the “rational man” has a perfect right to test the credibility of Scripture by logic… by experience… [Mr. Grey then takes Mr. Black a number of places to show him various theistic evidences. Mr. Black responds:] “you first use intellectual argument upon principles that presuppose the justice of my unbelieving position. Then when it it is pointed out to you that such is the case, you turn to witnessing [subjectively].
…At last it dawned upon Mr. White that first to admit that the principles of Mr. Black, the unbeliever, are right and then to seek to win him to the acceptance of the existence of God the Creator… is like first admitting that the United States had historically been a province of the Soviet Union but ought at the same time to be recognized as an independent and all-controlling power… If one reasons for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity on the assumptions that Mr. Black’s principles of explanation are valid, then one must witness on the same assumption [which makes witnessing wholly subjective.] (p. 332-339)
It can be seen here that even evidences for Van Til must be based within a presupposition. There is no way to look at evidences in the abstract. One can either offer them within the presuppositions of Christianity or outside of Christianity. For Van Til, once one has agreed to offer evidences outside of Christianity, one has granted the presuppositions of the non-believer, and therefore is doomed to fail.
This would include using arguments like the cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, arguments from miracles, etc. – including the resurrection. That seems to be Van Til’s view. No evidence allowed – you have to presuppose Christianity is true in order to make sense of the world.
Now, I think we need to make a distinction between using questioning the pre-suppositions of our opponents, as with William Lane’s Craig’s moral argument, Plantinga’s epistemological argument for reason and Menuge’s ontological argument for reason. There are arguments for theism that question the pre-suppositions of an atheist. Certainly, non-theists cannot ground things like morality, free will, consciousness and rationality on atheism. But that’s not what Van Til is saying. He says that an atheist cannot be swayed by evidence unless he first becomes a Christian. I.e. – he is saying that atheist Anthony Flew is lying when he says that evidence caused him to turn to believe in God. On Van Til’s view, that’s impossible.
My view of presuppositional apologetics is that is as a system, it is circular reasoning. It assumes Christianity in order to prove Christianity. But there is an even worse problem with it. It’s not a Biblical way of doing apologetics. It’s man’s way of doing apologetics, not God’s. I think that the best way to understand Van Til’s apologetics is by saying that it really just a sermon disguised as apologetics. The problem is that Van Til’s sermon has no basis in the Bible. Wherever he is getting his view from, it’s not from the Bible. When I look the Bible, I don’t see any Biblical support for the view that pre-suppositional apologetics is the only approved way of defending the faith. Instead, the standard method seems to be evidentialism.
In Romans 1, Paul writes that people can learn about God’s existence from the natural world.
18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness,
19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.
22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools
23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
And in Acts, Peter appeals to eyewitness testimony for the resurrection, and Jesus’ miracles.
Acts 2:22-24, and 36:
22“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.
23This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.
24But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
And finally from the same chapter:
36“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
In 1993 I started working for Simon Greenleaf University (now Trinity Law School) which offered an M.A. in Christian apologetics (Craig Hazen was the director). Much of my job was to promote the school and although I had studied Christian apologetics since my sophomore year in high school, I decided I needed to see whether an apologetic witness had strong Biblical precedence.
As I poured through the Scripture I found that Jesus and the apostles preached the resurrection of Christ as the sign of the truth of Christianity.
What follows are some of the passages which support the resurrection witness.
Here is my favorite verse from his massive list list of verses in favor of the evidential approach to Christian apologetics:
Mat. 12:39-40: A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
Jesus is saying that the resurrection was deliberately given as a sign to unbelievers to convince them. (“The Sign of Jonah” = the resurrection)
So, I see that God uses nature and miracles to persuade, which can be assessed using scientific and historical methods. Can anyone find me a clear statement in the Bible that states that only pre-suppositional arguments should be used? I could be wrong, and I am willing to be proven wrong. I think we should use the Biblical method of apologetics, not the fallen man’s method of apologetics.
UPDATE: Excellent apologetics blog Triablogue has responded to my post.
Positive arguments for Christian theism
- The kalam cosmological argument and the Big Bang theory
- The fine-tuning argument from cosmological constants and quantities
- The origin of life, part 1 of 2: the building blocks of life
- The origin of life, part 2 of 2: biological information
- The sudden origin of phyla in the Cambrian explosion
- Galactic habitable zones and circumstellar habitable zones
- Irreducible complexity in molecular machines
- The creative limits of natural selection and random mutation
- Angus Menuge’s ontological argument from reason
- Alvin Plantinga’s epistemological argument from reason
- William Lane Craig’s moral argument
- The unexpected applicability of mathematics to nature
- Arguments and scientific evidence for non-physical minds
- William Lane Craig’s case for the resurrection of Jesus