The Fight Against Presuppositionalism: Why Does It Matter?

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In the recent weeks, we’ve really amped up our opposition to presuppositional epistemology in the Church. We’ve even begun to see others (like Josh Sommer) begin to join the fight with helpful articles and videos. One of the questions we’re often asked is, “Why does this matter?” This is our attempt to give an answer.

The debate between presuppositionalism and classicalism matters because epistemology matters. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. In particular, it studies how we know what we know, or how a given belief is justified.

The primary practical value of epistemology is in giving us a guide for discerning between true and false beliefs. 

We all form beliefs about many things throughout the course of our lives, and those beliefs—especially about important issues—typically drive our attitudes and actions. Whether in the realm of theology, philosophy, politics, or aesthetics; whether in vocation, in social interaction, in hobbies, or inside our own families, what we believe about the world (and ourselves) ultimately determines what we do.

So it really matters for every aspect of life that we work hard at only believing true ideas, and at rejecting false ideas. But how are we to tell the difference? That’s the question epistemology is supposed to answer. And this is where this whole debate between presuppositionalism and classicalism becomes practical.

The Debate

The “beginning” of the disagreement between presuppositionalism and classicalism is on the question: How do we know that God exists (specifically, the God of Christianity)? Note that “how do we know” here primarily means, “why should we hold this belief as true rather than false?”

The classicalist would say that we have many good reasons to believe that God exists, and those reasons consist of various arguments for the existence of God. Thus, the classicalist holds that our belief in God should be the conclusion to an argument.

The presuppositionalist would agree with the classicalist that there are many good reasons to believe that God exists, but the presuppositionalist will insist that our belief in God should not be based in those reasons or arguments. Rather, the presuppositionalist will insist that our belief in God should ultimately be “presupposed;” that it shouldn’t be based on an argument, but that it, itself, should be the “basis” for all argument. So, they allow for the use of theistic arguments, but only insofar as one is not “reasoning their way to God without presupposing God.” In other words, they insist that all theistic arguments must start with belief in God, such that they end up being circular.

The presuppositionalist will then go on to defend this circularity by insisting that all reasoning is ultimately circular, and they are just “being honest” about it.

How Ideas Flesh Themselves Out

Now, set aside the various arguments for one position or the other, and just consider the implications of each. After all,  we’re discussing the practical value of this debate. How do these opposing epistemologies “flesh themselves out”?

In answering that question, keep in mind that ideas “flesh themselves out” only as they are consistently worked out. This means that you can’t just look to the immediate advocates of one side or the other to see the consequences of their ideas. People are remarkably capable of being inconsistent; of having a sort of cognitive dissonance, where they teach one thing while behaving as though they don’t fully believe it (see Bernie Sanders’ 3 houses as a great example). So, the way to see the practical consequences is not to look at individual advocates of one belief or another, but to ask, “what are the logical consequences of each belief, and what would it look like if people did take them seriously and consistently?”

The essential difference between the two epistemologies is as follows:

Classicalism: Belief in God ought to be the conclusion to a non-circular argument.

Presuppositionalism: Belief in God should not be the conclusion to a non-circular argument (because God should be presupposed, and because all reasoning is ultimately circular).

Now remember the question of epistemology:

“Why should we count a given belief as true rather than false?”

Here, the belief is about God.

The classicalist answer is found in various arguments for the existence of God.

The presuppositionalist answer is, “you should just believe it, prior to any arguments.” (Yes, they “allow” arguments, but only *after* you just believe it, apart from the arguments).

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The Consequences of Presuppositionalism

It is my contention, as a classicalist1, that the “just believe it” of presuppositionalism is no different in kind from the “just believe it” of Mormonism, or of Social Justice, or of Santa Clause. They all demand belief apart from or prior to any evidence or argument. Sure, they will “use” evidence and arguments, but not as a ground for their beliefs; not as an epistemology. This is why we say it is fideistic.

And this gets at the wider epistemological concerns. The defense of the presuppositional circularity on the topic of God is that all reasoning is ultimately circular; that non-circular reasoning isn’t even possible. The atheist has his circular worldview, the Mormon has his circular worldview, and the Christian has his circular worldview (says the presuppositionalist). It just so happens that the Christian circle is the right circle. But why should we view the Christian circle as the right circle? By what extra-circular standard? There is no extra-circular standard, because there is no escaping circularity.

In this way, presuppositionalism is a repackaged and Christianized version of postmodernism, which rejects any objective, non-circular standards. The difference is that presuppositionalism will claim to affirm objective standards, while insisting that we have no non-circular access to such standards.

The result is that your Christianity (your beliefs about God, Scripture, morality, etc…) should not be based on reasons for thinking those things are true; they should be based in the arbitrary presupposition of “just believe.” Then, after (and only after) they have already been presupposed, you may “use” your reason to defend or explain those ideas, but never as a ground for why you hold those ideas to be true.

This turns Christianity into the the epistemological equivalent of a fairytale, and then as a defense for doing so, insists that all anyone has access to is similarly arbitrary and circular fairytales.

Now ask yourself: What would happen if Christians actually took this seriously? What if Christians actually tried not to base their Christianity in reasoned argument, but to base it on arbitrary presupposition instead? The result would be the bifurcation of their lives into two dichotomous realities: one from Monday through Saturday where they use their reason as the basis for their beliefs about business, finances, budgets, education, hobbies, leisure, and vacations—and one on Sunday where they reject reason as a basis for beliefs in order to partake of the “spiritual.” Do you wonder at the stubborn gnosticism in the Church today? This type of thinking is a major cause. 

What if Christians believed that all reasoning is circular and that the only use for reason is not as a ground for belief, but as a post-hoc justification for already presupposed beliefs? They wouldn’t engage in study (whether of the Scriptures or anything else) and debate with the goal of shaping their minds to the truth as it is discovered through reasoned interaction. That would be allowing one’s beliefs to be based on reason. Rather, they would engage in reasoned study and debate with the sole ambition to rationalize and defend the beliefs they already hold by presupposition. There is wisdom in the saying, “you cannot reason a man out of a position which he did not reason himself into.” How many Christians today are unwilling, or unable, to allow their positions to be altered by the plain facts—whether facts in the text, or facts in the creation?

What if Christians started thinking in this way which teaches that beliefs need not be grounded in reason; that there is no such thing as non-circular reason and therefore no non-circular standard to appeal to in order to refute one circular theology or another? What if they started thinking this way about theology, about hermeneutics, about morality, sexuality, politics, and economics? What would happen if this epistemology worked itself out in every area of Christian thought?

Look around you. By God’s grace, the Church hasn’t fully or consistently adopted the presuppositional epistemology. Nor has it fully and consistently adopted the more basic fideistic epistemology, of which presuppositionalism is merely a more complex variety. But it has adopted much of that epistemology, and it has begun to put much of it into practice. Meanwhile, the world continues to dive headlong into its own postmodern irrationalities and fideistic mindsets. If ideas move the world, and if epistemology is meant to help us to discern between true and false ideas, then presuppositional epistemology (along with every other variety of fideism) is a blind guide destined to accelerate the decline of everything that is good, and true, and beautiful in this life. 

This is why we fight it.

 

Footnotes:

  1. It is important to note here that the following is my evaluation of the consequences of taking presuppositionalism seriously. I am not claiming that presuppositionalists would, themselves, explicitly advocate for pursuing those consequences.

 

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